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.
Healthy Food No. 2: Olive oil
Another powerhouse food is olive oil, which just happens to pair perfectly with leafy dark-green veggies. Don't forget all the outdoorsy, energetic Mediterranean people who swear by an olive oil-based diet.
The term "extra virgin" basically means least processed. Olive oil not only doesn't cling to arteries, narrowing them, as do some saturated fats, but it contains powerful antioxidants called polyphenols found in many teas. Polyphenols can help keep some cells, such as those which cause breast and colon cancer, from warping and causing trouble.
One study done in Greece showed that the incidence of breast cancer was cut by as much as 12% in people who ate a lot of vegetables and that regular consumption of olive oil also seemed to confer protection.
The whole Mediterranean diet, in fact, is based on eating "good" oils, without the saturated fats (bad fats, which increase cholesterol and are associated with heart disease) in meats consumed sort of as a side dish rather than the main part of the meal.
One tasty way to get the oil is to put some in a shallow dish and splash in some balsamic vinegar. This makes a terrific dip for fresh bread -- instead of balancing hard chunks of cold butter on each slice.
For another treat, coat fresh asparagus in olive oil, sprinkle with thyme, and cook in the oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.
Healthy Food No. 3: Flaxseeds
Flaxseeds are rich in fiber, which lowers cholesterol and prevents constipation. The little wonders also contain lignans, another polyphenol compound that may protect against cancer. The seeds and their oil also contain those heart smart omega-3 fatty acids you've heard so much about.
Flaxseeds take a little tender loving care. You need to store them in the fridge because they can go rancid. The oil must also be kept cold and must not be heated or put into baked goods.
To prepare the seeds, you can grind them in a normal coffee grinder. Then sprinkle a tablespoon or two on your cereal, throw it into meatloaf, toss into cookie batter, or adorn your next dish of yogurt.
As for taking flaxseed oil in pill form, many people do it and find it helps with creaky joints. Better to eat them as seeds, though, Horacek notes.
Healthy Food No. 4: Oatmeal
Turns out the Quaker guy was right -- oatmeal is good for you. Oats rush cholesterol out of your system, cutting those important numbers.
Most nutritionists suggest eating the long-cooking kind of oats versus instant. If eaten as a cereal, this can be garnished with milk and a spray of brown sugar or even a little butter.
Or add some blueberries -- even the frozen ones are now known to be nutritional super fruits! According to a study done at Tufts University, half a cup of these little beauties packs twice as many antioxidants as most Americans get in an entire day.
Oatmeal can also be presented in delicious cookie form. Don't forget those raisins -- they contain the same phytochemicals as red wine, which is also turning out to be a healthy addition to the diet, in moderation, of course.
Cross also puts oatmeal in meatloaf and casseroles.
Healthy Food No. 5: Tea
If you sip on soda at the desk, substituting green tea could be a lifesaver. Even black teas -- and especially the new, trendy "white tea"-- also can up your antioxidant levels.
Brew it from leaves (1 teaspoon per cup) or use a green teabag and a peppermint tea bag together to amp up the flavor.
As for white tea -- all tea comes from a white-flowered evergreen called Camellia sinensis. The color depends on how the plant is processed. When the buds are picked while silvery-white, it's white tea. If the leaves are withered and heated, it becomes other types of tea.
Some people maintain that white tea keeps the most disease-fighting flavinoids on tap for use. White, green, or black -- tea beats soda any day!
"There is no perfect food," Horacek reminds us. "You need a variety."
Speaking of which -- we haven't even mentioned peanut butter (good against heart disease and diabetes), apples (just found to benefit the lungs of smokers), tomatoes and watermelon (thought now to fight prostate cancer), sardines (full of omega-3s and calcium) and turmeric (contains curcumin, which is thought to fight tumor growth).
Why waste a bite on a doughnut or piece of gummy white bread, when you could be eating something that goes to work to help you?