Every winter, Denise—a 45-year-old schoolteacher from western New York—could predict the regular onslaught of cold-induced asthma attacks and an annual sinus infection. But this past winter, she remained healthy all season long, a first for her.
What made the difference? Denise believes it’s that she had changed her diet over the past year to be less processed and more plant-based.
“My motivation initially was weight loss,” says Denise, who was inspired to change her and her family’s diet after watching the movie Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead. “Yes, I lost some weight; about 14 pounds. But I was surprised—shocked actually—to find that, as a result of this diet, my asthma and sinus problems seem to be completely gone.”
Denise’s results come as no surprise to doctors such as Ronald Weiss, an internist from West New York who purchased a 348-acre farm four years ago to create the first farm-based medical practice. “Food is medicine,” Weiss says, quoting the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates who coined the phrase “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
But processed food, packaged food and genetically modified foods don’t count, says Boulder, Colorado-based Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth: One Mother’s Shocking Investigation Into the Dangers of America’s Food Supply—and What Every Family Can Do to Protect Itself. “We’ve gotten so far away from real food. What we think to be food in the grocery store is now a processed product full of artificial ingredients,” O’Brien says. “Getting healthy is about getting back to real food and less fake food and less processed stuff.”
By putting the right fuel into our bodies, our immune systems can do their jobs of boosting our overall wellness and resistance to illness and disease. “Our immune system is in our gut,” says Kathie Madonna Swift, a registered dietary nurse, author of The Swift Diet, and education director for Food As Medicine, a professional nutrition training program for physicians and other health-care providers. In fact, 70 to 80 percent of our immune tissue is located in our digestive systems. What we eat, therefore, affects how our bodies fight illnesses and disease, Swift says.
The wrong foods (such as highly processed foods, sugar and red meat) also trigger inflammation, which has been linked to major diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. The right foods nourish us, quelling this inflammation. This is backed up by numerous studies, including one published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, which found that the main dietary strategies to help reduce inflammation included consuming adequate omega-3 fatty acids; reducing intake of trans fats and refined grains; and consuming large amounts of vegetables, fruits, nuts and whole grains. Additional research confirms that a diet rich in vegetables, legumes and healthful fats such as olive oil, and low in meat and dairy, helps to “markedly blunt the post-meal increase in glucose, triglycerides and inflammation.” The researchers concluded this anti-inflammatory regimen—which also includes lean protein, vinegar, fish oil, tea, cinnamon, weight loss, exercise and low to moderate alcohol consumption—should be considered the primary and secondary prevention of coronary artery disease and diabetes.
While a daily green juice—made from vegetables such as spinach, kale and parsley—is packed full of nutrients, most experts agree that plant-based whole foods are generally better for us.
The foods we should include in our diet on a regular basis, Weiss says, include: dark, leafy greens such as collards, watercress, arugula, escarole, radicchio, red leaf lettuce and mustard greens; cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage; berries; garlic (“which kills cancer in a Petri dish,” Weiss says) and onions; fresh herbs, which are rich in antioxidants; mushrooms (“which contain anti-cancer molecules,” Weiss says); sweet potatoes (“the skins have as much antioxidant power as blueberries,” Weiss says); and legumes such as lentils and black and kidney beans.
But in the end, no single whole, plant-based food is any better than the others, Weiss says. “The molecules within all these foods work together in concert to create a symphony of health,” he says. “The more varied your diet is, the healthier you’ll be.” Yet, keeping that in mind, some all-star foods are especially helpful in their effects against certain conditions.
If your diet doesn’t include many of the following foods, you may find transforming your diet daunting. But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. “Your diet doesn’t have to be 100 percent plant-based all the time,” Denise says, speaking from experience. She slowly changed her diet rather than overhauling it all at once, and found the benefits she experienced encouraged her to keep adding more new changes. “Increasing your vegetable and fruit intake slowly will boost your nutrients and can make a huge difference in the way you feel,” she says. “For me, I felt a huge difference within just weeks. I had so much more energy and just felt better overall.”
Patients who follow a plant-based diet have reduced mortality from all causes, but also a decreased risk for cancer overall. One study, in particular, found that eating a whole foods diet is associated with a significantly lower risk for stomach cancer. Other research, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that postmenopausal women who eat a plant-based, Mediterranean diet had a reduced risk of breast cancer. While all plant-based whole foods are good for the body, the foods that seem to be the most protective against cancer include:
Blueberries: Blueberries are nutrient and antioxidant powerhouses that have been linked to everything from reducing blood pressure to preventing cancer. They’re rich in powerful antioxidant compounds that help protect the body—and the body’s DNA—from damage from exposure to things like pesticides, pollution and poor diet, all of which trigger the formation of disease-forming molecules called free radicals.
Olive Oil: A Spanish study found that adding as little as 10 teaspoons of olive oil to our daily diet could help protect women against breast cancer. The researchers theorize that olive oil may mount a multipronged attack on cancer tumors, stunting their growth, and even protecting against potentially cancerous damage to DNA. What’s more, compelling research found that oleoscanthal—a powerful antioxidant found in extra virgin olive oil—has been shown to wipe out cancer cells in as little as 30 minutes.
Tomatoes: Tomatoes are rich in lycopene (a powerful antioxidant), which researchers from Wayne State University School of Medicine found seems to protect against cancer—particularly breast, prostate and kidney cancers. Lycopene is a carotenoid, responsible for giving many fruits and vegetables, especially tomatoes, their red color. Eating tomatoes with a little bit of olive oil helps the lycopene to be better absorbed by the body.
A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and oily fish such as salmon—in place of high-fat dairy and foods with added sugar and salt—were able to lose weight, lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol levels and reduce their overall risk of cardiovascular disease by a third.
Another study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who followed a Mediterranean style of eating had lower risk factors for cardiovascular disease—and had a 35 percent decreased risk of metabolic syndrome, a condition with risk factors that include a large waistline, high triglyceride levels, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and high blood sugar. They also had a 43 percent lower risk of weight gain. While a plant-based diet is protective of the heart overall, the foods that seem to be the most heart-friendly include:
Flax Seeds: These seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids as well as a variety of other key nutrients, including calcium, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. One Iowa State University study has linked eating flax seeds with lowering blood cholesterol. One reason they have such health-promoting effects is that they decrease inflammation. Add flax seeds to steel-cut oatmeal or salads to get your daily dose.
Avocados: In one American Heart Association study, overweight or obese people who ate a moderate-fat diet, including an avocado daily, had lower bad cholesterol than those on a similar diet without the avocado.
Rosemary: This herb is a rich source of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds, which are thought to help increase blood circulation. A 2012 University of Florida study found that eating herbs such as rosemary, as well as turmeric, cloves and ginger, produced significantly fewer inflammatory cells compared with those who hadn’t consumed the spices.
Researchers have determined that adding healthy bacteria into our bodies—through diet or supplements—can help reduce gas and bloating and increase regularity. The foods that help support a healthy digestive system include:
Almonds: These nuts have been found to be a good source of prebiotics, which is essentially food the beneficial microorganisms in the intestine need to thrive. These nuts are also rich in fiber, which helps prevent a number of conditions, including constipation, acid reflux, inflammatory bowel syndrome and diverticulitis.
Sauerkraut: Fermented cabbage (aka sauerkraut) is packed with beneficial Lactobacillus bacteria, as well as cancer-fighting compounds such as sulforaphane. These beneficial bacteria take up residence in the intestinal tract, which aids in digestion. Studies have also shown that this strengthening of the gut and the immune system can help prevent cancer.
Ginger: This herb is widely used to treat nausea and stomach upset, as well as morning sickness and motion sickness. Ginger contains a natural chemical that’s used as an ingredient in antacid, laxative and anti-gas medications. One study from the University of Michigan Medical School found ginger reduced inflammation in the colon (a precursor to colon cancer) within just a month.
Researchers from Columbia University Medical Center and Washington University reviewed brain MRIs of octogenarians and found that those who consumed a diet rich in olive oil, whole grains, fish, vegetables and fruit were up to 36 percent less likely to show brain damage from small strokes. And according to one study in The Journal of the American Medical Association, when combined with regular exercise, following this type of diet can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 48 percent. What’s more, research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry shows that people who follow a plant-based Mediterranean style of eating are less likely to develop depression. Try these brain-boosting foods:
Turmeric: Adding about 1⁄4 teaspoon of turmeric to food can help improve working memory, including planning and problem solving, for more than six hours, researchers found. Epidemiologists theorize that the turmeric in curries eaten in India may help explain the low rate of Alzheimer’s disease there (less than a fourth that of the U.S.). Turmeric’s powerful effects are thanks to the broad anti-inflammatory powers of its chief polyphenol, curcumin. Adding black pepper helps boost curcumin absorption.
Leafy Greens: Eating green leafy vegetables slows cognitive decline, keeping mental abilities sharp, according to research from Rush University Medical Center. Researchers found that people who ate one to two servings a day had the cognitive ability of a person 11 years younger than those who consumed none. Dark leafy greens are high in vitamin K, folate and the powerful antioxidants lutein and beta-carotene, among others.
Red Grapes: University of South Carolina scientists have found that resveratrol, a natural anti-inflammatory in the skin of red grapes, can prevent inflammation as well as depression. The scientists found that resveratrol blocks increased inflammation in the brain—and therefore, depressive-like behaviors.
If food is medicine, then can supplements play a role in staying healthy?
“Food should always come first, but there is absolutely a case to be made for supplements,” says Kathie Madonna Swift, a registered dietary nurse and author of The Swift Diet. But each person’s needs are different; supplementation can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, she says. “Supplementation often requires the skill of a credentialed nutritionist or physician trained in integrative medicine,” Swift says. “That’s especially important if you’ve been diagnosed with a medical condition or are taking any medications.”
The one supplement, however, that Swift recommends for just about everyone: probiotics, which are so important for gut health. Look for a high-quality, broad-spectrum probiotic that contains a variety of Lactobacillus and bifidobacteria strains. Swift suggests people start with a dose of about 1 to 10 billion colony forming units (CFUs).
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