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Archive for March 9, 2011

16 Lesser-Known Nutrients with Big Powers

16 Lesser-Known Nutrients with Big Powers

Many of us are well aware of macronutrients, such as carbohydrates, protein and fat, as well as micronutrients, such as the vitamins and minerals that are listed on FDA-regulated food labels. But too few of us are familiar with phytochemicals — plant-based micronutrients that offer many health benefits and may help ward off chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Prevent Disease with Phytonutrient Power

It’s a time-tested truth: Plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, are good for you. But researchers recently have discovered that plant molecules connect with human cells in striking ways. In other words, we’ve known they were good for you — just not this good.

“I don’t think there’s been this much excitement since vitamins and minerals were discovered more than 100 years ago,” says Beverly Clevidence, PhD, the research leader at the USDA-funded Food Components and Health Laboratory in Beltsville, Md.

The discoveries — partly because of the work of the Human Genome Project — are revolutionizing the way we think about food.

In the past 20 years, for example, researchers have discovered that carrots, kale and peanuts are not just plant tissues embedded with vitamins and minerals that are easily encapsulated in multivitamins. Rather, these plant tissues are made up of tens of thousands of phytochemicals (“phyto” is from the Greek phuton, meaning plant).

You’ve probably heard of a few phytochemicals without even knowing what they are. For example, lycopene is a powerful phytonutrient found in tomatoes that helps fight heart disease and a variety of cancers. And the phenols found in strawberries protect against cancer and autoimmune diseases, and help reverse nerve-cell aging. But there are tens of thousands of other phytochemicals about which most of us know nothing. Experts in the nutrition field are buzzing about these chemicals with tongue-twisting names like glucoraphanin, zeaxanthin and saponin.

Why Food Is Your Best Source

Eating a diet steeped in fruits, veggies, legumes and other plant-based foods is the best way to ensure you’re getting all the phytonutrients your body needs. While there are a growing number of phytonutrient supplements available, many experts warn consumers away from that option.

The big cautionary tale here is beta-carotene. In 1995, it was considered the ultimate panacea. “There was so much good research on beta-carotene,” says David Williams, PhD, a researcher at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “We were charting nice correlations between beta-carotene in the blood and lower cancer risk. Basically everybody just assumed that beta-carotene was chemo-protective.”

But to the shock of many in the scientific community, two major clinical trials in 1996 indicated that beta-carotene supplements were not only useless against cancer, but actually increased the risk of cancer in smokers.

“That was one of the first big disappointments, and it made people rethink the idea of going after individual phytochemicals,” says Williams.

Mark Farnham, PhD, a plant geneticist who specializes in phytonutrient research at a USDA facility in Charleston, S.C., concurs that current scientific consensus is now leaning toward emphasizing whole foods, rather than supplements, because plant chemicals seem to interact with one another in powerful ways. “There seems to be a synergistic effect between the chemicals in food,” he explains, noting also that this synergy is very hard to study because plant-based whole foods contain so many different bioactive compounds that it would be almost impossible to separate and study the potential health benefits of individual phytochemicals.

Plus, each chemical seems to have its own quirks. The carote-noids in collard greens, sweet potatoes and tomatoes, for example, are best absorbed if they are chopped, puréed or cooked, and eaten with a little fat, such as olive oil. But the glucosinolates found in cruciferous vegetables are most effective when eaten in their raw state and thoroughly chewed, so the plant cell walls release more of the cancer-fighting chemical. “There’s really no useful rule, because they’re all unique,” says Clevidence.

So eat as many fruits, veggies and other plant-based foods as you can, and be sure to choose foods from all around the color wheel — from ripe red tomatoes to princely eggplant to vivid oranges.

“If on a daily basis you incorporate at least seven different colors, you are much more likely to get a wide variety of these nutrients that are healing, that prevent degenerative disease, and that will go to work on every tissue, cell and organ of the body,” says nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, coauthor of The Fat Flush Plan (McGraw-Hill, 2002).

And don’t be afraid to go exotic with your color choices. Unusually hued foods add intrigue to your plate, and researchers at Washington State University have found that those foods can yield health benefits as well. Their 2006 study showed that wildly colored spuds contained more phytonutrients than white-fleshed potatoes.

If you need more motivation to eat your veggies, start a vegetable plot, and then chow down on the fruits of your labor. A 1991 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education found that vegetable gardeners ate significantly more eggplant, sweet and hot peppers, summer squashes, tomatoes, and herbs than did nongardeners.

It’s also a smart idea to avoid pesticide- and herbicide-drenched produce by going organic. Last year, Bland completed a survey of some 50 organics-related research reports and found that the vast majority of organic produce supported higher levels of phytonutrients.

If vegetables don’t usually appeal to you, consider taking just one vegetable-centered cooking class. It might make all the difference, according to a 2005 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. After all, what sounds better: Brussels sprouts, or roasted Brussels sprouts with pine nuts and marjoram?

Ultimately, if your strategy for good health has been limited to popping vitamins, consider what you’re missing: a smorgasbord of beneficial phytonutrients found in wonderful, whole, plant-based foods. Besides, real food has been through the most extensive laboratory experiment ever conducted — natural selection. There’s nothing that’s been proven to nourish our bodies quite so well.

By Alyssa Ford, Experience Life

Alyssa Ford is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit www.experiencelife.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.

Top 10 Superfoods for Spring

Top 10 Superfoods for Spring

I’m the first to admit that the term “superfood” gets thrown around a lot in the media and marketing, but that doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on the bursting-with-nourishment, lovely, potent, and delicious foods that fall under the moniker. Especially when these foods that are known to lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, and, while we’re at it, put you in a better mood.

Although some people have run rampant with the term and have made a mint by promoting the “miraculous! fountain-of-youth! death-defying!” benefits of superfoods, I hope that there won’t be a backlash against good, old-fashioned, super nutrient-exuberant food. As I’ve said before, I’m a crusader for most edibles in their pure forms–and the majority of them are superfoods in my book. There are few whole foods from the plant world that don’t have some health-boosting element to brag about–so how to decide what to eat? That’s why I like to think about–and eat–superfoods by season. Sure pumpkin is an A-plus superfood, but I like to save that for fall when it’s fresh and local, and look towards new fruit and tender green things this time of year. It’s a way to be connected to the planet’s cycle and decrease food miles, while giving your body a diversity of nutrients throughout the year to maximize its potential. And, to me at least, spring produce just tastes its amazing best in, yes, the spring! Funny how that works.

1. Artichokes
Studies have shown that artichokes contain a very high amount of antioxidants in the form of phytonutrients. A study undertaken by the USDA ranked artichokes as the number one fresh vegetable in antioxidant count. Among the most powerful phytonutrients are Cynarin and Silymarin, which have strong positive effects on the liver–any coincidence that artichokes have been reputed to help in the cure of liver diseases, liver cancer and to cure hangovers?

One large artichoke contains only 25 calories, no fat, 170 milligrams of potassium, and is a good source of vitamin C, folate, magnesium, and has 6 grams of dietary fiber–25 percent of the daily recommended amount.

How to prepare an artichoke? Read this.

2. Asparagus
According to the National Cancer Institute, asparagus is the food highest in glutathione, an important anti-carcinogen. It is also rich in two cancer-blocking vitamins (A and C) as well as the mineral selenium. These three nutrients have been singled out in several studies as fearsome cancer fighters. A 5 ounce serving (only 20 calories!) provides 60 percent of the recommended daily allowance for folacin which is necessary for blood cell formation, growth, and prevention of liver disease. Asparagus is also an excellent source of potassium, fiber, thiamin, vitamin B6, and is one of the richest sources of rutin, a compound which strengthens capillary walls.

Recipes:
Asparagus, Spring Onion, and Mushroom Pasta
Asparagus Spears with Black Pepper Pesto Vinaigrette
Savory Orange Roasted Tofu & Asparagus

3. Avocado
They’re rich, they’re buttery, they’re delicious, and they have about 30 grams of fat per fruit. Ouch. But that’s no reason not to love an avocado. Nutritionists have back-pedaled on their gentle warnings about avocados after finding that most of the fat in an avocado is monounsaturated–the happy fat that actually lowers cholesterol levels. Yay! Let’s have an avocado party!

A study published in the Archives of Medical Research found that the 45 volunteers who ate avocados every day for a week experienced an average 17 percent drop in total blood cholesterol. (Maybe because they were so happy to be eating so many avocados?!) As well, their levels of LDL (“bad fat”) and triglycerides, both associated with heart disease, went down. Their HDL (“good fat”) levels, which tend to lower the risk of heart disease, increased.

Avocados are rich in beta-sitosterol, a natural substance shown to significantly lower blood cholesterol levels. In a review article published in the December 1999 issue of the American Journal of Medicine, researchers pointed out that beta-sitosterol was shown to reduce cholesterol in 16 human studies.

Recipes:
Chilled Zucchini & Avocado Soup
Citrus Guacamole

4. Blueberries
Blueberries were one of the early belles of the Superfood Ball. Jam-packed with antioxidants and phytoflavinoids, blueberries are also high in potassium and vitamin C. Recent research has found that additional components of blueberries may play an important role in preventing and fighting cancer. The results of one study suggest a wide array of potential cancer fighting benefits related to wild blueberry consumption. Blueberries also have anthocyanin pigments, which may have the ability to halt cancer in the critical stages of promotion and proliferation. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Biochemistry and Cell Biology indicated that, in isolated cells, the tannins found in blueberries are very active at lowering a protein that plays a role in the metastasis of cancer.

And that’s not all! In addition to helping prevent and fight cancer, the compounds in blueberries are believed to help against Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, eye disease and urinary tract infections. See? Super.

Recipes:
Blueberry Creamy No-Bake Pie
Berry Custard Cake

5. Fava Beans (AKA Broad Beans)
Mmmm. Spring in a pod–I adore fava beans, even if they are a little work. Okay, a lot of work, but so worth it! Not only are the big, fat, creamy beans scrumptious, but fava beans are particularly high in fiber (85 percent of the RDV), and also high in iron (30 percent of a day’s requirement). They contain no cholesterol and are low in fat. Fava beans are also noted to contain L-dopa, which is used as a drug for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Additionally, as with most whole grains, consumption of fava beans can help reduce risks associated with heart disease.

Recipes:
Herbed Fava Bean Salad
French Spring Soup

6. Fresh Figs
You can get dried figs year-round, which is why they might show up on my winter superfoods list, but for now (mid-May for California figs), helloooo fresh figs.Fresh figs put the va va voom in fruit–the tender but toothsome skin gives way to a soft and sticky center, dotted with delicately popping seeds, the perfumed and honeyed flesh–you get the picture. In my humble opinion, figs are quite an experience. And beyond their drop-dead flavor is their profusion of life-boosting qualities.

Figs have the highest overall mineral content of all common fruits. With their standout source of potassium, figs may help to control blood pressure. Figs are high in calcium; bones, take notice. And as fate would have it, their potassium may reduce the amount of calcium lost as a result of high-salt diets. Figs are also a good source of iron, vitamin B6 and the trace mineral manganese.

The fruit also has tremendous amounts of fiber, more than any other dried or fresh fruit. Insoluble fiber protects against colon and breast cancer–soluble fiber helps lower blood cholesterol, and figs provide both. (Which also makes them a mild laxative, just so you know.) They also are a good source of flavonoids and polyphenols.

Recipes:
Try figs quartered, stuffed with goat cheese and drizzled with honey and topped with sea salt and black pepper.
Fig & Kalamata Olive Tapenade

7. Leeks

Leeks look like cartoonishly big green onions, with a wonderfully sweet and subtle onion flavor. When braised or slowly sauteed, they melt into a sweet and creamy concoction that is hard not to love. And they are workhorses in the health department as well. Like garlic, onions, scallions, chives and shallots–all from the Allium family–leeks can help the liver eliminate toxins and carcinogens. Leeks contain sulfur compounds that may protect against heart disease and some cancers, they can help the liver eliminate toxins and carcinogens. Regular consumption of Allium vegetables (as little as two or more times a week–although I could certainly eat them every meal) is associated with a reduced risk of prostate and colon cancer.

Recipes:
Linguine with Leeks & Lemon
Creamy Vegan Potato Leek Soup

8. Oregeno and Other Fresh Herbs
Give me fresh oregano and find me happy. I love fresh oregano, especially if salty Mediterranean flavors–capers, olives, roasted peppers–are involved. Yum. And yum. And superfood-y too! When researchers at the University of Oslo, Norway analyzed 1,113 foods to identify those foods richest in total antioxidants. Of the 50 foods highest in antioxidants, 13 were herbs and spices. One study found that oregano had 42 times more antioxidants than apples.

Is it surprising that fresh herbs are so healthful? Not to me, on an instinctual level they strike me as deeply salubrious. Randomly pick an herb and research its health benefits. You might find that parsley is an excellent source of beta carotene, the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin–essential for preventing macular degeneration–vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin K. Or try cilantro. In research studies, cilantro�s remarkable components have shown the potential to help promote detoxification, reduce high blood sugar and lower levels of cholesterol.

Recipes:
Chard and Feta Tart with Oregano
Parsley & Walnut Pesto
Cilantro Tabouli

9. Spinach
Spinach, good old spinach. It’s almost surprising that something so good for us is loved by so many! Spinach is an excellent source of folate–the B vitamin that helps to prevent birth defects, heart disease, dementia, and colon cancer (the third most common cause of cancer in women)–people who eat at least one serving of greens, including spinach, each week are 20 percent less likely to develop colon cancer, according to Italian research. Another compound in spinach, lutein, fights against macular degeneration, which causes age-related vision loss–in fact, including at least two servings of spinach a week in your diet halves the odds of macular degeneration (a leading cause of blindness), according to the the National Eye Institute. Eating cooked spinach more than twice a week cuts the need for cataract eye surgery in men by half, according to new Harvard University research. And in a large-scale Harvard study, spinach singled out as most protective against stroke! Finally, because of it’s high in vitamin K, spinach also helps build stronger bones–lowering the risk of hip fracture from osteoporosis as much as 30 percent, suggests a joint Harvard-Tufts study. Popeye was on to something.

Recipes:
Spinach Soup with Rosemary Croutons
Coconut Creamed Spinach

10. Strawberries
A of eight medium strawberries provides 140 percent of the daily recommended allowance of vitamin C, 12 percent of our RDA for fiber, 6 percent of our RDA for folate, 210 mg of potassium, and is also high in vitamins K, B2, B5 and B6, copper, magnesium, and omega-fatty acids. In addition, strawberries contain anthocyanin, which has been used for studies in preventing initiation of cancers. Strawberries contain a unique phenolic group, ellagotannins, which are effective in preventing initiation of esophageal cancer.

With more antioxidant punch than most other fruits, berries in general strengthen tissue defenses against oxidation and inflammation, which are underlying factors in most age-related diseases. For example, substances in blueberries help with short-term memory loss associated with aging. All berries help lower risk for breast, oral, and colon cancers in women. With a wealth of phytochemicals like ellagic acid, adding strawberries to the diet lowers tumor risk by up to 58 percent.

Recipes:
Spinach & Strawberry Salad
Strawberry Rhubarb Bread Pudding (Or a vegan version.)
Simple Strawberry Cream Freeze

by Melissa Breyer

Does Your Brain Need an Oil Change?

Does Your Brain Need an Oil Change?

Humans really are fat heads.  About sixty percent of the human brain is fat.  To maintain proper brain health, you need to get adequate fat from your diet.  But, not just any fat will do.  Some fats damage the brain.  The Standard American Diet (SAD) high in trans and hydrogenated fats worsens inflammation in the body, and this inflammation can damage delicate brain tissues.  These unhealthy fats are found in fried foods, shortening, lard, margarine, baked goods, and processed and prepared foods.

Healthy fats help keep the lining of brain cells flexible so that memory and other brain messages can pass easily between cells.  Both Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats are important to brain health and should be eaten in a one-to-one or two-to-one ratio to each other.  However, the average North American eats these foods in a twenty-to-one to a fifty-to-one ratio, causing a huge imbalance and resulting Omega-3 deficiency.  In this ratio, Omega-6 fats can cause or worsen inflammation, for which there is insufficient Omega-3 fats to keep inflammation under control.  The typical diet, if it contains any healthy essential fatty acids, usually includes fats found in meat and poultry, or occasionally from nuts and seeds.  Most of these fats are Omega-6 fatty acids.

Omega-6 fatty acids are found in the highest concentrations in corn, sunflower, and safflower oils.  But, you are more than what you eat.  I read somewhere that “you are what you eat eats.”  So that means if you eat a diet with meat or poultry that was fed corn, or other grains high in Omega-6s, you’re getting lots of Omega-6s indirectly.

The best sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include flax seeds or oil, walnuts and walnut oil, some types of algae, krill oil, and fatty coldwater fish, particularly wild salmon.  Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of Omega-3 fatty acid, makes up a large part of the lining of brain cells, helps to keep the cellular lining flexible enough to allow memory messages to pass between cells, promotes nerve transmission throughout the central nervous system, and protects the energy centers of the cells, called “mitochondria,” from damage.

Fish that contain high amounts of this Omega-3 fatty acid include mackerel, sardines, albacore tuna, salmon, lake trout, and herring.  But be aware, some of these fish have become contaminated with mercury and, as you just learned in chapter two, some research links mercury to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.  So, it is important to avoid fish that consistently shows up high on the mercury radar, including predatory fish like swordfish and shark, as well as sea bass, northern pike, tuna, walleye, and largemouth bass.  Salmon raised in fish farms also frequently shows up with high amounts of mercury, not to mention that farmed salmon often contains antibiotic residues and lower levels of the important Omega-3 fatty acids.

Adapted with permission from The Brain Wash by Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD.  Copyright Michelle Schoffro Cook.

Michelle Schoffro Cook, MSc, RNCP, ROHP, PhD, is an international best-selling and seven-time book author and doctor of traditional natural medicine, whose works include: The Life Force Diet, The Ultimate pH Solution, The 4-Week Ultimate Body Detox Plan, The Phytozyme Cure and HealthSmart News. Learn more at www.DrMichelleCook.com.

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