LONG BEFORE WE started popping pills for every ache and illness, people relied on food cures. But while civilizations throughout history have promoted the healing power of food, it has been only in the past 20 years or so that nutrition researchers have shown exactly how the specific nutrients in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and proteins can benefit our bodies, prevent disease and even help cure health problems.
So, before you head to the drugstore for relief, consider the 2,500-year-old advice of the ancient physician Hippocrates, who famously declared: “Let food be thy medicine.”
Apple Cider Vinegar
Taking two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar or having a green salad with vinegar-and-oil dressing before eating a high-carbohydrate meal could improve insulin resistance and help reduce the risk of diabetes. In a 2004 study published in Diabetes Care, Carol Johnston, Ph.D., Arizona State University professor of nutrition, found that drinking vinegar reduced, in insulin-resistant people, the typical blood sugar spikes caused by eating fast-absorbing carbohydrates.
Johnston’s research showed that taking vinegar had the same effect as expensive diabetes medicines.
Blueberries and Red Grapes
Resveratrol, a compound in red grapes and red wine, has long been shown to improve cardiovascular health and reduce inflammation. Now, new research suggests that the natural chemical may boost the body’s ability to fight off illnesses.
Oregon State University scientists reporting last year in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research studied more than 400 chemical compounds in foods and found that resveratrol in grapes and pterostilbene in blueberries significantly strengthened the human immune system when combined with vitamin D.
The potassium in bananas counteracts the effect of a high-sodium diet on raising blood pressure. But if you want to do even better than a banana, buy some beets at the farmers market. “Beet greens are one of the plant world’s richest sources of potassium,” says nutritionist Michael Roussell, Ph.D., founder of Naked Nutrition and MikeRoussell.com. Beet greens are the leaves and stalks attached to raw beets. Often clipped off and thrown away, beet greens are delicious steamed, sautéed, braised and even added to soups. Other potassium-rich foods include Brussels sprouts, salmon, dried apricots and cantaloupe.
“I consider chocolate a weight-loss superfood,” says neuroscientist Will Clower, Ph.D., author of Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight. A growing body of scientific research shows that eating dark chocolate can curb cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods, helping you stay slim and prevent diabetes. But chocolate is healthy only if it’s the bitter type made up of at least 70 percent cacao, and if you eat it in small amounts. (Milk and white chocolate don’t count because they contain too much sugar.)
A small square of dark chocolate also can keep you from nodding off at work at 3 p.m. It contains less caffeine than coffee but enough to improve your midday concentration. A compound in dark chocolate, called phenylethylamine, triggers the brain to release the feel-good chemical dopamine, which improves alertness.
Teas of all types have been used medicinally for thousands of years. New research continues to pinpoint exactly why tea is such a healthful beverage. Recently green tea has become the rage of the health-conscious because it’s loaded with the antioxidant EGCG, which has been shown to reduce oxidative stress on the neurological system, potentially protecting against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Now, food scientists are saying the white variety of tea leaf contains the most potent antioxidants of all teas and the most powerful natural fighters of cancer. Studies at Louisiana State University suggest that one cup of white tea a day may reduce colon cancer risk by half.
Studies show that people who eat a lot of green and leafy vegetables like spinach are less likely to suffer from the eye disease macular degeneration because of the protective effect of the antioxidant lutein, a substance in spinach related to vitamin A. Spinach is also rich in vitamin K, which is known to increase bone-mineral density and protect against osteoporosis.
Fermented foods like the pickled Korean dish kimchi and its western counterpart sauerkraut contain probiotics, live bacteria that help maintain natural microflora in the gut necessary for digestion. “These live microorganisms in your system affect everything from your skin, digestive health, heart health and immune system,” says registered dietician and exercise physiologist Chris Mohr, Ph.D. “There’s even evidence that certain strains of probiotics can reduce total and LDL cholesterol.” Other good sources of probiotics besides fermented cabbage are yogurt, kefir, miso soup and pickles.
Cauliflower and Broccoli
The florets of these cruciferous vegetables contain proven anticancer compounds, including sulforaphanes, which inhibit enzymes that alert gene expression, plus big doses of vitamins C and K. One study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that a serving of cauliflower a day reduced lung cancer risk by 61 percent.
By now you may have noticed a pattern among the healing foods in this article. Most are plants. And very few come packaged in a box or a can.
JEFF CSATARI is the author of the New York Times best-seller The Belly Off! Diet.