Everybody loves to talk about the latest and greatest disease-preventing superfood — but how many have you actually made a part of your daily diet?
As a cardiovascular nurse and nutrition consultant, I spend much of my time wading in the muck of preventable chronic diseases, and I’ve dedicated my life to understanding nutrition science and lifestyle medicine.
And more importantly for you, how those two disciplines can be used to prevent and treat disease.
What I’ve found is that certain health foods — normal foods, not hard-to-find superfoods — have a remarkable capacity to protect you from disease, increase athletic performance, and give you a fighting chance of living a long, healthy life.
Below I’ve compiled a list of five food types that meet this criteria. Foods that I recommend my clients eat every single day — without exception.
Here they are.
Let’s focus for a minute on the longest living populations on earth today that enjoy the best health and least amount of chronic disease.
They nearly all have one important thing in common from a nutritional perspective:
Get past the flatulence jokes, and it turns out that beans are a nutritional powerhouse and should be taken seriously.
Legume intake has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, among other effects. And for good reason …
Beans contain a number of important macro and micro nutrients like protein, iron, zinc, folate, fiber and potassium. Some of the phytochemicals present in beans can even be associated with producing an anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effect and help us regulate our blood sugar and blood pressure as well as promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
Almost sounds too good to be true, but it isn’t.
In 2007, the most comprehensive analysis of diet and cancer ever conducted was published by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).
Nine independent research teams from around the globe with some of the brightest minds in cancer prevention combed through nearly half a million studies to create a scientific consensus on the best ways to reduce the risk of developing this disease. In their final report, they concluded that people should be eating beans with every meal.
Here are three quick ways to easily incorporate more beans into your diet:
- Add black beans to a salad
- Spread hummus on a slice of whole wheat toast
- Use refried beans in a vegan quesadilla or burrito
Who doesn’t love biting into a ripe mango on a hot summer day, or eating a bucket full of freshly picked blueberries?
As it turns out, Americans fall woefully short of the recommended daily intake of fruits and this is not without consequence.
The 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was conducted by nearly 500 researchers from more than 300 institutions in 50 countries and took years to finish.
The study concluded that in the United States, the leading cause of death and disability was the American diet and that the worst part of our nutritional habits was not eating enough fruit.
Not vegetables or whole grains, but fruit.
Berries, in particular, seem to be the MVP of the fruit world and offer serious protection against cancer, boost immune cell activity, and protect the liver and the brain. A study of nearly 100,000 men and women, conducted by the American Cancer Society, found that those who ate the most berries were significantly less likely to die of cardiovascular disease.
I happen to love fruit as a source of fuel during long races and training sessions so for you athletes out there, consider that application as a great way to boost your daily intake.
Here are three more ways to incorporate more fruit into your daily routine:
- Make a frozen, mixed berry sorbet using a masticating juicer or high-powered blender
- Eat an entire meal of just fruit including mangoes, bananas, berries, watermelon, etc.
- Throw assorted fruits into a smoothie
Dark-green, leafy vegetables may be the healthiest foods on the planet.
They offer the most nutrition per calorie and the greatest array of disease-fighting, performance-enhancing nutrients. And yet, today only about 1 in 25 Americans consume even a dozen servings per month when you should be shooting for at least a dozen servings per week.
Eating greens, especially of the cruciferous variety, is likely to be one the most powerful steps you can take to prolong your life.
Here are three easy ways to get more greens into your diet:
- Add kale and/or spinach to a smoothie
- Make a large spinach salad with your favorite toppings
- Use Romaine lettuce to make hummus and veggie wraps
4. Whole Grains
I mentioned earlier that daily bean consumption was recommended for preventing cancer by the AICR.
That same analysis determined that whole grains were just as effective as beans and should be consumed with every meal.
A 2015 analysis of Harvard’s famous Nurses Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study — which have accumulated more than three million person-years of data — found that people who eat the most whole grains often live significantly longer independent of other lifestyle factors like smoking or obesity, etc.
If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.
This is in no way surprising, considering the evidence that whole grains appear to mitigate the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and stroke and are quite adept at reducing inflammation, despite some of the nonsense you read circulating through the blogosphere about grains being pro-inflammatory.
I absolutely love barley, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, and rye, or simply adding whole wheat pasta or wild rice to a dish. Try experimenting with these if you aren’t already accustomed to eating them.
And if you have Celiac disease or a legitimate gluten sensitivity, you can still enjoy many of the benefits of these foods, you just have to choose the gluten-free varieties.
Here are three ways to get more whole grains in your body:
- Make pasta using 100% whole wheat varieties
- Use quinoa as a base for a veggie stir fry
- Make a sandwich using sprouted, whole wheat toast
The Global Burden of Disease Study, which I mentioned earlier, determined that inadequate nut and seed intake was the third-leading dietary risk factor for death and disability in the world and thought to lead to the death of millions of people every year. Yikes.
But that doesn’t mean you should be scarfing down mounds of nuts.
Just one handful (1/4 cup) of nuts, five or more days a week, is associated with an increase in lifespan by two years. This seems hard to believe but it turns out that nuts are extraordinary plant foods with remarkable disease fighting properties.
And if I had to choose just one?
Walnuts have the highest antioxidant and omega-3 content and appear particularly adept at killing cancer cells.
Here are three ways to eat more nuts:
- Make your own trail mix for work using assorted raw nuts
- Use nut butters like almond or cashew butter for spreads or dips
- Throw some walnuts in a salad or smoothie
The Meal That Brings it all Together
So are you wondering what the best way to combine all of these healthy everyday foods into one quick and convenient meal is? Try this:
Every day eat a large spinach and mixed greens salad with black beans, blueberries, walnuts and other veggies on a bed of quinoa or brown rice. Top that off with a cashew-based salad dressing and you’re done.
So easy. So delicious.
When it comes to living a long, healthy and productive life, this approach will keep science on your side and disease at bay.