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).
More Great Foods
Oatmeal, Barley, and Beans
Oatmeal’s star ingredient is soluble fiber, which lowers levels of LDL cholesterol and, consequently, cardiovascular disease. If you need a change of grain, toss some barley in your cart, which can lower LDL and total cholesterol as well as oatmeal can. You can also boost your intake of soluble fiber (as well as heart-healthy folic acid and blood-pressure-controlling potassium) by eating beans: about three cups a week is optimal. Beans contain anthocyanins and quercetin, antioxidants also found in berries and apples. The darker the bean, the bigger the benefit.
Spinach, Kale, and Collard Greens
If you make just one change today, eat some leafy greens. A recent study suggests that, for each daily serving you eat, you drop your risk of heart disease by 11 percent. Eating greens may also save your eyesight, thanks to their two carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin. This antioxidant combo decreases your risk for age-related macular degeneration. "Greens are packed with carotenoids because they sit out in the sun all day, so they need protection from sun-induced damage," says biochemist Dean P. Jones, PhD, of Emory University School of Medicine. "The carotenoids accumulate in the retina and protect your eyes." Dietary guidelines advise at least three cups of greens a week. Frozen or bagged is as good as fresh.
Salmon, Sardines, and Tuna
The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat two servings of fish a week, for the omega-3 fatty acids that boost heart health. New research suggests that omega-3s may also keep your brain sharp. A recent study found that a higher intake of fatty fish significantly reduced mental decline, particularly when the subjects were timed during challenging mental tasks. While mercury and PCBs have become a concern, "The benefits will outweigh the risks," says Nadeau. Avoid swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish, which have higher levels of mercury. If fresh fish isn’t an option, go for canned tuna (light has less mercury than white albacore because it comes from smaller fish, which accumulate fewer toxins), salmon, and sardines.
Cornell researchers recently found that quercetin, an antioxidant in apples, may protect the brain from the kinds of damage seen in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. All varieties contain healthy amounts of this and other antioxidants, says study author Chang Y. Lee, PhD, chairman of the department of Food Science and Technology at Cornell University. Eat the peel; it’s where the compound is most concentrated.
Low-Fat Dairy Products or Fortified Soy Milk
Yogurt and other low-fat dairy products are packed with calcium and vitamin D, which keep bones healthy and strong. Eat two to three servings a day. If you’re lactose intolerant, mix it up with calcium- and vitamin D-enriched soy milk. Soy has been touted as easing menopause symptoms and preventing cancer, and it earned an FDA-approved health claim based on evidence that eating 25 grams a day could help lower cholesterol. Isoflavones, components of soy with estrogen-like properties, may also decrease your risk of osteoporosis.
Avocados and Olives
It’s old news that the avocado’s monounsaturated fatty acids are good for heart health, but new research yields another reason to go for the guac — especially if you pair it with salsa. The fat in avocados (and olives) enhances absorption of disease-fighting carotenoids: lycopene in tomatoes, beta-carotene in orange vegetables, lutein in leafy greens. "There has to be some fat in the diet to efficiently absorb these fat-soluble phytonutrients," says food scientist Steven J. Schwartz, PhD, of Ohio State University in Columbus.
Olive, Canola, and Walnut Oils
Like avocados and olives, these cooking oils aid the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and phytochemicals. A study last year showed that when a salad of spinach, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and carrots was topped with fat-free salad dressing, fat-soluble carotenoids were not absorbed. A better bet: monounsaturated oil (olive, peanut, walnut, avocado) or polyunsaturated oil. Both types lower "bad" LDL cholesterol and increase "good" HDL levels. When selecting a polyunsaturated oil, chose those with a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats, such as canola oil, walnut oil, and flaxseed oil, over corn and safflower oil. "Omega-6 acids can increase the amount of inflammation in the body, while omega-3s have the opposite effect," says Daniel Nadeau. We need both kinds, but our modern Western diet is overrun with omega-6 sources, which may add to the inflammation that’s been linked with increased risk for heart and neurodegenerative diseases.
Like black teas, green varieties contain antioxidants called catechins that have a protective effect against heart disease. But a recent study of postmenopausal women showed that only green tea can significantly decrease your risk of breast cancer. The green tea "turns down" levels of circulating estrogen, which have been implicated in the development of the disease. Animal research suggests that a daily cup of tea (bagged or loose) will provide the benefits.
Ginger, Curry, and Other Spices
A recent study found that one half-teaspoon daily of antioxidant-rich herbs and spices — fresh or dried oregano, sage, peppermint, thyme, clove, allspice, and cinnamon — can help prevent chronic disease. Ginger, in particular, has high antioxidant power and anti-inflammatory properties. But the "hottest" spice these days is curcumin, a component of turmeric and yellow curry, which animal studies suggest may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. "Indians who eat a lot of curry blend have much lower rates of Alzheimer’s, but at this point researchers don’t know yet if that’s what makes the difference," says Greg M. Cole, PhD, of the UCLA Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.
Vices — or Anti-Aging Devices?
These guilty pleasures may actually help your health.
Coffee: Roasted coffee — regular or decaf — contains a compound that ramps up certain enzymes in rats, protecting them from colon cancer. In people, this seems to hold true only for decaf, notes a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. But a Finnish study suggests that the more caf you drink, the lower the risk for type-2 diabetes.
Chocolate: Cocoa has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of blood clots. Dark is better. When chocolate is made with milk, the antioxidants aren’t absorbed. Rx: a small piece of dark chocolate a day.
Wine: We already know red wine may protect your heart. But a recent study by a Harvard pathologist showed that resveratrol, an antioxidant in red wine, may increase the lifespan of yeast cells. It significantly lengthens the lives of fruit flies, too. Will it work in humans? We hope.
Beer: Canadian researchers found that one beer ups antioxidant activity, which may protect the heart and brain from oxidative damage. A Tufts study suggested that it has bone benefits, too.
Eggs: Now absolved of their bad cholesterol rep, dig into those yolks, rich in carotenoids. Go for the omega-3-enriched kind for an additional anti-inflammatory boost.Originally published in More magazine, May 2005.