10 Amazing Disease-Fighting Foods
Do your body a favor with these incredible edibles
By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
They are a dietitian's dream foods, the cream of the crop, nutritious and delicious. They are foods that should be in everyone's kitchen because they contain such a wealth of disease-fighting substances.
So put these 10 readily available foods on your grocery list today -- but do keep in mind that it takes more than 10 foods (even 10 terrific foods!) to make a healthy diet. Experts are quick to point out that variety is the spice of life. And ideally, these nutritious nibbles should replace other, less healthful, foods, helping you to cut calories while boosting the nutrition in your diet.
"Super-foods are terrific, but what are more important to wellness are healthy dietary patterns that include a wide variety of nutritious foods that displace less nutritious foods," notes Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University.
Top 10 Amazing Foods
Reach for berries for a powerful dose of health-protecting antioxidants. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, blueberries top the list of antioxidant-rich fruits, followed by cranberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries. The color of berries comes from the pigment anthocyanin, an antioxidant that helps neutralize "free radicals" (cell-damaging molecules) that can help lead to chronic diseases, including cancer and heart disease. Berries, particularly cranberries, may also help ward off urinary tract infections.
Enjoy a cup of berries each day, as a snack; atop your cereal or yogurt; in muffins, salads, or smoothies; or as frozen treats.
Dairy foods are not only the best food source of dietary calcium, but also have plenty of protein, vitamins (including vitamin D), and minerals. The U.S. government's 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend having three daily servings of low-fat dairy products, as well as doing weight-bearing exercise, to help keep bones strong and prevent osteoporosis. (If you can't tolerate dairy, other calcium-containing foods include legumes; dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, broccoli, and collards; and calcium-fortified soy products, juices, and grains.)
Beyond strong bones, dairy may also help you lose weight. Research is ongoing, but a few studies have shown that three daily servings of dairy -- as part of a calorie-controlled diet -- may help decrease belly fat and enhance weight loss.
Low-fat dairy foods make excellent snacks because they contain both carbohydrates and protein.
"Dairy foods are perfect snacks for diabetics and everyone else because [they help] maintain blood sugar levels," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Whip up a smoothie with low-fat milk or yogurt, a splash of orange juice, and a handful of berries for an energizing meal substitute or anytime snack.
3. Fatty Fish
The fat found in fish like salmon and tuna is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help protect your heart. The power of omega-3s appears to be their ability to lower blood fats and prevent blood clots associated with heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fish (especially fatty fish) at least twice a week. "Eating a diet rich in fatty fish can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease," says Lichtenstein.
There's another benefit to eating meals containing salmon or tuna: you'll reduce your potential intake of saturated fat from higher-fat entrees.
Fire up the grill or put your fish under the broiler for a quick, tasty, and heart-healthy meal.
4. Dark, Leafy Greens
Dark, leafy greens -- everything from spinach, kale, and bok choy to dark lettuces -- are loaded with vitamins, minerals, beta-carotene, vitamin C, folate, iron, magnesium, carotenoids, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. A Harvard study found that eating magnesium-rich foods such as spinach can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Make your next salad with assorted greens, including super-nutritious spinach or other dark-colored greens.
5. Whole Grains
Whole grains include the nutritional components that are typically stripped away from refined grains. They contain folic acid, selenium, and B vitamins, and are important to heart health, weight control, and reducing the risk of diabetes. Their fiber content helps keeps you feeling full between meals as well and promotes digestive health.
Enjoy at least three servings a day of whole-grain goodness: whole wheat; barley; rye; millet; quinoa; brown rice; wild rice; and whole-grain pasta, breads, and cereals. The daily recommendation for fiber is 21-38 grams, depending on your sex and age, according to the American Dietetic Association.
6. Beans and Legumes
These nutritious nuggets are packed with phytochemicals; fat-free, high-quality protein; folic acid; fiber; iron; magnesium; and small amounts of calcium. Beans are an excellent and inexpensive protein source and a great alternative for low-calorie vegetarian meals.
Eating beans and legumes regularly as part of a healthy eating plan can help reduce the risk of certain cancers; lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels; and stabilize blood sugar. Beans also play an important role in weight management by filling you up with lots of bulk and few calories.
Quick GuidePortion Control Tips: Lose Weight and Stick to Your Diet
Think beans when making salads, soups, stews, or dips.
Nuts are full of fats. But they're the healthy, mono- and polyunsaturated kind, which can help lower cholesterol levels and help prevent heart disease. In addition, nuts are a good source of protein, fiber, selenium, vitamin E, and vitamin A.
Small portions of nuts can boost energy and beat hunger, helping dieters stay on track. Still, nuts pack plenty of calories -- and it's easy to overeat these tasty treats.
So enjoy nuts, but be mindful of your portion size. Try to limit yourself to an ounce a day. That's about 28 peanuts, 14 walnut halves, or just 7 Brazil nuts.
8. Sweet Potatoes
One of the easiest ways to make a healthful dietary change is to think "sweet" instead of "white" potatoes. These luscious orange tubers are one of the healthiest vegetables, boasting a wealth of antioxidants; phytochemicals including beta-carotene; vitamins C and E; folate; calcium; copper; iron; and potassium. The fiber in sweet potatoes promotes a healthy digestive tract, and the antioxidants play a role in preventing heart disease and cancer.
Its natural sweetness means a roasted sweet potato is delicious without any additional fats or flavor enhancers. Substitute sweet potatoes in recipes calling for white potatoes or apples to boost the nutrients.
These red-hot fruits of summer are bursting with flavor and pack a nutritional wallop with ingredients such as lycopene, an antioxidant that may help may protect against certain cancers. They also deliver an abundance of vitamins A and C, potassium, and phytochemicals.
Enjoy tomatoes raw, cooked, sliced, chopped, or diced as part of any meal or snack. Stuff a tomato half with spinach and top with grated cheese for a fabulous and colorful side dish.
Their cholesterol content once led to bad press for the mighty egg, but research has redeemed it. It turns out that saturated fat (eggs have little) plays a bigger role than the cholesterol in food in elevating our blood cholesterol.
Eggs are packed with economical, high-quality protein, and are an excellent source of the carotenoids lutein, choline, and xeanthin. In fact, eggs are one of the best sources of dietary choline, an essential nutrient -- especially for pregnant women. Eggs have been shown to supply nutrients that promote eye health and help prevent age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older people.
The American Heart Association has given eggs the thumbs-up for healthy people. As long as you limit your average daily cholesterol intake to 300 mg, you can enjoy an egg a day.
Eggs are adaptable to every meal. Enjoy eggs for a quick meal, or pack a hard-boiled egg for a tasty, high protein snack.
The Big Picture
For top disease-fighting power, eat all of these amazing edibles together with other healthful foods that didn't make my top 10 list, including green tea, chocolate, alcohol (in limited quantities), olive oil, and soy.
Beyond the choices I listed here, fruits and vegetables in general are powerhouses of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. By eating five or more servings a day, you help protect your body from heart disease, cancer, and other diseases.
The real key to preventing disease and promoting health is not certain foods, but a lifestyle of regular physical activity and healthy eating, experts say.
Overall, an eating plan low in saturated fat and rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes is your best bet for a healthy heart, according to a Stanford University study reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
And "there is very little evidence that individual foods with super-nutrient profiles can reduce the risk of cancer," according to Coleen Doyle, MS, RD, the American Cancer Society's nutrition and physical activity director. "But healthy dietary patterns, including these foods, along with a healthy lifestyle, [are] critical to reducing risk for cancer."
Remember that portion size does matter, even when it comes to healthful foods. If you gain weight eating super-portions of super-nutritious foods, you'll negate the health benefits because of the health risks associated with being overweight, Lichtenstein says.
Also keep in mind that taking a vitamin, mineral, or herbal supplement is no replacement for eating a variety of healthy food. "There is limited evidence that supplements, beyond filling nutritional gaps, make a difference," says Doyle.
Make no mistake about it; eating healthfully -- at least most of the time -- is your best defense against chronic diseases. And the best part? Good nutrition really does taste great.
Originally published July 15, 2005.
Medically updated July 28, 2006.
SOURCES: Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, June 9, 2004. Diabetes Care, January 2004. Annals of Internal Medicine, May 2, 2005. American Heart Association Dietary Guidelines. Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, Stanley N. Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy, Friedman School of Nutrition Science, Tufts University. Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, nutrition and physical activity director, American Cancer Society.
©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.
Quick GuidePortion Control Tips: Lose Weight and Stick to Your Diet
Daily Health News
Nutrition and Healthy Eating Resources
Subscribe to MedicineNet's Weight Loss/Healthy Living Newsletter