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5 Foods to Boost Your Health

Get more bang per bite by incorporating these 5 healthy foods into your diet.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

What if you could make a conscious effort to add five healthy foods to your plate and make an improvement in your longevity?

The key, say some researchers, is to outsmart your body, which, as you age, is busy half-forming or damaging your cells, rather than creating healthy new cells resistant to cancer, rapid aging, and other ills. These cells are damaged by "free radicals," a very reactive and unstable atom or groups of atoms with an odd, unpaired number of electrons. When free radicals bang into DNA in your cells, they can damage it, leading to bad cell behavior such as cancer.

What can you do? Your body already has a defense system of antioxidants, chemicals that can interrupt the damaging reactions of the free radicals. Although antioxidants can also be found in our diets, examples include vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. Sometimes, scientists also include selenium in this mix.

But do vitamins definitively lower cancer or heart disease rates? The studies thus far are not conclusive. Some findings do show that people who eat many fruits and veggies, which contain high amounts of these naturally antioxidants compounds, have lower cancer rates -- but maybe they are doing other healthful things.

However, there is also some evidence indicating that taking vitamin supplements, especially taking high dosages of these so-called antioxidants, can result in more free radical damage.

So judgment and moderation are vital. Moderation, however, may mean greens for dinner or a nice salad with olive oil dressing or glass of wine each day. How hard is that?

Healthy Food No. 1: Leafy greens

According to Audrey Cross, PhD, professor of public health at Columbia University in New York City, and author of the nation's first dietary guide under President Jimmy Carter, some people avoid the heaped-up greenery section of the produce aisle because they don't know how to prepare the foliage there.

Others have never even considered grazing in these verdant fields. Cross tells of giving a talk at her daughter's first grade class. Three of the youngsters had never eaten lettuce of any type!

The most nutritious and fiber-filled greens, Cross tells WebMD, include kale (ranked highest in antioxidants in a Human Nutrition Research Center study), mustard greens, broccoli rabe, bok choy, Swiss chard, and of course, good old broccoli and spinach (iceberg lettuce, on the other hand, contains almost no nutrients and precious little fiber, Cross says).

The dark leafies are even prewashed now in some cases, adds Tanya M. Horacek, PhD, RD, associate professor at Syracuse University, making them easier to use.

Leafy greens, which run the gamut from deep green and smooth-leafed, to crinkled and lacy, can be prepared many ways, Cross says:

  • Saute some onion or garlic in butter or canola oil and wilt the chopped greens in the sauce until softened. This is a great side dish. Or you can combine the sauce with bacon chips (made of soy) for a wilted salad (turnip greens are tougher, she warns, plan to cook rather than wilt those).

  • Try some crispy, flavorful leaf veggies on your next sandwich, in lieu of the rusty-looking iceberg. Cross says she made a sandwich with meatloaf and cooked kale and although her husband looked skeptical, he ate it.

  • Prepare your own mesclun, the pricy field greens mix so beloved of French bistros, by combining romaine, some soft Boston lettuce, and a small amount of arugula, and lace it with olive oil vinaigrette.

Greens can be a little bitter -- it's the all-important phytochemicals (plant chemicals) -- so don't be afraid to use some dressing.

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