5 Surprisingly Healthy Foods

Tea, coffee, chocolate, avocados, and fatty fish all have good-for-you qualities.

By Kathleen Zelman MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

We all know that spinach and carrots are good for us, but would you believe that such seeming indulgences as tea, coffee, chocolate, avocados, and fatty fish also have disease-preventing and health-enhancing properties?

It's true. Some of these five "superfoods" contain antioxidants, which are thought to fight the damage from disease-causing "free radicals" (unstable molecules that damage cells). Others have omega-3 fatty acids, which promote heart health and may even help to cheer you up when you're down in the dumps.

Here's a rundown on how these five foods can benefit your health.

Tea

Topping the list of surprising superfoods is tea -- any type that comes from the leaves of the plant Camellia sinensis, including black, green, white, and oolong.

Many studies have looked at the health benefits of tea. While the jury is still out on some of these potential benefits, there appears to be compelling evidence for tea's ability to reduce the risk of heart disease.

"There are some intriguing studies that tea may prevent cancer, reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease, and impact halitosis [bad breath], and while these studies are more speculative, the strongest evidence is on the reduction of coronary heart disease risk," says Tufts University researcher Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD.

Tea's secret ingredient is catechins, a type of flavonoid from the family of disease-fighting antioxidant phytochemicals that is also found in fruits, vegetables, and red wine.

Not just any cup of tea will provide you with a healthy dose of flavonoids. Strong, steeped tea is richest in these phytochemicals. And the longer you steep your tea, the more of these healthy extracts your beverage will contain.

Because iced tea is typically diluted, it's not as good a source as hot tea. Bottled teas start off with low levels of flavonoids, and tend to lose potency over time. Decaffeinated tea is a good option, though it has about 10% fewer phytochemicals than tea with caffeine.

So how much tea should you drink? Some studies have suggested that drinking three cups each day can reduce your risk of heart disease.

Blumberg suggests choosing tea whenever you can. He points out that it can contribute as much antioxidants as a serving of fruit or vegetable without the calories, and is far preferable to soft drinks.

If you add sugar or full-fat milk to your tea, do so sparingly. These additions can turn naturally noncaloric tea into a high-calorie beverage.

Dark Chocolate

Here's good news for chocolate lovers: dark chocolate (as opposed to milk or white chocolate) contains healthful flavonoids similar to those found in tea, red wine, fruits, and vegetables.

Studies have shown that small portions of dark chocolate can improve blood vessel flow, especially in older adults, and may improve blood sugar and insulin sensitivity to help reduce the risk of diabetes.

One study, published in the journal Hypertension, reported that the antioxidants found in dark chocolate could help reduce high blood pressure. The study participants who ate chocolate also reduced their LDL "bad" cholesterol levels, and improved insulin sensitivity. A little chocolate goes a long way, however. The study subjects were limited to a small portion of dark chocolate per day and cut calories elsewhere in their diets to avoid weight gain.

In another study, reported in The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that the flavonoids in dark chocolate helped prevent stiffening of blood vessels in adults over 50. And a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that dark chocolate may help prevent diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity in healthy adults.

The dark chocolate used in these studies has high levels of flavonoids and somewhat of a bittersweet taste -- different from the creamy milk chocolate many Americans enjoy. The flavonoids come from extracts of the cocoa bean. By choosing dark chocolate with a high percentage (70%) of cocoa, you'll get more of these health-enhancing antioxidants. Most dry cocoa mixes don't contain these health-promoting substances.

Of course, all chocolates -- including dark chocolate -- have both positive and negative attributes. Chocolate candy has plenty of saturated fat and sugar, which can lead to weight gain. A standard-size bar of Hershey's Dark Chocolate has 531 calories.