We’re all well aware of the fact that food provides our basic nutritional needs — we need calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fat to function throughout the day. Yet, as Hippocrates pronounced more than a 2000 years ago, food can also be medicine. The ancient systems of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, for example, have been using food as treatment and prevention of disease for thousands of years. While this idea is relatively new to the western world, scientists can now prove what the Chinese and Hindus have known all along — that many foods contain physiologically active compounds that have profound effects on the body.
The medicinal properties of food lie in phytochemicals, the compounds that act as antioxidants, mimic hormones, and suppress the development of disease.
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, compounds in our body that damage DNA, thus leading to disease. While our bodies have a system in place to eliminate free radicals on their own, a little extra boost from dietary antioxidants and other phytochemicals can be extremely effective in preventing disease.
Scores of foods have healing properties, but we’ve listed 12 here whose nutrients and chemical properties we find particularly advantageous.
- Beans: Pinto, kidney, small red, and black beans all made the USDA’s list of Top 20 Antioxidant-Rich Foods. They also contain protease inhibitors which prevent malignant changes in cells, thus reducing the risk of cancer.
- Berries: Blueberries (wild, cultivated, or dried), cranberries, raspberries, and strawberries also made that USDA antioxidant list. We think of berries as a superfood though, because they have many cancer fighting properties. For example, they contain phenolic acids which help the body excrete carcinogens, and flavonoids which help prevent cancer-causing compounds called nitrosamines from forming within the body. Blueberries are also known to improve memory in animals, possibly having the same effect in humans.
- Broccoli: Since broccoli contains three different types of phytochemicals, it’s high on our list. It touts carotenoids which are believed to reduce the risk of cancer, indoles which may trigger the production of enzymes that block DNA damage, and isothiocyanates which inhibit enzymes that activate carcinogens. In short, broccoli is a cancer-prevention powerhouse.
- Flaxseeds: Flaxseeds are high in omega-3 fatty acid which lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart disease. They’re also the richest food source of lignans which block estrogen activity in cells, possibly decreasing the risk of breast, ovary, colon, and prostate cancer.
- Garlic: The organosulfur compounds in garlic are believed to speed the production of carcinogen-destroying enzymes, thus reducing the risk of cancer. These compounds are also believed to lower blood cholesterol and pressure, and protect against stomach cancer.
- Oats: Widely known to help lower cholesterol, oats also help facilitate carcinogen excretion from the body. What’s more, they’re high in soluble fiber which aids in heart and colon health.
- Pecans: Chock full of antioxidants, vitamins, A, C, E, and K, and zinc, pecans are known to support a healthy immune system. Vitamin E also helps slow plaque formation in arteries, providing protection against heart attack and stroke.
- Spinach: High in calcium, spinach plays a large role in bone health and the prevention of osteoporosis. It also contains two types of carotenoids known to help protect the eyes against macular degeneration.
- Tomatoes: Like broccoli, tomatoes are phytochemical rich. Its saponins are thought to interfere with DNA replication, which prevents an existing cancer from spreading. Saponins also help stimulate immune responses.
- Potatoes: Potatoes also contain saponins and therefore boast some of the same disease fighting properties as tomatoes. What’s more, they contain protease inhibitors and phenolic acids which help prevent cancer. Opt for russet potatoes, as they’re the highest in antioxidants.
- Yogurt: Rich in calcium, yogurt helps maintain bone health. Perhaps more interestingly though, it also contains the probiotic lactobacillus, a living bacteria known to improve defenses against GI disorders.
- Apples: Gala, Granny Smith, and Red Deicious varieties all made the USDA’s top 20 list of antioxidant rich foods. Apples in general also contain a type of flavonoid which may provide protection against lung cancer.
Naturally, the best way to reap the disease fighting benefits of phytochemicals and antioxidants is to eat a wide variety of foods, and to stick with colorful fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants work best when eaten in combination, so change your menu frequently. And as always, choose fresh, organic varieties whenever possible.