10 Foods That Science Suggests Really Do Contribute To Long-Term Health Medical
A bad diet is now a leading cause of death across the globe. Much of this is due to the fact that people who had previously eaten much healthier, traditional diets are now eating more “Westernized” fare. And its effects on global health are, unfortunately, showing.
Here in the U.S., it can sometimes seem that dietary advice changes all the time. But that’s not really the case. With a couple of exceptions (like the famous fats vs. sugar debate), what we know about nutrition has been relatively stable in recent years, with new research mostly fleshing out the correlations between food and long-term health, and illuminating the underlying mechanisms. And there are some individual foods that are particularly well-studied and repeatedly linked to long-term health. Of course, it’s not possible to eat only these foods all the time, but the idea is just to cycle them into your diet as much as you can stand, both psychologically and economically.
Here are the foods that science shows are very much linked to the reduction of disease, both physical and neurological, over the long term, and for which the mechanisms are largely mapped out.
This goes at the top of the list because it’s such an interesting food-drug. For those of us who drink it regularly, the positive research in the last 10 years has been heartening. One of coffee’s great benefits is that it seems to be linked to brain health: Not only does it keep us alert in the short-term, by blocking adenosine receptors, but coffee consumption has also been linked to reduced risk of depression, and even of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. And newer research suggests that coffee drinkers may have a longevity advantage over non-drinkers. In one recent study, people who drank four cups per day had a 64% reduced risk of death over the years of the study (it was 22% for two-cup-a-day drinkers). This is partly because compounds in coffee improve vascular health, help repair cellular damage and reduce inflammation, which itself is linked to most of the chronic diseases.
Some people find the side effects (namely, anxiety) too much to handle, so may want to do decaf instead, which seems to have many of the same benefits (so does green tea). But for those who already “use” the regular form of the substance, and are happy doing so, it seems to be a good idea to continue.
Salmon and other fatty fish (or algae)
There’s a misapprehension that all omega-3 fatty acids are created equal. They’re not. The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are abbreviated EPA and DHA, and are known to be especially important for the brain and the heart over the long term, reducing the risk of dementia and of heart disease. One study found that DHA supplementation can even counteract the neuronal damage that a high-sugar diet can bring about. The omega-3 fatty acids found in plant sources — like walnuts and flaxseeds — are called ALA, which the body can convert into EPA and DHA, but pretty inefficiently. (For more on the difference, see this.) If you don’t eat seafood, supplements can be a good idea — and since DHA is also found in algae, vegetarians and those concerned about sustainability may want to supplement this way.
(NB: Omega-6s are another kind of fatty acids all together, and while generally healthy in moderate amounts, can lead to inflammation if eaten excessively. Don’t confuse your omegas. This is why a good balance of omega-3 to omega-6 is important, and a good balance of DHA/EPA to ALA equally important.)
Nuts deserve their own category, because they have, separately from other plant-based foods, been linked to all kinds of desirable outcomes, like heart health, reduced inflammation and reduced mortality. As mentioned above, some nuts, particularly walnuts, contain good amounts of omega-3s (though again they’re a slightly inferior version of the fats than are present in fish and algae). And nuts have lots of other benefits including essential vitamins, fiber and protein. Almonds were recently shown to improve “good” cholesterol levels. Another new study found that walnuts may reduce activity in areas of the brain associated with food craving, which may help explain their known effects on metabolic health.
Peanuts (although not technically a nut) have also been linked to heart health and longevity, but sadly for many, peanut butter hasn’t been shown to have the same benefits, possibly because of the often-added hydrogenated oils and sugar. So sticking with actual nuts — walnuts, pecans, almonds and even peanuts — in their natural form is probably smart.
Speaking of peanuts, legumes (beans, peas, lentils and peanuts) are also worth putting into your diet if you don’t already. They have high quantities of protein and fiber, as well as nutrients like folate, zinc, iron and magnesium. Their consumption has been linked to a number of health benefits, including reduced blood pressure, coronary heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
A recent study looking at over 135,000 participants in 18 countries across the globe found that eating legumes was associated with a lower risk of overall mortality and mortality from non-cardiovascular issues. “Eating even one serving per day decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease and death,” said study author Victoria Miller in a news release. “Legumes are not commonly consumed outside these geographic regions, so increased consumption among populations in Europe or North America may be favourable.”
Intensely colored vegetables
Experts have long been saying to “eat the rainbow” when it comes to vegetables: for example, dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes, red peppers, avocados, broccoli, tomatoes, purple onion and red cabbage. There’s no single reason that brightly colored vegetables are healthy — there are several ways in which they confer health or perhaps prevent poor health. For instance, the orange ones are high in beta-carotene; avocados are rich in unsaturated fats; tomatoes, especially cooked, and red peppers are high in lycopene; cruciferous vegetables, particularly broccoli, have phenolic compounds that are linked to reduction in cancer risk; dark leafy greens are high in folate, among many other vitamins, and fiber.
There are multiple mechanisms behind the connection between vegetables and reduced heart and cancer risk, so cycling in as many as you comfortably can is one of the cornerstones of healthy eating. Keep in mind that the nutrient level of vegetables is generally proportional to the richness of their color. For example, iceberg lettuce has relatively little nutritional value, whereas kale, spinach and collard greens have much more.
Berries, especially blueberries, are often touted as “super foods,” for their high levels of antioxidants. In fact, blueberries are the only fruit that the MIND Dietspecifically recommends, based on brain research. Otherwise, since fruits tend to be high in sugar, it’s a little unclear how much we should eat.
That said, fruits are generally high in vitamins and fiber, and a better go-to for snacking than many of the things we usually go to. Citrus fruits have been linked to reduced risk of blood cancer and esophageal cancer (and oddly, to increased risk of skin cancer, since a compound seems to make skin more sensitive to light). Apples have been also been linked to a reduced risk of several types of cancer. And grapes, with their high levels of resveratrol, have been linked to reduced risk of cancer and dementia. So again, while berries may be the true super food for their high antioxidant levels, other fruits are likely a good staple to have in our diets.
This category is fairly broad since fermented foods in general (not just the usual one that we think of: yogurt) are good for our microbiomes — the beneficial bacteria that live in our guts and have been linked to everything from depression risk to cancer risk to overweight/obesity. Yogurt is the obvious fermented food, since it contains relatively high levels of friendly bacteria like L. acidophilus. But other fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and even pickles are thought to be good for the gut and its beneficial bacteria.
These get an entry, even though it’s not totally clear whether whole grains are really a super food (particularly given the definition of whole grain in the U.S.) or whether they’re just a better alterative to what most people eat — refined grains. Whole grains are those with the germ and the bran still present; refined grains have had those parts stripped away, which means they consist only of the starchy, low-nutrient endosperm. But during the processing of even whole grains the beneficial parts can be degraded, and there’s been some controversy about how to conceptualize and define whole grains in the food industry.
In epidemiological studies, whole grains have certainly been linked to beneficial health outcomes: reduced heart risk and a longer life, as well as reduced risks of diabetes and colon cancer. And they are sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and, if it’s not processed away, fiber. Many people in the U.S. could probably eat fewer carbs in general, increasing vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats. But carbs are not evil, and they’re fine to eat in moderation. Just make sure your grains are as whole and fiber-rich as possible, with as little processing — and added sugar and chemicals — as possible.
Turmeric and other spices
A handful of spices have been linked to significant long-term health benefits, mainly in the way of better cognitive function, reduced dementia risk, reduced cancer risk and better glucose metabolism. Turmeric, a key component of curry, has been linked to reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, presumably for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also been shown to have anti-tumor properties (however, it’s also been shown to inhibit some chemotherapies, so always talk with your doctor).
Other spices, like cinnamon, have been shown to reduce blood sugar levels, so may be helpful to diabetics or in diabetes prevention, or to anyone trying to control their weight. And spiciness itself, in the form of chili peppers’ capsaicin, has been linked to heart health, likely through its effects on the vascular system. Again, there are lots of mechanisms through which various spices may exert their effects, so keeping a varied array of spices in your life is likely a good idea for health, along with the obvious: they taste good.
It seems like this is a good one to end on. The catch is that the research suggests that for health benefits, the chocolate needs to be dark, rather than milk or white. Sweets in general are not good foods to keep in your diet (except on occasion). The Mediterranean diet, the MIND Diet, the DASH diet, and just about all the research that’s rolling in these days suggests that sugar be quite limited. Studies have shown that added sugar, particularly processed sugar, is linked to just about every chronic disease there is — cancer, diabetes, heart disease and dementia. Cocoa, very separate from sweets, is linked to cognition, heart health and neurological health, likely due to its high levels of polyphenols. And while many of these studies are done with high-potency cocoa drinks, there’s also evidence suggesting that dark chocolate might confer similar benefits. Again, the key is to choose a low-sugar, dark variety of chocolate (i.e., chocolate cake doesn’t count).
Again, it’s probably not possible to subside on only these foods all the time, but just to include them as much as you realistically can. Hopefully, the more we learn about the effects of foods on long-term health, the American diet will start to fade away — and so will the serious health risks it brings with it.
Courtesy: By Alice G. Walton, Source link