When it comes to food, we all know what's healthy for us and what's not. A diet full of fast food, for instance, isn't going to be as beneficial as, say, a home cooked meal made from all natural ingredients. But when we eat certain foods it tends to be because our taste buds tell us they're good, and often times we don't think much about the how our bodies distribute those foods. So I've put together an amazing list of yummy items and a complete breakdown of just what exactly they can do. You may be surprised to find that your favorite snack has more fighting power than you think!
They may be bite-sized, but when it comes to good-for-you fruits, plump cherries have heavyweight credentials. But you better grab them by the handful if you can. This stone fruit – a relative of plums, peaches, and nectarines – has a short harvest season, making a brief appearance in the produce aisle from June until August.
Health Benefits- Cherries offer a hearty helping of anthocyanins, the antioxidant responsible for their rich, reddish-purple color. Believed to ease inflammation and prevent chronic illness, anthocyanins also block the same enzymes targeted by aspirin. That could explain why eating cherries may help reduce pain in arthritis and gout sufferers.
Both sweet and sour cherries (the latter are used mostly in pies, preserves, and sauces) also contain the antioxidant beta-carotene. But the mouth-puckering sour kind have more, even beating out blueberries for beta-carotene content – 25 times over.
You can count potassium as another reason to nibble on fresh cherries throughout the summer. Important for blood pressure control and reducing the risk of hypertension and stroke, there's nearly as much potassium in one cup of sweet cherries as in a small banana. Diabetics may find cherries even more appealing because of their low glycemic index compared with many other fruits. And the soluble fiber found in this small fruit helps lower LDL, or "bad," cholesterol, helping to prevent heart disease.
Need a better night's sleep? Cherries might help in that department, too. Both sweet and tart cherries contain melatonin, shown to help regulate sleep patterns and fight the effects of jet lag.
Let's face it. Brussels sprouts don't rank high on most people's favorite vegetable list, especially in the 10-and-under set. But this cabbage cousin has its fans, especially in Belgium, where the veggie was purportedly cultivated in the 16th century. Even the French settlers deemed the sprout worthy enough to carry it across the pond to North America a century later. The Europeans were certainly on to something. The nutrients in Brussels sprouts alone make them worthy of a spot in your dinner plate.
Health Benefits- A cruciferous vegetable, Brussels sprouts contain a wealth of phytonutrients called glucosinolates, which account for the vegetable's pungent smell when cooked and are thought to help fight cancer. Isothiocyanates, a byproduct of these sulfur-containing compounds, trigger the liver to produce detoxifying enzymes, which aid in the elimination of potentially carcinogenic substances.
Studies have found that one glucosinolate in particular, sinigrin, is possibly responsible for suppressing the development of precancerous cells. And research has shown a relationship between the consumption of cruciferous vegetables and a reduced risk of premenopausal breast cancer.
Beyond that, Brussels sprouts help keep the digestive system running smoothly thanks to a high fiber content. The hearty vegetable also provides plenty of vitamins A and C, two powerful antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of some cancers. In addition, vitamin A boosts immune-system function and promotes healthy, resilient skin. Folate, another heart-healthy nutrient found in the sprouts, may protect against cognitive decline and is essential for pregnant women, as it helps prevent birth defects.
"True beauty dwells in deep retreats," wrote William Wordsworth, and though he wasn't referring to the kiwi, he might as well have been. This vine-grown fruit with a hairy brown peel harbors a juicy interior the color of emeralds or gold, depending on the variety. Regardless of shade, all types possess a creamy texture and an impressive nutritional profile.
Health Benefits- Contrary to popular belief, the kiwi didn't originate in New Zealand, but in China during the 14th century. The gooseberry, as it was then called, eventually made its way to New Zealand. Once the island nation began commercial production, the fruit got renamed after the fuzzy national bird it resembles. What didn't change, though, was its power to heal. The oblong treat delivers a whopping does of vitamin C, more per serving than oranges. Research shows that one variety in particular, the Sanuki Gold, makes an especially powerful source of this multitasking antioxidant, which aids in immunity, wound-healing, iron absorbing, and cell production, just to name a few of the benefits.
In addition to vitamin C, kiwis harbor other antioxidants, including lutein, a carotenoid best known for helping fortify the eyes against macular degeneration. Kiwis also provide vitamin E, an antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals and may help to prevent heart disease. Studies even show that kiwifruit may lower triglycerides (the fats that circulate in the bloodstream, a buildup of which can result in high cholesterol levels). They're also high in dietary fiber and potassium, a mineral that helps maintain the nervous system and keeps the body's fluid balance in check.
Contrary to popular belief, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) isn’t a true grain but a plant related to chard and spinach. Despite the leaves being edible, the sweet, nutty seeds garner all the attention. It’s easy to see why: So versatile, they’re used in breakfasts, desserts, and everything in between.
Health Benefits- Quinoa seeds contain twice the protein of rice, though it’s not the quantity but the quality of the protein that stands out. With all nine essential amino acids (nutritional building blocks that help from proteins and muscle), including lysine, quinoa is considered a complete protein.
If you suffer from migraines, you may want to make quinoa a regular part of your diet; it’s rich in both vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and magnesium, two nutrients that may help decrease the frequency of these headaches. Magnesium may also help prevent hypertension (or high blood pressure) and osteoporosis while riboflavin may ward off cataracts. Quinoa also contains vitamins B6 and E as well as high levels of iron and zinc, minerals necessary for a healthy immune system.
Last, but certainly not least, quinoa is a good source of dietary fiber, packing 5.2 grams per 1 cup serving. Studies show that the fiber from whole grains and seeds protects against breast cancer and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Since it’s technically not a grain, quinoa has no gluten, making it typically tolerable for those with celiac disease or grain allergies.
Of the 100-plus kinds of heirloom tomatoes growing on vines these days, most have names – Sun Golds, Green Zebras, Black Krims – as unique as their looks. But eccentric monikers account for just part of these tomatoes’ appeal; even more significant is the taste. Commercially grown tomatoes sometimes get picked green and then are artificially ripened, leaving them with little flavor. Heirlooms, which grow from seeds handed down over generations, tend to show up at the farmers’ market the day they leave the field. That gives them a vine-ripe sweetness rarely found at run-of-the-mill grocery stores.
Health Benefits- With so many varieties out there, it’s hard to pinpoint what each one brings to the table, nutritionally speaking. What we do know is that tomatoes in general provide iron, potassium, fiber, a host of B vitamins, and quercetin, a phytochemical that may reduce types of cancer as well as protect against heart and degenerative eye diseases.
The tomato’s biggest selling point, though, hinges on the presence of lycopene. This carotenoid, responsible for the fruit’s bright red and orange colors, is associated with lower risk of both macular degeneration and several types of cancers, including prostate, cervical, skin, breast, and lung. Lycopene may also help lower the risk of coronary artery disease and, along with tomatoes’ vitamin C content, stimulate the immune system.
If it’s lycopene you’re after, know that cooked tomatoes contain two to eight times more than raw. That’s because cooking makes this nutrient more available to the body. While red tomatoes have more lycopene than orange ones, an Ohio State University study revealed an interesting fact: The lycopene in the orange-hued varieties (when cooked down) is better absorbed by the body. That’s all the more reason to stock up on orange heirlooms like Orange Oxheart and Moonglow.
On top of the health perks, eating heirlooms benefits the environment. Heirloom farmers tend to grow organically, so you’re more likely to support a sustainable agricultural process, while also keeping pesticides out of your diet. According to organizations like Slow Food USA and Seed Savers Exchange, the cultivation of these seeds is one of the best ways to preserve a crop’s natural diversity.
Turmeric’s taste isn’t as recognizable as, say, cinnamon’s, but there’s no mistaking how it looks. In fact, the Latin name for turmeric (Curcuma longa) comes from the Sanskrit word for “yellow.” A culinary jack-of-all-trades whose use dates back thousands of years, this woodsy, slightly bitter spice has played an important role not only as a colorant and flavor enhancer for food, but also as a cosmetic, perfume, textile dye, and remedy for everything from digestive problems to psoriasis. In recent years, science has verified many of its traditional applications, with studies showing that this relative of ginger may help heal or prevent a laundry list of diseases.
Health Benefits- Turmeric contains respectable doses of manganese, iron, and even fiber, but its high concentration of a bright yellow pigment called curcumin offers the most health promise. Curcumin, an antioxidant, fights inflammation, a major factor in a wide range of serious ailments, including heart disease, arthritis, and cancer. It protects against hardening of the arteries by reducing the buildup of cholesterol in cells, combats cancer by suppressing the growth of tumors, and disables certain harmful enzymes that cause inflammation. This inflammation-blocking action resembles that of a class of drugs called COX-2 inhibitors, which are used to relieve the pain and swelling of arthritis.
Curcumin’s ability to quiet inflammation may also aid in the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. In India, where cooks use turmeric regularly (most notably as the main ingredient in curry powder), rates of Alzheimer’s rank lowest in the world: from 1 to 3 percent. Among elderly Americans, the rate remains about four times that. Researchers believe that curcumin helps prevent the buildup of harmful plaque in the brain, a hallmark of the disease.
It’s not often that a vegetable’s greens are considered beside the point. But with carrots, go ahead and compost the leafy tuft that grows above the ground. It’s the plant’s beta-carotene-packed root that takes the nutrition and flavor spotlight.
Health Benefits- Surprisingly, the first carrots weren’t orange, but rather dark purple of yellow. They originated in what is now Afghanistan and central Asia before orange ones turned up in the Netherlands in the 16th century. Though you may occasionally see a colorful array at the farmers’ market, the orange variety is the most coveted.
The reason? Carotenoids, the antioxidants that give carrots their yellow-orange pigments, may protect against certain types of cancer, heart disease, and cataracts. What’s more, beta-carotene is converted by the body into vitamin A, essential for healthy eyes and skin. Specifically, vitamin A helps the eyes adapt from bright light to darkness. (British aviators in World War II ate specially developed carrots to overcome night blindness.) Vitamin A also nourishes the tissues of your respiratory and intestinal tract. Because these tissues are full of immune cells, your immune system benefits, too.
Other perks include soluble fiber (which may lower LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol), vitamin C, and some calcium. If you’re lucky enough to find purple carrots, you may also benefit from anthocyanin, a flavonoid that creates the vibrant hue and has antioxidant properties that may help prevent heart disease and stroke.
The largest common citrus, grapefruits are said to get their name from the way they grow in grape-like clusters. Refreshingly juicy at a time of the year when most fruit is scarce, they offer plenty of health-boosting benefits. Just half a grapefruit helps defend against everything from cold-season sniffles to heart disease and cancer.
Health Benefits- As you might have guessed, grapefruits are full in vitamin C, a major antioxidant that helps fight infection, may shorten the duration of colds, and protects against free radicals. Left unchecked, free radicals damage cells – this damage can contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
Red and pink grapefruits like Ruby Reds (a relatively new variety developed in the past century) offer additional antioxidant benefits in the form of phytonutrient lycopene. Found in red-tinted foods like tomatoes and watermelon, lycopene is associated with a reduced risk of some cancers and heart disease, and it may increase the skin’s resistance to sun damage.
Pink and red grapefruit also offer about 35 times more of the antioxidant vitamin A than their paler counterparts. That means potentially more protection from many cancers and heart disease, and increased support to the immune system and vision.
There’s more to this fruit than antioxidants, though. Grapefruits also offer potassium and folate. The potassium lowers blood pressure and is associated with a reduced risk of stroke, while folate, an important nutrient during pregnancy, has been shown to boost energy levels and help ward off depression and memory loss.
Next time you eat one of these citrus marvels, leave the grapefruit spoon in the drawer. Instead, eat the grapefruit segments whole, as you would an orange, and you’ll get 50 percent more fiber. (By leaving the membrane behind you lower the fiber count to just under 2 grams per half fruit.) About half that fiber is insoluble, meaning it doesn’t dissolve in water, contributing to healthy digestion and supporting weight loss by making you feel full. Grapefruits also rank among the richest sources of pectin, a soluble fiber that helps lower cholesterol and regulate blood sugar levels.
Perhaps the most recognizable fall gourd, the pumpkin has been made famous by holiday pies and carving contests. But under that thick orange skin lies untapped nutritional potential.
Health Benefits- If you’re searching for a delicious, low-calorie, low-fat food, you’ll find a friend in pumpkin (unless, of course, you consume it strictly in pie form). Rich in potassium, a nutrient that helps maintain blood pressure and kidney function, pumpkin has a high fiber content, which has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Pumpkin flesh also contains a fair share of vitamin A, an antioxidant essential for healthy skin and gums.
The gourd’s high levels of carotenoids account for its orange color – and star status. In addition to its vision-promoting beta-carotene, pumpkin contains the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which researchers now believe help protect against macular degeneration. Alphacarotene, yet another invaluable pumpkin offering, may even aid in the prevention of tumor growth.
Pumpkin seeds (or pepitas) also provide a number of nutrients, including bone-strengthening magnesium and copper. On top of that, the seeds contain cholesterol-lowering phytosterols and omega-3 fatty acids, which may help reduce inflammation and may help prevent heart disease.
Food Descriptions from: Whole Living, Body and Soul Magazine.