Sometimes, it can be a little confusing knowing what to eat. It seems like there are always conflicting reports about what is healthy and what is not, and it can be tempting to just give up and eat for convenience and comfort.
But there is a better way. Instead, you can be smart about the kinds of foods you eat – foods that taste delicious, make satisfying additions to your meals, and provide amazing beneficial nutrients. In fact, many of the foods you may already enjoy are truly nature’s pharmacies. As Hippocrates said over 2,000 years ago, “Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food”. It was good advice then, and remains so today.
To start off, I can guarantee you that these foods will make you healthier and feel much better. And you may be happily surprised by some of my choices.
So in this Terry Talks Nutrition®, we’re going to look at my favorites and what makes them ideal choices. Consider this your detailed shopping list, and bring your appetite!
1. Cold Water Fish
Cold water fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring and cod) is one of the healthiest things you can eat. These fish are a rich source of essential omega-3 fatty acids, including EPA (eicosapentaenoic) and DHA, (docosahexaenoic). The benefits of omega-3s are outstanding: they keep your heart healthy, relieve pain through anti-inflammatory action, enhance immunity, elevate mood, and alleviate the symptoms of ADHD, diabetes, skin diseases, menstrual pain, and more. In fact, one of the most important uses of DHA is the promotion of brain and vision development in infants and children, and omega-3 fatty acids are vital for fetal brain development during pregnancy. Omega-3s are important for brain health in adults as well. In fact, researchers have found that eating baked or broiled fish (not deep fried!) at least once a week reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s by 5 times!
Cold water fish is also considered ‘heart friendly’. When rates of heart attack are compared between those who rarely eat fish, to those dining on it just 1 to 3 times a month, the individuals enjoying a fish dinner now and then still saw a reduced risk of heart attack greater than 20%.
For all these reasons, I encourage everyone to add fish to their diet! If you just don’t like fish, you can still boost your omega-3 intake. That may lead one to think about fish oil as an alternative. However, fish oils have many disadvantages. They are highly refined and processed making them unstable and highly susceptible to rancidity. They are not the same structure as found in the fish they were extracted from. They are denatured, and the EPA and DHA are complexed to triglycerides, a fat that is poorly absorbed – providing a poor delivery system for EPA and DHA.
The French government, recognizing these disadvantages, employed three top lipid researchers to find a better alternative. Based on the research at the University of Nancy, the lipid researchers discovered a more important fat, not a fish oil, but a complex of phospholipids, EPA and DHA, and hydrolyzed peptides. So, I always refer people to a supplemental form of omega-3s from salmon that retains the natural EPA and DHA structure and features omega-3 fatty acids bound to phospholipids, just the way you find them in fresh fish.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is a favorite culinary herb that adds a wonderfully pungent and rich taste to almost every dish that it accompanies. But far beyond that, garlic is extremely beneficial. Garlic reduces high blood pressure, fights oxidative stress that damages cells, helps prevent cancer, and has strong anti-viral and anti-fungal properties to keep the immune system strong. In fact, during the First and Second World Wars, garlic was used medicinally and later came to be known as “Russian penicillin.”
One of the major compounds in garlic that is responsible for its amazing abilities is called alliin. This compound reacts with an enzyme in garlic called allinase when the garlic bulb is crushed, and creates allicin. The result is lower triglyceride levels and a relaxation of blood vessels, which helps reduce blood pressure.
Another plus to garlic is that it increases hydrogen sulfide production in the body. At high levels, hydrogen sulfide would be toxic. But the low levels produced in the body have an opposite effect. Instead, it fights free radical activity and reduces inflammation so that the blood vessels relax and the heart and arteries are protected from damage.
While there are many excellent reasons to enjoy garlic for health benefits – a 30% decrease in colon cancer risk among them – it is really heart support that comes to mind for most people when they think of garlic. For those with heart disease, recent research shows that garlic extract was associated with an almost 3% decrease in the size of artery-clogging plaques. The control group in the study – with no garlic extract – saw a 15% increase in plaque size.
There are times when eating garlic just isn’t practical or desirable. In those cases, I would recommend a supplemental form that uses a food-grade enteric coating to make sure that the alliin doesn’t combine with allinase until it reaches the small intestines so that the beneficial compounds can be better absorbed. Also, look for a supplement that provides the equivalent key compounds found in 4 grams of garlic daily – the amount recommended by the German Commission E.
Onion, like garlic, is a member of the Allium family. While onion’s healthy compounds differ from garlic’s, it is also noted for its ability to prevent heart disease. Consumption of onions reduces cholesterol and the incidence of blood clots. Oil from onion has been used to treat high blood pressure, as well.
Beyond cardiovascular concerns, onion helps increase bone density and reduces inflammation and the risk of cancer. In fact, regular onion consumption has been found to decrease the risk of stomach cancer, so it is a very strong botanical in many ways.
One of the most beneficial compounds in onion is quercetin – a potent antioxidant flavonoid that provides much of the anti-inflammatory and antihistamine power found in the plant. Interestingly, it’s not just fans of healthy food that think onion is an extremely valuable plant; the World Health Organization (WHO) also supports the use of onion to treat the loss of appetite and prevent heart disease.
4. Green Tea
Green Tea (Camellia sinensis) has been cultivated for over 5,000 years, and is well known for its multiple health benefits. It supports cardiovascular, dental, digestive, and skin health. It prevents and fights cancer. And in this “battle of the bulge” era, it is especially well-regarded for its thermogenic ability. Green tea infusions help burn calories, with or without caffeine, and possess a lipase-inhibiting activity that limits the amount of fat calories absorbed.
All true tea (as opposed to herbal infusions) is from the same plant. The reason it is called “green” is because the tea leaves are only minimally processed after harvesting. Unlike black tea, where the leaves are allowed to oxidize, green tea leaves are simply steamed. Aside from the difference in taste, this light touch means that green tea keeps its antioxidant power, and more of its polyphenolic strength.
The chief component in green tea considered most responsible for its amazing abilities is Epigallocatechin-3-gallate, better known as “EGCG”.
EGCG reduces inflammation, protects the body from oxidative stress, and slows cancer progression by inhibiting an enzyme that cancer cells need for tumor growth.
If you haven’t enjoyed tea as part of your daily regimen, you may want to consider it: recent research shows that green tea reduces the risk of high blood pressure by 50%, the risk of dying from stroke by 40-60%, and the risk of dying from heart attack by 20 to 30%.
As for preventing cancer, a case-controlled study in China surveyed three types of cancer – pancreatic, colon, and rectal cancer. The researchers saw a decreased risk of each due to a common factor – higher consumption of green tea. The results were impressive. For women, the reduced risk of pancreatic, colon, and rectal cancer was 47%, 43%, and 33% respectively. For men, the percentages were slightly lower overall; 37%, 18%, and 28%.
The fact that I consider chocolate one of the Top Ten Best foods may come as a happy surprise. The fact is that pure, dark chocolate – without extra ingredients and calories like caramel or marshmallow – provides a wealth of benefits.
The flavonoid compounds in dark chocolate are strong antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory. They lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, and help prevent the formation of blood clots. According to recent research, the polyphenols in dark chocolate prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol (which, along with inflammation, is the real reason that cholesterol is a health issue), and even reduce stress in the brain when participants are asked to solve complex problems.
Like tea, chocolate retains its healthiest components when it is the least processed. Look for chocolate that is at least 70% cacao. It will have a distinctively different flavor than the over-sweetened milk chocolate variety that we all grew up with, but its rich flavor means that smaller amounts of chocolate will satisfy more, too.
We always think of almonds as nuts, when in fact they are really the seeds (or “drupes”) from the fruit of the almond tree. Almonds are a must for anyone who wants to lose weight, balance cholesterol levels, and reduce their risk of heart disease. They are loaded with folate, plant sterols, fiber, vitamin E and magnesium. And while almonds do contain fat, 78% of the calories come from healthy, monounsaturated fats that help build strong cells and keep arteries flexible.
Almonds also lower homocysteine levels in the body. Homocysteine is an amino acid that is associated with damage to blood vessel walls, increased cholesterol oxidation (making LDL-cholesterol “stickier” and more likely to clog arteries), increased risk of stroke, and inflammation throughout the cardiovascular system. In fact, almond intake lowers levels of C-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker in the body. When you combine almonds with other health nutrients, including plants sterols, soy protein, and soluble fiber – C-reactive protein was reduced by almost 25%. That’s better (and much safer) than what you’ll ever see from statin drugs!
For cholesterol balance, they are impressive too: in a clinical study, people with high cholesterol ate 1 ounce (a handful) of almonds daily and had a 4.4% reduction in LDL cholesterol; eating 2.5 ounces daily lowered LDL by almost 10%!
And, if you are dealing with a few extra pounds, consider almonds as the perfect snack. One study found that overweight people on a low-calorie diet plus 2.5 ounces of almonds daily lost 62% more weight, 50% more belly fat, and reduced their blood pressure by 11 points versus the control group eating low-calorie food and foods equal to the almonds for calories and protein.
It’s not just about calories. The kinds of foods you eat really do matter.
7. Red Wine
The reason why red wine is so rich in protective compounds is because red and black grapes used to make the wine are already very rich in anthocyanins and other natural antioxidants. But red wine is also powerful because when the grapes are crushed, the whole fruit – including the nutrient-rich grape skins – is fermented. That gives it a very complete profile. White wine on the other hand, is made without the grape skins.
The benefits of red wine are many: consumption reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer, promotes healthier aging, and slows the progression of neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease.
The compound most recognized for these benefits is one that has been getting a lot of attention in the past few years: resveratrol.
Resveratrol is considered to be one of the reasons behind what we call the “French Paradox”, in which people in France – despite their rich diets (of mostly whole foods and smaller portion sizes) seem to live longer, healthier lives. The prevalence of red wine during regular meals led researchers to discover that one of the compounds, resveratrol, did indeed appear to slow down the aging process, and even keep metabolism running more smoothly by improving the rate at which muscles burn fat.
Beyond being a “preserver of youth”, resveratrol has also been found to inhibit the formation, growth, and spread of tumors, and has been shown to be effective against breast, prostate, lung, liver, and other types of cancer cells.
It also reduces liver fat, blood pressure, and helps keep blood sugar levels in balance – all excellent reasons to enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner.
Curcumin – while not a food per se – is the essential compound from turmeric, (Curcuma longa), which in its powdered form has been used as a spice and medicine for thousands of years. It’s a primary ingredient in curry, and accounts for the bright orange color of the dish.
In its long history, and continuing today, curcumin has been credited with many benefits. It reduces pain and inflammation, prevents tumor formation, protects the liver, and promotes wound healing.
The anti-inflammatory abilities of curcumin are responsible for both its strong pain reduction and cancer preventing power, because proper inflammation keeps cancer cells from forming and spreading. There is some very exciting current research showing the powerful effect that curcumin has on tumor cell reduction, and given the strength of this particular compound, I’m sure more successful studies will follow.
New studies also show curcumin easing pain for those with rheumatoid arthritis, and when combined with a boswellia extract, being as effective as celecoxib in treating knee pain in people with osteoarthritis.
There are also studies in progress examining the benefits of curcumin in slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
I urge you to consider supplementing with a high absorption curcumin extract daily. You can find formulas that combine it with boswellia and other ingredients for joint pain, with resveratrol and green tea for cellular health concerns, or simply on its own for just about everything else.
There’s a lot of truth to the old saying, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” It would be tough to find a more perfect portable snack that provides so many benefits. In fact, just by adding one serving of apples per day, you can reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer by 25%.
But there are even more reasons to eat apples – weight loss, heart health, reduced risk of diabetes and asthma, cancer and Alzheimer’s prevention, and increased bone density – to name a few. A lot of people figure they can get around eating apples by just drinking juice instead – but one recent study actually found an increased risk of colon cancer associated with regular intake of fruit juice.
There are some identifiable components in apples that make them so healthy. They are quercetin, phloridzin, and fiber.
Quercetin is a bioflavonoid antioxidant. One of its many benefits is that it reduces or delays the absorption of sugar and carbohydrates, which helps to curb the appetite and reduce binge eating.
Phloridzin, like quercetin, has similar effects on the glucose receptor sites, but it also burns fat and controls blood sugar levels. In fact, phloridzin helps to release stored fatty acids from fat cells by as much as 44% more than just exercise alone.
A recent study followed participants eating daily apples or pears versus another group eating oat cookies with the same total calories and fiber. The apple group lost weight. The cookie group gained. So my advice is – skip the cookie and have that apple a day.
Grapes (Vitis vinifera) are another nutrient-packed fruit. As with most fruits, and as I mentioned in the section about red wines, the skins of grapes are loaded with valuable nutrients, including resveratrol and other health-supporting polyphenols and oligomeric proanthocyanidins (mostly known as OPCs).
OPCs are the precursor to anthocyanins – the strong antioxidants that give red, blue, and purple fruits and vegetables their antioxidant power. These powerful components protect cells from oxidative stress, and have been researched for tumor inhibition, liver detoxification, reduced blood platelet aggregation (keeping blood vessels from becoming clotted), and muscle health in athletes. In fact, in one double-blind study, the nutrients in a whole grape extract increased muscle endurance by 24%. Aside from those kinds of immediate physical results, OPC’s from grapes have also been shown to have protective antioxidant effects in the brain, supporting focus and cognitive health.
While I am a huge fan of the nutrient dense grape, there can be disadvantages in consuming large amounts. Grapes are one of the most highly sprayed crops. And, almost all grapes are grown in Chile where there are no restrictions on sprays and pesticides. If you can’t find organic grapes, another natural alternative is to look for organic grape juice. Keep the intake small. Since juice is very concentrated, you may only need 4 ounces two or three times a day for excellent cardiovascular health. Each serving would constitute a serving of fruit for the day.
We could really spend a lot of time looking at all of the great benefits of fruits and vegetables. I believe that you should eat a variety each day, because they provide so many valuable nutrients. Getting the amount you need really isn’t as difficult as you may think. After all, even one small apple counts as a serving. Carrots, rich in beta-carotene and blueberries, one of my favorites, and an excellent source of anthocyanins, are just a cup per serving as well. You can easily work those foods into healthy snacks or reserve them for an energizing dessert.
If you haven’t been eating a lot of fruits and vegetables in your diet, start off by just adding a couple of your favorites at first and build up from there. If you can, I’d always recommend buying organic when it’s available. The last thing you want to do is jeopardize your health with chemicals just as you’ve been adding a better group of foods to your diet.
These Top Ten Can Make a Major Difference
The foods I’ve outlined here are some of the very best that you can add to your diet every day. They will literally add flavor and life to your meals. Enjoy them. Find recipes online, or rediscover your favorite cookbooks and work each one into your breakfasts, lunches, and dinners each week. You’ll be amazed at how much more vibrant and energetic you feel when you let go of bad food choices and embrace these healthy alternatives.