'Super foods' can help prevent disease, prolong life, and more.
By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
Quinoa, broccoli, beans, and almonds hardly sound like life-savers. But according to scientific research and a few recent books, these and certain other foods are just that. Almost daily, new studies reveal more about the powerful substances found in particular foods, and how they can improve our health and/or prevent disease.
It's true, experts say -- what you put in your mouth really can affect how long you live, whether you get certain diseases, and how your body ages.
"Absolutely, there are foods that when added to the diet can make a significant health difference," says David Grotto, RD, author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life.
He offers a few examples: "If you have arthritis, eat ginger, peppers, and yogurt; for headaches or migraines, try blueberries, mushrooms, or rosemary; insomnia sufferers, try cherries, Romaine lettuce, and walnuts; and if you are overweight, eggs, oats, and pears can help you slim down."
Joy Bauer, MS, RD, Today Show registered dietitian and author of Joy Bauer's Food Cures, agrees. "You can treat common health concerns, look younger, live longer, boost mood, and manage diabetes and more by choosing the right foods," she says.
It seems that eating a variety of healthy foods -- particularly fresh produce and whole grains -- gives your body substances that help battle the "free radicals" that can damage cells. These foods may thus help boost immunity, and reduce inflammation at the cellular level. And that's not all.
"There is not one or even a small number of nutrients -- there are thousands of health-promoting, beneficial compounds such as phytonutrients, proteins, vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, that head off diseases that can shorten your life," says Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, author of The Pocket Idiot's Guide to the New Food Pyramids.
Heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and certain cancers are just a few of the chronic conditions that a healthy diet can help to prevent.
But, experts add, it's important to remember that diet alone is not the answer: "A healthy lifestyle includes regular physical activity, not smoking [and] controlling stress, along with a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and adequate amounts of low-fat dairy, lean meats, fish, and healthy fats," Ward says.
14 Foods that Could Help Save Your Life
That said, here are 14 foods that deserve a place in your diet, along with their specific nutritional attributes, according to Joy Bauer's Food Cures and 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life:
- Almonds: These nutritious nuggets are a good source of protein, fiber, vitamin E, and a variety of antioxidants. They can help with weight control and heart health, and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
- Barley: This whole grain is a rich source of vitamin E, fiber, B vitamins, and a wealth of antioxidants. Barley contains beta-glucan, which can help reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Quinoa: This is an ancient grain high in protein, fiber, iron, zinc, vitamin E, and selenium. It can help control your weight and help lower your risk for heart disease and diabetes.
- Coffee: In moderate doses, coffee may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, improve mood and memory, and, for men, reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease.
- Eggs: They are low in calories (75 per egg), an excellent source of high-quality protein, and rich in folate, choline, and iron. They can play a role in eye health and weight management -- an egg at breakfast helps to curb appetite.
- Grapes: They're rich in vitamin C, potassium and quercetin. Preliminary studies have shown that quercetin may boost the immune system.
- Kale: This super-healthy green veggie has vitamins A, C, potassium, lutein, and zeaxathan, which can help reduce the incidence of certain cancers and macular degeneration.
- Ginger: This spice with anti-inflammatory properties may help lesson arthritis pain. It also quells upset stomachs, nausea, and motion sickness.
- Pecans: These nuts are rich in gamma tocopherol, a type of vitamin E, as well as a rich source of heart-healthy antioxidants.
- Sweet potatoes: They're rich in vitamin A and C, high in fiber, and naturally sweet. Sweet potatoes are also an excellent source of lycopene which may fight heart disease, and breast and prostate cancer.
- Olive oil: This Mediterranean diet staple is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and plant compounds that have anti-inflammatory action to fight heart disease and cancer.
But the list of potentially life-saving foods is by no means limited to 14. For example, Wendy Bazilian and Steven Pratt, authors of The Super Foods Rx Diet, suggest 14 other super-nutritious foods: beans, blueberries, broccoli, oats, oranges, pumpkin, salmon, soy, spinach, tea, tomatoes, turkey, walnuts, and yogurt. (All but turkey are also mentioned in Joy Bauer's Food Cures and 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life.)
According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.”
What Makes a Super Food?
Several efforts are afoot to rank or score foods according to their nutritional profiles. But James Joseph, PhD, a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says the various systems can be confusing. It's easier, he says, to simply choose a wide variety of colorful produce, whole grains, nuts, fish, lean protein, and low-fat dairy.
"Most people don't walk around with a pyramid or book on the healthiest foods but they do know their grocery stores," says Joseph, author of The Color Code. "Avoid most of the center aisles and spend more time in the perimeter, where produce, dairy, meats, fish and whole grain bread are located."
Venture into the interior aisles for whole grains, nuts, and simple frozen foods such as blueberries, he advises -- but try to avoid refined flour, sugar, saturated and trans fats, and the temptations of the snack aisles.
And don't forget that portion size matters, even when it comes to healthy foods. You can take more liberties when eating low-calorie fruits and simply prepared vegetables, but take care to eat other super foods in sensible portions.
Think Addition, Not Subtraction
Perhaps the best thing about "super foods," experts say, is the idea that you can stop worrying so much about the foods you should avoid, and instead concentrate on foods you can add to your diet.
"People are tired of being told what not to eat, and if we could shift our advice to encourage them to start eating more good-for-you foods, they will recognize how delicious and filling healthy foods are and eat fewer of the less-healthy foods," Grotto says.
Published January 31, 2008.
Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, author, The Pocket Idiot's Guide to the New Food Pyramids.
David Grotto, RD, author, 101 Foods That Can Save Your Life.
James Joseph, PhD, researcher, USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Tufts University; author, The Color Code.
Joy Bauer, MS, RD, nutritionist, The Today Show; author, Joy Bauer's Food Cures.
American Heart Association web site.
The SuperFoods Rx Diet, Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, and Steven Pratt, MD.
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