Ask five nutritionists to rate the most powerful foods and you’ll get five different lists, but many of the selections will overlap. Why? Because every food provides something different: Some are a rich source of protein or fiber but void of many vitamins and minerals, while others contain disease-fighting phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals, but no protein. The trick, claim experts, is to get a variety of the best foods. The following power foods are a good place to start.
Sure, they’re high in fat, but avocados contain healthful monounsaturated fat, which has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. “Avocados aid in blood and tissue regeneration, stabilize blood sugar, and are excellent for heart disorders,” says Ed Bauman, Ph.D., director of Bauman College. They’re loaded with fiber (11 to 17 grams per fruit) and are a good source of lutein, an antioxidant linked to eye and skin health.
When dark chocolate is included in a healthy diet, it can help improve overall heart health, reduce LDL ( “bad”) cholesterol and blood pressure, and increase blood flow to the brain. It also may improve blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, which could reduce diabetes risk. The power of chocolate comes from flavonoids, a phytochemical found in the cacao bean, from which cocoa is taken. So the more cocoa a chocolate contains, the richer the chocolate’s health-promoting content. Dark chocolate contains a higher percentage of cocoa than white or milk chocolate.
Pomegranates have up to three times the antioxidants of red wine and green tea – and the juice has been shown to reduce artery-clogging plaque, which in turn prevents heart disease and stroke. Research shows that long-term consumption of pomegranate juice may also help slow aging and protect against cancer.
Beans, beans, the powerful fruit. The more you eat…the healthier you are. Beans, including garbanzo, white, black, red, and navy, are naturally low in fat and contain no saturated fat, trans fats, or cholesterol. They are high in protein, fiber, iron, folic acid, and potassium. While all beans have benefits, the more colorful beans, such as red and black, may have an added bonus: eight types of flavonoids. Scientists say these plant chemicals act as antioxidants, which give you protection against heart disease and certain cancers. Studies also suggest eating beans may help manage diabetes and reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.
Fish and Fish Oil
Eating fish helps cut the risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, stroke, diabetes, and arthritis. The fatty varieties may also help alleviate depression.The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat at least two fish meals per week, especially wild salmon, herring, and sardines, because those varieties provide the most heart-healthy omega 3s. Avoid mercury-containing varieties like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and albacore tuna, says Roberta Anding, M.S., R.D., national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. (Chunk light tuna is okay.)
The orange color of pumpkin is a dead giveaway that the fiber-rich gourd is loaded with the antioxidant beta-carotene, which is good for your eyes. When you eat pumpkin, your body converts some beta-carotene to vitamin A. This antioxidant vitamin helps prevent some types of cancer and atherosclerosis. Pumpkin also provides a healthy dose of vitamin C and potassium, both of which can help counteract the effects of sodium, which is particularly important if you have high blood pressure.
The soluble fiber contained in barley and other whole grains helps prevent the cholesterol in the foods you eat from being absorbed into your bloodstream. According to a small study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, those who added 1-1/2 to 3 cups of cooked barley each day to a heart-healthy diet reduced their total cholesterol by 9 percent and their bad cholesterol (LDL) by 11 percent. Refined grains, however, have shown no benefit in research studies.
“An apple a day really does keep the doctor away,” says Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., C.N.S., author of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. Apples are loaded with the powerful antioxidants quercetin and catechin, which protect cells from damage – that means a reduced risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, especially if you eat the skin. Research shows that the apple peel contains five times more polyphenols than the flesh. Apples and their skins pack a lot of fiber too (about twice that of other common fruits, including peaches, grapes, and grapefruit), which may help fight the battle of the bulge.
Antiaging superstars, blueberries are loaded with antioxidants, especially anthocyanins, which have been shown to improve vision and brain function. Studies show that eating blueberries slows impairments in motor coordination and memory that accompany aging.These little berries also reduce inflammation, which is inextricably linked with virtually every chronic disease from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, to diabetes and heart disease. Other studies show that blueberries have much greater anticancer activity than other fruits.
Mushrooms are loaded with a potent disease-fighting antioxidant called ergothioneine. This antioxidant helps cells in the body ward off damage from dangerous oxygen molecules called free radicals, which may play a role in serious illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. Mushrooms also are a good source of potassium, which may cut the risk of high blood pressure and stroke. In fact, a 3-ounce portobello mushroom contains about as much potassium as a small banana.
Tea, whether hot, cold, or infused into foods, has the power to keep hearts healthy. Studies have shown that regular tea consumption has a long list of benefits. It helps prevent cancer and heart disease; it may reduce the risk of stroke, obesity, arthritis, and diabetes; and has antioxidants that protect the body from the effects of aging. It may also protect against tooth decay and osteoporosis.
In the vegetable world, the Brassica genus reigns supreme, and the cabbage is the most impressive of the lot. Brassica vegetables (including broccoli, bok choy) contain compounds called indoles, which have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer dramatically. “Eating cabbage more than once a week cut men’s colon cancer odds by 66 percent,” says Bauman. “Cabbage also stimulates the immune system, kills bacteria and viruses, and is a good blood purifier.” If you go for the red variety, you’ll also get a healthy dose of anthocyanins (the same pigment molecules that make blueberries blue), another powerful antioxidant with an anticancer punch.
Research shows that garlic lowers total cholesterol and triglyceride (blood fat) levels, helping prevent clogged arteries. “Two to three cloves a day cut the odds of subsequent heart attacks in half for heart disease patients,” says Bauman. “Garlic also tops the National Cancer Institute’s list of potential cancer-preventive foods.” Whole baked garlic helps detoxify the body of heavy metals like mercury (from fish) and cadmium. Garlic also acts as an antibacterial and antiviral, boosting resistance to stress-induced colds and infections. Can’t stand garlic breath? Chew on a sprig of parsley.
A small amount of any kind of alcohol each day does your heart good by increasing HDL cholesterol and reducing the risk of blood clots. Red wine also contains powerful antioxidants, resveratrol and saponins, which may provide additional cardiovascular benefits,” says Anding. Resist a refill, however: More than one drink daily has been linked to high blood pressure.
Loaded with alpha-linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid that helps reduce inflammation, flaxseed has been used for centuries for medicinal and health reasons. Gandhi himself proclaimed, “Wherever flaxseed becomes a regular food item among the people, there will be better health.” Bauman adds, “The seed itself has terrific nutritional value, very usable protein, tremendous fatty acids, and minerals like magnesium, potassium, and zinc.” Additionally, they’re a great source of fiber.
Almonds and Other Nuts
These days, you hear about good fats and bad fats the way you hear about good cops and bad cops. One’s on your side, and one’s going to beat you silly. Oreos fall into the latter category, but nuts are clearly out to help you. They contain the monounsaturated fats that clear your arteries and help you feel full. All nuts are high in protein and monounsaturated fat. But almonds are like Jack Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: They’re the king of the nuts. Eat as much as two handfuls a day. If you eat 2 ounces of almonds (about 24 of them), it can suppress your appetite–especially if you wash them down with 8 ounces of water. For a quick popcorn alternative, spray a handful of almonds with nonstick cooking spray and bake them at 400 degrees F for 5 to 10 minutes. Take them out of the oven and sprinkle them with either a brown sugar and cinnamon mix or cayenne pepper and thyme.
Oatmeal is the Bo Derek of your pantry: It’s a perfect 10. You can eat it at breakfast to propel you through sluggish mornings, a couple of hours before a workout to feel fully energized by the time you hit the weights, or at night to avoid a late-night binge. I recommend instant oatmeal for its convenience. But I want you to buy the unsweetened, unflavored variety and use other Powerfoods such as milk and berries to enhance the taste. Preflavored oatmeal often comes loaded with sugar calories. Oatmeal contains soluble fiber, meaning that it attracts fluid and stays in your stomach longer than insoluble fiber (like vegetables). Soluble fiber is thought to reduce blood cholesterol by binding with digestive acids made from cholesterol and sending them out of your body. When this happens, your liver has to pull cholesterol from your blood to make more digestive acids, and your bad cholesterol levels drop.
No need for a long explanation here: Olive oil and its brethren will help control your food cravings; they’ll also help you burn fat and keep your cholesterol in check. Do you need any more reason to pass the bottle?
For a long time, eggs were considered pure evil, and doctors were more likely to recommend tossing eggs at passing cars than throwing them into omelette pans. That’s because just two eggs contain enough cholesterol to put you over your daily recommended value. Though you can cut out some of that by removing part of the yolk and using the white, more and more research shows that eating an egg or two a day will not raise your cholesterol levels. In fact, we’ve learned that most blood cholesterol is made by the body from dietary fat, not dietary cholesterol. That’s why you should take advantage of eggs and their powerful makeup of protein. The protein found in eggs has the highest “biological value” of protein — a measure of how well it supports your body’s protein need — of any food. In other words, the protein in eggs is more effective at building muscle than protein from other sources, even milk and beef. Eggs also contain vitamin B12, which is necessary for fat breakdown.