I know, nobody needs another “25 Can’t-Miss Superfoods” slideshow that makes you click “Next” 24 times.
Because as far as actually helping us to eat better, lists like these are pretty worthless.
The problem? None of them helps you to eat these foods habitually. We see the list, we make a mental note to eat more X, Y, and Z, and then we forget we ever read it as soon as someone sends us a cat video.
With that in mind, I present my version of the ubiquitous list — with a twist.
Although the foods here are the ones I actually do try to eat every single day, more importantly, I explain how I make sure to eat each one. And by making these foods a regular part of certain daily meals — salad, smoothie, etc. — you can make it an automatic habit that each and every day, the diet you eat is built around not just a random assortment of whole, plant-based foods, but the healthiest ones you can possibly eat.
With something as important to me as my diet, I don’t make choices based on hunches. This list is heavily influenced by what I’ve learned from the evidence-based approaches of Dr. Michael Greger (and his book, How Not to Die) and Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of Eat to Live, Super Immunity, and many others.
So here they are: in no particular order, the seven foods to eat … Every. Single. Day. (And some tips to help make sure you do.)
1. Berries and other fruits
Berries’ vibrant color is a dead giveaway of the nutrition within, a theme that’s repeated throughout this list.
Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, acai berries, and goji berries are perennial favorites on “Top 10 Superfoods” lists, so I’m sure this won’t be the first time you’ve heard that they’re packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants, and that they can slow the aging process and prevent heart disease, among many, many other good things.
And almost without exception, they’re delicious, like so many other fruits. And by the way, those other fruits are really important too: according to the 2010 Global Burden of Disease study, not eating enough fruit is the number one factor in the Standard American Diet that leads to premature death and disability.
- Berries are expensive. I almost always use frozen, which aren’t much worse than fresh in terms of nutrition (and sometimes better, actually, because they can be picked and flash-frozen at the peak of ripeness, rather than ahead of time like fresh). But when they’re in season and you can get them at the farmers market, go for it.
- Strawberries are #1 on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list, so buy those organic. For the rest, I usually save my money and get the conventional ones.
Eat them: In a morning smoothie or bowl of oatmeal, as a snack between meals, or for a healthy dessert.
2. Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables
A two-for-one, no-brainer! Leafy greens aren’t the same as cruciferous vegetables, but there’s a lot of overlap so I’ve combined them to keep this list manageable.
Greens are the healthiest foods you can eat, in terms of micronutrients per calorie. This measure is what the popular ANDI scale you see at Whole Foods is based on, and greens (particularly some cruciferous varieties) top the list with scores of 1000.
So what are cruciferous vegetables? They’re a family named after the four-leafed flower they produce (hence the prefix cruc, like “cross”). But they’re probably better tied together by the fact that you used to hate them when you were a kid: kale, mustard greens, collard greens, bok choy, arugula, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, and the like … all of which have a distinctive bitterness that other vegetables don’t.
Cruciferous vegetables offer twice the protection against cancer that other vegetables do in one important sense, as Dr. Fuhrman points out in Super Immunity:
In population studies, a 20 percent increase in plant food intake generally corresponds to a 20 percent decrease in cancer rates, but a 20 percent increase in cruciferous vegetable intake corresponds to a 40 percent decrease in cancer rates.
- It’s good to eat both cooked and raw versions of greens and cruciferous vegetables. Eating them raw will preserve some of the nutrition destroyed by cooking, but anyone who has ever wilted a big box of spinach in a pan knows how much more you can pack into a meal when it’s cooked!
- The protection against cancer that cruciferous vegetables offer is thought to be due to the isothiocyanates (ITCs), the best-known of which is sulforaphane, that are produced after they’re chopped or chewed. The problem is that if you cook them too soon after chopping them (within 40 minutes), the enzyme required to produce ITCs is destroyed. So either eat them raw, chop them early, or serve cooked cruciferous alongside raw to re-introduce the enzyme.
Eat them: Greens like spinach are easily added to a smoothie without ruining it. Otherwise, I make sure to get mine (along with a big serving of a few cruciferous vegetables) in a daily giant salad. And a side of kale or collards makes for a good dinnertime two-for-one.
3. Flax seeds and other nuts & seeds
Flax seeds offer a bunch of nutritional benefits and are relatively high in protein, B-vitamins, and phytochemicals, but mainly, I eat them for the omega-3 fatty acid ALA (also found in substantial amounts in walnuts).
As a bonus, flax seeds are anti-angiogenic, meaning they help to “starve” cancer cells by inhibiting blood vessel growth in tumors, a property shared with several other foods on this list. (See Dr. William Li’s TED talk on anti-angiogenesis.)
As for nuts in general, our friend the Global Burden of Disease study found that not eating nuts was another one of the main problems with the Standard American Diet, after “not enough fruit” and “too much salt.”
This is backed up by other studies pointing to nuts as a longevity food: just a quarter-cup per day increases average lifespan by up to two years!
- You’ve got to grind flax seeds if you want your body to absorb their nutrients; otherwise they’ll pass right through your body. Ground flax seeds go rancid pretty fast in the fridge though, so it’s best to buy them whole and grind as needed (or just throw them into a smoothie, where a high-speed blender will handle it).
- Raw nuts provide extra nutrients that are destroyed when nuts are roasted, but many of the studies linking nuts to longevity don’t distinguish between raw and cooked. Nuts are good, whichever way you eat them (watch the salt though).
- Several prominent plant-based doctors argue that people at risk for heart disease, and those who want to lose weight, should avoid nuts. I understand the reasons behind these arguments, but based on evidence like the above, my opinion is that once the acute issue is handled (and continually monitored thereafter), nuts are too beneficial a food to avoid for long.
Eat them: Where else? As a matter of routine, the daily smoothie is the easiest way to get them. I like to include a tablespoon each of flax seeds and walnuts in each single-serving smoothie I make. Flaxseeds can be ground and sprinkled on a salad, and other nuts work well as snacks. And don’t forget nut-based dressings on salads!
4. Onions and garlic
Onions and garlic are two members of allium family, which also includes leeks, scallions, and the like.
Most of us who eat plant-based diets have no trouble getting them on a near-daily basis, and it’s a good thing: Dr. Fuhrman highlights a 2006 study which found that, compared to eating no onions, a daily serving of just half a cup lessened the risk of five different types of cancer by 50 to 88 percent!
There’s lots to know about onions and garlic in order to get the most nutrition from them, though …
- In terms of nutrition, it’s the same story: the more colorful, the better. So red onions are better than yellow onions are better than white onions. Use red as often as possible, and since yellow are usually the cheapest, there’s really no reason to ever buy white onions unless a dish absolutely depends on their flavor.
- The eye-burning that occurs when you chop onions is due to a chemical reaction that’s taking place, during which ITC-like organosulfur compounds are released … not unlike what we talked about with cruciferous vegetables. So chop onions and garlic 15-20 minutes ahead of time.
- Raw is even better, but difficult, I know. Chopped scallions on salad or as a garnish are one way get at least some raw allium in your life.
Eat them: In almost every dinner, as a condiment (scallions or pickled onions) at lunch, and as a salad garnish.
“…the better you feel, so let’s have beans in every meal!”
Turns out those little brats got it right, because a 2007 American Institute for Cancer Research study concluded exactly that: for maximum protection against cancer, we should eat beans in every meal.
Not that surprising. They’re also a Blue Zones food, meaning that in studies on the diets of the world’s longest-lived populations, beans show up time and again as prominent fixtures.
- Tofu gets you partial credit. According to Dr. Greger, it’s about half as beneficial as beans, and half of a huge amount is still a lot, making it a good choice. Tempeh is better though, as it’s closer to whole-food form.
- If you’re buying canned beans (which, also according to Greger, are about as nutritious as home-cooked), look for reduced sodium or “no salt added” varieties, as well as BPA-free cans.
Eat them: In almost every dinner, on top of a giant salad for lunch, and as hummus or bean dip for snacks. Try this simple white bean spread on a whole-wheat bagel if you need help getting them for breakfast.
If there’s a trendy food in my list, it’s this one … turmeric is everywhere these days. And in my opinion, that’s a good thing.
The numerous health benefits of turmeric — most prominently cancer prevention and anti-inflammatory properties (of particular interest for athletes) — are mostly due to curcumin, the pigment that gives turmeric its vibrant color (there’s that, again).
But it’s not entirely the curcumin: in research comparing curcumin alone with whole turmeric from which the curcumin was removed (!), the real food fared as well or better in terms of anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer activity than the isolated curcumin.
Whether it’s the curcumin or the whole turmeric that’s responsible, this is a food that’s worth serious consideration in everyone’s diet … with just a few possible exceptions listed below.
- Fresh turmeric looks a lot like fresh ginger, and you’ll probably find it in the same place in healthy grocery stores.
- Just a small amount of black pepper eaten alongside turmeric increases the bioavailability of curcumin by 20 times!
- Eating turmeric can increase pain in people with gallstones, and too much may contribute to kidney stones.
- Dr. Greger recommends just a one-quarter inch slice of fresh turmeric, or one-quarter teaspoon ground, each day. It’s so potent, he says, that we should avoid consistently eating more than that until further research is done, but that a typical Indian diet contains about a teaspoon a day and there are no apparent health problems that result.
Eat it: If you don’t eat Indian food or other food that tolerates turmeric daily, it’s probably easiest to get turmeric fresh alongside a meal that contains black pepper. Its not a bad flavor, but a very strong one, so usually I try to mask it in a big bite of something else. I use my salad as a daily trigger that reminds me to eat a slice of turmeric, since it’s another one of those foods that’s easy to miss if you don’t deliberately make it a habit.
7. Green tea
Besides being an antioxidant powerhouse, green tea is another anti-angiogenesis food (reminder: that means it helps to cut off the blood supply to cancer cells).
In addition, some extremely beneficial phytochemicals like ECGC are exclusive to the tea bush, so you won’t find them in herbal teas. Still, herbal teas (hibiscus, for example) are often packed with antioxidants, so if caffeine is a no-no for you, they’re a great bad alternative.
- While tea aficionados worry about not steeping at too high a temperature or for much longer than a minute, you’ll extract the most micronutrition from the leaves into your cup if you steep it in boiling water for four minutes or so.
- White tea is almost as good as green in terms of nutrition.
- Green tea happens to be delicious and extremely interesting, in the same way that wine is, and I’m on a bit of a green tea journey myself. Dragonwell is still my favorite, but I often drink Sencha and Liu’an Gaupian too.
Drink it: As a beverage anytime. Green (and especially white) tea has much less caffeine than coffee, so for some people it can even work as an afternoon or evening beverage. And even if tea isn’t your drink, you can blend whole leaves into your smoothie to get even more benefits than you would from steeping them (and a bit of a caffeine boost!).
Want to learn more about the 7 Foods to Eat Every Day? I put together a printable guide that goes a step further, introducing three meals that make it easy to get these foods in your daily diet, automatically:
Other Foods to Eat Several Times a Week
The seven foods above are worth eating every day, but there’s still a lot more to jam into a healthy diet. There are many others that I eat several times a week, or even every day, but not as a matter of habit like I do the ones above.
- Whole grains
- Brazil nuts (usually just one per week, rarely more than one per day)
- Assorted fruits, mostly oranges, apples, and bananas
- Fresh ginger
- Tomatoes (usually cooked but sometimes raw in salads)
- Lemons or their juice
- Dates (usually only while I’m running)
- Dark chocolate
A Word on Supplments
Even with all this micronutrient-rich food in my diet, I still take a few supplements, like Vitamin B12, Vitamin D3, DHA/EPA, and sometimes others.
(More on what supplements vegans should take.)
P.S. One Point to Note
I didn’t include obscure superfoods here. There are lots of foods out there that blow away most of these in terms of certain nutrient contents, but I tend to eat pretty simply. If you’re into superfoods and don’t mind searching high and low for them, the list to check out is the one Rich Roll posted on Tim Ferriss’ blog: 10 Uncommon Superfoods from the World of Ultra-Endurance.
So, am I missing one of your favorites here? Disagree with any I included? Let me know in the comments below.