In recent years,
nutritional supplements have become increasingly high tech, providing physicians
and their patients with advanced formulations for many healthcare needs. But
despite their many benefits, these products should not detract from the more
fundamental route to combating chronic disorders and improving one’s health:
the consumption of highly nutritious, powerhouse foods.
Like all healthful foods, “super
foods” enhance a variety of bodily processes–but simply do it
better. These foods contain high levels of antioxidants, phytochemicals, phytosterols,
and dietary fiber that give them both preventive and therapeutic health properties.
Native traditions throughout the world have long held that certain vegetables,
fruits, and grains are especially powerful purveyors of health benefits. But
it was not until these natural products were studied through modern biochemistry,
botanical science, molecular biology, and clinical research that their extraordinary
properties became more widely known.
In this article, we present 18
super foods that should be featured in the diet of healthcare providers and
their patients. The benefits described have been culled from the medical literature,
and a sampling of the research conducted on these foods and their nutritional
components is included in the references. What follows is a look at the specific
preventive and curative properties of these super foods.
For thousands of years, apples
(Malus sylvestrsis) have been used to address numerous medical conditions,
including diabetes, fevers, inflammatory disorders, and heart ailments. In
addition to confirming many of the healthful properties of apples, modern
research has identified invaluable phytochemicals contained in the fruits.
One phytochemical found in apples is phloretin, a natural antibiotic. Apples
also contain pectin and pectic acids that add essential bulk to a diet.
The apple’s tannins, quercetin,
alpha-farnesene, shikimic acid, and chlorogenic acid offer health benefits
as well. By increasing the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine,
for example, they help offset cognitive decline due to oxidative damage. Apples
also have high levels of phenols and polyphenols, and possess other antioxidant,
chemoprotective properties. Consequently, they help guard against a variety
of cancers, including leukemia and cancer of the colon, lung, breast, liver,
and skin. These chemicals also provide essential nutrients that improve cardiovascular
health, reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, and prevent
This fruit had a long and rich
history in the medical practices of China and lndia. In Traditional Chinese
Medicine, apricots and their kernels are prescribed for the treatment of asthma,
cough, and constipation. The fruit is a stronghold of vitamin C, vitamin K,
beta-carotene, thiamine, niacin, and iron. Japanese scientists have studied
the ability of apricots to inhibit the pathogenic bacteria associated with
ulcers and acute gastritis.
Although low in calories, bananas
provide essential nutrients such as vitamin B6, vitamin C, potassium, and
manganese. They also stimulate probiotic activity, which sustains a healthy
gut flora. Bacteria in the gastrointestinal system are critical for the proper
digestion and absorption of nutrients. Bananas help keep this system on track.
Recent findings have indicated that bananas may offer protection against kidney
cancer, particularly in women, and aid renal function.
Many berries have health-boosting
properties. The black, blue, and red varieties are especially known for the
antioxidants that they contain. Blueberries in particular have flavonoids,
phenolic and polyphenol compounds, all of which have shown some ability to
reverse cellular aging of cognitive and motor functions. In one recent study
of the antioxidant levels of 100 foods, blueberries scored highest.
Other studies have shown that blueberries
protect brain health, improve memory, and sustain coordination by, for one,
enhancing communication between nerve cells. This activity provided protection
against serious neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Blueberries also have anti inflammatory properties that protect the skin,
joints, and cardiovascular and neurological systems. The consumption of blueberries
has proven beneficial to people with diabetes. This fruit also prevents bone
loss and inhibits cancer cell proliferation, particularly in prostate and
Broccoli is a super food because
of its high concentration of two phytochemicals–diindolylmethane and
isothiocyanate–that are powerful immunomodulators. Broccoli strengthens
the immune system, which means that it helps in the fight against cancer (particularly
breastand prostate cancer) and boosts the body’s protection against
bacterial and viral infections. Broccoli contains other anticancer agents
as well, such as glucoraphanin. Due to these observed properties, a substantial
amount of research is being conducted on broccoli’s mutagenic qualities.
This vegetable is rich in vitamins
A, B5, B6, B9 (folate), C, and K and in dietary fiber. It provides moderate
amounts of calcium, iron, phosphorus, and potassium. As with other leafy green
vegetables, broccoli contains lutein and zeaxanthin, which foster eye health.
Because it has more calcium than even most dairy products, broccoli can protect
bones and increase bone mass.
Carrots are a chief provider of
carotenoids, a family of antioxidants proven to block DNA and cellular membrane
damage caused by free radicals. Carrots are rich in alpha-carotene and lycopene,
phytochemicals that have anticarcinogenic properties; especially in relation
to colon, lung, prostate, and stomach cancers. The lesser-known black and
purple carrots have high levels of anthocyanin, a powerful anticancer biochemical
that has been found to slow cancer cell proliferation by as much as 80%.
The long-held belief that carrots
improve vision is supported by their high content of retinoids that benefit
ocular health. Carrots also have been shown to boost brain function and provide
cardiovascular benefits, such as decreasing cholesterol. Diabetics should
keep carrots in their diet because they are a good source of vitamin A, which
lowers blood sugar and aids in the development of insulin-producing cells
in the pancreas. One cup of raw carrots can provide nearly 700% of the recommended
daily intake of vitamin A and 220% of vitamin K, which is critical for bone
While garlic contains phytonutrients
similar to those found in onions, it also possesses selenium, a substance
that, according to some studies, offers protection against various cancers
and the deterioration of the body caused by free radicals. Researchers have
studied the ability of garlic to guard against heart disease and arterial
calcification (hardening of the arteries) and to reduce cholesterol and blood
pressure. Because it is a source of the flavonoid quercetin, garlic contains
antibiotic properties that empower it to fight colds, stomach viruses, and
Ginger is used throughout the world
to cure dyspepsia (stomach upsets), reduce gastrointestinal gases, and relieve
nausea caused by pregnancy, seasickness, and even drugs used in chemotherapy.
Ginger is composed largely of fragrant essential oils that give it a distinctive
aromatic flavor. One of these oils, gingerol, makes it a natural sedative
for calming the gastrointestinal tract This oil also provides some protection
against pathogenic bacteria that upset the stomach. Ginger is rich in antibiotic
properties that combat the GI infections which cause diarrhea and dehydration.
Folk medicine has long honored
ginger. While some scientists may dismiss folk medicine, it should be remembered
that many modern pharmaceuticals were derived from folk remedies and then
price-tagged. This folk science, now supported by modern science, has viewed
ginger as a mild immune booster that wards off colds, flus, sinus congestion,
and coughs. New evidence suggests that ginger helps to lower cholesterol.
Preliminary findings in animal studies also suggest that ginger may help to
Also known as wolfberry in its
native Europe, the goji plant is found in much of Asia, where it appears in
exotic (to Westerners) Tibetan and Himalayan descriptions. The word goji is
actually a Westernization of the Chinese word for the berry, which can be
transliterated as “gouqi.” The berry is a common ingredient in
Traditional Chinese Medicine, dating back thousands of years in use.
The oblong red goji berry easily
fulfills the requirements of a super food. It has a high concentration of
phytochemicals, amino acids, vitamins B and C, and beta-carotene. Additionally,
it contains 11 essential and 22 trace dietary minerals, is an outstanding
source of the antioxidant lycopene, and is moderately high in alpha-linolenic
acid. The goji berry also can supply extra protein, dietary fiber, calcium,
zinc, and selenium.
This nutritional profile gives
the goji berry many health-enhancing properties. This fruit protects against
cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases and age-related vision disorders
(such as glaucoma and macular degeneration). Studies have pointed to the berry’s
neuroprotective, immunomodulatory, and anticancer properties as well. This
last benefit was underscored by a study published in the Chinese journal of
Oncology, which indicated that cancer patients responded better to treatment
while on a diet that included goji. However, the study recommended that individuals
on blood-thinning medications avoid eating goji berries, which may interfere
with the drugs. Finally, the goji berry offers liver protection and can improve
The ingredient in tea – and
particularly green tea–that has stirred the most scientific interest
is catechin. Approximately 25% of a dry tea leaf is catechin. Although traces
of catechin are also found in chocolate, wine, and other fruits and vegetables,
it is tea that offers the greatest amount of this super nutrient.
The multitasking catechin has been
shown to reduce the plaque buildup of atherosclerosis, protect against infectious
bacteria, and reduce oxidative stress. Tea catechins are especially important
in a polluted world because they can improve DNA replication and protect against
genetic damage from environmental toxins. Recent studies have noted the antiinflammatory
properties of catechin and suggested that it can play a role in battling cancer.
Other research has noted that green tea can improve bone density and cognitive
function, reduce the risk of developing kidney stones, and strengthen heart
function. There is some evidence that the polyphenols of green tea protect
against the brain cell death associated with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s
lndividuals who consume a Western
diet, especially in America, ignore the nutritional value of most legumes
to their own detriment. This category of super food includes not only beans,
peas, and lentils–the foods most commonly identified as legumes–but
also alfalfa, clover, peanuts, and cashews.
These vegetables and grains are
excellent sources of dietary fiber, which reduces cholesterol and helps manage
blood sugar levels. One cup of lentils can provide upwards of 65% of the minimum
daily requirement for fiber. Given this high fiber content, the frequent consumption
of legumes will enhance gastrointestinal and colon health.
Legumes contain energy-boosting
protein and iron. Looking at specific entities in this group, black beans
are rich in the potent antioxidant anthocyanidins, which promote heart and
vascular health. Green beans are excellent sources of vitamins C and K. Garbanzo
beans, commonly known as chickpeas, are a superb source of molybdenum, which
strengthens teeth and preserves tooth enamel.
Another important legume that is
not well known in the US is the adzuki bean. Originally from the Himalayas
and standard in East Asian cooking, adzuki beans are a rich source of magnesium,
potassium, iron, zinc, and B vitamins. Very high in soluble fiber, the adzuki
helps eliminate bad cholesterol from the body. In Japan, it is treasured for
its kidney and bladder health-promoting function and is used in weight-loss
Combining legumes with whole grains
will maximize their benefits. Legumes are high in lysine but very low in methionine,
an essential amino acid that supports cellular life, while whole grains are
replete with this amino acid but low in lysine. A wholesome, integrated vegetarian
diet will contain a balance of legumes and grains.
This group of super foods includes
spinach, kale, arugula, Swiss chard, cabbage, collard greens, and watercress.
One feature common to the dark green leafy vegetables is that they are high
in carotenoids and other antioxidants that guard against heart disease, cancer,
and problems with blood sugar regulation. Beyond that, each leafy green offers
its own health benefits, so a healthful diet should contain all members of
For example, 1 cup of cooked kale
provides over 1300% of the daily requirement of vitamin K needed for maximum
bone health. It is also rich in calcium and manganese, other nurturers of
bone density. Like broccoli, kale also contains the anticancer phytochemical
Cabbage contains glutamine, an
amino acid that contributes to antiinflammatory activities. It also protects
against infectious complications due to human papillomavirus (HPV). The juice
from cabbage will speed up the healing of peptic ulcers.
Spinach is one good source of dietary
iron. Per gram, it generally contains over 30% more iron than a hamburger
does. (Any diet heavy in spinach should include sufficient vitamin C to help
assimilate the iron.) Spinach also is an excellent source of folic acid, calcium,
copper, zinc, and selenium.
Watercress is a superb source of
phytochemicals. It serves as a diuretic and digestive aid, helps protect against
lung cancer, and strengthens the thyroid. Collard greens supply ample quantities
of the immune response modulator diindolylmethane.
A wealth of peer-reviewed literature
shows that many edible mushrooms are among the more important immune-builders
in the plant kingdom. In particular, medicinal mushrooms inhibit tumor growth,
strengthen immunity, and have antipathogenic and blood-sugar lowering properties.
Among approximately 200 varieties
of mushrooms whose health-enhancing skills have been noted are the chaga,
cordyceps, maitake, oyster, portobello, reishi, shiitake, and turkey tail.
Although all of these types can be obtained in fresh or dried form, shiitake
mushrooms currently are the easiest to obtain in the US.
A list of the health benefits of
mushrooms would have to include their antiviral and antibacterial properties,
which in different varieties have shown some effectiveness against pathogens
including polio, hepatitis B, influenza, candida, Epstein-Barr virus, streptococcus,
and tuberculosis. The scientific literature also discusses the mutagenic benefits
of mushrooms, which can be enlisted in the fight against leukemia, sarcoma,
and the bladder, breast, colon, liver, lung, prostate, stomach cancers, even
in advanced stages.
This superfood is rich in vitamin
B6, vitamin C, manganese, molybdenum (essential in preserving tooth enamel),
potassium, phosphorous, and copper. Onions are an excellent source of quercetin,
which works with vitamin C to help the body eliminate bacteria and strengthen
immunity. A rule of thumb is that the more pungent the onion, the greater
its health benefits.
Onions are particularly important
in the diet of diabetics because they are rich in chromium, a trace mineral
that helps cells respond to insulin. Moreover, refined sugar depletes the
body’s chromium levels, so onions are an excellent source of chromium
replacement for anyone who consumes refined sugar.
Onions also help to reduce blood
pressure and cholesterol and strengthen bone health. They have anti-inflammatory
benefits, reducing symptoms related to inflammatory conditions such as asthma,
arthritis, and respiratory congestion. Some studies have noted that onions
lessen the adverse effects of colds and flus.
The orange is a vitamin- and mineral-packed
fruit, rich in vitamins A, B, and C and potassium and calcium. It is an excellent
source of fiber as well. One phytonutrient in oranges that places it in the
super food category is the flavonoid hesperetin. This biochemical helps support
healthy blood vessels and reduces cholesterol.
The orange’s defining health
trait is its high content of vitamin C, an important antioxidant that limits
free radicals while also building the immune system. Vitamin C’s healing
properties are well known and have been repeatedly scientifically validated.
These include lessening arterial plaque and protecting against Alzheimer’s,
Parkinson’s, and Crohn’s diseases, arthritis, and diabetes.
Native American folk medicine,
which has so many features that we can learn from, gavea prominent place in
its pharmacology to peppers of the capsicum family (including bell and chili
peppers). Recent work suggests that the nutrient capsaicin, contained in these
peppers, is a natural analgesic and a neuroinflammatory blocker that relieves
aches and pains in joints and muscles. This is one reason why Native American
medicine prescribed a topical application of pepper to painful areas of the
Adding to the super food designation
of peppers is promising research in Canada that has explored the uses of capsaicin
in the treatment of type 1 diabetes. Other research has found benefits for
individuals with prostate cancer and leukemia. Some scientists have noted
that the much-studied capsaicin helps with weight loss, stimulation of insulin-producing
cells, and prevention of LDL cholesterol oxidation. Another benefit recently
uncovered is that capsaicin protects against stomach ulcerations and induces
apoptosis (cancer cell death) in lung cancer.
In addition to capsaicin, peppers
are rich in the antioxidant vitamin A; vitamins B1, B6, E, and K; and potassium,
magnesium, and iron. Yellow peppers are rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, which
protect against eye disease and blindness.
All of the super foods contain
highly potent organic compounds, such as phytochemicals, that boost their
health-giving properties. Tomatoes are no exception. They are the best source
of lycopene, a carotenoid biochemical that gives tomatoes their red color
and is packed with healthful properties. An estimated 80% of the lycopene
consumed in the US is derived from tomatoes and tomato-based foods.
There is a vast body of scientific
literature confirming lycopene’s antioxidant and antimutagenic properties.
This chemical is noteworthy for its protection against and treatment of various
cancers, including those of the bladder, breast, cervix, lungs, mouth, ovary,
prostate, and stomach. Because diabetics often have low levels of lycopene
in their blood, tomatoes should be a regular part of their diets.
Tomatoes have been shown to prevent
cholesterol oxidation, lower blood pressure, and decrease the risk of atherosclerosis.
Another benefit that may accrue to the eater of these plants is improved renal
function. Tomatoes have antiviral and antibacterial qualities. In particular,
lycopene can protect against human papillomavirus, a pathogen that has been
associated with cancer.
Tomatoes are rich in most of the
B complex vitamins, potassium, manganese, chromium, folate, and iron. They
also are an excellent source of the amino acid tryptophan, which is important
for neurological health and can improve sleep.
By now most Americans are aware
that whole grain breads and pastas are more healthful than those made from
white flour, and brown rice is higher in nutrients and health benefits than
is white rice. However, once a person has changed over to brown rice and whole
grain breads, he or she still has a rich world of whole grains to explore,
each of which offers unique health benefits and phytonutrients.
Like legumes, whole grains are
rich in fiber. One grain, spelt, is used in breads and pastas and provides
75% of the recommended daily requirement for vitamin B2. Spelt is highly water
soluble, which means that its nutrients are easily absorbed. There is evidence
that spelt is a good choice for diabetics. Another grain, barley, is distinguished
by being an excellent source of selenium, a substance that reduces the risk
of colon disorders and colorectal cancer. Because barley is high in tryptophan,
it will aid in sleep regulation. A third important grain, millet, is high
in manganese, magnesium, and phosphorous, all of which support cardiovascular
Two less familiar grains are kamut
and quinoa. The Glycemic Research Institute in Washington, DC, has trumpeted
kamut for its low-glycemic properties, which makes it an ideal super food
for diabetics, athletes, and people suffering from obesity. It also is an
excellent substitute for those with wheat allergies because it has 65% more
amino acids than wheat.
Quinoa has been identified as a
super food among grains because of its ability to balance blood sugar and
provide high-quality fiber and protein in the diet. It is higher in calcium,
phosphorus, iron, and zinc than are wheat, barley, and corn. Quinoa is one
of the most complete foods in nature, earning its super-food status not only
for the properties described above but also its role in protecting against
atherosclerosis and breast cancer and, as a probiotic, fostering beneficial
microflora in the gut.
Gary Null, PhD
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Martin Feldman, MD
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Gary Null has authored more than
75 books on health and nutrition and numerous articles published in research
journals. He is adjunct professor, Graduate Studies, Public Health Curriculum,
at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. Null holds a PhD
in human nutrition and public health science from the Union Graduate School.
Martin Feldman practices complementary
medicine. He is an assistant clinical professor of neurology at the Mount
Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
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