5 Foods to Boost Your Health
Get more bang per bite by incorporating these 5 healthy foods into your diet
By Jean Lawrence
Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD
What if you could make a conscious effort to add five healthy foods to your plate and make an improvement in your longevity?
The key, say some researchers, is to outsmart your body, which, as you age, is busy half-forming or damaging your cells, rather than creating healthy new cells resistant to cancer, rapid aging, and other ills. These cells are damaged by "free radicals," a very reactive and unstable atom or groups of atoms with an odd, unpaired number of electrons. When free radicals bang into DNA in your cells, they can damage it, leading to bad cell behavior such as cancer.
What can you do? Your body already has a defense system of antioxidants, chemicals that can interrupt the damaging reactions of the free radicals. Although antioxidants can also be found in our diets, examples include vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. Sometimes, scientists also include selenium in this mix.
But do vitamins definitively lower cancer or heart disease rates? The studies thus far are not conclusive. Some findings do show that people who eat many fruits and veggies, which contain high amounts of these naturally antioxidants compounds, have lower cancer rates -- but maybe they are doing other healthful things.
However, there is also some evidence indicating that taking vitamin supplements, especially taking high dosages of these so-called antioxidants, can result in more free radical damage.
So judgment and moderation are vital. Moderation, however, may mean greens for dinner or a nice salad with olive oil dressing or glass of wine each day. How hard is that?
Healthy Food No. 1: Leafy greens
According to Audrey Cross, PhD, professor of public health at Columbia University in New York City, and author of the nation's first dietary guide under President Jimmy Carter, some people avoid the heaped-up greenery section of the produce aisle because they don't know how to prepare the foliage there.
Others have never even considered grazing in these verdant fields. Cross tells of giving a talk at her daughter's first grade class. Three of the youngsters had never eaten lettuce of any type!
The most nutritious and fiber-filled greens, Cross tells WebMD, include kale (ranked highest in antioxidants in a Human Nutrition Research Center study), mustard greens, broccoli rabe, bok choy, Swiss chard, and of course, good old broccoli and spinach (iceberg lettuce, on the other hand, contains almost no nutrients and precious little fiber, Cross says).
The dark leafies are even prewashed now in some cases, adds Tanya M. Horacek, PhD, RD, associate professor at Syracuse University, making them easier to use.
Leafy greens, which run the gamut from deep green and smooth-leafed, to crinkled and lacy, can be prepared many ways, Cross says:
Greens can be a little bitter -- it's the all-important phytochemicals (plant chemicals) -- so don't be afraid to use some dressing.
Healthy Food No. 2: Olive oil
Another powerhouse food is olive oil, which just happens to pair perfectly with leafy dark-green veggies. Don't forget all the outdoorsy, energetic Mediterranean people who swear by an olive oil-based diet.
The term "extra virgin" basically means least processed. Olive oil not only doesn't cling to arteries, narrowing them, as do some saturated fats, but it contains powerful antioxidants called polyphenols found in many teas. Polyphenols can help keep some cells, such as those which cause breast and colon cancer, from warping and causing trouble.
One study done in Greece showed that the incidence of breast cancer was cut by as much as 12% in people who ate a lot of vegetables and that regular consumption of olive oil also seemed to confer protection.
The whole Mediterranean diet, in fact, is based on eating "good" oils, without the saturated fats (bad fats, which increase cholesterol and are associated with heart disease) in meats consumed sort of as a side dish rather than the main part of the meal.