Healthy Living Blog

Top 5 Healthy Foods

The number one killer today is heart disease. Number two is cancer. Other, often preventable chronic diseases like dementia, diabetes, stroke, kidney disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease also make the top 10. What can we do about this? Though modern medicine offers many treatments, only lifestyle offers the promise of preventing these conditions in the first place. There are now thousands of studies showing that the foods we eat have a big impact on these and other diseases over time, and that even modest changes can make a difference.  

So, which foods really reduce our risk for chronic diseases? While there are many healthy foods, few offer culinary flexibility, affordability, and availability and have ample evidence for improving our health. Below, I highlight five top foods that meet all these requirements.  

  1. LEGUMES: Some people haven’t even heard the term legume, but they’ve been a staple for many people around the world for thousands of years. Legumes are the humble family of beans and lentils and include chickpeas and split peas too. Though seemingly ordinary, they offer myriad health benefits for regular eaters, including lowered blood pressure, lowered risk for stroke and heart disease, and improved intestinal health and body weight. It’s no mystery why, either: they pack more fiber than any other food, which is essential to feed the probiotics naturally living in our colons. Furthermore, they have antioxidants, protein, and many minerals. Beans and lentils tend to make us feel fuller from fewer calories as well, helping to reduce the munchies.  

The internet abounds with recipes, but almost any stew, soup, salad, or protein dish works well with some beans or lentils added in. Convenient canned beans are okay, as long as you rinse them off in a colander or strainer before serving.  

  1. NUTS: Surprising though it may seem, nearly every study that has added nuts to people’s diets has measured significant health improvements and (excess) weight reduction! They also undoubtedly help fight our number one killer: heart disease. Nuts abound in healthy fat, minerals, and phytonutrients. They likely confer more of the Mediterranean-diet longevity advantage than either olive oil or fish. The other good news is that all nuts are great, though walnuts have the most omega 3 healthy fats — which flax and other seeds are also rich in. Just be careful of nut butters and snacks with added sugar. Also, keep nuts in the freezer if it’ll be awhile before you finish them.
  2. SPICES: In particular, cinnamon, cloves, oregano, marjoram, and mint top the list. Why? They are richer in antioxidants and some phytonutrients than any other foods on the planet, and there’s evidence that our bodies need these as we age to prevent chronic diseases. Studies show that herbs and spices can help block every stage of cancer cell formation and growth, and their consumption is indeed linked with less cancer — our number two killer. The other advantage here is that it only takes a couple of shakes and a few cents to add them! Marjoram and oregano are great with chicken, tomatoes, pasta, beans, and other dishes, while almost everyone loves cinnamon.  
  3. LEAFY GREENS: This one might be a no-brainer, but it bears repeating; very few foods are as healthy promoting as dark leafy green vegetables (think spinach, beet greens, kale, chard, arugula, and collards). They’re consistently linked with many health benefits, from blood pressure to weight loss. Unless you love salad, fitting them in can be a little tricky. But, food doesn’t get too much more convenient than bagged greens. Greens sautéed for just five minutes in a pan with olive oil, garlic, and fresh lemon juice is a tasty accompaniment to many dishes and is easy to make. Whether fresh or frozen, greens can also be “buried” in many casseroles, stews, and smoothies without much time or thought, since they cook down to a relatively small amount. Greens work particularly well with eggs, beans, or a little cheese. 
  4. BERRIES: Berries are particularly rich in phytonutrients called anthocyanins, which have been shown to reduce oxidative stress. This is particularly true for the heart, brain, and gut — organs that are particularly vulnerable to serious chronic diseases that afflict us nowadays. If you find a particular berry to be more delicious or affordable, then go for it; all types of berries are great! Don’t forget the frozen section of the grocery store. Nutrients are often higher in frozen fruit, (particularly in wild blueberries). Frozen fruits also don’t run the risk of going bad and can be bought in bulk for a price discount. Berries taste particularly good in yogurt, cereal, oatmeal, smoothies, and parfaits or after any meal!  

About Benjamin White, PHD, MPH, RD, LDN, Nutrition Director

In addition to nutrition, Dr. White has a background in public health and scientific research. Ben is excited about translating research into practical knowledge that people can use to improve their overall health. He teaches a variety of classes, ranging from online nutrition resources to meal planning to controlling  your  food environment. He oversees the nutritional components of the program to ensure that participants are equipped with the necessary skills, resources, support, and knowledge to succeed after leaving Structure House. Restaurant outings, individual nutrition counseling, and workshops are also key parts of the program overseen by the nutrition team. The chefs and dietitians at Structure House work in tandem to provide participants with a menu that is appealing, balanced, satisfying and healthy.

Ben earned his Master’s degree in Public Health Nutrition from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has experience in weight loss counseling, motivational interviewing, diabetes management, vegetarian diets, teaching, and scientific research. Dr. White joined Structure House in 2016 as a Registered Dietitian.

View all posts by Benjamin White, PHD, MPH, RD, LDN

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