The Top Ten
While medical scientists forge ahead with their efforts to better predict which diseases might afflict you in the future, nutritionists have a much simpler strategy for warding off common health busters: Eat better. Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian and author of “The Food Is My Friend Diet,” helped us round up 10 of the best fridge wonders to guard against heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, cancer, weight gain and other maladies. Open your mouth and say "Ah!"
Garbanzo, black, pinto, navy ... Pick your pleasure, because all beans are low in calories and fat, and high in protein, fiber, potassium, folic acid, calcium and iron. Eat about three cups of them each week and you’ll be decreasing your risk for heart disease and certain cancers. What’s more, the protein will help you hold on to your muscle mass, which in turns help you maintain a good weight and energy. The potassium is good for your blood pressure, while the iron helps prevent anemia (which is common in older adults) and the folic acid helps form new red blood cells.
Yogurt and Milk
American adults are notorious for shying away from good calcium sources — Frechman calls milk the “neglected fluid” — but the nutrient is vital for many health reasons, not just strong bones. Your muscles need calcium to help them move efficiently. It’s also a main transport system within the body, ferrying messages from the brain, helping to move blood throughout the body and assisting with the release of hormones and enzymes. Beyond calcium, both milk and yogurt contain protein to protect muscles and boost metabolism; vitamin B-12, which helps make DNA and keeps nerve and blood cells healthy; and potassium to lower blood pressure. Plus, yogurt delivers probiotics (or healthy bacteria) to the gut to help keep all systems go.
This fatty fish contains crucial omega-3 fatty acids that are important for your overall health. Just two servings a week covers you and goes a long way toward protecting your noggin (it helps build cell membranes within the brain), preventing osteoarthritis and controlling blood clotting. Omega-3s are also associated with lowering risks of heart disease and stroke. And emerging studies show promising benefits for certain cancers, autoimmune diseases and inflammatory bowel disease. “I get that some people don’t like fish,” says Frechman, “but just like you need to eat an orange to get your vitamin C, you need to eat a fatty fish to get your crucial omega-3s.” For the over-40 crowd, she recommends a low-sodium albacore tuna. (If you can’t find a low-sodium variety, you can rinse the tuna for 60 seconds to get rid of 40 percent of the sodium.)
The older you get, the more susceptible you become to the damaging effects of inflammation and free radicals (tiny molecules that can harm cells and organs). Vitamin C is your best defense. While many people automatically reach for oranges to get their C fix, Frechman says berries are often a better choice for those over 50, whose stomachs are becoming more sensitive to citrus fruit’s higher acid content. Eat two or three types of berries daily (fresh or frozen) and you’ll help your body turn off those inflammation signals. What’s more, berries will help your body absorb iron better, which will have a positive impact on your energy level. Berries also have lots of fiber to help you feel full and eat less.
When tomatoes are chopped and cooked with a little bit of oil a wonderful thing happens: The antioxidant lycopene is released and, with it, a host of health benefits — especially for men. (The chopping breaks the tomato’s skin to let the lycopene out, heat fully releases it and oil helps with absorption.) “Tomato sauce has been shown to protect and improve men’s prostate health,” says Frechman. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why, but point to lycopene’s ability to prevent and repair cell damage as the likely reason. Having high blood levels of lycopene also drops your risk of heart disease. For variety, try using the sauce on sandwiches, in soups or as a topping for chicken. When you make your own sauce, you can control the sodium and sugar amounts. Otherwise check labels for “low-sodium” or “no-salt added” and minimal added sugars.
“Everyone’s afraid of potatoes,” says Frechman, “but this white vegetable is super healthy.” Potatoes are high in fiber, which you need to keep your digestive system in working order, to lower cholesterol and to help fill you up so you don’t overeat. They’re also good sources of potassium, which helps nerves and muscles communicate and helps regulate blood pressure. Even better, they’re low in calories and fat. Here’s the part where we remind you to turn away from the fried and butter-smothered variety and opt instead for one a day of the baked, steamed or roasted prep methods.
As you get older, hydration becomes very important. After all, every part of your body relies on it to function. “Many people in their 50s and 60s simply don’t feel as thirsty as they once did,” says Frechman, pointing out that seniors are often hospitalized for dehydration. So keep a cup of water nearby and sip often. You don’t need to keep a tally of glasses downed, but if your urine stream is distinctly yellow (vs. clear or pale) that’s a sign that you need more water.
All leafy green vegetables are nutritional no-brainers, but if you had to pick just one to stock up on, broccoli would be it. The crunchy floret is high in vitamins A and C (antioxidants that help reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer), fiber (for a healthy GI tract, weight maintenance and to keep your blood sugars in check), and folic acid (for cell development). “Broccoli also has phytonutrients that may help prevent some cancers and other diseases,” says Frechman. What it doesn’t have so much of is vitamin K, making it a good choice for those who are on blood thinners. Try to eat several servings a week, and mix up your cooking methods. She says stir-frying broccoli bits can help increase your body’s absorption of all these nutrients.
Old-fashioned, steel-cut, quick-cook or in a microwavable bowl, oatmeal is a smart way to up your whole-grain intake.“Studies show that Americans aren’t eating enough whole grains,” says Frechman. Where whole grain pastas are an acquired taste, she says, it’s relatively easy for most people to get into a daily oatmeal habit. Along with being a key whole grain, oatmeal is both an antioxidant and a soluble fiber, which can help lower cholesterol. The grain has also been shown to help stabilize blood sugar and reduce the odds of developing type 2 diabetes. Plus, it bolsters the immune system.
Now a pantry staple, olive oil is the centerpiece of the much-touted Mediterranean diet, says Frechman. It’s a monounsaturated fat, which is one of the “good” fats your body needs to do its various jobs. Using a tablespoon of olive oil to sauté foods, flavor bread or dress up salads will deliver antioxidants like vitamin E to dampen the signs of aging and help lower your risk of heart disease and cancer.