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2016-01-01 / Features

The New Food Pyramid

These 50 superfoods can make a significant difference in your health.
By Kate Delano | Photos by Matt Fern

As the old saying goes, you are what you eat. And at no other time of the year are people more conscious of that than in January after the big holiday splurge. With a little extra pudge — or an all-out tire — staring back at you from the mirror, you might be in the mood to make some changes. Why not make them really count?

These 50 foods are considered “superfoods,” a bit of hyperbolic naming perhaps but dubbed superfoods for a very good reason: each of these foods has some research backing them up that that shows they are not only power-packed nutritionally (and often low in calories) but can help improve conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as prevent some cancers and heart disease.

“Food is important for nourishing our bodies. If we don’t get the right nourishment, there can be long-term, detrimental health effects,” says Tammy McCormick, registered dietitian with Mount Nittany Physician Group. “A lot of these foods can be beneficial in preventing or stopping the progression of some diseases.”

While these are the au courant 50 superfoods, it should be noted that researchers are learning more every day and updating the information, culled from numerous sources along with some arguable additions and cuts since there is not always a definitive answer. For instance, it used to be the prevalent thinking that all saturated fats were bad. Now, researchers are categorizing saturated fats with some being good and some bad for their effects on cholesterol levels. Hence, coconut oil, which used to be categorized as a bad “tropical oil,” has now found its way onto the good list but not yet all of the way to the superfoods list.

“There are so many misunderstandings about which foods impact your health. People can be easily confused with information overload since it’s hard to keep track of the latest advice on what to eat,” says Joyce Whitford, registered dietitian at Geisinger–Gray’s Woods. “The science of nutrition is ever changing.”

So what’s a person to do? Check out these 50 superfoods and see which ones you are eating — and which ones you’re not and perhaps should consider based on your own health and potential health risks. Don’t forget to check with your doctor or nutritionist for personal guildlines since nutrients in some of these superfoods may interfere with prescribed medications.

Apples
Research is showing that an apple a day may just keep the doctor away. Not only are they an excellent source of fiber and good for digestion, apples are packed with flavonoids and antioxidants — which help to prevent cancer and heart disease, says Whitford. 

Bananas
Ever wake up in the middle of the night with a horrible cramp in your leg? Eat bananas for their high potassium levels, which wards off the cramping and may help lower blood pressure. They’re also high in fiber, which can reduce bloating. But bananas are also appealing for their amino acid tryptophan, which aids in serotonin production, the brain chemical that makes us feel happy. 

Apricots
These little beauties have vitamins A and C, fiber, potassium and iron and contain phytochemicals called carotenoids, which may help reduce strokes and blood pressure. 

Blackberries & Raspberries
All berries are full of antioxidants, fiber and phytochemicals, so grab these beauties by the handful when they are in season. These berries might just help prevent cognitive decline that tends to occur with age, says Whitford.

Blueberries 
The darker the color, the better — and blueberries might just be one of the most important and powerful fruits. “The potent antioxidants in blueberries may have wide value in supporting our health, starting with cancer. Antioxidants fight cancer by ridding the body of free radicals before they can do their damage to cells,” according to WebMD.

Cherries
These sweet stone fruits, while delicious, may also be good for your heart, emerging studies suggest. They also have loads of vitamins A and C, iron and calcium and are one of nature’s few sources of melatonin, which helps us sleep. Surprisingly, one cup of cherries has as much potassium as a banana, making them also good for keeping blood pressure in check.    

Cranberries
Known for the ability to ward off — and possibly clear up (although the experts vary on this) — a urinary tract infection, the mighty cranberry can actually reverse the effects of aging with its powerful antioxidants.

Goji Berries
Goji berries are native to Asia where they are believed to be able to help you live longer. Preliminary studies using goji berry juice found “possible benefits that included a feeling of well-being and calmness, better athletic performance and quality of sleep, and weight loss,” according to WebMD. Filled with antioxidants and vitamin C, the berries can also help reduce inflammation and bloat.

Kiwi
The fuzzy fruit from Down Under has been touted as one of the top foods for helping asthma. According to livingwithasthma.net, research has shown that kids who eat kiwi and other citrus fruits with high vitamin C content can reduce wheezing incidents by half. Plus, the unassuming kiwi has more fiber than a bowl of bran cereal, more potassium than a banana and twice the vitamin C of an orange.

Oranges/Orange Juice
It’s well known that oranges are high in vitamin C, good for warding off infections and boosting the immune system, but oranges and orange juice also contain high levels of folic acid — which helps lower levels of homocysteine, a heart attack risk factor. Make sure to drink orange juice that is not from concentrate.

Papaya
This giant piece of fruit is full of vitamin A and potent beta-carotene, which helps keep skin and eyes healthy.
 
Pomegranates
Open up these red globes and get those amazing seeds, which are not only a great source of fiber, but are high in vitamins C and K, as well as folate. Studies have shown pomegranates can help reduce inflammation in the body and lower blood pressure. And they are filled with antioxidants to promote heart health.

Prunes
Prunes pack a punch when it comes to nutrients and especially fiber, leading to a healthy colon. They also contain high levels of vitamin A and beta-carotene.

Strawberries 
Like other berries, strawberries are filled with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. “Strawberries and raspberries have a phytochemical called ellagic acid. This powerful antioxidant may actually fight cancer in several ways at once, including deactivating certain cancer-causing substances and slowing the growth of cancer cells,” according to WebMD.

Tomatoes
While they masquerade as a veggie, tomatoes are a fruit that is filled with lycopene. Studies have shown that lycopene helps protect against cancers such as breast, colon, lung and prostate, and may reduce the risk of heart attacks in women.

Beans & Lentils
Both are a great plant source of protein and numerous vitamins, says 23-year vegetarian McCormick, as well as very high in fiber, which helps colon health and constipation. Whitford notes that lentils may help anemia and are low on the glycemic index, so blood sugars spike less quickly than with other starches.

Black Rice 
While brown is good, black rice or “Forbidden Rice” is super. An ancient Chinese grain considered so rare that it was forbidden to anyone except royalty, black rice gets its color from plant pigments called anthocyanins, which have shown to positively affect a range of conditions — making arteries healthier, reducing inflammation in the body (which helps ward off cancers) and assisting in insulin regulation. McCormick points out that black rice also has more antioxidants than blackberries and blueberries and is high in vitamin E.

Oats
It’s well known that oats and oatmeal (regular, not the quick-cooking variety) help lower overall cholesterol and bad cholesterol (LDL). Oats also may lower blood sugar levels, and they’re full of fiber to keep you full.  

Quinoa
This gluten-free grain continues to gain in popularity — and for good reason. It’s packed with nutrients (like iron), a complete source of protein (8 grams per cup!) and loaded with fiber, helping you to feel fuller longer and keeping your colon in tip-top shape. 

Almonds
Everyone should be going nuts, especially over almonds. In addition to being a much healthier snack than pretzels or potato chips, nuts are dense with nutrients and the good omega-3 fats, making them heart healthy. Studies have found that people who eat more than five ounces of nuts a week — like almonds, walnuts and sunflower seeds — are one-third less likely to have either a heart attack or heart disease. But measure or count them out for a one-ounce serving as these little beauties have a lot of calories.
    
Sunflower Seeds 
The tiny sunflower seed is huge in health benefits, helping to reduce inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis and lowering blood pressure with loads of vitamin E 
and magnesium. They are also filled with folate to fight cancer and decrease triglycerides. Studies have shown that sunflower seeds may lower the risk of a second heart attack. Be sure to eat them unsalted to keep your sodium intake at healthy levels. 

Walnuts
Walnuts are one of the top sources of omega-3s for heart health. But these fatty acids don’t just promote heart health. Studies now suggest they may help other conditions, including cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Chia seeds
These little seeds don’t taste like much but boy do they pack a punch! One tablespoon gives you two grams of protein, two percent of needed potassium, 10 percent of your daily magnesium, as well as iron and omega-3s — for 60 calories. Chia seeds decrease the risk of clogged arteries and blood clots, may lower the risk of a second heart attack if you already had one, reduce inflammation in the body, reduce morning stiffness in people with rheumatoid arthritis and may help reduce symptoms of depression, says Whitford. 

Flaxseed
Flaxseed is also filled with omega-3s and protein. Two tablespoons a day have the same benefits as chia seeds, as well as helping colon health due to its high-fiber content. Studies indicates that adding flaxseed to your diet may reduce the chance of developing heart disease by 46 percent, while helping to keep blood from forming clots.

Hemp Seeds
Another heart-healthy source of omega-3s, hemp seeds have a mildly nutty flavor and are great to add to yogurt, a morning smoothie or cereal.

Cinnamon
Always known for “settling your stomach,” this spice is showing signs of having more benefits, especially for diabetics and pre-diabetics. “Recent research looks like cinnamon lowers blood sugars,” says McCormick. “They don’t know the dosage yet and it was only a short-term study, but it looks promising.”

Ginger
Fresh ginger has been a healer for centuries as a traditional Chinese medicine. It is especially prized for its anti-inflammatory properties, which helps arthritis, and as an aid in digestion. Ginger could interfere with blood thinners.

Turmeric 
This Indian spice has a powerful taste but even more powerful health benefits. “Lab studies show it can suppress the transformation, proliferation and invasion of cancerous cells for a wide array of cancers,” according to WebMD. Plus, it can ease the pain of rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis, says Whitford.

Canola Oil
While canola oil doesn’t get the love that olive oil does, it is high in the good omega-3s like fatty fish and nuts are, which means it’s good for protecting your heart and warding off cancers.

Olive Oil
Olive oil rules in the land of fats. Studies show that its monounsaturated fatty acids may help lower the risk of heart disease, promote good cholesterol, prevent cancer and help with inflammation.

Eggs 
While eggs may be inexpensive, they are loaded with nutrients that can help with memory and vision. The yolks contain vitamin D, which may help osteoporosis. Plus, they are high in protein and low in calories. 

Fish
While fatty fish like salmon are getting all of the love, eating just about any kind of fish twice a week can help with heart disease, especially if it’s replacing meat and its artery-clogging saturated fats. 

Salmon (Wild Caught)
Superfood lists seem to universally include salmon as the superstar of fish. “Studies show that the omega-3s DHA and EPA lower triglycerides — the fats in your blood that can lead to blocked arteries — and omega-3s can also help reduce the risk of irregular heartbeats. Other fatty fish that can help include tuna, sardines, herring and lake trout,” according to WebMD. And the omega-3s give you shiny hair!

Yogurt (Greek)
There’s nothing like the good bacteria in yogurt to help keep your gut and digestive system working well. Buy Greek yogurt to get 10 grams of protein along with it — but watch the sugar levels in those with added fruit. 

Coffee
If you don’t want but need your cup of coffee in the morning, then you’ll love this superfood. Research shows that drinking moderate amounts of coffee, which is high in antioxidants, could help protect against heart failure, lower the risk of some cancers, protect against diabetes and may even help you live longer.

Green Tea
Filled with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, green tea can help with all sorts of ailments, from reducing cholesterol and lowering blood pressure to reducing the risk of some cancers and stroke. 

Red Wine
A glass or two can keep the doctor away, at least for heart patients. Research shows that red wine can significantly reduce your risk of a heart attack. According to the Mayo Clinic website, “The alcohol and antioxidants in red wine may help prevent heart disease by increasing levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the ‘good’ cholesterol) and protecting against artery damage.” Just don’t over-imbibe, which can cause a host of other problems.

Dark Chocolate 
Women know that chocolate seems to help stress but now research is backing that up — thanks to its high levels of potassium, flavonoids and antioxidants.  “Some studies suggest the naturally occurring flavonols in cocoa may improve blood flow and lower blood pressure, but it’s too soon to know whether cocoa flavonols protect the heart and brain,” says Whitford.” Make sure it’s 70 percent cacao to get the benefits.

Artichokes
These odd-looking veggies are high in antioxidants, magnesium and fiber. They are thought to help generate energy and improve digestion, flush out toxins and lower the risk for heart disease.

Asparagus
The list of benefits from asparagus is long and is well worth making urine smell a bit funny. This veggie can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of stroke, inhibit the growth of cancers and keep your colon healthy. 

Avocados
Avocados are good fats masquerading as a vegetable. They can help lower cholesterol and improve heart health. They are full of vitamin E and an antioxidant called lutein that can help improve vision. 

Beets
This might be the No. 1 superfood. The dark-red color of beets means they are super charged with antioxidants, folate and essential nutrients. Beets can help lower blood pressure and decrease bad cholesterol, as well as improve cognition and digestion. They have antioxidant properties, anti-inflammatory properties and detoxification properties. They are excellent in a morning shake, giving it a sweet taste and pretty color. (Don’t be alarmed when some of that color survives digestion and passes through.)

Bok Choy
This Asian cabbage has high amounts of vitamins A and C and promotes eye, skin and bone health. “It’s a member of the cabbage family and may help the body defend against cancers such as colon, breast, lung and cervix,” according to WebMD.

Broccoli
Studies have shown a wide range of benefits from eating broccoli — from helping stomach cancer and ulcers to breast cancer to lowering blood pressure, preventing strokes and lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes. Filled with antioxidants and fiber, broccoli is also great for your colon health.  

Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts may just be replacing kale as the new food darling. It’s a rich source of fiber, folate, a wide range of carotenoids and vitamins A, C, K, iron, calcium and potassium. “The high potassium may lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of stroke, keep the colon healthy and inhibit the growth of cancers,” says Whitford. And much more, including helping to fight overall aging and the deterioration of vision.

Kale
Kale has enjoyed a hot run in the superfood movement. And rightly so as it’s one of the dark leafy greens with “an abundance of fiber, folate and carotenoids. These nutrients may help protect against cancer of the mouth, larynx, pancreas, lung, skin and stomach,” says WebMD. And it’s a member of the cruciferous vegetable family, too, adding to its cancer-fighting ability.
 
Pumpkin
Nearly everyone loves pumpkin pie, but it turns out that eating this member of the squash family more than a few times a year can benefit your health. The orange pulp is packed with beta-carotene — which gives pumpkins their color and helps your immune system. 

Spinach 
Like kale, collard greens and Swiss chard, spinach is a rich source of fiber, folate, a wide range of carotenoids, vitamins A, C and K, iron and calcium (almost as much as a glass of milk). It cleans up free radicals and fights cancer.

Sweet Potatoes
This orange root veggie is much more nutrient dense than white potatoes. Loaded with vitamin A and beta-carotene, sweet potatoes are great for your immune system, terrific for your skin, help vision, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of strokes. Just skip the sweet marshmallows on top and opt for some honey as sweetener, if you must. 

Swiss Chard
Red Swiss chard is beautiful to look at and better in your body, with its cancer-fighting fiber, folate and carotenoids. Sauté it in a little olive oil with garlic and onions for a delicious side dish. •SCM

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