Fruits and Veggies
While the headlines rant on about healthy fats and net carbs, the real news in nutrition is the way food affects your genes. It turns out that specific chemicals in foods — such as sulforaphane, a phytochemical in broccoli — work with your genes to ratchet up your body’s natural defense systems, helping to inactivate toxins and free radicals before they can do the damage that leads to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and even premature aging.
While it’s still not quite a household term, "nutritional genomics" is a field that’s only going to get bigger, says Jose Ordovas, PhD, director of the Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory at Tufts University. He predicts that in the next five to 10 years we’ll be able to assess our genetic vulnerabilities and eat to reduce our risks accordingly. If, say, you have a genetic predisposition to heart disease, you may want to eat more broccoli and oats. Someone with other genetic red flags might alter her diet in other ways. Says Ordovas, "Exactly when this will happen is difficult to predict. But it will happen."
The specifics — which foods influence which genes — are still being mapped out. But while you’re waiting to hear about the panacea for your gene pool, you might as well feast on foods that appear to pack the most potent disease-fighting, anti-aging punch. "If you can protect yourself from needing a cholesterol drug by eating vegetables and fruits," says Daniel A. Nadeau, MD, of Exeter Hospital in New Hampshire, "why not do it?"
Tomatoes, Tomato Sauce, and Salsa
Lycopene, the pigment that makes tomatoes red, also appears to reduce risk for cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in people 55 and older. Additionally, a study of elderly nuns (77-98 years old) linked higher levels of lycopene with greater self-sufficiency. While fresh tomatoes have a good hit of lycopene, the most absorbable forms are found in cooked tomato products, such as spaghetti sauce and soup. A spoonful of tomato salsa will also offer a dose of the antioxidant. Get the same benefits with: pink grapefruit, guava, red bell peppers, and watermelon.
Sweet Potatoes, Squash, and Carrots
Eating at least two cups of orange fruits and vegetables a day boosts intake of beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A, essential for healthy skin and eyes, and which may also reduce the risk of some cancers, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis. Lutein and lycopene, also found in orange produce, help reduce the risk of macular degeneration and may also protect skin from sun damage and even reduce wrinkling. Another reason to add a handful of raw baby carrots to your lunch: falcarinol, a substance naturally present in carrots, has been shown to reduce the risk of developing cancerous tumors in rats by one-third. Get the same benefits with: mangoes and cantaloupes.
Blueberries and Red Grapes
Anthocyanins, the chemicals that give these fruits their deep hue, are absorbed into the brain’s membranes and can improve memory and cognition, says James Joseph, PhD, of Tufts University. "And frozen fruit works just as well as fresh." Get the same benefits with: plums (fresh or dried), purple grape juice, blackberries, and red cabbage.
Broccoli and Broccoli Sprouts
The sulforaphane in broccoli increases the production of enzymes that clear toxins from the body. The younger the broccoli, the more sulforaphane it has: Three-day-old sprouts offer up to 50 times the protection of mature stalks, says Paul Talalay, MD, of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Go for BroccoSprouts, which are grown to ensure high levels of the phytochemicals (www.broccosprouts.com, to find a local distributor). If you’re sticking to the stalks, buy fresh: Frozen broccoli is blanched, which leaches out some of the sulforaphane, says Talalay. Don’t like broccoli? Try out other cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage and cauliflower, which offer some of the same benefits. Get the same benefits with: broccolini and broccoli rabe (also known as rapini).