Nature's Best Medicines: The Top 9 Healing Foods

It’s easy to forget these champs when they become background noise in the supermarket hype of “new” and “lite.” Don’t let them get eclipsed. Beneath their everyday exterior, these foods are health-giving powerhouses. Each made it onto our list because it has the double-dip advantage of being tasty as well as being able to prevent more than one health problem.

Put all of these foods in your grocery basket every week, and you’ll get compliments on dinner. And be around to get those compliments for a long, long time.

This champion crucifer speaks many languages and is welcome in cuisines worldwide — steamed, stir-fried, blanched, baked, raw. But it’s not always the most wanted veggie in the West and that’s unfortunate.

True, broccoli may not have won any presidential medals, but it has heroic potential to fight today’s major diseases: (1) It’s stuffed with compounds that may block cancer. One of these steps up the body’s production of a weak estrogen. This weak version seems to replace the “real” estrogen that’s implicated in breast cancer. (2) It offers heart protection through vitamin C. This antioxidant vitamin helps keep arteries elastic and helps prevent blood from getting sludgy. A single serving of broccoli gives us 97% of our Daily Value (DV) of vitamin C. (3) It contains glutathione, which may reduce the risk of arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as bolster the immune system, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and keep people at a healthy weight, according to a small, recent study. (4) It helps guard against cataracts and the leading cause of blindness over age 65 — macular degeneration — because it’s rich in beta-carotene and its cousin lutein.

How much do I need? The amount of broccoli you might need to prevent disease hasn’t been quantified. But Walter C. Willett, MD, DrPH, chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, advises you to put it on your weekly shopping list right now — in any quantity. Broccoli can definitely be a contributor to your total score of five fruits and vegetables. Incidentally, just 1/2 cup is considered a serving, and delivers an impressive 2 grams of fiber!

The potent, redolent clove we know as garlic wards off many a bad guy, and you needn’t wear it around your neck. Eat it. Any way you can. There may be foods more medicinally potent than garlic, but few are as loved as this.

One of garlic’s most proven benefits is its ability to cut cholesterol, says Varro E. Tyler, PhD, advisor and professor emeritus of pharmocognosy at the Purdue University School of Pharmacy, West Lafayette, IN. It also acts like aspirin, keeping blood from clumping and sticking to artery walls.

Garlic has an antibacterial effect similar to penicillin. In fact, one source we found suggests that garlic was the antibacterial drug of choice until penicillin was discovered in 1928. Eating this pungent herb may help you fight a strep throat — as long as you don’t use it instead of antibiotics for serious infections. Garlic is an antioxidant and, in test-tube and animal studies, shows promise in preventing colon and breast cancers.

Allicin, which is quickly broken down into various active compounds, seems to be the main medicine at work here, says Dr. Tyler. Despite the fact that it’s been loved for centuries, there’s still a lot we don’t know about it.

How much do I need? For heart-protective effects, eat one clove daily. Aged, cooked, raw, powdered? The jury is still weighing the evidence. But overall, studies seem to indicate any and all garlic intake is probably good for us in some way.

Kidney beans These staples of hearty winter chili boast the highest, healthiest fiber mix of any member of the legume family — and are especially high in heart-protecting folate, too.

Part of their healing power comes from their 7 g of filling fiber per half-cup serving. Of that, 2.8 g is cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber. That adds up to dips in the risks of heart disease, stroke, and colon cancer.

If that’s not enough, beans — kidney and otherwise — are such good medicine that doctors prescribe them to diabetics (along with other high-fiber, complex carbohydrates) because they’re digested slowly (helping maintain low blood sugar and normalizing troublesome insulin levels), says James W. Anderson, MD, professor of medicine and clinical nutrition at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Lexington.

Kidney beans are high in folate, the new superstar nutrient that may help keep blood levels of homocysteine low. (High levels are now considered a risk factor for heart disease.) Folate is also important in preventing birth defects. A half-cup serving provides 114 micrograms of folate, more than a quarter of our required DV.

Beans are heart protective in one more way: They contain potent antioxidants known as polyphenolics. In test-tube studies, polyphenolics worked better than vitamin C in keeping fat in the blood from oxidizing — the first step in the formation of artery-clogging sludge. Human research is now under way, reports Dr. Anderson.

How much do I need? Aim for a cup and a half of cooked beans daily. That’s enough to lower cholesterol and provide the other health benefits, says Dr. Anderson.

Nonfat milk Leave the mustache on your lip, refill your glass and join us in a toast. Milk — the nonfat variety — is just about the best food source of calcium around.

Milk helps prevent brittle bones (osteoporosis), which affect at least half of all American women over age 50. Calcium is the bone builder in milk, and the vitamin D in milk helps us absorb the calcium.

In addition, nonfat milk, combined with a low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables, has been shown to lower blood pressure as well as any single prescription drug, says Judith Stern, ScD, RD, professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the University of California, Davis. The calcium, potassium, and magnesium in milk help with that.

Milk consumption also has been associated with a lower risk of kidney stones. That’s because calcium binds oxalate in the large bowel so less is absorbed. Oxalate is what causes most kidney stones, says Dr. Willett, whose Harvard group has published two papers on this topic.

How much do I need? Each 8-ounce glass of nonfat milk contains 300 milligrams of calcium. Women under 50 and men under 65 need 1,000 mg of calcium per day. Older? Up that to 1,500 mg. It can be difficult to meet all of your calcium needs with milk, but it’s a smart way to get at least halfway or more to your daily requirement.

Oranges
We don’t know a better way to find concentrated sunshine in the dark, short days of winter. Peel and bite into an orange. This is the sweetest medicine we know.

“Oranges are probably one of the best creations of the universe,” says James Cerda, MD, director of the nutrition research laboratory at the University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville.

This juicy fruit is chock-full of vitamins and nutrients and soluble fibers that may ward off colds, lower cholesterol, build bones, prevent kidney stones, lessen risk of colon cancer, and speed recovery from heart attacks. The phytochemicals it contains may even be able to help fight breast cancer.

Vitamin C is a major player in the benefits oranges give you, and they are robust with this nutrient. Each average orange packs 70 mg of C, 110% of our DV. In addition, oranges are ripe with folate, glutathione, and potassium citrate, which has been shown to help dissolve kidney stones, and is an important ingredient in sports drinks. (It keeps electrolytes in balance when you’re sweating a lot.)

How much do I need? Get at least an orange a day. Two would be better, says Dr. Cerda. Eat the whole orange (sans peel) to get the pulp and fiber. Don’t skip the albedo — the mild-tasting white material just under the peel and comprising the cord at the center of the orange — it’s full of clot-fighting substances called flavonoids. Juice conveys fewer benefits but is especially good when you’re working out or sweating a lot in heat and humidity.

To pick the best: Look for firm, heavy oranges with bright skin. Avoid lightweight oranges (which are probably light on juice) and dull, dry skin, or spongy texture — indicators of aging.

Salmon
Salmon is king when it comes to netting the myriad benefits of fish oil. The fish story is this: All fish have fats called omega-3s, but salmon is one of the richest sources. And omega-3s are turning out to be major players in the prevention of heart problems and maybe in controlling inflammatory problems like arthritis.

For the heart: Omega-3s may guard against heart attacks. One study of 44,895 men found that guys who favored food with fins had a 26% lower risk of death from coronary disease than those who chose to forgo fish. In another study, people who ate the equivalent of just one serving of salmon weekly had half the risk of cardiac arrest as those who ate none.

It appears that these “good” fats work by assuring the orderly inflow of calcium, sodium, and other charged particles into each heart cell, which helps ensure a steady, strong beat.

For inflammation: This big fish reels in one of the shadiest characters implicated in rheumatoid arthritis inflammation, leuko-triene B4. Scientists can measure a significant drop when fish oil is added to the diet.

Fish oil may also lessen severe menstrual cramping and other menstrual symptoms (though we’ve only seen one study so far showing convincing relief), and maybe even stave off depression.

How much do I need? A single 3-ounce serving of baked salmon provides 10 times the amount of omega-3s the typical American gets in a week. Eat at least one serving weekly. For menstrual-cramp relief, you need to eat even more — 4 to 6 ounces daily. To relieve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, step up intake to at least one serving daily, or ask your doctor about supplementing with fish-oil capsules. Tip: All species of salmon contain fish oil, although smoked salmon does not. (During smoking, much of the fat drips out.)

Tofu
Tofu. It almost sounds like an insult, and too many of us have shunned it as though it were. But this simple, palatable, easy-to-use and oh-so-versatile soybean derivative is nothing short of a superfood when it comes to our health.

Tofu is mild and light-bodied and represents “one of our very best food choices,” says Dr. Anderson, of the University of Kentucky.

Soy’s potential health benefits are sweeping, he adds. Topping the list is major heart protection: Its cholesterol-lowering effect has been shown in 37 studies. Tofu is soybean curd, and soybeans are the richest source by far of isoflavones, a plant version of estrogen. This may be important in some of the other protective roles tofu is believed to play: menopause soother, osteoporosis preventer, breast-cancer-risk reducer. Isoflavones are also known kidney protectors. And there’s evidence that soy may help reduce the risk of prostate cancer and possibly colon cancer, as well.

How much do I need? For now, most soy researchers recommend 30 to 50 mg of isoflavones per day. That’s about what the average daily intake is in Asia, where tofu is thought of as comfort food. (A half-cup serving of tofu has 35 mg of isoflavones.) Cultivating a taste for tofu is easy; it can be added to almost anything.

Tomato sauce
Tomato sauce beats ripe tomatoes to a pulp when it comes to being a nutritional strongman. Here’s where cooking really counts and makes Nature’s Best even better.

Tomato sauce, especially that cooked in even the tiniest bit of olive oil (Can you say “Italian?”) seems to be a good guard against prostate cancer. Some evidence suggests it may protect against colon, esophageal, and stomach cancers, as well. Plus, tomato sauce may even contribute to agility as we age (though the connection comes only from a small study).

The hot nutrient here is lycopene, an antioxidant that’s found in appreciable amounts in few other fruits and vegetables. Lycopene may prevent cancer from developing. Molecules called free radicals are thought to beat up innocent cells and force them to become cancerous , but lycopene may mop up these radicals before they do harm. The nutrient may even be twice as potent a free-radical fighter as strongman beta-carotene, says Edward Giovannucci, MD, ScD, of Harvard Medical School, Boston.

How much do I need? A few servings each week, but don’t eat a lot of fattening, cheese-and-pepperoni pizza to get your quota. Salsas and spaghetti sauce count. Interestingly, spaghetti sauces are best if they’re not completely fat-free.

Water
We bathe in it, relax in it, exercise in it — and should be guzzling it. Our bodies are mostly made of it. And it’s a wonder medicine. H2O.

One thing water won’t do: It won’t set you back a pretty penny, unless you buy it in designer-shaped bottles. “It’s the original low-calorie, no-calorie beverage,” says Dr. Stern of the University of California.

Water is the elixir required by every cell for optimum health. Getting enough water helps stave off the fatigue and muscle cramping that result from even minor dehydration, maintains body temperature, helps prevent kidney-stone formation, and keeps the skin plumped up and healthy looking. And, in a surprise finding of a large study, drinking more than five glasses a day of water seemed to slice women’s colon-cancer risk in half compared with those who drank fewer than two glasses a day.

Our bodies need water. Without it we droop like thirsty houseplants. Each cell’s chemical, mineral, nutrient, and vitamin balance depends upon just the right balance of fluid.

How much do I need? Your total fluid intake should be 48 to 64 ounces daily — more if you’re very active.

What you have in your mind?