To help you reach for disease-busting foods the next time you’re in the grocery store, we’ve listed 25 of them based on their respective superpowers. Find out how easy it is to protect your heart with omega-3 fatty acid; rid your body of waste with fibre; strengthen your bones with calcium; fight disease with antioxidants; and stave off birth defects with folic acid. Add these foods to your diet and you’ll improve your chances of leaping over health hurdles, though you might still want to leave the tall buildings to Superman.
Fibre is the true protector of good and destroyer of bad in your body. This plant compound controls dramatic spikes in blood sugar levels by slowing digestion. Since high-fibre foods make you feel fuller longer, they help to prevent overeating and obesity. Fibre eliminates waste in your body, reducing your colon’s exposure to potential disease-causing substances, says Lynn Weaver, a consulting dietitian in Lacombe, Alta. Fibre may also prevent cancer (especially bowel cancer) and lower cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease and stroke. And fibre-rich whole grains may also help guard against type 2 diabetes.
Whole grain cereals
Depending on the brand (try Bran Flakes, All-Bran Buds With Psyllium or Corn Bran), a serving of these cereals contains three to 16 grams of the recommended 25 to 35 grams of fibre you need every day.
Eat them now: can’t give up your favourite low-fibre cereal? “Add 1/3 cup (750 mL) of All-Bran Buds With Psyllium to your cereal for an instant 10 grams of fibre,” says Melodie Yong, a registered dietitian with the healthy heart program at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.
Whole grain bread
Look for bread that contains about 100 calories and three to four grams of fibre per slice.
Eat it now: can’t stomach brown bread? Chop dried slices in the food processor and slip them into meatballs or sprinkle a pasta or vegetable dish with the crumbs.
Whole wheat pasta
A cup (250 mL) of whole wheat pasta has double the fibre of white varieties and fewer calories.
With just 16.4 grams of fibre per cup (250 mL), kidney beans contain more than half your recommended daily intake.
Eat them now: blend those beans along with black beans, fat-free sour cream and salsa for an easy dip base.
These juicy berries are also full of antioxidants vitamin A, vitamin C and anthocyanin. Generally, fruit with edible skins and seeds are rich in fibre.
Eating too much fibre too fast might result in constipation. “Build up your fibre intake slowly,” says Yong. Add another fibre-rich food each day over two weeks. “And drink lots of water to help it move through your system.”
Omega-3 fatty acid is essential for your body, and since you don’t make it naturally, it must come from your diet. Besides lowering blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, omega-3 may also come to the rescue by reducing the pain experienced by endometriosis and rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, says Amanda Rodgerson, a registered dietitian with Sobeys in P.E.I.
Omega-3 may help control manic depression and reduce your chance of developing breast cancer. A study of 12 countries showed that people who ate less than 50 pounds (25 kg) of omega-3-rich fish per year (the average Canadian eats a mere 15.4 pounds/7.7 kg) had higher rates of bipolar disorder.
Try salmon or tuna. Eat the bones in canned salmon to increase your calcium intake. TIP Which fish to choose? “Think SMASH with two Ts,” says Rodgerson. That’s salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring, tuna and trout.
Get the most omega-3 by grinding flaxseed and storing it in the freezer. “Whole flaxseed lasts a long time, but once it’s ground, it’s unstable and can go rancid,” says Weaver.
Eat it now: stir flaxseed into yogurt or add to meat loaf.
Canola oil has more omega-3 than olive oil, and it contains vitamin E, which is linked to lowering your risk of heart disease.
These nuts pack protein and fibre along with omega-3 for a triple dose of nutrients.
Eat them now: have 1/4 cup (50 mL) of walnuts as a daily snack.
Choose from two types: omega-3 eggs in the shell, which come from chickens that eat flaxseed-packed feed, or real liquid carton eggs, which have added fish oil and contain less cholesterol.
Sure, omega-3 fatty acid is good for you, but you should still monitor your daily fat intake. Dietitians of Canada recommends keeping fat consumption to 60 grams per day or limiting fat to 30 per cent of your total calories. “And when you’re eating fats, eat the right types, such as canola,” says Weaver. Pick naturally occurring monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in fish, nuts, avocados and olives. Pass on saturated and trans fats (both are linked to chronic disease)—the kind buried inside baked goods, shortening and most potato chips.
Calcium has long been tied to building healthy teeth and strong bones and warding off osteoporosis. And now there may be more to this mighty mineral. A Boston study of 97,000 women found that eating a diet high in calcium may lower your risk of developing kidney stones. Calcium may also help with fat loss, especially around the waistline, according to researchers at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Calcium content does not change with the fat content in milk, but choose skim milk for fewer calories.
Drink it now: don’t like to start the day with a glass of milk? Nuke one and add cocoa powder and sugar or sweetener to make your own hot chocolate.
Bonus: cocoa is rich in antioxidants such as phenols and flavonoids.
Your best choice for calcium is plain yogurt with one per cent milk fat (MF) or less (look for the MF label on the yogurt container).
Swiss and mozzarella are heavy calcium hitters. Also try skim ricotta with sugar-free jam on your morning toast.
Consuming drinks fortified with calcium and vitamin D, such as orange juice and soy milk, is an easy way to slip calcium into your diet, especially if you don’t enjoy a straight glass of milk. But remember, the calcium from these drinks isn’t absorbed by your body as well as the calcium from cow’s milk.
Drink them now: use evaporated milk in your coffee. “It’s been evaporated almost in half, so you get double the calcium,” says Weaver. But watch how much you pour—it’s high in calories, too.
Not to be confused with white kidney beans or navy beans, white beans (also called great northern beans) are sold in cans in grocery stores. In addition to fibre and protein, one cup (250 mL) of white beans contains a healthy dose of calcium.
Don’t go over your recommended two to four daily servings of calcium, says Weaver. A daily serving of milk is one cup (250 mL), yogurt is 3/4 cup (175 mL) and hard cheese is a slice about the size of your thumb. If you do eat more, you’re taking in extra calories.
Antioxidants, a group of compounds found in fruit and vegetables, roam your body like a gang, protecting your cells by attacking and kicking out free radicals, the disease-triggering molecules floating around inside of you. Antioxidants help prevent numerous diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis, says Karie Quinn, a registered dietitian in Grande Prairie, Alta. Helping yourself to more than three servings of fruit per day may cut your chances of developing macular degeneration (a cause of vision loss as you age) by 36 per cent, according to a recent study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. And an extensive study on antioxidants in foods by the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently found that beans, artichokes and russet potatoes have more antioxidants than any other vegetables.
Include fresh and canned tomatoes in your diet. The heat involved in the canning process boosts the level of the antioxidant lycopene.
Eat them now: experiment with pizza sauces—try canned chopped tomatoes or salsa.
While the green variety is more budget-friendly than its red, yellow and orange cousins, these colourful peppers actually pack more vitamin A and vitamin C, both powerful antioxidants. Eat peppers raw to harness their full nutrient power.
Eat them now: have a box of vegetables delivered to your home weekly. In many large cities, you can get a pre-packed box of mixed fresh veggies delivered to your door through organic food crop groups. If a box is too much for you, split it with a neighbour. “My friends do that and end up preparing things they would not otherwise to use up all of their vegetables,” says Yong.
Get antioxidants beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin in these delicious orange root veggies.
Eat them now: make guilt-free sweet-potato chips. Thickly slice, oil lightly and spread out on a baking sheet. Bake at 400F (200C) until tender, about 35 minutes. Turn often.
The deep blue pigment in blueberries is triggered by the antioxidant anthocyanin. This berry is also a great source of vitamin A, vitamin C and fibre. Eat them now: add to cereal, yogurt or a packaged muffin mix.
Cranberries are packed with antioxidants such as phenols, anthocyanin and vitamin C. Opt for frozen or fresh as dried cranberries usually have added sugar.
If you’re not already taking B vitamin folate in its synthetic tablet form (folic acid), you can get it naturally from certain foods. Folate helps build our DNA and generate red blood cells, which carry oxygen from head to toe in our bodies.
While this vitamin’s strength is in preventing neural tube defects in fetuses, it’s not just for women of child-bearing age. Last year, Swedish researchers discovered folate may slash the risk of ovarian cancer. Folate, folic acid and other B vitamins may also lower your levels of homocysteine, a substance we produce from an amino acid in food. High levels of homocysteine have been linked to coronary artery disease and, in a recent study conducted in the Netherlands, to fractures related to osteoporosis.
This legume is filled with folate and fibre. If you buy canned chickpeas, rinse them first to get rid of the sodium-laden canning liquid.
Eat them now: blend chickpeas to create a homemade hummus or add to a pasta sauce.
Cooking spinach may boost its absorbable folate content. It also condenses the leaves into a thicker nutrient-rich serving, says Kathie Sullivan, a registered dietitian in Sussex, N.B.
Eat it now: tuck spinach into a lasagna or purée and add to vegetable soup.
Along with folate, you get beta carotene in this leafy lettuce.
Eat it now: use romaine as a salad base or mix with other types of lettuce.
This juice packs a nutritious punch, housing some 60 nutrients including flavonoids, vitamin C and potassium.
Drink it now: make a smoothie by blending orange juice with a banana and frozen fruit such as strawberries or raspberries.
Munch on it raw, slightly boiled or steamed (some of the vitamin C will escape during cooking).
Eat it now: add to a cheese omelette or a stir-fry.