Hidden Health Heroes

The secret identities of foods lurking in your cupboards
( [email protected] ) Apr 06, 2004 09:37 AM EDT

Call it a convenient excuse, but the common perception is that eating well is difficult (and expensive) work. When they think about eating healthy, many people think about a plate heaping with various meat substitutes, roots, grasses and other obscure flora that cost a fortune and can only be found at a little store tucked away in a remote part of town.

We’re here to tell you that the first steps to good nutrition may already be lurking in your fridge and cupboards. Here are five common food products that may be better for you than you think.

Apples: Everybody knows that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but it also helps keep the pounds away, too. Apples are usually the one concession to health that most people make—they’re inexpensive, they’re easy to prepare (wash, eat), and they’re delicious. All that, and they’re extremely nutritious too.

A large apple contains 5 mg of pectin, a fruit extract that is a natural hunger suppressant. Studies have found that the amount in an apple can increase satiety and reduce weight. Also, apples are high in fiber (about 6 grams), an essential component to any healthy diet. Research has found time and again that fiber helps prevent cancer. For more information click here to read: A Fiber-Rich Diet may Protect Against Cancer.

Apples also contain the flavonoid quercetin, which has been shown in numerous studies to have anti-cancer properties. Quercetin has also been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory properties, so it may be useful in conditions such as arthritis. In traditional medicine, raw apples have been used to treat constipation, while cooked apples have been used to help stop diarrhea.

Yogurt: We’re sure you know yogurt is healthy for you, but maybe you don’t know just how healthy. Yogurt is a probiotic, meaning it contains live, healthy bacteria with important benefits for your body. Yogurt contains so-called ‘good bacteria’ known as lactobacillus and bififobacterium, which have positive effects on gastrointestinal function and immunity. Probiotics may also help reduce the risk of colon cancer.

You know the liquid that collects at the top of yogurt that everyone tends to toss out? That’s whey, a dairy-based source of protein—the stuff in most protein powders. Whey protein provides the body with several amino acids, including leucine, isoleucine and valine—the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) needed for the maintenance of muscle tissue. Be sure to mix that ‘water’ back into the yogurt to get extra protein.

Also, be careful which fruit-bottom yogurts you choose, as some contain high amounts of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a sweetener that has not only been linked to the growing obesity crisis, but can also increase blood levels of triglycerides, increasing the risk of heart disease.

Processed tomatoes (pasta sauce, salsa): Think processed veggies aren’t as healthy as the fresh stuff? It’s not necessarily true in the case of the tomato. In fact, a study in the International Journal of Cancer found that cooked tomatoes contain more of the powerful antioxidant lycopene than raw ones. Tomatoes and tomato products are also rich sources of folate, vitamin C and potassium.

Processed tomatoes are believed to be partially responsible for the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Salsa is also a great way to enjoy the nutritional rewards of cooked tomatoes—it’s fat-free, has four calories per tablespoon and is low in sodium. Use it as a garnish or as a sauce over fish or chicken.

Remember, many pastas and tortilla chips can be high in carbohydrates and trans fatty acids, so use healthy versions of the products, like kamut pasta or baked tortilla chips.

Oatmeal: The stuff of goopy childhood breakfasts, oatmeal is, quite simply, nutritional genius. Oats contain psyllium, a soluble fiber that helps lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, reducing heart disease risk. Studies recommend eating 25 grams of oat-containing foods per day to reduce risk of heart disease. Oatmeal also contains B vitamins, folic acid and many other nutrients.

Oatmeal is a complex carbohydrate and is processed by the body at slower rate. It will reduce hunger and is less likely to trigger elevation of blood sugar; the pancreas produces excess insulin when blood sugar levels are elevated too quickly. In short, excess insulin production results in excess fat.

Eggs: Over the years, eggs have developed a bad reputation for being high in cholesterol and fat, but unless you’re eating a five-egg omelet a day, eggs are actually one of the healthiest of the hidden health heroes. A great source of protein, eggs are also high in B vitamins, especially B2 and B12.

Egg whites contain most of the protein in an egg, while the yolk contains a majority of the fat. If you’re watching your weight, lose the yolk, or use half. You can add pasteurized egg whites to smoothies as an extra source of protein.

If you want to take things up a notch, we recommend buying omega-3 eggs. Omega-3s taste exactly the same as normal eggs, but are produced by chickens that have been fed with alfalfa, corn, soybean and flaxseed, making them an excellent source of omega-3 essential fat. These fatty acids have been shown to benefit human circulatory and mental health. An average sized omega-3 egg contains approximately 320 mg of omega-3, while a regular egg contains approximately 63 mg. Omega-3 essential fat is know to help prevent and reverse heart disease, reduce inflammatory response, nourish dry skin and hair and repair brittle nails. Read more about Omega-3s here.

See, you were a health junkie and didn’t even know it. While eating these five foods won’t completely transform your health, you can use them as the first step on the road to wellness. Being aware of what you eat and taking an interest in your health and wellness is the first step to improving it. Before you know it you’ll be eating better, sleeping better, exercising, taking vitamins and feeling better overall—and you’ll have these humble heroes to thank.