Food, of course, is a necessary ingredient for good health. But is it more than that? Can eating the right foods in the right combination actually prevent disease? In the past few years, research on the subject has exploded. Scientists have started to identify what may be hundreds--even thousands--of natural chemicals in foods that seem to have preventive powers. These aren't just vitamins and minerals but a whole new bouquet of strange-sounding compounds--starting with the latest nutritional superstars, the phytochemicals.
In the pages that follow, we've used this research to prepare a shopping list of 10 foods that pack a nutritional punch. That clove of garlic in your refrigerator? That jar of nuts in your pantry? Used correctly, they may have the power to prevent all kinds of serious ailments, including heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. You may never look at a tomato the same way again. (Or, as it turns out, a potato.)
A word of warning: you can find many of these compounds in dietary supplements, but they might not do any good. "Food is very complex," says JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital. "It may be the combination of antioxidants, phytochemicals and fiber that work together to confer health benefits."
Fortunately, nature has given us a handy rule of thumb. Many of the very chemicals that make foods good for us are the ones that give them color, turning blueberries blue, spinach green and carrots deep orange. For optimum health, scientists say, eat a rainbow of colors. Your plate should look like a box of Crayolas.
You can start by passing the ketchup. Several studies have linked the cooked tomatoes in ketchup, soups and sauces to a reduced risk of prostate cancer and other cancers of the digestive tract. Tomatoes contain lycopene, probably the most powerful antioxidant among the carotenoids, the compounds that turn fruits and veggies deep orange. It is so good at mopping up free radicals that Lycopene outperforms the best-known carotenoid of them all, beta-carotene. It is readily released from tomatoes by cooking and--good news for pizza lovers--it's most easily absorbed when a small amount of oil is added. Like your tomatoes raw? That's good too. They can be a valuable source of vitamin C.
With his corncob pipe and his overdeveloped forearms, Popeye is hardly today's poster child of fitness, but his legendary food preference still makes a lot of sense. Spinach is loaded with iron and folate, a B vitamin considered so important that it is now routinely added to flour. Folate not only prevents neural-tube defects in babies but also lowers blood levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that irritates blood vessels and is linked to heart disease. Just as impressive, spinach contains two phytochemicals, lutein and zeaxanthin, that seem to ward off macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness. One cup of spinach contains just 41 calories and no fat, so you needn't worry about any unsightly bulges in your forearms or anywhere else. Don't like spinach? Try kale, Swiss chard or collard greens.