5 Foods With a Surprising Impact On Health

One of the things I love most about my job is that nutrition is such an exciting science! We’re constantly learning about how various foods and nutrients prevent disease, ward off aging, and optimize health. I spend about an hour a day reading and reviewing new research in order to stay current, and even after 15+ years of practice, I’m still in awe of the power of healthy food. Here are five recent studies about the impressive health benefits of some of my favorite fruits and veggies, plus easy ways to gobble them up to reap the rewards.

Metabolism-boosting mushrooms

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Vitamin D is the reigning nutrition rock star. Research out this month found that adequate levels improve muscle strength and help muscles work more efficiently, by boosting energy from within cells. Previous studies have linked vitamin D to lower rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and certain cancers, but scientists estimate that at least three quarters of teens and adults in the U.S. have inadequate levels. This key nutrient is not found naturally in many foods, and getting enough can be a challenge. Vitamin D’s nickname is the “sunshine vitamin” because exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays triggers its production in the body. Unfortunately, you can’t rely on the sun as your sole source. Where you live, the season, time of day, cloud cover, smog, and sunscreen all affect UV exposure and vitamin D production. One recent study found that over 50 percent of sun-drenched Hawaiians, who spend 20-30 hours per week outdoors, still had low levels. That’s why a just-published study about mushrooms was so impressive. We’ve known for some time that UV exposure also increases mushrooms’ vitamin D levels, and researchers from Boston University School of Medicine, found that in healthy adults, eating sun-drenched mushrooms for 12 winter weeks was just as effective at raising blood vitamin D levels as taking a supplement.

How to eat more:

You can add mushrooms to anything from omelets and salads to stir-frys, and pasta dishes. Herbed oven roasted or sautéed mushrooms over a bed of organic greens is one of my staple side dishes. And for an easy breezy appetizer, I love to marinate button mushrooms in balsamic vinaigrette and served chilled on toothpicks, or skewer and toss them on the grill.  You can even incorporate mushrooms into dessert recipes, like mushroom ice cream!

Body fat-reducing mangoes
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Mangos are rich in immune supporting vitamins A and C, in addition to fiber and unique antioxidants, which have been shown to fight inflammation, a known trigger of aging and disease. Now new research, from scientists at Oklahoma State University, shows that these delicious gems may also help reduce body fat. In the animal study, mango flesh was freeze-dried, ground into a powder, and added in small amounts to the meals of some mice, but not others. After two months, scientists found that the mango-fed mice had less body fat, as well as lower cholesterol levels, and better blood sugar control.

How to eat more:

I love plain old mango, but it’s also fantastic whipped into a smoothie, or added to hot or cold cereal and parfaits. It also works well with savory dishes, like baked or grilled seafood. And for a healthier treat, I slather whipped mango onto cupcakes in place of processed frosting.

Brain-protecting berries
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The research about the benefits of berries seems almost too good to be true. They’ve been linked to warding off obesity, lowering insulin and triglyceride levels, and fighting heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis. Now a new Tufts study finds that berries may help to clear toxins from the brain, to protect it from aging and diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

How to eat more:
Fresh berries are one of life’s greatest pleasures, so when they’re in season, I savor them as is, and add them to dishes like whole grain French toast or mock cobbler. But I also stock my freezer with frozen varieties to enjoy year round, which can be whipped into smoothies, thawed and added to oatmeal, or seasoned with savory herbs as a dipping sauce for grilled shrimp or tofu.

Belly fat-fighting grapes

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In my newest book S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim, I included a section called ‘Grapes, the Secret Berry’ because technically, grapes are a member of the berry family. Numerous studies have found that their potent antioxidants, called flavonoids, slash the risk of heart disease by relaxing blood vessels to open up blood flow and boost circulation, inhibit blood clots, and prevent “bad” LDL cholesterol from becoming oxidized, which triggers a domino effect that leads to hardened arteries and blockages. Now a new University of Michigan animal study finds that a mixture of red, green, and black grapes not only increased antioxidant defenses, but also reduced inflammation, and decreased both liver and belly fat in rats. Scientists say that the effects may cut the risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that significantly up the chance of developing heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes.

How to eat more:
In addition to popping fresh grapes, you can incorporate them into meals, pairing them with proteins, like seafood and chickpeas, or whole grains, like quinoa and wild rice. One of my favorite combos is grape muesli – fold fresh grated ginger, mint, rolled oats, sunflower seeds, and sliced seedless grapes into organic 0% Greek or plant-based yogurt. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or overnight as a luscious breakfast or snack option.

Blood pressure-lowering beets
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I’ve always been a fan of beets. In addition to being vibrant and naturally sweet, they’re rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and natural detoxers. Previous studies have found that beets may help slow the growth of cancer and improve athletic performance by boosting endurance. Now a new study, published last week in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension found that people with high blood pressure who drank about eight ounces of beetroot juice experienced a 10 point drop in blood pressure.

How to eat more:
Beets add a gorgeous hue and sweetness to fresh juice blends, but you can also enjoy them whole. I like to peel beets, grate them, and add to garden salads or slaw, grill baby beets in foil, or slice and oven-roast large beets, then drizzle with rosemary balsamic.

There are so many delicious ways to enjoy these superfoods. What are your favorites? Please tweet your thoughts to @CynthiaSass and @goodhealth

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. Connect with Cynthia on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest

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