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Hippocrates famously counseled, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” Advice not without merit today, as a blossoming body of research highlights evidence that certain foods and the nutritional bounty they contain can help keep us in tip-top shape from head to foot. So start filling your shopping cart with these edibles proven to have healing powers worth celebrating.
Best For: Boosting Brain Power
They might be blue, but there is nothing sad about the brain-benefiting powers of these berries. A recent study by British scientists showed that daily exposure to the flavonoid antioxidants in blueberries can improve measures of brain functioning
including memory and activation of certain areas of the brain during cognitive tasks. The going theory is that the antioxidant payload in blueberries works to improve blood flow to the brain to help keep you sharp as a whip. More diminutive wild blueberries, available frozen, are especially chock-full of brain-enhancing antioxidant firepower.
Extra credit: The sweet-tart berries are also a stellar source of fiber, vitamin C, and bone-strengthening vitamin K.
Rx: 1 cup daily
Sneak more in: Toss them on salads, oatmeal, and yogurt; blend into smoothies; and stir into baked goods like muffins.
Best For: Improving Vision
If you want to continue keeping an eagle eye on things as you age, it’s a good idea to fortify your salads with this peppery green. A 2018 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics discovered that people who ate more nitrates from food sources like arugula were at a lower risk of developing early-stage age-related macular degeneration (AMD) over a 15-year period. AMD is a leading cause of vision loss among Americans. In the body, nitrates are converted to nitric oxide, which can improve blood flow to your peepers so they can keep on seeing the world in high definition. The best dietary sources of nitrates are leafy greens such as arugula, spinach, and Swiss chard, as well as beets and rhubarb.
Extra credit: Leafy greens are also a source of lutein, a potent antioxidant shown to also bolster eye functioning.
Rx: 2 cups of dark greens daily
Sneak more in: In addition to salads, work arugula into sandwiches, pestos, egg dishes like frittatas, and as a topping for pizza.
Best For: Gut Health
In all the Greek yogurt hoopla, what can easily get overlooked is that there is another type of dairy that can do an even better job at fostering a healthy microbiome. To make kefir, milk is fermented using a robust mixture of live probiotic bacteria and yeasts. It contains about three times as many beneficial critters as yogurt. This is generally expressed through kefir’s assertive tartness with a touch of yeasty flavor. A higher probiotic count per serving means bigger potential benefits to your digestive health and immune system by fertilizing your gut flora with a new crop of gut-friendly bugs. If lactose gives you stomach woes, make note that the lactic acid formed during fermentation eliminates much of the lactose. While yogurt is almost always eaten with a spoon, kefir is usually consumed as a cultured dairy drink, owing to its thinner consistency. Just be sure to select “plain” varieties to lower your intake of added sugars.
Extra credit: As well as good-for-you bugs, kefir will infuse your diet with noteworthy amounts of protein, calcium, and potassium.
Rx: ¾ cup most days of the week
Sneak more in: Drink kefir by the glassful, or use it in smoothies, cereal, pancake batter, and even salad dressings.
Best For: Heart Health
Here’s more reason to go nuts for pistachios: A joint 2018 study by researchers in France and at Loma Linda University in California found that the rates of heart disease among 81,337 men and women during a 9-year period were 40 percent lower in those who ate the most protein from nuts and seeds. In contrast, participants who had the highest intake of meat protein showed a 60 percent increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The specific type of protein in pistachios, almonds, and other nuts may have an important independent effect on bolstering the health of your ticker. It also doesn’t hurt that nuts also contain a powerful mix of heart-smart fats, minerals, and antioxidants.
Extra credit: Pistachios are a source of vitamin B6, a nutrient required for dozens of enzyme reactions in the body, including those involved in immunity and protein metabolism.
Rx: 1 ounce of nuts daily
Sneak more in: Use pistachios in homemade granola, baked goods, salads, energy balls, pesto, or as a crust for fish.
Best For: Building Strong Bones
If you want to build a break-resistant skeleton, consider reeling in salmon more often for dinner. For starters, it is one of the best sources of vitamin D at the supermarket. We need adequate amounts of vitamin D for proper calcium absorption, and the sunshine vitamin may also directly interact with bone cells to improve bone strength. Evidence suggests that sustainable wild salmon harbors more vitamin D than its farmed counterpart. Salmon is also a great source of protein, and a large review of studies published in Osteoporosis
International found that a protein-rich diet, as long as there is also adequate amounts of calcium, has a beneficial impact on bone mineral density, a major determinant of overall bone health. And, of course, this great catch is practically drowning in omega-3 fatty acids, which emerging evidence suggests play a role in overall bone health, possibly by limiting the inflammation that can accelerate bone loss.
Extra credit: Salmon supplies a boatload of vitamin B12 to help keep your nervous system functioning at a high rate.
Rx: Two 4-ounce servings each week
Sneak more in: Serve fresh salmon as a protein booster for salads and grain bowls, use smoked salmon in sandwiches, and try canned sockeye salmon as a replacement for ground beef in burgers and meatloaf.
Best For: Beating Diabetes
The numbers are staggering: More than 100 million American adults have diabetes or prediabetes, a condition of poor blood sugar control that if not treated often leads to type 2 diabetes within a few years. You can buck the trend by serving up inexpensive and versatile lentils more often. A 2018 investigation by researchers in Spain found that of the 3,349 adults in their study those who consumed the most lentils (an average of about 28 grams a day) over a 4-year period had up to a 35 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes during this time than those who ate the least. A separate 2018 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that substituting just a half portion’s worth of starchy foods like white rice and potato with lower glycemic lentils can drastically improve blood sugar levels. Lentils are a bundle of nutritional power, including plant protein, dietary fiber (a whopping 8 grams in a ½ cup serving), and minerals, making them a strong ally in the battle against diabetes.
Extra credit: Lentils are jam-packed with folate, a vitamin with some cancer-fighting prowess.
Rx: ½ to 1 cup, four or more times a week
Sneak more in: Use lentils in salads and soup and as a replacement for meat in chili, tacos, Bolognese, meatloaf, and burgers.
Best For: Fending off breast cancer
To help keep breast cancer at bay, make sure to pack your fridge with veggies and fruits. According to a 2018 study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health involving nearly 200,000 women, those who eat the greatest amounts of fruits and vegetables each day appear to have a lower risk of breast cancer, especially aggressive tumors, than those who eat less of these nutritional overachievers. More specifically, cruciferous vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and kale showed the strongest ability to lessen breast cancer risk. Cruciferous veggies are a rich source of compounds such as glucosinolates, which can limit cancer-promoting inflammation and cancerous cell formation in the body.
Extra credit: Brussels sprouts are loaded with vitamin C and vitamin K.
Rx: 1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked
cruciferous veggies daily
Sneak more in: Use Brussels sprouts in slaws, grain bowls, roasted vegetable medleys, and pasta dishes.
Best For: Lowering blood pressure
Beyond their delicious nutty flavor, hemp seeds (also called hemp hearts) are a leading source of magnesium to help keep your blood pressure numbers from boiling over. A body of evidence is showing that greater intakes of magnesium are associated with lower blood pressure. Magnesium, which half of Americans don’t get enough of, appears to relax blood vessels, which increases blood flow to decrease pressure. Each three-tablespoon serving of hemp seeds supplies about 70 percent of the daily need for this hypertension-busting mineral.
Extra credit: A daily hemp seed fix infuses your diet with omega-3 fats, plant-based protein, and energy-boosting iron.
Rx: 2 to 3 tablespoons daily
Sneak more in: Sprinkle on oatmeal, yogurt, salads, and soup. Also, use in DIY energy bars and balls.
Best For: A robust immune system
From stifling the sniffles to keeping more serious conditions at bay, it’s important to pamper your immune system. You can do so by eating zinc-rich foods like edamame, which are young green soybeans. Though it often flies under the radar, zinc plays a critical role in your immune function by increasing the production of various immune cells that are involved in the body’s response to invaders such as viruses. So without enough zinc in the diet, your immune system won’t respond appropriately to stressors. Bags of shelled frozen edamame are a convenient way to give your diet an immune-boosting zinc boost.
Extra credit: Nutrient-dense edamame delivers a laundry list of must-have nutrients, including vitamin K, folate, magnesium, and phosphorus. And 8 grams of fiber in a cup serving, to boot.
Rx: 1 cup, two to three times a week
Sneak more in: Use edamame in hummus recipes, boil them for a stand-alone snack, add to stir-fries and soups.
Best For: Building Muscle
An extra bit of lean body mass doesn’t just look good, it’s important for revving metabolism and securing functional health. So get cracking eating eggs. Researchers from the University of Illinois determined that the protein from eggs will increase muscle building in response to resistance training. Interestingly, whole eggs did a better job at promoting muscle recovery and growth after a workout than did egg whites. The study’s authors surmise that nutrients found in the yolk allow muscles to more efficiently use egg’s high-quality protein. When possible, opt for free-range eggs, which are denser in nutrients like vitamin E and vitamin D.
Extra credit: Egg yolks are one of nature’s best sources of choline, a compound linked with better brain functioning.
Rx: 1 to 2 eggs most days of the week
Sneak more in: Beyond breakfast, work eggs into your dinner routine, including tacos, frittata, Middle Eastern shakshuka, and served poached over cooked vegetables.