So, you want to live forever ... almost. Can your diet help get you there? Maybe. Scientists and nutritionists claim that some foods boost immunity to infections, destroy cancer cells, improve brain function, slow down the cellular aging processes and fight the No. 1 killer of Americans, heart disease.
More specifically, these foods contain high levels of compounds that improve your health, such as omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, antioxidants and other cell-strengthening nutrients called phytochemicals.
So, what are these foods that increase longevity? Here's a hint: They aren't foods with lots of preservatives!
Delicious, versatile sweet potatoes contain loads of vitamin C and a 400 percent wallop of your daily requirement of vitamin A (or beta carotene). Beta carotene is a pigment that gives sweet potatoes their orange color, but in your body, it's an antioxidant that fights off cancer and aging at the cellular level. Darker sweet potatoes have more beta carotene than pale ones.
Sweet potatoes aren't actually potatoes or yams; they're an edible root related to morning glory flowers. They're also a high-fiber, low fat food that delivers a good, natural dose of vitamin E (a cancer fighter), vitamin B6, iron and potassium in a tasty package. Eat the skin, too, to get an even bigger nutritional boost.
There are lots of different antioxidants, and you need to mix your food choices up to get the most benefit. See what else is on the menu on the next page.
Antioxidants are one category of phytochemicals, plant components that scientists are just now beginning to understand. They've identified 4,000 different phytochemicals, most of which work as antioxidants in your body.
And guess what -- sweet, fresh blueberries deliver more of these beneficial antioxidants than almost any other food. They also have a high fiber content to help keep your weight in check. But how do they keep you young?
Well, the antioxidants found in blueberries protect cells from dangerous free radicals that speed up aging, cause wrinkles and make you vulnerable to diseases. The soluble fiber lowers cholesterol levels, and that helps keep your heart ticking steady and strong.
What other foods have healthy fiber? See the next page.
Whole grains add two kinds of fiber to your diet. Soluble fiber lowers blood cholesterol levels. Insoluble fiber keeps the food you eat -- both the healthy kind and nutritionally shady indulgences -- moving through your body at a steady clip.
Preventing digestive traffic jams reduces strain on your intestines and lowers your risk of getting diverticulitis (the formation of swollen pouches in your digestive system). Slow moving food is uncomfortable, and it gives the bad guys -- harmful bacteria and cancer cells -- way too much time to develop in your intestines.
Whole grains, along with water, make you feel full, so it's easier to avoid overeating and gaining weight. Excessive weight adds to your risk of developing diabetes, elevated cholesterol levels and heart disease.
Fatty, cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, trout and sardines contain omega-3 fatty acids. These compounds are important for keeping your heart disease-free.
Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the bad fat in your blood (triglycerides), lower blood pressure, help blood platelets slide past each other to keep blood clots from forming, and help you keep a steady, regular heartbeat.
But what's the point of living longer if you don't enjoy it? Fish helps there, too. It can reduce the swelling of arthritic joints, allowing you to stay active. Since omega-3 fatty acids make up about 8 percent of your brain, eating fish is smart. It fights off depression and lowers your risk of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. Fish may even boost your immunity to prostate, breast and colon cancers.
We usually only see pumpkins at Halloween, and most of us probably limit eating pumpkin to the special pie at Thanksgiving. But pumpkins have loads of cancer-fighting alpha and beta carotene. They're a top source for lutein, an antioxidant that helps prevent or postpone macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults. Plus, they're a good source of fiber, potassium, riboflavin, iron, and cell-saving and heart healthy vitamins C and E.
Pumpkin seeds deliver vitamin E, iron, calcium, the trace minerals magnesium and zinc, and some essential fatty acids. And they're a great snack that helps prevent prostate troubles in men.
Flaxseed is one of only a few foods that contain the essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid. The "essential" means that you have to eat this particular nutrient to get it, because your body can't make it. Once it's in your digestive system, alpha-linolenic acid converts to a type of omega-3 fatty acid and works to prevent blood clot formation. Quite simply, adding ground flaxseed to your diet cuts your risk of having a fatal heart attack.
In addition to protecting your heart, flaxseed and flaxseed oil keep cell membranes healthy and act as an anti-inflammatory to ease the pain and swelling of arthritic joints. The seed is a good source of fiber, too.
Broccoli is a wonder food. High in fiber, it's also a great dietary source of two B vitamins, folate and riboflavin, as well as potassium, iron and vitamin C. Even though it's not orange, broccoli contains high amounts of anti-aging beta carotene and lutein.
All these nutrients boost your health, but some have special functions. Folate is essential for cell reproduction and formation of hemoglobin that oxygenates red blood cells. Like antioxidants, it fights cancer and heart disease. Folate also helps keep your hearing sound by slowing the age-related loss of high-frequency sounds.
Riboflavin aids metabolism, gives you energy, and is necessary to make other vitamins function in your body.
Every cell in your body contains iron. It keeps your red blood cells oxygenated for energy and proper muscle and brain function. But your body needs vitamin C to absorb iron. Broccoli has this in spades.
As far as citrus fruits go, oranges are the best. They deliver almost every vitamin and mineral out there, and they're easy to eat (or drink). Their biggest selling point is the huge amounts of vitamin C they contain. This nutrient boosts immunity and helps your body absorb iron. But it does even more: Vitamin C prevents cell damage that opens the door for cancer development.
Citrus fruits also deliver a fair amount of fiber, which helps regulate digestion. The pectin fiber in grapefruit lowers LDL (bad) blood cholesterol. When picking grapefruit, darker is better. Red grapefruits have more of the antioxidants beta carotene and lycopene than pink or white grapefruits.
Speaking of antioxidants, citrus is loaded with those and flavonoids, which are phytochemicals in the polyphenol class. Phytochemicals protect cells from the damage of free radicals, block cancer-causing substances, protect against heart disease, and promote healthy eyes and vision.
Nutrientwise, green tea and pomegranate juice don't have much to brag about. What's created the health buzz about these drinks is their richness in antioxidants. The Camellia sinensis leaf, which is processed in different ways to make green, black and oolong teas, has loads of polyphenols, including a potent flavonoid, epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG. These polyphenols smash cell-damaging free radicals and deactivate enzymes that help tumors grow. Researchers think drinking 1 to 2 cups of green tea each day helps prevent breast, prostate, colon, stomach and skin cancers.
With up to three times the antioxidant punch of green tea, pomegranate juice may be even more potent for preserving your longevity. One study indicates pomegranate juice may improve or even prevent coronary heart disease. Other studies show drinking the juice daily slows or prevents prostate and other cancers.
The U.S. bans artificial trans fats. HowStuffWorks looks at how the replacement is going.
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- "Top Cancer-Fighting Foods." The Food Network. Healthy Eating. Oct. 6, 2010. (Oct. 7, 2010) http://www.foodnetwork.com/healthy-eating/top-cancer-fighting-foods/pictures/index.html?nl=EATS_100610_P2_8CancerFightingoods
- White, Dana Angelo. "10 Healthy Foods Under $3." Healthy Eats. The Food Network. May 12, 2009. (Sept. 30, 2010) http://blog.foodnetwork.com/healthyeats/2009/05/12/10-healthy-foods-under-3/