By Katherine Schreiber, published on May 3, 2011 - last reviewed on July 4, 2011
Confused about which foods to eat (and why)? Many people are. Is coffee good or bad? What about wheat? How do you get enough fiber to satisfy even the minimum requirements? Do differences in fiber type matter?
Into this soup of uncertainty the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists has thrown its toque. An industry organization more closely associated with food chemistry than consumer concerns, the group has digested the science on an array of edibles and released a list of 14 foods that evidence suggests you should be consuming regularly to maintain body and mind.
"Decades of epidemiological studies, lab experiments, and longitudinal research have yielded consistent evidence that these foods are indeed good for you," says Roger Clemens, a professor of pharmaceutical science at the University of Southern California who is also the IFT's president-elect. All of the foods deserve more prominence on menus in restaurants, schools, and homes, Clemens contends. And they're all energy efficient and are well-suited to weight-loss diets.
Barley. At the top of the list is the world's first domesticated grain, barley. This ancient grain confers some especially modern benefits. It reduces blood concentrations of low-density lipoprotein (aka bad) cholesterol. And it reduces blood sugar levels, making it of special value to the world's growing population of diabetics.
Barley's star ingredient is the soluble fiber beta-glucan. A 2010 review of 11 studies over the past 20 years showed that daily consumption of three to five grams of barley-derived beta-glucan reduced LDL cholesterol so significantly that researchers recommend eating barley as an alternative to taking statin drugs.
Quinoa and buckwheat. Sure, they've got lots of carbohydrates, but they are complex ones, regulating the flow of nutrients into the system. Further, quinoa contains complete protein, with all nine essential amino acids. Like quinoa, buckwheat lowers blood pressure and protects the cardiovascular system. Both grains minimize the risk of developing high blood cholesterol levels. Buckwheat is also rich in flavonoid antioxidants, especially rutin, responsible for many of the cardiovascular benefits.
Brown rice. It's distinguished from white not only by its color (and, often, by its price), but also by its nutrient profile: Unlike white rice, brown rice keeps its outer layer of protective tissue, a repository of brain-boosting B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and pyridoxine. The Bs are associated not only with enhanced cognitive function but effective conversion of carbohydrates into energy, and destruction of homocysteine, an amino acid associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Rye. In addition to having an impressive amino acid profile, rye protects against gallstone formation and staves off hunger, effects due to soluble fiber.
All the top grains provide notable amounts of magnesium, important for central nervous system functions, regulating blood pressure and glucose metabolism, and promoting protein synthesis.
Nuts. Almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, and hazelnuts have their share of fats, but they are healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, and they contribute to feelings of satiety. Further, nuts protect against both cardiovascular problems and cognitive decline. Walnuts, also rich in omega-3 fats, particularly enhance motor function and working memory. Hazelnuts pack in antioxidants such as tannins as well as vitamins, but most of them are found in the skin, which should be left intact. Pistachios provide the antioxidants beta-carotene and lutein, which protect against macular degeneration, and reduce cholesterol levels.
Black raspberries. Think fiber. Think mineral-richness, including manganese. Think powerful antioxidants, including anthocyanins, those deeply pigmented flavonoids that combat both stress and inflammation and protect the nervous system against cognitive decline. Compounds in black raspberries are active in cellular signaling processes in the brain and elsewhere, and notably interrupt those on which cancer cells rely to multiply. By the same mechanism, black raspberries also reduce inflammation.
Blueberries. These antioxidant powerhouses, loaded with anthocyanins, protect against cognitive deterioration, including Alzheimer's disease. Adding blueberries to a day's menu also enhances insulin sensitivity in overweight and diabetic men and women, without increasing body weight.
Broccoli. Along with cauliflower, both prime members of the cruciferous family of vegetables with proven anti-cancer properties, broccoli detoxifies a wide range of substances passing through the liver. It also lowers cholesterol and regularizes blood pressure. It has been shown specifically to reduce the progression of prostate cancer.
Pomegranates. Like blueberries, pomegranates are loaded with antioxidants that help protect against cancer, boost immunity, and conserve mental functioning.
Tomatoes. Tomatoes are one of the few foods whose nutrient value is actually increased by cooking and processing, including canning. Tomatoes are loaded with lycopene, a carotenoid that helps regulate blood pressure. What's more, it lowers LDL cholesterol levels by 10 percent—about as much as the cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. As little as 25 mg of lycopene a day is enough to do the trick. Tomatoes also boost the effectiveness of common blood-pressure lowering medications. Of course, tomatoes are powerhouses of vitamin C, too.
While the IFT list is a good guide for food shopping, it doesn't exhaust the array of beneficial foods. "What matters most in terms of health is the variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains you consume, rather than the specific types," observes Monica Reinagel, a Baltimore nutritionist. Variety activates the broadest array of protective mechanisms.
Reinagel warns against "list-think." Lists "seduce us into thinking of foods as either all-good or all-bad. They create an impression that if you get the right list and consume those foods alone, you'll be disease-proof." Rather, she stresses, "pretty much all foods have pros and cons," even processed items like canned tomatoes. Freezing foods, for example, can slow the rate at which fruits and vegetables lose their nutrients and make them almost as good as garden-fresh. —Katherine Schreiber
While not on the IFT list of 14 proven foods, legumes deserve a place in your diet, contends Roger Clemens. Beans (whether black-eyed, kidney, mung, or other varieties) are seeds of the pulse family of crops, along with peas, chickpeas, and lentils. Full of fiber and protein, pulses rank low on the glycemic index—digested slowly, they steady the release of sugar into the bloodstream and prevent troublesome spikes in blood sugar.
In addition to boosting cardiovascular health, pulse consumption decreases body weight. Pulses notably induce feelings of satiety. In one study, of 21,004 Americans, the 1,475 who regularly consumed lentils, chickpeas, and beans had the lowest body mass index and waist size, as well as the healthiest blood pressure profiles.