Nearly 2,500 years ago Hippocrates is purported to have said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” Granted, there weren’t many drugs around in 400 b.c., so the Father of Medicine might just have been covering his bases. Still, science has since proven that Hippocrates was indeed onto something—namely, that the food we eat can prevent and in some cases fight disease.
Below you will find nine of the most powerful disease-fighting foods. Of course, this list isn’t meant to substitute conventional medicine, but adding these foods to your diet might help you spend less time in the doctor’s office.
Whole grains: The New Broccoli
We’ve heard for years that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can protect against heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. But did you know that whole grains are now believed to provide just as many benefits? “Whole grains have this whole army of different phytonutrients that are doing just as much as fruits and veggies,” says Susan Moores, a Minneapolis nutritionist and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. (A phytonutrient is the name given to the parts of plants that have health benefits.) According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, eating three daily servings of whole grains can reduce the risk of heart disease by 25 to 36 percent, stroke by 37 percent, and type 2 diabetes by 21 to 27 percent. Whole grains include oats, whole wheat, brown rice, bulgur, and bran, among others. “Pick foods whose first ingredient contains the word whole instead of enriched,” Moores says.
Cherries: All-Natural Pain Reliever
Scientists studying the link between diet and disease often look for a marker in the blood called C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is produced by the body in response to acute inflammation, like that experienced by arthritis sufferers. Researchers at the Western Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, California, asked volunteers to eat a bowl of 45 fresh Bing cherries and then measured their levels of CRP. After three hours the level of CRP in the volunteers’ blood decreased. That came as no surprise to Joseph Pizzorno, a doctor of naturopathic medicine and coauthor of The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods (Simon & Schuster, 2005). “One of the old-time therapies for gout [a very painful form of arthritis] was black cherries,” says Pizzorno. “Until recently, nobody really knew why it worked; they just knew that it did.” Of course, nobody’s going to eat 45 cherries in one sitting, but if you suffer from arthritis, you should incorporate this antioxidant-rich fruit into your diet a couple of times a week.
Yogurt: Immunity Booster
For several years now, nutritionists have touted the benefits of probiotics, the “friendly” bacteria that, when eaten, help fight illness or disease. Yogurt is the most popular food containing probiotics and may, in fact, be the most beneficial as well. Two recent studies found that eating yogurt significantly improved a person’s ability to fight off pneumonia. “Your first communication with the outside world is through your GI tract,” says Pratt. “That’s where you absorb all the nutrients you need to keep your body healthy in the first place. And it’s also the body’s biggest immune system fighter.” Pratt recommends eating yogurt every day—just make sure the brand you buy contains “live,” or “active,” cultures, as the bacteria (or, rather, the probiotics) can’t do any good if they’re dead before you ingest them.
Salmon: Bone Strengthener
Any list of healing foods would be remiss not to include salmon, with its heart-healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids. Study after study has shown that incorporating salmon into your diet reduces blood pressure, lowers cholesterol, and helps prevent heart disease. Now researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have reported that a higher intake of omega-3s additionally appears to preserve bone density, keeping your bones stronger and protecting against falls and fractures. Not crazy about salmon (or just sick of it by now)? Try upping your intake of other cold-water fish, such as sardines, tuna, and mackerel. “All of these fish are high in omega-3s, and people who consume them regularly have a lower risk of heart attack, hypertension, and stroke,” says Jennifer Sacheck, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
Cabbage: Breast Cancer Defense
You’ve likely heard about the anticancer properties of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, but several recent studies suggest that cabbage may be in a class by itself. A study presented at the November 2005 meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research found that Polish women who ate cabbage and sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) four or more times a week were 74 percent less likely to develop breast cancer. Other studies have found that cabbage may also protect against lung, stomach, and colon cancers. The superingredient seems to be sulforaphane, a phytochemical in cabbage that works by stimulating cells to eliminate cancerous substances. Granted, eating cabbage four times a week might be a little much, but adding it to soups and salads once or twice a week is a great idea, says Moores.
Walnuts: Good For the Heart
For many years nutritionists warned their clients away from nuts, fearing that a carte blanche prescription to indulge in this fatty food might lead to excessive weight gain. Recently, though, as scientists have learned more about the various types of fats and their impact on health, nuts have come back into favor. Walnuts, in particular, are unique among nuts because they’re full of omega-3 fatty acids, the same substance that has been shown in salmon to reduce the risk of heart disease and hypertension. Japanese men and women who ate a one-fourth to one-third cup of walnuts a day lowered their “bad” LDL cholesterol levels by up to 10 percent. Walnuts (as well as almonds and pistachios) are high in arginine, an amino acid that increases blood flow to the heart.
Blueberries: Keep the Mind Sharp
When researchers at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University analyzed 40 fruits and vegetables for their disease-fighting antioxidant activity, blueberries came out on top. And not just by a little—the study showed that the benefits of eating one serving of wild blueberries are equivalent to those of eating two to three servings of some other fruits and vegetables, including apples, broccoli, and even spinach. Studies published in the past year also show that eating plenty of blueberries may help lessen brain damage from strokes and may reduce the effects of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. “Blueberries really show promise in helping us with our mental acuity—keeping our brain sharp,” says Moores. “The antioxidants in blueberries protect cells from damage, but now we’re finding that other components in blueberries might restore cells to be more healthy.” She recommends eating blueberries a couple of times a week.
Beans: Ward off Colon Cancer
One of the most underrated nutritional powerhouses on the market today is beans, says Moores. Not only are beans a great source of protein and antioxidants but they’re full of fiber, which has been shown in some studies to help prevent colon cancer. “To stay healthy you really need to keep your GI tract moving,” says Pratt, “and eating beans is a good way to do that.” Furthermore, in a study published in November 2005 in The Journal of the American Medical Association, a healthy diet rich in lean protein—about half from plant sources such as beans—was found to lower blood pressure and “bad” LDL cholesterol, and to cut the risk of heart disease by 21 percent. It doesn’t matter which bean you choose—”pick a bean, any bean,” Moores says—but aim for two to four servings a week.
Tomatoes: Protect the Prostate
Scientists have known for years that regularly eating tomato-based foods can reduce a man’s risk of prostate cancer by up to 35 percent. More recently, studies have shown that men who already have prostate cancer may benefit as well. When researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago fed one serving of pasta with tomato sauce every day for three weeks to 32 men who were scheduled for prostate surgery, the levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in the patients’ blood dropped by nearly 20 percent. (PSA is a measure of prostate-cancer-cell activity, so the lower the level, the less active the cancer cells.) The likely active ingredient in tomatoes is lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that is thought to also be protective against lung and stomach cancers. In an interesting twist, fresh tomatoes don’t appear to be as protective as cooked tomatoes. Men with prostate cancer should try to eat cooked tomatoes daily, in soups, chilies, marinara and spaghetti sauces, or other dishes. Those trying to prevent the disease should indulge twice a week.