Phytonutrients. They don’t sound that good, but they can taste good, very good. And they could save your life. Not a bad combination.
Although much remains to be learned about these phytonutrient compounds, a few are already showing tremendous promise. On the following pages, we profile four of the foods that scientists believe are among the richest of all sources of phytonutrients. These foods also happen to be chock-full of good old fashioned vitamins and minerals. We call them Super Foods, and they’re some of the best friends a body can have in fighting a host of diseases. We also provide you with some easy to prepare recipes that will help you get these Super Foods onto your table today, deliciously.
Beans: Small but Powerful
It wasn’t so long ago that beans were second class citizens on most American menus. Bags and cans of pinto beans, lima beans, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, and navy beans languished untouched on supermarket shelves, the same way three bean salads sat untouched on picnic tables.
Not anymore. Americans’ consumption of beans rose from 5.5 pounds per person in 1974 to 7.3 pounds in 1994. There’s a good reason for this surge in popularity: Beans are the ultimate power food low in fat and high in protein, fiber, and a variety of vitamins and minerals. Plus, they’re packed with phytonutrients. All of that qualifies beans as one of the best health bargains you can buy.
The phytonutrient punch packed by beans can inhibit the growth of cancer cells, studies suggest, by keeping normal cells from turning cancerous. Experts know that Hispanic women have about half the risk of getting breast cancer that Caucasian women faced. Studies suggest that beans, which are eaten almost daily in many Hispanic households, may be responsible, says Leonard A. Cohen, Ph.D., head of the experimental breast cancer program at the American Health Foundation in Valhalla, New York. In one study Dr. Cohen and his colleagues looked at the diets of 214 Caucasian, African-American, and Hispanic women. They found that the Hispanic women ate significantly more beans 7.4 servings per week, compared with 4.6 servings per week for the African-American women and less than 3 servings a week for the Caucasian women.
“Beans were a major source of fiber for the Hispanic women,” says Dr. Cohen. In fact, the Hispanic women consumed nearly 25 percent of their dietary fiber from beans twice the national average, noted the researchers.
Clear Out Cholesterol
To stay alive, we need to keep the coronary arteries, which supply life giving blood to our hearts, clear of gunk. Cholesterol creates that gunk; beans can get rid of it. That’s because beans are packed with soluble fiber, the same gummy stuff found in apples, barley, and oat bran. In the digestive tract, soluble fiber traps cholesterol containing bile, removing it from the body before it’s absorbed.
“Eating a cup of cooked beans a day can lower total cholesterol about 10 percent in 6 weeks,” says Patti Bazel Geil, R.D., diabetes nutrition educator at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and author of Magic Beans. While 10 percent may not seem like much, keep in mind that every 1 percent reduction in total cholesterol means a 2 percent decrease in your risk for heart disease.
Beans can lower cholesterol in just about anyone, but the higher your cholesterol, the better they work. In a study at the University of Kentucky, 20 men with high cholesterol (over 260 milligrams per deciliter of blood) were given about ¾ cup of pinto and navy beans a day. The men’s total cholesterol dropped an average of 1 9 percent in 3 weeks, possibly reducing their heart attack risk by almost 40 percent. Better yet, the dangerous low-density lipoprotein cholesterol that’s the artery-plugging stuff plunged by 24 percent.
It appears that all beans can help lower cholesterol, even canned baked beans. In another University of Kentucky study, 24 men with high cholesterol ate 1 cup of beans in tomato sauce every day for 3 weeks. Their total cholesterol dropped 10.4 percent, and their triglycerides (another blood fat that contributes to heart disease) fell 10.8 percent.
Beans play another, less direct role in keeping cholesterol levels down. They’re extremely filling, so when you eat beans, you’ll have less appetite for other, fattier foods. And eating less fat is critical for keeping cholesterol levels low. “Beans are a high-fiber food, and high-fiber foods make you feel fuller,” says Geil. In fact, one small study found that people who ate a bean puree felt more satisfied for a longer time than those who ate a similar puree made from potatoes.
Steady Your Sugar
Keeping blood sugar levels steady is the key to keeping diabetes under control. “Many people don’t realize how good beans are for people with diabetes,” says Geil. In fact, eating between ½ and ¾ cup of beans a day has been shown to significantly improve blood sugar control.
Beans are rich in complex carbohydrates. Unlike sugary foods, which dump sugar (glucose) into the bloodstream all at once, complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly. This means that glucose enters your bloodstream a little at a time, helping keep blood sugar levels steady, says Geil.
In addition, beans are high in soluble fiber. Studies have shown that a diet high in soluble fiber causes the body to produce more insulin receptor sites tiny “docks” that insulin molecules latch on to. More insulin gets into individual cells where it’s needed, and less is present in the bloodstream, where it can cause problems.
In an English study, people were given either about 1 ¾ ounces of a variety of beans including butter beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, and lentils or other high carbohydrate foods, like bread, pasta, cereals, and grains. After 30 minutes, blood sugar levels in the bean eaters were almost half that of those who ate other high carbohydrate foods.
The Healthy Meat
Beans used to be called the poor man’s meat. But a more accurate name would be the healthy man’s and healthy woman’s meat. Like red meat, beans are loaded with protein. Unlike meat, they’re fight in fat, particularly dangerous, artery clogging saturated fat.
For example, a cup of black beans contains less than 1 gram of fat. Less than 1 percent of that comes from saturated fat. Three ounces of lean, broiled ground beef, on the other hand, has 15 grams of fat, 22 percent of which is the saturated kind.
Beans are also a great source of essential vitamins and minerals. A half-cup of black beans contains 128 micrograms, or 32 percent of the Daily Value (DV) for foliates, a B vitamin that may lower risk of heart disease and fight birth defects. That same cup has 2 milligrams of iron, 1 1 percent of the DV, and 305 milligrams of potassium, or 9 percent of the DV. Potassium is a mineral that has been shown to help control blood pressure naturally.
Garlic: The Humble Bulb That Heals
You know garlic as the pungent spice whose odor you adore in Italian restaurants and detest on somebody’s breath. What you might not be as aware of is the enormous amount of research documenting this humble bulb’s status as one of the healing superstars of the plant world.
Studies show that garlic lowers cholesterol, thins the blood, kills bacteria, helps boost immunity, and reduces high levels of blood sugar. It may also relieve asthma and keep individual cells healthy and strong, perhaps delaying or preventing some of the conditions associated with aging.
It’s fair to assume as well that the glorious taste of this humble bulb has powerful therapeutic effects on battered psyches, though hard data on that sort of thing is hard to come by.
A Growing Appreciation
Garlic’s healing potential has been recognized for thousands of years, but only relatively recently has science come to appreciate the tremendous range of its powers.
Perhaps most impressive is garlic’s double action ability to help prevent heart attacks. First, it contains a type of phytonutrient called diallyl disulfide, or DADS. These are sulfur compounds that in the garlic plant act as a repellent to keep nibbling bugs away. In humans, they appear to keep blood flowing smoothly by preventing platelets from sticking together and clotting. Researchers at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, gave 45 men with high cholesterol aged garlic extract, about the equivalent of five to six cloves of fresh garlic. When they examined the men’s blood, they saw that the rate at which platelets clumped and stuck together had dropped anywhere from 10 to 58 percent.
Garlic is also good for the heart because it lowers the levels of cholesterol and blood fats called triglycerides in the bloodstream. According to Yu-Yan Yeh, Ph.D., professor of nutrition science at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, many of garlic’s protective effects take place in the liver, where cholesterol is produced. “The liver is a primary place in the body for fat synthesis and for production of blood cholesterol,” says Dr. Yeh. “When fewer of these substances are made in the Liver, there are fewer of them in the blood.”
In a review of 16 studies involving 952 people, British researchers found that eating garlic whether fresh or in powdered form lowered total cholesterol an average of 12 to 13 percent.
Garlic against Cancer
A growing body of evidence suggests that garlic helps prevent the sorts of cell changes that can lead to cancer. Some of the phytonutrients in garlic appear to throttle the growth of cancer cells by interfering with their ability to divide and multiply. One compound is as effective at killing lung cancer cells as a widely used form of chemotherapy, opening the possibility that one day; garlic could form the basis of a new, gentler kind of cancer treatment.
These benefits are not just theories coming out of test tubes. Researchers have noted that people in southern Italy, who eat a lot of garlic, develop less stomach cancer than their neighbors to the north, who aren’t as fond of garlic. Similar evidence has been noted closer to home. A study of 41,837 women living in Iowa found that those who ate garlic at least once a week had a 35 percent lower risk of colon cancer than women who never ate garlic.
“If I had to take an educated guess, I’d say that eating three cloves of garlic a day might reduce your risk of many cancers by 20 percent,” says researcher Robert I. Lin, Ph.D., executive vice president of Nutrition International in Irvine, California. “And eating six cloves could get you at least a 30 percent reduction,” he adds.
A Blessing for Ears
A frightening trend in recent years has been antibiotic resistance the ability of bacteria to shrug off the effects of once effective drugs. Recent research suggests that garlic may be effective where traditional drugs have failed or are too toxic.
In one study, researchers at Boston City Hospital swabbed 14 different strains of bacteria from the noses and throats of children with ear infections. Some of the infections had been impervious to treatment with antibiotics. In the laboratory, however, garlic extract effectively killed the resistant germs.
In another study, researchers at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, tested whether garlic could be used to treat otomycosis, or swimmer’s ear. Swimmer’s ear is caused, scientists think, by a fungus called Aspergillus. And normal treatments for it are less than ideal. Topical drugs can be uncomfortable and cannot be used if the eardrum has already been broken. In the laboratory study, researchers treated swimmer’s ear fungi with a mixture of garlic extract and water. Even at very low concentrations, the garlic blocked the growth of fungi just as well as available drugs. And in some cases, it proved even better.
Discover the Phenomenal Joys of Soy
What if we told you that milkshakes will lower cholesterol, burgers can prevent cancer, and cheesecake will ease some of the bothersome symptoms of menopause?
Right, you’d probably answer. And where’s the oceanfront property in Arizona you want me to look at? Well, the fact is that all those healthy delights are possible, if you’re using the humble soybean to make them.
Americans aren’t very familiar with soy, but that will almost certainly change as word of this remarkable food’s healing powers spreads. In Japan, where soy foods such as tofu and miso soup are dietary staples, deaths from breast cancer and prostate cancer are a fraction of what they are in the United States. And that’s just the beginning of the joys of soy.
Good for Your Heart
Technically, we could have included soy in the section on beans, but soy is distinctive enough to stand on its own.
Its healing powers are extraordinary. Take, for example, soy’s effectiveness as a cholesterol fighter. Japanese men have the world’s lowest rate of death from heart disease, with Japanese women coming in a close second. A possible reason is that the Japanese eat about 24 pounds of soy foods per person per year. Americans eat an average of 4 pounds per person per year.
The association between tofu and lower cholesterol levels was affirmed by a meta-analysis, which complied and compared the results of 38 separate studies. The conclusion was that consuming 1 to 1 ½ ounces of soy protein (rather than animal protein) a day lowered total cholesterol by 9 percent and harmful low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol by 13 percent.
More than half of American women in menopause complain of hot flashes and night sweats. In Japan, there isn’t even a phrase for “hot flash.” Might Japanese women have fewer menopausal problems because they eat more soy?
Preliminary research suggests that’s the case. In one study, researchers at the Brighton Medical Clinic in Victoria, Australia, gave 58 postmenopausal women about 1 ½ ounces of soy flour or wheat flour every day. After 3 months, the women eating soy flour saw their hot flashes plummet by 40 percent. Women given wheat flour, by contrast, had only a 25 percent reduction.
“If these data are confirmed,” says Mark Messina, Ph.D., former head of the National Cancer Institute’s Designer Foods Program, “then within a couple of years, we may be at a point where doctors say, ‘Take 2 cups of soy milk per day’ instead of recommending hormone replacement therapy to relieve menopause symptoms.”
Researchers believe that the phytoestrogens in soy, which mimic a woman’s natural estrogen, may help reduce the effects of the hormone in the body. Since estrogen is thought to fuel the growth of breast tumors, lower activity in the body could mean a lower risk of developing breast cancer.
The estrogens in soy can help protect women in several ways, depending on the stage of life. In premenopausal women, for example, a diet high in soy foods may lengthen the menstrual cycle. This is important, since every woman experiences a surge in estrogen at the beginning of her cycle. Multiplied over a lifetime, these surges expose the body to large amounts of estrogen, which eventually could cause cellular changes that lead to cancer. Lengthening the menstrual cycle, experts say, reduces the frequency of these surges, and with it, a woman’s lifetime exposure to the hormone.
In one study, researchers at the National University of Singapore found that premenopausal women who consumed high amounts of soy foods, along with generous amounts of beta carotene and polyunsaturated fats, had half the risk of developing breast cancer as women who consumed a lot of animal protein. Curiously, in women who are postmenopausal, soy foods appear to provide an estrogen “lift” that helps make up for the body’s low levels of the hormone. This lift appears to provide the protective benefits of estrogen (such as helping to prevent osteoporosis) without raising the cancer risk.
While most research exploring the protective effects of soy foods has looked at women, experts agree that men can benefit as well. It appears that soy reduces the harmful effects of the male hormone, testosterone, which is thought to fuel the growth of cancerous cells in the prostate gland.
A study of 8,000 Japanese men living in Hawaii found that those who ate the most tofu had the lowest rates of prostate cancer. Even though Japanese men develop prostate cancer just as often as Western men do, they nonetheless have the lowest death rates from prostate cancer in the world. Experts suspect that soy foods, by inhibiting the effects of testosterone, help shut off the “fuel” that causes cancers to grow.
The amount of soy that you need to enjoy these benefits appears to be tiny one serving a day, according to Dr. Messina. “If that’s for real,” he says, “then soy could have a tremendous public health impact.”
It’s easy to sound like a late-night TV salesman when it comes to the benefits of soy. “Wait! There’s more!” It’s true, though: In addition to all the phytonutrient protection that they provide, soy foods are just plain good for you from a nutritional standpoint.
For example, a half-cup of tofu provides about 20 grams of protein, 40 percent of the Daily Value (DV). The same half-cup supplies about 258 milligrams of calcium, more than 25 percent of the DV, and 13 milligrams of iron, 87 percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for women and 130 percent of the RDA for men.
While soy foods are moderately high in fat, most of the fat is polyunsaturated. Soy foods contain little of the artery clogging saturated fat found in meat and many dairy foods, says Dr. Messina.
For Your Health’s Sake, Go Green
What are greens? They’re all the things that you didn’t want to eat when you were a kid, and your mother insisted you had to because they were good for you. We’re talking spinach, chard, and kale, mainly, plus dandelion greens, beet greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, and chicory greens.
Your mother was right, of course: greens are good for you, but nobody, including your mother, realized how good until recently. We now know that greens constitute a veritable tour de force of healthy vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. “These are the most nutrient dense foods that we have available,” says Michael Liebman, Ph.D. Professor of human nutrition at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
To some extent, the difference between people who have heart attacks and those who don’t may be how many trips they make to the salad bar.
Researchers for one landmark study observed more than 1,000 people between the ages of 67 and 95 to learn what dietary factors affect heart health. They zeroed in on an amino acid called homocysteine which, when levels get too high, can become toxic, contributing to clogged arteries and heart disease. Guess what helped avoid that problem? You got it: leafy greens. It turns out that greens are excellent sources of two nutrients that help keep levels of homocysteine down: foliate and vitamin B6.
Boiled spinach is probably your best bet for managing homocysteine. A half-cup of Popeye’s favorite snack delivers the 131 micrograms of foliate, 33 percent of the Daily Value (DV). It also contains 0.2 milligram of vitamin B6, 10 percent of the DV.
In addition to these important B vitamins, certain greens particularly beet greens, chicory, and spinach provide the heart healthy minerals magnesium, potassium, and calcium. These minerals, along with sodium, help regulate the amount of fluid that your body retains. All too often, researchers say people have too much sodium and too little of the other three, leading to high blood pressure.
Even though eating leafy greens is an excellent way to help regulate blood pressure, it’s important to note that the calcium from spinach and beet greens isn’t well-absorbed by the body. Be sure to eat a wide variety of greens to meet all your mineral needs.
The evidence is overwhelming that many types of cancer occur less frequently in countries where greens are a dietary staple and meat a rarity.
In one study, researchers compared 61 men with lung cancer with 61 men of similar age and smoking habits who were cancer free. The one difference they found was that men with cancer consumed significantly fewer foods rich in a type of phytonutrient called carotenoids than those without the disease.
The carotenoids, which are found in large amounts in most leafy greens, are like bodyguards against cancer causing agents, explains Frederick Khachik, Ph.D., research chemist at the Food Composition Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland. Scientists believe that certain cancers are brought on by the constant onslaught of free radicals, the renegade molecules that attack our bodies’ healthy cells. Carotenoids counteract free radicals by acting as antioxidants, meaning that they step between the free radicals and our bodies’ cells, neutralizing them before they can do damage.
While all leafy greens are rich in carotenoids, the granddaddy is spinach, with a half-cup providing 1 milligram of beta-carotene.
Carrots must be good for your eyes; the old joke has it, since you never see a rabbit wearing glasses. According to research, it’s probably not only carrots that are good for the eyes but also all the leafy greens that Peter and his cotton tailed friends munch.
In one study, scientists from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston compared the diets of more than 350 people with advanced age-related macular degeneration the leading cause of irreversible vision loss among older adults with the diets of more than 500 people without the disease. They found that people who ate the most leafy green vegetables particularly, spinach and collard greens were 43 percent less likely to get macular degeneration than those who ate them less frequently.
Experts believe that carotenoids protect the eyes in much the same way as they work against cancer: by acting as antioxidants and neutralizing tissue-damaging free radicals before they harm the body in this case, the macular region of the eye.
In some parts of the world, like rural China, where vegetarianism is a way of-life, people meet their daily calcium needs not by drinking milk but by eating greens. In fact, 1 cup of turnip or dandelion greens can deliver about 172 milligrams of calcium, 17 percent of the DV that’s more than you’d get from a half-cup of fat-free milk.
The only problem with getting calcium from leafy green vegetables is that some of them contain high amounts of oxalates compounds that block calcium absorption, says Dr. Liebman. “Spinach, Swiss chard, collards, and beet greens have the most oxalates, so don’t consider these a source of calcium,” he says. “The others are fine. Research has shown that the calcium in kale is particularly well-absorbed.”
Iron is another mineral found in many greens, especially spinach and Swiss chard. A half-cup of boiled spinach has 3 milligrams of iron, 20 percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for women and 30 percent of the RDA for men. Swiss chard provides 2 milligrams, which is 13 percent of the RDA for women and 30 percent of the PJDA for men.
Leafy greens also contain ample amounts of vitamin C, which help the body absorb the iron. The green giants of vitamin C are chicory (a half- cup serving has 22 milligrams, 37 percent of the DV) and beet and mustard greens, both of which provide almost 18 milligrams, 30 percent of the DV. In addition, beet greens and spinach are rich sources of riboflavin; a B vitamin that is essential for tissue growth and repair as well as helping your body converts other nutrients into usable forms. A half-cup of cooked spinach or beet greens provides 0.2 milligram of riboflavin, 12 percent of the DV.