A healthy, varied diet that includes nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, antioxidant-rich foods and beverages, high-fiber foods, lean proteins and healthy fats improves your energy and overall health. Some of these foods may also reduce your risk for certain diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease through their combination of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other disease-fighting compounds. Aim to incorporate these nutrient-packed foods into your regular diet.
Nutrient-Dense Fruits and Veggies
Although fruits and veggies are always a healthier choice than chips and cookies, some have more nutrients per serving than others. Dark leafy greens such as kale and spinach are high in vitamins A, C and K and contain the eye health-promoting carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts are rich in vitamins C, E and K, and their sulforaphane levels may also reduce the incidence of breast cancer, according to a 2012 review study published in "Anti-Cancer Agents in Medicinal Chemistry." Tomatoes and red bell peppers are both high in vitamin C and lycopene, the latter of which may combat stomach and prostate cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. As for fruits, blueberries, strawberries and cherries all have high antioxidant contents per serving, are low in calories and high in fiber.
Antioxidant-Rich Foods and Beverages
Your body constantly generates free radicals from everyday occurrences such as turning food into energy, breathing and sunbathing. Excessive free radical production damages cells and genetic material, potentially contributing to future heart disease and cancer development. Your body makes some antioxidants to fight these free radicals, but it also extracts them from food. Coffee and tea are both antioxidant-rich and have been associated with several beneficial health outcomes, including reduced cancer risk and improved heart health. Modest amounts of dark chocolate may also lower LDL cholesterol and blood sugar and increase healthy HDL cholesterol, according to a 2012 presentation at the "Experimental Biology 2012" meeting.
Most plant-based foods are high in fiber, which helps maintain bowel health, reduce LDL cholesterol and control blood sugar. Apples are fiber-rich and also contain ursolic acid, which increased energy expenditure and muscle mass in a 2012 "Public Library of Science ONE" study. Oatmeal's fiber is well-known for its LDL cholesterol-lowering benefits; it is also high in B vitamins, folate and potassium. Sweet potatoes are high in vitamin A, B6, C and beta carotene, the last of which may slow age-related decline in lung function, according to a 2006 study published in "Thorax."
The essential amino acids in high-protein foods are the building blocks for cells, enzymes, neurotransmitters and certain hormones. Greek yogurt contains calcium as well as probiotics, which are strains of bacteria that may improve gut health. Protein-rich lean beef is also high in iron and zinc. Eggs have memory-enhancing choline and eye health promoters lutein and zeaxanthin. Along with being a rich source of protein, lentils, beans and edamame are high in fiber, folate, potassium and magnesium. They may also protect the body against diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, according to registered dietitian Samantha Heller.
Although fat has had a reputation of being an artery-clogger and obesity-promoter, monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat and omega-3 fatty acids may actually promote heart health and help with weight management. Avocados and olive oil are rich in monounsaturated fat, which may lower total and LDL cholesterol and normalize blood clotting, according to Donald Hensrud, M.D., MayoClinic.com preventive medicine specialist. Almonds may provide similar benefits, according to a 2011 review article published in "Nutrition Reviews" that showed the nut's polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids to lower LDL cholesterol. Oily fish such as sardines and salmon are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which may improve brain and heart health and protect against certain types of cancer.
- Nutrition Reviews: Effects of Almond Consumption on the Reduction of LDL-Cholesterol: A Discussion of Potential Mechanisms and Future Research Directions
- MayoClinic.com: Olive Oil: What Are the Health Benefits?
- MayoClinic.com: Dietary Fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet
- Public Library of Science ONE: Ursolic Acid Increases Skeletal Muscle and Brown Fat and Decreases Diet-Induced Obesity, Glucose Intolerance and Fatty Liver Disease
- Anticancer Agents in Medicinal Chemistry: Dual Roles of Sulforaphane in Cancer Treatment.
- American Cancer Society: Lycopene
- Thorax: Serum Carotenoids, Vitamins A and E, and 8 Year Lung Function Decline in a General Population
- Science Daily: A Serving a Day of Dark Chocolate Might Keep the Doctor Away
- Harvard School of Public Health: Antioxidants: Beyond the Hype
- Huffington Post Healthy Living: Healthy Food: 50 of the Best in the World