Blueberries, broccoli, walnuts: You know these superfoods fight disease and boost health. But are they the best choices for your personal health goals? Science suggests it may be time for you to branch out. A recent surge in clinical research reveals a new crop of superfoods that can help lower your risks of everything from cancer and heart disease to macular degeneration and osteoporosis. For extra motivation (because, of course, you do your best to avoid junk food too), we've included the latest studies on surprising culprits that make these problems worse. Eat a daily dose of the right foods — and purge your diet of these health saboteurs — to get the health benefits you want most.
PROTECT YOUR HEART
FILL UP ON THESE: Barley. This grain can blast LDL ("bad" cholesterol) and triglycerides, lowering your total cholesterol an average of 13 points — without affecting your HDL ("good" cholesterol) levels, according to a 2009 research review. Barley contains beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber that binds with cholesterol to whisk it from the body, explains David Grotto, RD, the author of 101 Optimal Life Foods. A cup and a half of cooked pearled barley contains 3 g of soluble fiber, the daily amount recommended by the FDA.
Pinto beans. Like barley, pinto beans contain cholesterol-fighting beta-glucan. In one study, participants with mild insulin resistance (a precursor to high cholesterol) who ate ½ cup of pinto beans daily dropped 19 points from their total count in 8 weeks, including a 13-point decrease in LDL.
Grapes. Consuming just 1 ¼ cups of grapes can prevent the damaging effects of a high-fat meal that can slow circulation and increase risk of coronary heart disease, say researchers at Nation-wide Children's Hospital in Columbus, OH. A daily dose of grapes improves blood vessel health in general, scientists believe, because the fruit contains high levels of antioxidants called polyphenols.
Macadamia nuts. An Australian study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that when men with high cholesterol ate between 1 and 3 ounces of macadamia nuts per day for 1 month, their LDL dropped by 5.3%, while their HDL rose by 7.9%. The nuts, researchers concluded, increased the amount of healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) in the blood. One ounce is adequate for most people.
Mineral water. The magnesium and calcium plentiful in most mineral waters (like San Pellegrino, which has 56 mg magnesium and 208 mg calcium) are both potential blood pressure reducers. In a Swedish study, 70 men and women ages 45 to 64 with borderline hypertension experienced a significant decrease in blood pressure after 4 weeks of drinking 1 liter of mineral (not seltzer) water daily.
AVOID THESE: Energy drinks. The caffeine and guarana that are often added to energy drinks can make your blood pressure skyrocket, says John La Puma, MD, the author of Chef MD's Big Book of Culinary Medicine.
STRENGTHEN YOUR BONES
FILL UP ON THESE: Lean top sirloin. A 4-ounce serving of this cut (grass- or grain-fed) provides more than half the DV (8 mg) of zinc, a bone-protecting mineral. Research shows that low levels of zinc are associated with brittle bones in middle-aged women. If you prefer seafood, an Alaskan king crab leg packs 10 mg.
Broccoli. Broccoli is bursting with vitamin K, which helps your body transport calcium and metabolizes the mineral into your skeleton. Several studies found that vitamin K not only boosts bone mineral density in osteoporosis sufferers but also reduces fracture rates. As a result, the Institute of Medicine upped its daily recommendation to 90 mcg for women and 120 mcg for men (3.5 ounces of broccoli contains 141 mcg). Other good sources include broccoli rabe and spinach.
AVOID THIS: Salt. Excess sodium increases the amount of calcium excreted in your urine. Over time, this could lead to significant bone loss, say British researchers. Grotto recommends limiting sodium intake to 2,300 mg daily.
FILL UP ON THESE: Blueberries. These colorful berries aren't just good for your brain. They contain high concentrations of anthocyanins, compounds that can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by 33%, according to a study of more than 6,000 people published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. Grotto recommends eating a daily cup of blueberries — or cherries, strawberries, or Concord grapes, which also contain anthocyanins. Or best yet, try blueberry yogurt.
Popcorn. This popular snack is rich in insoluble fiber, which helps keep your digestive system moving. Snacking on 3 cups of air-popped (not microwave) popcorn twice a week can reduce your risk of diverticular disease, a painful inflammation of the intestine, by 28%, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Bananas. Add a banana to your daily morning cereal to get a healthy dose of protease inhibitors, compounds that fight off H. pylori, the bacteria that researchers believe is the cause of most stomach ulcers.
Dried plums. Although filled with healthy fiber, dried plums are also high in sorbitol, a sugar alcohol that in large quantities can cause gas, bloating, and sometimes diarrhea. Grotto suggests limiting your intake to four or five plums a day or substituting a sorbitol-free dried fruit, such as apricots.
People who eat at least two daily servings of leafy greens, such as collard greens and spinach, are 46% less likely to develop macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in those over age 60, according to Harvard Medical School. These foods contain lutein and zeaxanthin, two powerful carotenoids that help eyes absorb short wavelength light and protect the retina, says La Puma. Women with diets high in beta-carotene (of which collard greens are a rich source) were 39% less likely to develop serious cataracts, according to a Harvard Medical School study of more than 50,000 nurses. Because beta-carotene is fatsoluble, cook the greens first, then add olive oil to maximize absorption.
Low-fat or nonfat milk
Low- and nonfat milk have plenty of riboflavin, a B vitamin that helps prevent cataracts. Your body uses riboflavin to manufacture glutathione, which fights free radicals that can damage eye tissue. In addition, vitamin D, found in fortified milk, might protect your eyes as well. One study showed that high blood levels of D reduced the risk of macular degeneration by nearly 40%, compared with people with low levels.
The omega-3 fatty acids in nuts, especially walnuts, reduce inflammation and prevent oxidative damage to the retina, says Grotto. Just one to two weekly servings of about ¾ ounce of nuts lower your risk of developing early macular degeneration by 35%, according to new research published in the Archives of Ophthalmology.
AVOID THESE: Refined foods. People who regularly eat white bread, cornflakes, and other foods that spike blood sugar almost double their risk of macular degeneration, according to a 10-year Tufts University study of more than 4,000 subjects. Switch to whole grain versions of bread and cereal to steady your blood sugar.
PROTECT YOUR BREASTS
FILL UP ON THESE Cauliflower. This cruciferous vegetable contains sulforaphane, which halted the growth of breast cancer cells in test-tube studies by interfering with the cells' ability to reproduce. Cauliflower also contains a compound called I3C, which may lower levels of estrogens that might otherwise encourage tumors to multiply. When cooking this veggie, roast or steam but never boil it; new research says boiling causes up to 75% of the cancer-fighting compounds to leach into the cooking water.
Sweet potatoes. One 5-inch-long sweet potato contains 11,062 mcg of beta-carotene, a carotenoid that helps your body metabolize estrogen better, says La Puma. Women with the lowest levels of beta-carotene and other carotenoids had double the risk of breast cancer, compared with those who had the highest levels, found the New York University Women's Health Study.
Tomato sauce. Research shows that lycopene, a powerful antioxidant found in tomato sauce, may protect against breast cancer by neutralizing free radicals that damage cells. Studies prove that lycopene can inhibit breast cancer cell growth in test tubes as well as suppress tumors in mice. Plus, it helps shield skin from cancer-causing sun damage. Lycopene is more easily absorbed in the body when exposed to heat, so cooked tomatoes are better than raw. Lycopene is fat-soluble, so add olive oil to help absorption.
AVOID THIS: Grapefruit. Eating just one-quarter of a grapefruit each day or one-half every other day may increase a postmenopausal woman's chances of developing breast cancer by up to 30%, according to a 9-year University of Southern California study of 46,000 postmenopausal women. Although doctors aren't sure exactly why, several studies show that grapefruit interacts with estrogen and increases its potency — so much so that the FDA requires hormone replacement medications to carry a warning label concerning grapefruit juice.
FILL UP THESE: Pears. These fruits contain quercetin, a powerful flavonoid that may protect the lungs. A Dutch study of more than 13,000 people found that those who ate the most pears (as well as apples, which also contain quercetin) had the best lung function, while an Australian study discovered a strong association between high pear and apple consumption and lower risk of asthma.
Edamame. Lung cancer victims tend to have low levels of phytoestrogens, important plant compounds, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Women who ate the highest quantities of foods containing phytoestrogens, such as edamame, tofu, and lentils, slashed their lung cancer risk by 34%.
Brown rice. This grain is high in selenium, which may help keep lung-damaging free radicals from forming. A New Zealand study found that people who got the most selenium were nearly 2 times less likely to develop asthma as those who got the least. You'll meet the DV of 55 mcg with a few servings of selenium-rich foods, such as whole wheat bread, chicken, and eggs.
AVOID THESE Soft drinks. If you have asthma, skip soft drinks, advises La Puma. Many contain food additives such as sodium benzoate, MSG, and sulfites, which can exacerbate symptoms.
PAIN PROOF YOUR JOINTS
FILL UP ON THESE: Olive oil. Just 2 teaspoons of olive oil (plus 3 g of fish oil) a day may significantly improve morning stiffness, joint pain, and fatigue, according to a Brazilian study. Research also shows a high intake of olive oil may reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis by up to 61%.
Oranges. Vitamin C activates a gene that helps cartilage synthesis, says La Puma. People who eat the most vitamin C-rich foods have 70% less cartilage loss than those who don't — and slow the progression of osteoarthritis by 300%, according to the Framingham Osteoarthritis Cohort Study.
AVOID THIS: Beer or hard liquor. If you're prone to gout, avoid beer (just one daily boosts your uric acid levels by 15%, high levels of which can cause gout) or hard liquor (which raises it by 12%), according to a Harvard Medical School study of more than 14,000 people.
BOOST YOUR MEMORY
FILL UP ON THESE: Apples. Eating two or three apples a day increases levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter crucial to maintaining memory that tends to decrease with age, according to research from the University of Massachusetts. Additionally, antioxidants in the fruit protect brain cells from free radical damage.
Chicken breast. In a study of more than 6,000 people conducted by the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging and the CDC, those who ate foods high in niacin, like chicken breast, yellowfin tuna, and Chinook salmon, had a 70% lower risk of mental decline and Alzheimer's. Aim for at least 14 mg of niacin daily, the amount in 3.5 ounces of roasted skinless chicken breast.
Coffee. People who drank three to five cups of filtered java a day reduced their risk of dementia and Alzheimer's by 65%, according to results from a Finnish/Swedish study of more than 1,400 people over 2 decades by the University of Kuopio and published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.
AVOID THIS: Liver. This meat — along with turnip greens and shiitake mushrooms — has large amounts of copper. A diet high in this mineral (2,750 mcg daily) is associated with a faster rate of cognitive decline by the equivalent of 19 years, research shows, if eaten along with a diet high in saturated and trans fats.
SMOOTH YOUR SKIN
FILL UP ON THESE: Canned light tuna. This kitchen staple is packed with selenium, an antioxidant that protects skin cells against sun damage that can lead to skin cancer. People whose blood had the highest levels of selenium had a 57% lower rate of developing basal cell carcinoma and a 64% reduction in squamous cell carcinoma, compared with those with the lowest levels, according to a 2009 Australian study of almost 500 adults. Other selenium sources include turkey and fortified instant cereal. The DV for selenium is 55 mcg, the amount found in a little less than 3 ounces of canned light tuna.
Dark chocolate. New research shows that women who consumed a daily drink containing 2 tablespoons of high-flavonoid cocoa powder for 12 weeks had skin that was significantly smoother, retained more moisture, and had better circulation. Grotto says you can achieve the same effect with a daily ounce of high-flavonoid dark chocolate.
Black tea with citrus peel. Longtime tea drinkers enjoy half the risk of skin cancer — especially if they sip two or more cups each day, according to a 2007 Dartmouth Medical School study. That's possibly due to tea's polyphenols, which may help protect against UV radiation. Brew tea with citrus peel to boost its anticancer powers even more. The combined theaflavins in black tea and the d-Limonene in citrus reduced the risk of squamous cell carcinoma by 88%, says research from a University of Arizona College of Public Health study.
Carrot juice. One cup of carrot juice (which is equal to 1 pound of carrots) contains 22 mg of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant that several studies show can help protect skin against sunburn. And the more you drink, the more protection you build up.
AVOID THIS: Alcohol. Scientists aren't exactly sure why, but drinking more than two alcoholic beverages a day raises your risk of basal cell carcinoma by up to 30%, according to research at Harvard School of Public Health.