While it may be fairly obvious that a home-cooked meal of grilled chicken, steamed vegetables, and brown rice trumps Family Meal #2 at KFC in the nutritional value department, it can be a bit more difficult discerning exactly which veggies in the produce aisle are better for you than others. In fact, some foods have such an exceptional nutrient profile, they should be considered for permanent inclusion in your weekly menus. So we turned to five local nutrition experts—Joy Bauer, Lisa Ellis, Mitchell Lee, Amy Peck, and Helene Rosenhouse-Romeo—and asked them to give us their top 12 “Super Foods.” Their picks? Read on.
1. Blueberries. “If there is a super food among super foods, the blueberry is king,” Mitchell Lee declares, for a myriad of reaons. There are many. The king of foods apparently is good for our hearts (blueberries lower our LDL—“bad”—cholesterol) and good for our memories. “Much of their power lies in their color: that deep blue hue is a product of flavonoids, natural compounds that protect the brain’s memory-carrying cells,” explains Joy Bauer. “Blueberries are one of the best sources of flavonoids around.” In fact, Amy Peck says recent studies have shown that daily consumption of blueberries resulted in better memory, coordination, and balance. Lee adds that blueberries may also help prevent the development of certain cancers. “You can’t say enough about the health benefits of blueberries,” Bauer declares.
Get it in your diet: Lee recommends “adding one-half cup of blueberries daily to your salad, cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, or protein smoothie.” Bauer suggests “for off-season months, take advantage of frozen, unsweetened varieties.”
2. Almonds. Of all nuts, almonds have the most nutrients per calorie; they are packed with calcium, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium, folic acid, riboflavin, and the most fiber of any nut—three grams per ounce. Almonds are exceptionally high in vitamin E, which helps thwart artery-clogging, boosts immunity, and may help prevent cancer. And not only are almonds known to lower total cholesterol, but, according to some studies, they have the ability to lower LDL cholesterol by up to 10 percent. And since almonds contain virtually no carbohydrates, they make a perfect snack for diabetics and those with high blood sugar.
Get it in your diet: Lee recommends “bringing a small handful of almonds to work in a Ziploc bag, and having them during your afternoon energy crisis, adding them to a salad,” as a crunchy alternative to croutons, and “throwing them in the blender along with water, ice, and one scoop of chocolate whey protein powder for a delicious evening smoothie.”
3. Broccoli. “Broccoli is one of the healthiest foods available,” says Rosenhouse-Romeo. “Along with its rich supply of vitamin A, B6, beta carotene, which is a vitamin A precursor, it contains vitamin C, potassium, and calcium. In addition, broccoli has special enzymes and a good amount of fiber, which also play roles in cancer prevention.” Fiber is good for our digestive systems as well.
Get it in your diet: Lee suggests that you “add it to soup or an omelet. And the next time you order Chinese food, hold the white rice and instead ask for a side order of steamed broccoli.”
4. Eggs. “Eggs are an economical and often overlooked food, packed with high-quality protein and a dozen vitamins and minerals,” Peck says. “These include choline for brain development and memory, and the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin to help protect eyesight.” Rosenhouse-Romeo adds, “Pasture-raised eggs are the best choice, full of omega-three fatty acids, antibiotic-free, and lower in fat than conventional farm eggs.”
Get it in your diet: As a breakfast staple, it’s easy to incorporate eggs into your dietary routine, but as a “solo” act, “they’re somewhat controversial because of their high cholesterol content,” notes Rosenhouse-Romeo. “An egg—not fried with a side of bacon and cheese, but on its own—is a wonderful whole-food choice, low in saturated fat, high in good-quality protein.”
5. Apples. “Yes, plain old apples—eaten skin and all—do keep the doctor away,” Peck says. Apples have no fat, cholesterol, or sodium, and contain small amounts of potassium, which may promote heart health and help maintain healthy blood pressure and a healthy weight. “New research shows they may not only protect you against liver, colon, and breast cancer, but also slow cellular aging, sharpen memory, and prevent asthma.” Lee notes that “the National Cancer Institute reported that foods containing certain flavonoids, like the ones in apples, may reduce the risk of developing lung cancer by as much as fifty percent.” And, he says, older people who suffer from osteoporosis should put apples on their grocery list, because they are a good source of the mineral boron, which helps build strong bones. “And,” he adds, “apples contain pectin, a source of fiber that can regulate blood sugar and lower LDL. At five grams of fiber per apple and a very high level of antioxidant activity, the apple was impossible to keep off this list.”
Get it in your diet: “An apple plus a small handful of almonds would be a perfectly balanced mid-morning snack that combines two of the best foods on the planet,” Lee says.
6. Beans. “Beans are rich in fiber and antioxidants,” Lisa Ellis says. The National Cancer Institute recommends at least 20 to 35 grams of fiber per day. The typical American gets 12. “Beans can lower cholesterol by up to ten percent,” Lee says. As for their cancer-fighting ability, “one study found reduced incidence of breast cancer in women who consumed a high intake of beans. Folic acid found in beans yields serious heart benefits, and because beans are a low-glycemic food, they’re a supreme choice for diabetics and those who suffer from metabolic syndrome or obesity.”
Get it in your diet: While beans may be easy to incorporate into your diet at home, Lee suggests “ordering a protein-rich bean salad or a cup of minestrone soup as an appetizer when you dine out.”
7. Flax Seeds. Ellis says that ground flax seeds “are rich in omega-threes, which are thought to help decrease serum cholesterol and be heart-protective.” Rosenhouse-Romeo adds that flax seeds “are also abundant in lignans, a phytonutrient that research shows may prevent cancer. They also contain fiber.” And their protein content is equivalent to that found in most meats, making flax seeds an excellent choice for vegans and vegetarians.
Get it in your diet: Simply add ground flax seeds to drinks, cereals, breads, or yogurts. They impart an earthy, nutty flavor. You can also use them as a low-carb, high-protein alternative to thicken soups, chili, sauces, and gravies, stir into salad dressings, or use as binder or breading for chicken, fish, burgers, or meatballs.
8. Garlic. “There is a great deal of folklore associated with this bulbous vegetable,” notes Rosenhouse-Romeo. “In one study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers show that eating garlic boosts our natural supply of hydrogen sulfide, which ultimately relaxes blood vessels and increases blood flow. A garlic-rich diet—five bulbs a day!—protects against various cancers, including breast, prostate, and colon cancer, as well as protects the heart.” Peck says that “eating garlic regularly improves triglyceride and cholesterol levels, and may inhibit plaque and calcification of arteries.” In other words, it’s good for our heart health.
Get it in your diet. “Eat garlic daily,” says Rosenhouse-Romeo. Both she and Peck agree that to boost the health benefits of garlic, be sure to let chopped or crushed garlic sit on your cutting board for ten-to-fifteen minutes before cooking it. “This will increase the formation of the organosulfur compounds,” explains Peck. For inspiration, check out recipes from The Stinking Rose (thestink ingrose.com), a pair of restaurants in San Francisco and Beverly Hills that feature garlic in every item on the menu.
9. Oats/Oatmeal. “They’re a great source of soluble fiber, which is associated with lowering cholesterol,” Ellis says. Lee adds that oats/oatmeal is a slow-burning carbohydrate that gives you longlasting energy. Its low-glycemic load and fiber make it especially good for type-2 diabetics, who need to keep their blood sugar relatively stable. Plus, dozens of studies show that oatmeal lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of both cardiovascular disease and stroke. Just make sure you get the real stuff, not the instant kind.
Get it in your diet: “Start your day right by having oatmeal topped with berries in the morning,” Lee advises. “Add yogurt for some extra protein and you’re ready to conquer the world.”
10. Sardines. “Ounce for ounce, sardines contain more heart-healthy omega-threes than salmon,” Bauer says, and they’re extremely low in contaminants such as mercury and PCBs. Peck says that sardines “are the current nutrition ‘hottie,’ touted for their many benefits, including improved heart health, decreased chronic inflammation such as arthritis, improved brain function, and better mood.”
Get it in your diet: Bauer says that “canned sardines make a great lunch when tossed on top of a salad or layered on a couple of whole-grain crackers. When dining out, enjoy grilled sardines as an appetizer or main meal.” Peck recommends “mashing canned sardines onto whole-wheat toast and adding a splash of lemon for an inexpensive and quick meal with huge health benefits.
11. Spinach. “Popeye was onto something when he ate this super food,” says Lee. According to Lee, spinach, a terrific source of folic acid, helps lower the risk for heart disease and dementia, and is one of the best sources for vitamin K, which helps get calcium into our bones. The leafy vegetable is rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, a matched pair of antioxidants, which perform like sunscreen for the eyes and guard against macular degeneration.
Get it in your diet: In the morning, Lee suggests, “make an omelet and throw in some spinach. At lunchtime, ditch the iceberg lettuce and make a salad with fresh spinach. And at dinner, substitute your mashed potatoes for steamed spinach and your health and waistline will thank you.” Bauer adds,“Mix one box of frozen chopped spinach into your favorite turkey burger recipe to pump up the volume—and the nutrition.”
12. Tea. While green tea may be all the current rage, our experts say teas of every variety pack a potent nutritional punch. “Green, oolong, white, and black tea—they all contain antioxidants which help decrease the risk of heart disease and also some cancers,” says Peck. But that’s not all. “Studies in China show that those who drank black tea were significantly less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than those who didn’t.”
Get it in your diet: Peck suggests using tea as a beverage replacement. “Sip on tea instead of drinking coffee or sugary soda.”
Joy Bauer, a registered dietician and certified nutritionist, is author of Joy’s LIFE Diet and founder/CEO of Joy Bauer Nutrition in Rye Brook and New York City (joybauer.com).
Lisa Ellis is a registered dietician with a private practice in White Plains. She is also the nutritionist at Altheus Health and Sport Club in Rye.
Mitchell Lee is a professional nutritionist, certified personal trainer, and weight-loss specialist (healthyhabitsny.com).
Amy Peck is a registered dietician and personal trainer with Courtyard Nutrition & Therapy in Katonah (amygpeck.com).
Helene Rosenhouse-Romeo is a registered dietician, certified nutritionist, and owner of Near & Natural in Bedford.
Continue reading for more Super Foods
13. Tomatoes (2 out of 5). Tomatoes are full of antioxidants. “They contain all four major carotenoids: alpha- and beta-carotene, lutein, and especially lycopene, which is thought to have the highest antioxidant activity of all the carotenoids,” says Rosenhouse-Romeo. “A study from the University of Montreal found that lycopene was linked to a thirty-one percent reduction in pancreatic cancer risk between men with the highest and lowest intakes of this carotenoid. In addition, tomatoes contain all three high-powered antioxidants: beta-carotene, vitamin E, and vitamin C. Tomatoes are also rich in potassium, an important mineral. It’s the skin of the tomato that holds most of the flavonols, another family of phytochemicals that includes quercetin and kaempferol, which all have a variety of health benefits, as well.”
Get it in your diet: Rosenhouse-Romeo says that “although botanically a berry fruit, the tomato is usually prepared and served as a vegetable and combines well with other foods such as poultry, pasta, rise, fish, meats, and most other vegetables.”
14. Wild Salmon (2 out of 5). “Wild salmon is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids on the planet,” declares Lee. “These ‘good fats’ have been linked not only to a reduced risk of depression and certain cancers, but help decrease triglycerides and blood pressure. That said, omega-3’s are most notable for their vital role in the prevention of heart disease. For years, the American Heart Association has strongly recommended that people should consume fish that’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids at least twice a week. One study released in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that those who ate fish might reduce their risk of dying from heart disease by a third. More amazingly, this study found that your mortality rate could be as much as seventeen percent lower simply with the consumption of omega-3’s.”
Get it in your diet: Lee says that whether you are watching your weight or your overall health, this is the perfect food to order when dining out, but cautions that whether you eat it in or out, make sure you’re getting wild salmon. “Farmed-raised salmon contains sixteen times as much PCB’s as wild salmon.” (PCB’s are cancer-causing chemicals that were banned in the United States in 1976, but have persistently permeated the food chain).
15. Yogurt (2 out of 5). “Women and seniors should make an effort to eat yogurt, because it’s a very good source of calcium which is important for bone density,” says Lee. “More importantly, yogurt contains a terrific, rich source of good bacteria called probiotics. These live cultures help control inflammation, a common feature in many degenerative diseases. In addition, these probiotics—which literally means ‘for life’—help support our immune system by increasing the number of antibodies when we have infections. Yogurt can also increase the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, while decreasing the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol.
Get it in your diet: “I especially like to recommend the non-fat Greek yogurts, which boast nearly double the protein content of other types of yogurt so they keep you feeling fuller longer,” says Peck. Lee suggests “trading in your sugary cereal for some low-fat yogurt with berries for breakfast; use as a healthy low-fat dip when hosting parties; make a ‘protein-powder free’ smoothie using yogurt, low-fat milk, frozen berries and ice.”
HONORABLE MENTIONS (CHOSEN BY ONE NUTRITIONIST EACH):
Amaranth. “Amaranth has been touted as the ‘miracle grain’ of the Aztecs, however it’s not technically a grain at all,” says Rosenhouse-Romeo. “It is related to a common garden weed called pigweed. Amaranth gets ‘super food’ status in part because of its protein content and quality. In addition, amaranth is high in minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc.”
Bananas. “Because they contain less water than most other fruits, their carbohydrate content by weight is higher, making bananas the popular choice for endurance athletes,” says Rosenhouse-Romeo. “In addition, bananas have more potassium by weight than practically any other fruits, which helps with the body’s fluid balance, heartbeat regulation, and blood pressure.”
Beets. “Beets are one of the best sources of folate, a nutrient which lowers your blood levels of homocysteine, an inflammatory amino acid produced by the body,” Bauer says. “Beets also contain betacyanin, an antioxidant which may prove to be a potent cancer fighter. One cup of beets provides only sixty calories, no fat, about forty percent of your Daily Value for folic acid, and four grams of fiber.”
Cabbage. “One cup of chopped cabbage contains twenty calories, two grams fiber, and is loaded with sulforaphane, a cancer fighting chemical that’s been shown to decrease cellular damage throughout the body,” says Bauer.
Dark Chocolate. “I’m not talking about white chocolate or milk chocolate,” says Lee. “I’m talking about real dark chocolate, that’s at least sixty percent cocoa. Many studies, including one from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, report that the cocoa in dark chocolate lowers blood pressure and improves insulin sensitivity. It also helps reduce the risk of blood clots and clogged arteries by keeping cholesterol from gathering in the blood vessels.”
Edamame. “Fiber-rich carbohydrates like edamame, which are green soybeans in the pod, help prevent mood fluctuations by keeping your blood sugar levels steady,” Bauer reports. “Edamame also contains protein, which further helps stabilize blood sugar by slowing the absorption of carbohydrates.”
Kale. “A true antioxidant superstar, kale ranks among the highest in its ability to mop up dangerous free radicals that cause age-related problems such as cancer and heart disease,” says Peck. “In lab studies the powerful phytonutrients in kale thwarted the growth of human prostate cancer cells and reduced mammary tumors in mice. Kale also contains lots of vitamin K, needed for bone health and blood clotting.”
Lentils. “Lentils provide a steady source of energy, instead of the quick boost and dramatic drop you get from sugar and other refined carbohydrates,” says Bauer. “That’s because they’re so rich in fiber and protein, both of which digest slowly. They’re also a good source of several B vitamins that are essential for energy production, as well as iron, which helps red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body.”
Olive Oil. “Extra virgin, first press, organic, if possible,” says Peck. “Olive oil has the highest percentage of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats of any edible oil, and also contains the antioxidants that protect against cardiovascular disease and cancer.”
Pistachios. “Pistachios naturally provide phytosterols and soluble fiber—two powerful plant compounds that help lower bad cholesterol, LDL,” says Bauer. “They’re also my ‘nut of choice’ when it comes to weight loss. For one-hundred calories you get about twenty-five pistachio nuts—per nut, they’re the least caloric of all nuts—and, because they’re in the shell, they’ll slow down your eating!”
Red Bell Peppers. “Red bell peppers are one of the best sources of vitamin C, an important antioxidant that mops up free radicals in our bodies in order to protect against atherosclerosis, cancer, and dementia, among other diseases,” says Bauer. “We all associate oranges and other citrus fruit with high levels of vitamin C, but one red bell pepper actually has three times the amount of vitamin C found in an orange. Red bell peppers are also chock full of beta-carotene as well as another antioxidant called lycopene.”
Soy Beans. “Soy beans are a complete source of non-animal protein,” notes Rosenhouse-Romeo. “When eaten as part of complete diet, scientists agree that foods rich in soy protein can have considerable value to heart health, a fact backed by dozens of controlled clinical studies. The research is so strong, in fact, that the FDA allows a health claim on food labels stating that a daily diet containing twenty-five grams of soy protein may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
Sweet Potatoes. “They are an excellent source of beta-carotene, fiber, and potassium,” says Ellis.