Are your meals giving you the most bang for your bite?
If you're like most people, probably not. And as a result, chances are you're constantly missing out on opportunities to feel, look and even sleep better at night.
"Food is so powerful," says New York-based registered dietitian Joy Bauer, author of "Joy Bauer's Food Cures," a nearly 500-page consumer guide to treating health concerns, released last month. "By eating the right foods in the right combinations, you can help treat, manage, and sometimes cure common health concerns."
While an effective method for preventing a host of health problems, your diet of course can't cure all of your ailments. People who have a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol, for instance, will not be able to fix the problem simply by eating lots of oatmeal and garlic. Instead, they might consider talking to their doctors about using statin medications.
"This is in addition to, not in lieu of, seeing the doctor," Bauer says. "We're not butting heads with medicine, but complementing it."
Why the interest in illness-fighting foods?
"People like to feel that they can control their own disease and this is one way," says Oliver Hankinson, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and director of the molecular toxicology doctoral program at UCLA. Researchers at the school are currently looking at whether a compound produced during the digestion of cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, might prevent the spread of breast cancer.
What you can do
Beyond major health threats like cancer, research has shown that your breakfast, lunch and dinner can have an impact on memory, the look of your skin and even a bad mood.
The key to keeping your memory in good shape is loading up on antioxidants, which nourish and defend body cells, including neurons. They also prevent plaque buildup in the arteries, allowing for a strong blood flow to the brain, says Bauer. A 25-year Harvard Medical School study of more than 13,000 women showed that those who ate high amounts of vegetables, particularly cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens, had less age-related decline in memory.
Besides avoiding cigarette smoke and too much sun, antioxidants are the secret to healthy, glowing skin. Look for foods high in vitamin C, such as guava, bell peppers, orange juice, strawberries and Brussels sprouts. Found naturally in the skin, vitamin C is involved in the production of collagen, which keeps our skin looking smooth and plump.
Vitamin E, common in fortified whole-grain cereals, peaches and asparagus, guards against UV radiation damage, and zinc and omega-3 fatty acids may help keeping you looking young and fresh, too.
If you're in a bad mood, you might be able to improve it by pairing high-quality carbohydrates — such as whole-grain products, oats, vegetables, fruit and brown rice — with lean protein. Carbs give your body energy in the form of blood sugar that feeds our cells, Bauer says. Protein, in turn, helps moderate mood because it slows the absorption of carbs from the blood. She recommends eating protein, ranging from turkey breasts, lean ham and egg whites to tofu and peanut butter, whenever possible.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association based in New York, says your bad mood also might be the result of skipping meals. Eating every four to five hours will keep your brain fueled and your blood sugar from dipping too low.
An expert on osteoporosis, Taub-Dix says people underestimate the impact their diet can have on their bones. While we stop building bone density before age 30, eating a diet full of calcium, particularly low-fat dairy foods, helps us maintain bone strength down the road. The issue is an important one for women, whose estrogen levels fall as they age, causing bone loss.
"Post-menopausal women think it's too late to change anything," she says. "That's when it's really important to protect the bones because they're becoming more brittle."
Make it delicious
If dairy doesn't do it for you, try a dinner of vitamin D-packed wild salmon, a side of magnesium-filled sautéed spinach with a few almonds drizzled on top, and maybe a side of yogurt with blueberries. Foods that fight disease don't have to be boring.
Ellen Haas, founder and president of the healthy eating Web site FoodFit.com and author of "Diabetes Fit Food," agrees. Her book, out this month, contains over 200 healthy recipes from famed chefs such as Alice Waters, Todd English and Lidia Bastianich. Dishes include chicken and asparagus with creamy dijon sauce; a Greek frittata with spinach, oregano and feta cheese; and pumpkin crème caramel.
Too many people assume food that's good for you has to be bland and tasteless, Haas says. If it is, you're not going to stick to a healthy diet for very long, and who could blame you?
"For food to play a role in preventing disease," Haas says, "you've got to enjoy it."