What do broccoli, oranges and oats have in common? They are all healthy, but they may be better for you than you think. These foods, along with many others, are called functional foods, meaning they provide added physiological health benefits beyond basic nutrition. That is, we know that these foods contain beneficial vitamins, minerals and fiber, but they also contain active compounds that help prevent disease and promote health. We can reduce the risk of chronic disease by eating these foods in their natural states or through added functional ingredients mixed into the food, such as calcium-fortified orange juice.
With consumers taking more responsibility for their own health and developing a better understanding of the link between diet and disease, functional food has grown to be an estimated 47.6 billion dollar global industry. Some of the diet-related health claims seen on food products include the link between calcium and bone health, fruits and vegetables and cancer prevention and saturated fat and heart disease.
The top 10 functional foods
Stock up on these for better health:
1. Oat bran: Oat bran contains a soluble fiber called psyllium, which helps to lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, thereby reducing the risk for heart disease. Studies show you should eat 25 grams of oat-containing foods per day to reduce heart disease risk. Try slow-cooking oats, oat bran breads or buy psyllium in bulk and sprinkle it into cereals or baked goods.
2. Tomatoes: Ever wonder why tomatoes are red? It is due to lycopene, a powerful antioxidant in the carotenoid family which helps to protect the body from disease. Tomatoes and tomato-based products have been studied for their ability to reduce the risk of prostate cancer and heart disease. Processed tomato products are the most easily absorbed in the body—this includes tomato sauce, tomato juice, tomato paste, vegetable cocktail and tomato puree, however, raw tomatoes are still a great source of lycopene (1/2 cup raw tomato = 8.3 grams lycopene). The amount of lycopene needed to see health benefits is 10 to 15 mg per day, or one tomato-based product per day, such as ½ cup tomato sauce or 2 tablespoons tomato paste.
3. Soy: Soy is a protein-rich bean with numerous health benefits. Soy protein helps reduce the risk for heart disease by lowering blood cholesterol levels. Soy protein also contains isoflavonoids, which have been shown to protect against heart disease and some cancers such as breast and prostate. You should eat about 25 grams of soy protein per day, which provides about 25 to 50 mg of isoflavones. To learn more about soy, click here.
4. Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli, broccoli sprouts, kale, cabbage and turnip all contain natural chemicals called indoles. Indoles have been shown to help prevent cancer and interact with enzymes in the body to inhibit tumor formation. Studies show fewer occurrences of colon and stomach cancers in individuals who consume these vegetables regularly. To get the most health benefits, it is best to eat these foods raw. Eat your greens!
5. Omega-3 eggs: Omega-3 fatty acids are found naturally in fish oils, flaxseed and nuts, and can now be found in eggs. Omega-3-enriched eggs are produced by altering the diet of hens to include 10 to 20% ground flaxseed. Flaxseed is higher in omega-3 fatty acids and lower in saturated fats than other grains. Feeding the hens flaxseed produces eggs with 0.4 grams of omega-3 per egg vs. 0.1 grams in a classic egg. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to help prevent and possibly reverse heart disease, reduce inflammatory response, boost the immune system and improve mental and visual function. Research shows that fewer than two servings of fish per week or just three omega-3 eggs per week can give you these health benefits. See Opt for Omega-3 for more information.
6. Berries: We all know fruits are good for you, but some may be better than others when it comes to fighting disease. Anthocyanins are the source of the blue, purple and red colors found in berries. These pigments function as antioxidants, protecting the body from oxidative damage that may lead to heart disease, cancer and aging. These compounds may also protect against urinary tract infections. Studies show two servings of cranberries or blueberries per day (one or two glasses of cranberry juice per day) can help prevent urinary tract infections. Incorporate blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries and cherries in your diet, as they all contain these powerful disease-fighting pigments.
7. Flaxseed: Oh, the wonders of flaxseed. Not only is it a good source of protein and soluble fiber, it is a leading source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseed also contains beneficial compounds known as lignans, which protect against heart disease by lowering total and LDL cholesterol levels and help protect against some cancers. Reap the benefits by adding 2 or 3 tablespoons of ground flaxseed to smoothies, yogurt, cereal and baked goods.
8. Yogurt: Yogurt, along with milk and kefir, are probiotics, meaning they contain live, healthy bacteria with health benefits. Yogurt contains good bacteria called lactobacillus and bififobacterium, which have positive effects on gastrointestinal function and immunity. Probiotics may also help reduce the risk of colon cancer. Have yogurt mixed with flaxseed as a snack to help protect your gastrointestinal tract from diseases.
9. Green tea: Move over java and make room for a powerful disease fighter called green tea! Green tea contains a natural antioxidant called polyphenol, which appears to be responsible for many of green tea’s protective effects, such as: preventing certain types of cancers, reducing blood cholesterol levels, promoting weight loss, strengthening immunity and increasing energy. Black tea also contains polyphenols but has more caffeine than green tea.
10. Garlic: There’s more to garlic than its flavor! Garlic contains natural sulphur compounds that have been shown to inhibit the growth of cancers and tumors, to lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure, to act as an anticoagulant and to stimulate the body’s immune system. One clove of garlic also contains vitamins A, B and C, selenium, iodine, potassium, iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium. Add garlic to homemade salad dressings, tomato sauces or stir-frys.
One final note
Consumers should take a buyer beware approach when purchasing products that claim to be functional foods. Bars, drinks, chips and many more products on the market claim to be healthy based solely on the fact that they contain a single beneficial nutrient. An example of this is ginkgo biloba potato chips. Ginkgo biloba is an herb shown to improve mental function and memory. Although this herb may be beneficial, eating high calorie potato chips is not the best choice, whether they are fortified or not. Your best bet is to stick to the Truestar Nutrition Plan which is filled with natural, healthy foods and plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables to ensure you are getting a wide variety of beneficial compounds.