Here’s some food for thought: You can eat your way to better health. Sure, if you fill your plate with fruit, veggies, whole grains and lean protein, you’ll slim down. But certain menu options pack more nutritional punch than others and some have downright super powers when it comes to staving off cancer and other diseases. Help yourself to a few of my favorite health-boosting bites and learn why choosing these can help you live a longer, stronger, happier life.
POWER FOOD: Cherries
Way more than just pie filler, cherries are the piece de resistance of the fruit world. They have more flavonoids, aka powerful antioxidants, than almost any other food analyzed by the USDA. Cherries, both sweet and tart, are particularly rich in anthocyanins, micronutrients that may jump-start the immune system and mop up disease-causing free radicals. What this means: They may have the ability to ward off cancer. Other research suggests they may also reduce inflammation associated with arthritis and gout.
TRY THEM: Fresh cherries are ripe now (the season runs from May through August), but frozen and dried versions are equally nutritious. Toss a fresh bag into the freezer for a sweet, cool treat; add tart dried cherries to salads; or try topping pancakes with the canned, no-syrup-added kind.
POWER FOOD: Black tea
You don’t always have to go green: Black tea, the type in your basic bag, may offer similar protection from heart disease and some cancers as its highly-praised cousin; people with heart disease who drank it daily for a month saw a 50 percent improvement in the functioning of impaired blood vessels, a study from Boston University reports. And another study, from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, found that a compound in black tea triggers colorectal cancer cells to destroy themselves.
TRY IT: Sip it hot at breakfast or cool down with an iced version at lunch. To brew your own, use boiling water and steep for three minutes to get the most antioxidants. Worth noting: Decaf varieties are lower in antioxidants, while bottled and instant teas have barely detectable levels. Instead, make it yourself and drink it fresh–time in the refrigerator depletes tea’s powers.
POWER FOOD: Celery
This traditional diet staple is a great source of potassium, a nutrient that helps reduce blood pressure and regulate the balance of fluids and minerals in the body. Most Americans get less than 50 percent of the suggested 4,700 milligrams a day. People usually use bananas as their go-to potassium source, but four medium stalks of celery deliver about the same amount of potassium as a 105-calorie banana for a mere 24 calories. The crunchy crudite also contains compounds called phthalides, which moderate blood pressure, too.
TRY IT: For a quick, healthy snack, stash precut celery sticks immersed in a tub of ice water in the fridge (the cool bath keeps them at their crunchiest). Dip in hummus for an extra dose of fiber. Add celery to soups, stews and stir-fries.
POWER FOOD: Quinoa
This grainlike seed (pronounced “keen-wah”) is as close as you can get to a perfect food, because it provides almost all the nutrients a body needs. Quinoa delivers significant amounts of 20 different amino acids your body uses to maintain and repair tissues, including all of the essential amino acids–protein building blocks your body can’t make and has to get from food. (Only animal protein can make the same claim, and it’s usually higher in calories and fat than quinoa.) It’s also a great source of magnesium, which helps regulate blood pressure. A half cup gives you more than 50 percent of your daily needs, as well as some iron and potassium.
TRY IT: Boiled quinoa is a nice alternative to brown rice. (Slightly undercook it, or it will get mushy). You can also eat quinoa like oatmeal, with milk and maple syrup.
POWER FOOD: Mushrooms
They’re low in calories and are a top plant source of B-complex vitamins, including riboflavin, which helps keep skin healthy and eyesight sharp. They also leave other produce in the dust when it comes to selenium, an antioxidant that may protect against some cancers. And according to a study from researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, mushrooms contain betaglucan and chitin, two types of fiber that absorb fat and whisk it out of the blood, lowering your risk for heart disease. All mushrooms offer benefits, but the big winner is the meaty portobello. It’s high in selenium and potassium.
TRY THEM: Pop portobellos on the grill this summer and cook them as you would a burger. You can also mix any type into salads, or saute and add to pizza.
POWER FOOD: Pomegranate juice
Presqueezed pomegranate juice offers almost all the health perks of the whole fruit without the hassle (seeds to dig out, red-stained fingers!). The beverage has more antioxidants than red wine, green tea, cranberry juice and orange juice and is loaded with polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that may protect against cancer and promote heart health. In one study in the journal Clinical Nutrition, people with carotid-artery disease, which can lead to stroke, reversed some artery damage by drinking a little less than 2 ounces daily.
TRY IT: To balance the flavor and reduce calories, mix with an equal amount of seltzer or freshly brewed tea.
POWER FOOD: Sunflower seeds
With 25 percent more vitamin E than almonds, sunflower seeds are the new go-to snack for reducing the risk for heart disease and stroke. Vitamin E may also fight inflammation, which can lead to joint pain and cartilage deterioration. Only 4 tablespoons of dried seeds provide 12 milligrams of vitamin E–that’s 80 percent of your daily needs. They’re also full of fiber, healthy fats, protein and iron. Make sure to choose the unsalted type–the salted version may taste great, but they’re higher in sodium.
TRY THEM: Shelled seeds are great tossed into salads, baked goods such as muffins or spice cake, meat loaf or any recipe that calls for nuts. You can also crush them, add some olive oil and use them as a coating for baked chicken or fish fillets.
POWER FOOD: Whole-grain cereal
No need to think outside the box: Many brands of breakfast cereal are loaded with filling fiber, which will help you head off a midmorning trip to the vending machine. Some even boast health claims: Shredded wheat, for example, is made from whole grains, which may lower cholesterol and reduce your heart disease risk. With about 250 calories (including lowfat milk) and only a few grams of fat, a bowlful also gives you an energy lift from the mix of good carbs and lean protein (when you add the milk). Note: Only whole-grain cereals offer these benefits.
TRY IT: Choose types with at least 4 grams of fiber and no more than 6 g sugar per serving–I love steel cut oatmeal–and check serving size to make sure you keep calories in check. Then pour a bowl for breakfast, a snack or even dinner.
Want to whip up a meal using these nutritional superstars? Search Self.com’s recipe database.