Whole foods that help fight disease
By Nikki Jong, Caring.com Contributing Editor
As part of a healthy diet, whole foods play a significant role in helping our bodies function optimally. There are hundreds of extremely nutritious whole foods, but the dozen on this list do more than contribute healthy nutrients—they help you heal. In fact, every food on this list boasts multiple healing effects, from fighting cancer to reducing cholesterol, guarding against heart disease, and more. Eat these super-healing picks and start feeling pretty super yourself.
This tiny, nutrient-dense fruit packs an amazing amount of vitamin C, has more fiber than apples, and beats bananas as a high-potassium food. The unique blend of phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals found in kiwifruit helps protect against heart disease, stroke, cancer, and respiratory disease. Kiwifruit’s natural blood-thinning properties work without the side effects of aspirin and support vascular health by reducing the formation of spontaneous blood clots, lowering LDL cholesterol and reducing blood pressure. Multiple studies have shown that kiwifruit not only reduces oxidative stress and damage to DNA but also prompts damaged cells to repair themselves.
In Chinese medicine they are used to accelerate the healing of wounds and sores.
How much: Aim to eat one to two kiwifruit a day while they’re in season, for the best taste and nutrition. California-grown kiwifruit are in season from October through May, and New Zealand kiwifruit are available between April and November.
Tips: Kiwifruit contain enzymes that activate once you cut the fruit, causing the flesh to tenderize. So if you’re making a fruit salad, cut the kiwifruit last.
Cherries boast a laundry list of healing powers. For starters, they pack a powerful nutritional punch for a relatively low calorie count. They’re also packed with substances that help fight inflammation and cancer. In lab studies, quercetin and ellagic acid, two compounds contained in cherries, have been shown to inhibit the growth of tumors and even cause cancer cells to commit suicide. Cherries also have antiviral and antibacterial properties.
Anthocyanin, another compound in cherries, is credited with lowering the uric acid levels in the blood, thereby reducing a common cause of gout. Researchers believe anthocyanins may also reduce your risk of colon cancer. Further, these compounds work like a natural form of ibuprofen, reducing inflammation and curbing pain. Regular consumption may help lower risk of heart attack and stroke.
In Chinese medicine, cherries are routinely used as a remedy for gout, arthritis and rheumatism (as well as anemia, due to their high iron content). Plus they’re delicious.
How much: Aim for a daily serving while they’re in season locally. And keep a bag of frozen cherries in your freezer the rest of the year; frozen cherries retain 100 percent of their nutritional value and make a great addition to smoothies, yogurt and oatmeal.
Guavas are a small tropical fruit that can be round, oval or pear-shaped. They’re not all that common, but if you can track them down, it’s more than worth it. Guavas contain more of the cancer-fighting antioxidant lycopene than any other fruit or vegetable, and nearly 20 percent more than this popular fruit.
Lycopene protects our healthy cells from free radicals that can cause blocked arteries, joint degeneration, nervous system problems and even cancer. Lycopene consumption is associated with significantly lower rates of prostate cancer; and men with prostate tumors who consumed lycopene supplements showed significant improvements. Lycopene has also been found to inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells, and research suggests that this antioxidant may also help protect against coronary artery disease.
Guavas are also packed with vitamin C and other antioxidants. Serving for serving, guava offers more than 60 percent morepotassium than a banana.
How much: Aim to eat fresh guavas as often as you can when you can find them in stores. They’re not commonly available in the freezer section, and most guava juices are processed and sweetened, so they don’t provide the same superior nutrition that the whole, fresh fruit does. One to two guavas a day is a good goal.
Tip: Opt for the red-fleshed variety if you can; both are loaded with antioxidants (cancer-fighting foods), but the red type has more than the white-fleshed apple guava.
Beans are a miracle food. They lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar and insulin production, promote digestive health and protect against cancer. If you think of fiber, protein and antioxidants, and immediately think whole grains, meat and fruit, then think again—beans offer all three in a single package.
An assortment of phytochemicals found in beans has been shown to protect cells from cancerous activity by inhibiting cancer cells from reproducing, slowing tumor growth. Researchers at theHarvard School of Public Health reported that women who consumed beans at least twice a week were 24 percent less likely to develop breast cancer, and multiple studies have tied beans to a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and breast and colon cancers.
Beans deliver a whopping amount of antioxidants, which help prevent and fight oxidative damage. In fact, the USDA’s ranking of foods by antioxidant capacity places three varieties of beans (red, red kidney and pinto) in the top four—and that’s among all food groups. They also contain tryptophan, which can help regulate appetite, aid in sleep and improve mood. Many are also rich infolate, which plays a significant role in heart health. You’ll also get decent amounts of potassium, magnesium, vitamin B1 and B2, and vitamin K. Soybeans are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.
In Chinese medicine, various types of beans have been used to treat alcoholism, food poisoning, edema (particularly in the legs), high blood pressure, diarrhea, laryngitis, kidney stones, rheumatism and dozens of other conditions.
How much: Aim for a minimum of two servings of beans per week.
Tip: Adzuki and mung beans are among the most easily digested; pinto, kidney, navy, garbanzo, lima and black beans are more difficult to digest.
Not only is watercress extremely nutritious (nutritional value), it’s about as close as you can get to a calorie-free food. Calorie for calorie, it provides four times the calcium of this staple drink. Ounce for ounce, it offers as much vitamin C as an orange and more iron than another superfood. It’s packed with vitamin A and has lots of vitamin K, along with multiple antioxidant carotenoids and protective phytochemicals.
The nutrients in watercress protect against cancer and macular degeneration, help build the immune system and support bone health. The iron helps red blood cells carry oxygen to your body’s tissues for energy. The phytochemicals in watercress battle cancer in three ways: killing cancer cells, blocking carcinogens and protecting healthy cells from carcinogens.
In Chinese medicine, watercress is thought to help reduce tumors, improve night vision and improve digestion. It’s used as a remedy for jaundice, urinary difficulty, sore throat, mumps and bad breath.
How much: Eat watercress daily if you can. In some regions, it’s more widely available during the spring and summer, when it’s cultivated outdoors. But since it can also be grown hydroponically, you can find it year-round in many grocery stores and at your local farmers market.
Tips: You can cook it, but watercress is better for you when you eat it raw. Tuck it into a sandwich in place of lettuce.
You already knew spinach was good for you, but did you know just how good? Spinach protects against eye disease and vision loss; it’s good for brain function; it guards against colon, prostate and breast cancers; it protects against heart disease, stroke and dementia; it lowers blood pressure; it’s anti-inflammatory; and it’s great for bone health. Spinach has an amazing array of nutrients, including high amounts of vitamin K,calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, magnesium and iron.
A carotenoid found in spinach kills prostate cancer cells and prevents them from multiplying. Folate promotes vascular health by lowering homocysteine and has also been shown to reduce the risk of developing colorectal, ovarian and breast cancers. The vitamin C and beta-carotene in spinach protect against colon cancer in addition to fighting inflammation, making them key components of brain health, particularly in older adults.
Spinach is loaded with vitamin K (one cup of cooked spinach provides 1111 percent of the recommended daily amount), which builds strong bones by helping calcium adhere to the bone.
How much: Fresh spinach should be a daily staple in your diet. It’s available in practically every grocery store, no matter where you live. Aim for a few ounces, raw or lightly steamed, every day.
Tips: Add a handful of fresh spinach to your next fruit smoothie. It’ll change the color but not the taste. Conventionally grown spinach is susceptible to pesticide residue; stick to organic.
Onions get a bad rap for their effect on the breath, but that’s not the only part of the body where they pack a wallop. Onion consumption has been shown to help lower the risk of prostate and esophageal cancers and has also been linked to reduced mortality from coronary heart disease. Research suggests that they may help protect against stomach cancer. Onions contain sulfides that help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as a peptide that may help prevent bone loss.
Onions have super antioxidant power. They contain quercetin, a natural antihistamine that reduces airway inflammation and helps relieve symptoms of allergies and hay fever. Onions also boast high levels of vitamin C, which battles cold and flu symptoms. Onions’ anti-inflammatory properties help fight the pain and swelling associated with osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis.
How much: For all the health benefits onions provide, it would be ideal to eat one a day. However, if that’s not doable for you, add a few onions to your weekly grocery list and try to eat a little bit every day. All varieties are extremely good for you, but shallots and yellow onions lead the pack in antioxidant activity. Raw onions provide the best nutrition, but they’re still great for you when they’re lightly cooked.
Tip: Onions should be stored at room temperature, but if they bother your eyes when you cut them, try refrigerating them for an hour beforehand. Find out why they make you cry.
Carrots are a great source of the potent antioxidants known as carotenoids. Diets high in carotenoids have been tied to a decreased risk in postmenopausal breast cancer as well as cancers of the bladder, cervix, prostate, colon, larynx and esophagus. Conversely, diets low in carotenoids have been associated with chronic disease, including heart disease and various cancers. Research suggests that just one carrot per day could reduce your risk of lung cancer by half. Carrots may also reduce your risk of kidney and ovarian cancers. Nutrients in carrots inhibit cardiovascular disease, stimulate the immune system, promote colon health, and support ear and eye health.
Carrots contain calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, fiber, vitamin C and an incredible amount of vitamin A. The alpha-carotene in carrots has shown promise in inhibiting tumor growth. In Chinese medicine, carrots are used to treat rheumatism, kidney stones, tumors, indigestion, night blindness, ear infections and more.
How much: Eat a serving of carrots each day and enjoy them year-round. Carrots are good for you whether they’re raw or lightly cooked. For the best nutrition, go for whole carrots that are firm and fresh-looking. Precut baby carrots are made from whole carrots and tend to lose important nutrients during processing.
Tips: Remove carrot tops before storing them in the fridge, as the tops drain moisture from the roots and will cause the carrots to wilt. Buy organic; conventionally grown carrots frequently show high pesticide residues.
Cabbage is a powerhouse source of vitamins K and C. Just one cup supplies 91 percent of the recommended daily amount for vitamin K, 50 percent of vitamin C, good amounts of fiber and decent scores of manganese, vitamin B6 and folate. How many calories per serving? It offers 11 percent more vitamin C than oranges.
Cabbage contains high levels of antioxidant sulforaphanes that not only fight free radicals before they damage DNA but also stimulate enzymes that detoxify carcinogens in the body. Researchers believe this one-two approach may contribute to the apparent ability of cruciferous vegetables to reduce the risk of cancer more effectively than any other plant food group.
Cabbage builds strong bones, dampens allergic reactions, reduces inflammation and promotes gastrointestinal health. Cabbage is routinely juiced as a natural remedy for healing peptic ulcers due to its high glutamine content. It also provides significant cardiovascular benefit by preventing plaque formation in the blood vessels. In Chinese medicine, cabbage is used to treat constipation, the common cold, whooping cough, depression, irritability and stomach ulcers. Use the whole cabbage; the outer leaves contain a third more calcium than the inner leaves. Both are nutritional stars, but red cabbages are far superior to the white variety, with about seven times more vitamin C and more than four times the polyphenols.
How much: The more cabbage you can include in your diet, the better.
Tips: Try raw sauerkraut. It has all the health properties of cabbage, plus some potent probiotics, which are excellent for digestive health.
You’ll find it difficult to locate another single food source with as much naturally occurring health-promoting properties as broccoli. A single cup of steamed broccoli provides more than 200 percent of the RDA for vitamin C (again, more than oranges), nearly as much of vitamin K, and about half of the daily allowance for vitamin A, along with plentiful folate, fiber, sulfur, iron, B vitamins and a whole host of other important nutrients. Broccoli contains about twice the amount of protein as steak.
Broccoli’s phytochemicals fight cancer by neutralizing carcinogens and accelerating their elimination from the body, in addition to inhibiting tumors caused by chemical carcinogens. Studies show evidence that these substances help prevent lung and esophageal cancers.
Phytonutrients called indoles found in broccoli help protect against prostate, gastric, skin, breast and cervical cancers. Extensive studies have linked broccoli to a 20 percent reduction in heart disease risk. In Chinese medicine, broccoli is used to treat eye inflammation.
How much: If you can eat a little broccoli every day, your body will thank you for it. If you can’t swing it, aim for eating it as regularly as possible. Like many other vegetables, broccoli provides fantastic nutrition both in its raw form and when it’s properly cooked.
Tip: Steaming or cooking broccoli lightly releases the maximum amount of the antioxidant sulforaphane.
Kale is highly nutritious, has powerful antioxidant properties and is anti-inflammatory. One cup of cooked kale contains an astounding 1,328 percent of the RDA for vitamin K, 192 percent of the RDA for vitamin A and 89 percent of the RDA for vitamin C. It’s also a good source of calcium and iron.
Kale is in the same plant family as another cruciferous superfood and contains high levels of the cancer-fighting compound sulforaphane. The indoles in kale have been shown to protect against breast, cervical and colon cancers. The vitamin K in kale promotes blood clotting, protects the heart and helps build strong bones by anchoring calcium to the bone. Kale has more antioxidant power than another leafy green and is extra-rich in beta-carotene (containing seven times as much as does broccoli), lutein and zeaxanthin (10 times the amount in broccoli). In Chinese medicine, kale is used to help ease lung congestion.
How much: Like cabbage, the more kale you can eat, the better. A daily serving is ideal.
Tips: Kale’s growing season extends nearly year-round; the only time it’s out of season is summer, when plenty of other leafy greens are abundant.
Steam or sauté kale on its own, or add it to soups and stews.
Kale is also a great addition when it’s blended in fruit smoothies or juiced with other vegetables.
The same pesky weed known for ruining lawns has a long history of being used as a healing herb in cultures around the globe. One cup of raw dandelion greens provides 535 percent of the RDA of vitamin K and 112 percent of the RDA for vitamin A. Dandelion greens are also a good source of vitamin C, calcium, iron, fiber and potassium. Among all foods, it’s one of the richest sources of vitamin A and one of the best sources of beta-carotene.
Dandelion has been used for centuries to treat hepatitis, kidney and liver disorders such as kidney stones, jaundice and cirrhosis. It’s routinely prescribed as a natural treatment for hepatitis C, anemia and liver detoxification. As a natural diuretic, dandelion supports the entire digestive system and increases urine output, helping flush toxins and excess salt from the kidneys. The naturally occurring potassium in dandelions helps prevent the loss of potassium that can occur with pharmaceutical diuretics.
Dandelion promotes digestive health by stimulating bile production, resulting in a gentle laxative effect. Inulin further aids digestion by feeding the healthy probiotic bacteria in the intestines; it also increases calcium absorption and has a beneficial effect on blood sugar levels, therefore being useful in treating diabetes. Both the dandelion leaves and root are used to treat heartburn and indigestion. The pectin in dandelion relieves constipation and, in combination with vitamin C, reduces cholesterol. Dandelion is excellent for reducing edema, bloating and water retention; it can also help reduce high blood pressure. On top of all that, dandelion contains multiple antidiarrheal and antibacterial properties.
In Chinese medicine, dandelion is used in combination with other herbs to treat hepatitis and upper respiratory tract infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. The sap from the stem and root is a topical remedy for warts.
How much: How much dandelion to incorporate into your diet boils down to availability and personal preference. Dandelion greens are considered a specialty item in some areas and therefore can be difficult to find. They also have a pungent taste, and people tend to love or hate the flavor.
Tips: Use the root in soups or sauté it on its own. If the raw leaves are too bitter for you, try them lightly steamed or sautéed.