Three’s the Charm: Foods with powerful properties

You may not have the willpower to exercise daily or quit smoking, but one thing is for sure — you will eat today. That said, why not better your odds of living a (hopefully) long, disease-free life and make the hundreds of thousands of snacks and meals you’ll consume over a lifetime count?

By count, I mean contribute to your overall health and well-being. It’s hard to keep up with the ever-changing food trends popularized by the science de jour, but there are a few food groups and some specific foods that seem to actually live up to the hype.

Power Food #1: Blueberries

Blueberries are like the movie trailer that makes you think, “There’s no way the actual movie will be that good.” But then you see the movie and you love it. That’s the epiphany your body can have with a regular dose of these little indigo dandies. What’s behind all the press? According to, blueberries provide beneficial fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients that ward off chronic disease, high cholesterol and cell damage. When a cell converts oxygen into energy, tiny molecules called free radicals are made. When produced in normal amounts, free radicals work to rid the body of harmful toxins, thereby keeping it healthy. But when produced in toxic amounts, free radicals damage the body’s cellular machinery, resulting in cell death and tissue damage. This process is called oxidative stress. Vitamins E and C, as well as beta carotene, inhibit the production of free radicals.

These tiny blue powerhouses are also high in potassium and vitamin C, making them the top choice of doctors and nutritionists. Not only can they lower your risk of heart disease and cancer, they have anti-inflammatory properties. “Inflammation is a key driver of all chronic diseases, so blueberries have a host of benefits,” says Ann Kulze, M.D. Choose the darkest ones you can find as they have more antioxidants. “I tell everyone to have a serving (about 1/2 cup) every day,” Dr. Kulze says. “Frozen are just as good as fresh.” As if all of those benefits weren’t enough, a number of studies have shown dietary intake of antioxidants from fruits and vegetables significantly reduces the risk of developing cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

TIPS: Add blueberries to your cereal, muffins or pancakes, blend them with yogurt for a smoothie, throw them into a salad or eat them fresh as a snack.

Other antioxidant blockbusters you’ll want to pack into your diet, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s tests for antioxidant activity: blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, spinach, raspberries, Brussels sprouts, plums, broccoli, beets, avocados, oranges, red grapes, red bell peppers, cherries and kiwis.

Power Food #2: Foods with Omega-3s

You’ve heard plenty about the merits of omega-3 fatty acids, most notably how those healthful fats protect against heart problems. Omega-3s are considered essential fatty acids because the body requires them but cannot make them on its own. Thus, we need to forage the supermarket to ensure we get enough into our diets. However, not all omega-3s are the same. The three main forms are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are considered long-chain forms of omega-3 and are found in fish, fish oil supplements and algae extract. ALA, the short-chain form, is found in plant sources like walnuts, flaxseed, canola and soybean oils, and, to a lesser degree, green leafy vegetables. The body needs to convert the short-chain version to a long-chain version in order to make use of it, but this conversion doesn’t happen very rapidly. Many scientists do not believe that ALA carries the same heart health benefits as EPA and DHA.

How much omega-3 do you need?
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that everyone get optimal omega-3 intake by eating a variety of fish at least twice a week and consuming plant sources of omega-3 as well. The AHA places particular emphasis on the omega-3 heavy hitters — the fatty, cold-water fish such as salmon and tuna. For people with coronary heart disease, the AHA recommends up to 1 gram total of EPA and DHA — two forms of omega-3 — per day, “preferably from fatty fish.”

Look at your overall diet
Before popping a supplement (after all, this article is about super FOODS), consider what you eat. “Gulping down fish oil supplements after a 16-ounce steak is not the same as eating a moderate-size piece of well-prepared salmon,” says Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. The health benefit of fish, he suggests, is probably due, at least in part, to the fact that it often replaces an alternative protein source: red meat, which takes a toll on cardiovascular health.

Supplement WARNING:
Three grams or more per day of EPA and DHA may cause excessive bleeding in certain people. According to the AHA, omega-3 capsules may be considered for people who need to lower their triglycerides, but only in consultation with a physician.Here are some ways the AHA suggests getting your omega-3s without taking a pill:

Tuna—Bluefin tuna is particularly high in EPA and DHA omega-3s, but the AHA recommends albacore, too.

Salmon—Atlantic wild packs the most significant EPA-DHA wallop of the salmons.

Mackerel—Mackerel meat is often very oily, providing a good helping of EPA and DHA per serving.

Trout—Wild rainbow trout has one of the highest concentrations of EPA and DHA per serving.

Herring—This small oily fish has been a staple in Nordic countries. Pickled, marinated, smoked or otherwise prepared, it offers a generous helping of EPA and DHA.

Sardines—Though a turnoff to some, these oily fish — along with cousin anchovy — can have a significant amount of omega-3.

Soybeans—Get yours in the form of tofu and edamame, the Japanese appetizer, for a dose of ALA, a plant form of omega-3. But if you have a family history of breast cancer, avoid soy as it may increase your risk.

Walnuts—Nuts, in general, offer healthful benefits to one’s diet. The walnut offers an especially large helping of omega-3 in the form of ALA.

Flaxseed—Get ground flaxseed to sprinkle on cereal, or use flaxseed oil in salad dressings to incorporate this ALA-rich seed.

Canola oil—Used as a cooking oil in place of other vegetable oils, canola can increase one’s dose of ALA omega-3s.

Power Food #3: Coffee

Good news for Starbucks and javaholics; There’s a growing body of research indicating coffee drinkers, compared to nondrinkers, are:· Less likely to have type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and dementia.· Have fewer cases of certain cancers, heart rhythm problems and strokes.

What about Type 2 Diabetes?
“The data on coffee and [type 2] diabetes is pretty solid,” says Frank Hu, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., nutrition and epidemiology professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. Recently Australian researchers looked at 18 studies of nearly 458,000 people. They found a 7-percent drop in the odds of having type 2 diabetes for every additional cup of coffee drunk daily. There were similar risk reductions for decaf coffee drinkers and tea drinkers. How might coffee keep diabetes at bay? “It’s the whole package,” Hu says. “We know coffee has a very strong antioxidant capacity.” Coffee also contains minerals such as magnesium and chromium that help the body use the hormone insulin, which controls blood sugar (glucose). In type 2 diabetes, the body loses its ability to use insulin and regulate blood sugar effectively.

Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Diseases
“For Parkinson’s disease, the data have always been very consistent: higher consumption of coffee is associated with decreased risk of Parkinson’s,” says Hu. That seems to be due to caffeine, though exactly how that works isn’t clear, he notes.

Coffee has also been linked to lower risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

The evidence of a cancer protection effect of coffee is weaker than that for type 2 diabetes. But “for liver cancer, I think that the data are very consistent,” Hu says.

“All of the studies have shown that high coffee consumption is associated with decreased risk of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer,” he says. That’s a “very interesting finding,” Hu says, but again, it’s not clear how it might work.

Again, this research shows a possible association, but like most studies on coffee and health, does not show cause and effect.

For women, the lower risk of stroke is especially worth noting.In 2009, a study of 83,700 nurses enrolled in the long-term Nurses’ Health Study showed a 20-percent lower risk of stroke in those who reported drinking two or more cups of coffee daily, compared to women who drank less coffee or none at all. That pattern held regardless of whether the women had high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and type 2 diabetes.

You won’t break your calorie budget on coffee until you start adding the trimmings. A 6-ounce cup of black coffee contains just 7 calories. Add some half and half and you’ll get 46 calories. If you favor a liquid nondairy creamer, it’s 48 calories. A teaspoon of sugar will add about 23 calories. Also, if you drink a lot of coffee, you may head to the bathroom more often as caffeine is a mild diuretic. Both regular and decaffeinated coffee contain acids that can make heartburn worse.

In general, a balanced diet heavy in colorful fruits and vegetables, legumes and low-fat protein and dairy sources is the best eating strategy for your overall health. Be sure to consult with your physician before you make any radical additions or deletions to your diet.

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