Nobody needs another “10 Healthiest Foods on Earth” article, or another “25 Can’t Miss Superfoods” slideshow that makes you click “Next” 24 times.
They’re fun, sure, and everybody likes saying “Hey, I eat that one already!” But 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 list — with a twist. The foods here are the ones I actually do eat every single day for their health benefits, but more importantly, I explain how I make sure to eat each one.
You’ll see that incorporating these foods daily (or any food you want to eat daily) is like creating any other habit.
You’ll also see why I link to the Perfect Smoothie Formula so often, and believe that adopting just this one habit can make a dramatic difference in your health.
Here they are, in roughly the order that I eat them each day.
Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries 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.
How I get them each day: A few handfuls in my smoothie, first thing in the morning. I almost always use frozen, which aren’t much worse than fresh in terms of nutrition, but when they’re in season and I can get them at the farmers market, I’ll use fresh.
Still not breaking any new ground here — everyone knows that broccoli is good for you. Besides the commonly cited reasons to eat broccoli, like its Vitamin C and A contents and its anti-cancer, anti-heart disease properties, broccoli is rich in calcium and even protein (but by weight, not volume, so enough with the “broccoli has more protein than steak” arguments already).
The problem, of course, is that most people don’t eat it. I actually think well cooked (i.e., crisp-tender) broccoli is delicious, but if broccoli with dinner isn’t your thing, try it in the morning. That’s right.
How I get it each day: In my smoothie. Whenever we cook broccoli for dinner (which is often), we chop up the stem and freeze it along with any leftover florets. We toss a handful of these into the smoothie (along with the tops of strawberries, which we save in the same container), and our Blendtec takes care of the rest.
3. Pumpkin seeds.
Pumpkin seeds, also called pepitas, offer a host of benefits and are a good source of protein, but the main reason I eat them: iron. Iron is one of the more common deficiencies for vegetarians and vegans, and although you can get it in other vegan iron sources like beans, grains, and veggies, it’s nice to know I’m starting each morning with some.
How I get them each day: Smoothie, again. Use about a 3 tablespoons of raw pumpkin seeds for two smoothies.
4. Chia seeds.
In terms of nutritional content, a tablespoon of chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach, and human growth hormone. As tiny as those seeds are, they’re superpacked with omega-3s, omega-6s, protein, calcium, iron, zinc, fiber, and antioxidants. If you had to pick just one desert island food, you couldn’t do much better than chia, at least if you were interested in building muscle, lowering cholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease …
Sold. Even if the above overstates the case a bit.
How I get them each day: Smoothie, again. Use 2 tablespoons of chia seeds for two smoothies. (I get them in a bag and keep them in the fridge.)
5. Flax 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-3s.
If you don’t mind grinding seeds each day — or better, if you have a high speed blender that will do the job for you — get flax seed in whole form. You’ll need to grind it in order for your body to absorb the nutrients, but if you let the powder sit around, it’ll go rancid quickly (as high nutrient foods often do).
How I get them each day: Where else? Smoothie. Use 2 tablespoons of flax seeds for two smoothies.
6. Brazil nuts.
If any of the foods on my list is controversial, it’s this one. In fact, although I go through phases where I choose to eat a Brazil nut every day, for some people the right amount of Brazil nuts might be just a handful per month!
Besides fighting the Big Three (cancer, heart disease, and aging), Brazil nuts are extremely high in selenium, which helps with testosterone production. You hear a lot about decreasing testosterone levels among aging men, but a 2007 study showed a population-level decline of testosterone levels in American males.
Vegan superathlete Rich Roll mentions in Finding Ultra that he eats Brazil nuts for testosterone production, and Tim Ferriss suggests the same in the 4-Hour Body. (Although testosterone is less important for women, it’s not something to ignore entirely, especially for the over-50 set.)
While I haven’t had a blood panel done, if this simple self-test [warning: slightly NSFW] is worth anything, the Brazils are working.
But the controversy around Brazil nuts is threefold:
First, they contain a fairly high amount of saturated fat. Not a big concern for me or most other vegans, since plant foods for the most part contain very little saturated fat.
Second, they contain more radium (a naturally occurring radioactive element) than any other food. This amount is small compared to environmental sources, though, and the body absorbs very little, so Brazil nuts are not believed to pose a serious health risk.
Finally, while some selenium is essential, too much is a bad thing. Further, Brazil nuts vary drastically in selenium content depending on their age and whether they’re shelled or not. For this reason, I limit the amount I eat to between one and four Brazils each day.
How I get them each day: After I write for 30-60 minutes each morning, I take a little break. During that break, I eat a brazil nut, with Super Exciting Bonus (below). When I used to take a multivitamin, I took it during this break as well.
Super Exciting Bonus: B-12 supplement.
Look, if you’re vegan (or perhaps even if you’re a vegetarian who eats dairy), don’t mess around with B-12 deficiency. There are all kinds of myths floating around out there — the one I fell for was that it will take many, many years after you stop eating animal products for a deficiency to develop. This isn’t true, and I believe I experienced some of the symptoms last year until I started taking a supplement.
Some people will argue you can get B-12 from chlorella or “dirty produce,” but why risk it? By the way, get your B-12 in methylcobalamin form, instead of the cheaper and more common cyanocobalamin, which is not absorbed well.
How I get it each day: After eating brazil nut(s), I take a 1000 mcg B-12 lozenge (as methylcobalamin), dissolved under the tongue. [UPDATE: I don’t take this large a dose anymore; I don’t think mega-doses (of anything) are healthy. My B-12 supplement now supplies only 2.5 mcg per day.]
7. Green tea.
Besides being an anti-oxidant powerhouse, green tea is an anti-angiogenesis food, meaning it “starves” cancer cells by inhibiting blood vessel grown in tumors. (At least that’s my understanding; see Dr. William Li’s TED talk on the topic.)
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.
How I get it each day: During afternoon break from work — I either brew it fresh or drink it out of the fridge, where I store it in a beer growler, since the leaves are good for 3+ infusions and I can never drink that much at once. I drink it alongside dark chocolate (below).
8. Dark chocolate.
Another antioxidant-rich, anti-angiogenesis food, and another delicious one at that. I used to hate dark chocolate as a kid, but my tastes have gradually changed. Now I can’t get enough of 88% Cacao Endangered Species chocolate, and I don’t feel bad about eating a lot of it, as the fat and sugar contents are minuscule compared to what’s in the sweet stuff.
Read about many, many more reasons to eat dark chocolate every day, from Mark’s Daily Apple.
How I get it each day: During afternoon break from work, about half an ounce, with green tea (above).
9. Dark, leafy greens.
A no-brainer. If there’s a single food most of us need to eat more of, it’s dark, leafy greens. Just a few of the options — spinach, kale, collards, chard, arugula, and others on this infographic. Eat them raw as often as possible, wash them well, and vary your choices so that you’re not eating the same one over and over, to avoid potential dangers of concentrated heavy metals.
How I get it each day: Salad before dinner (if I didn’t already eat one at lunch).
It’s not just for guacamole anymore. Avocado packs high levels of healthy monounsatured fats to help lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol levels, along with lots of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Honestly though, for me it’s the calories. The fat (and hence, total calorie) levels of avocados might be a concern for some, but as a vegan runner who goes through tons of calories, I don’t know of many whole food sources that are as densely packed with energy.
How I get it each day: Half an avocado with salad before dinner (if I didn’t already eat one at lunch). Occasionally, on a sandwich with Ezekiel bread for lunch.
Other Foods I Eat Several Times a Week
Though I eat the above foods every day, they’re really only a small part of my diet. There are many others that I eat several times a week, or even every day, but not as part of a habitual routine like the ones above. In short, these foods that show up in a lot of the recipes I cook anyway.
- Assorted fruits, mostly oranges, apples, and bananas
- Raw nuts, especially almonds and walnuts (usually in raw trail mix from Whole Foods)
- Coconut products (coconut manna/butter, coconut oil, coconut milk)
- Tomatoes (usually cooked, since this helps increase levels of cancer-fighting lycopene)
- Lemon juice (you can get the previous 5 foods in a single Indian meal, which is partly why my family eats so much Indian food!)
- Dates (usually only while I’m running)
Three Points to Note
I hope you’ve noticed three things in particular about this list.
1. It’s not about the food, really. Many people will disagree with my choices and omissions, and that’s cool. What I hope you get out of this post, more than anything, is the idea that you can treat eating superfoods like any other habit. Adding a certain food or two to your diet happens to be a very easy habit to start, so use standard habit-change procedures to incorporate the foods you want into your life.
2. I didn’t include obscure superfoods. 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.
3. There are two other foods (drinks, really) that I consume just about every day. These are a small cup of coffee, and either a beer or a glass of wine. I don’t necessarily believe they’re healthy — I know articles touting their benefits get passed around the workplace all the time, but I tend to think this is because we like to hear that coffee and alcohol are good for us. But it’s not that I think they’re bad, either. Each has pluses and minuses, and you need to decide for yourself if they’re good for you, because different people will value health issues differently.
For example, alcohol seems to reduce incidence of heart disease, but slightly increase the risk of some cancers (even in small amounts, like one drink per day). Since heart disease runs in my family more than cancer does, I’m okay with a drink each night. I’d be lying if I said that enjoyment didn’t play into this decision, but I’m not ashamed of this — happiness is a pretty big part of healthfulness.
The Unrelated PS, and a Request
Yesterday, I had the immense pleasure of being featured in an interview on Copyblogger.com. The interview isn’t about health and fitness, but rather about what I’ve done to build No Meat Athlete from a little journal of my experiment with vegetarianism into whatever it is today. I learned so much from Copyblogger to aid in that process, and if that interests you, I hope you’ll check out the interview. Thanks!