It's no secret that eating healthy food does more than leave you feeling satiated and well-nourished. Choose wisely come mealtime, and you'll up your chances of living a vibrant, long life. You can help prevent -- or better control -- conditions ranging from cancer to arthritis with a targeted dietary and lifestyle approach.
Before you explore food-based prevention, make sure you've got your nutrition bases covered. Research supports choosing whole foods over processed choices, limiting sugar and other refined carbohydrates, and emphasizing foods that reduce inflammation -- "the hallmark of practically every disease," says Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., author of "Food as Medicine."
To that end, turn first to the produce aisle. "There's no limit to the number of fruits and veggies you should eat each day," claims Steven Pratt, M.D., author of "SuperHealth." "Five is the minimum, but it's better to eat between nine and 11." (And choose organic whenever possible.) Also include plenty of whole grains and anti-inflammatory fats (fish, olive oil, and nuts) in your daily diet.
When it comes to reducing your personal health risks, you can fine-tune your eating habits even further. To help you create a personalized eating plan, we've rounded up dozens of foods shown to help prevent and control 10 chronic health problems. For each condition, "the basics" category covers food backed by established research, while "promising" features more preliminary studies. You'll see some foods repeated, since picks such as whole grains, fish, and leafy green vegetables act as prevention multitaskers. Here, discover the top 48 ways you can eat to thrive.
Whole Grains To mop up artery-clogging cholesterol, try for six daily servings of whole grains. Rich in a cholesterol-lowering fiber called betaglucan, oats appear particularly powerful in protecting against heart disease. Medical nutritionist Daniella Chace, coauthor of "What to Eat if You Have Cancer," advises cooking up hot cereal from steel-cut oats (higher in phytochemicals than the rolled variety). Also, regularly incorporate brown rice, quinoa, and barley.
Oily Fish Canned or fresh, oily fish such as wild salmon contains a wealth of omega-3 fatty acids, which help to improve triglyceride levels, stabilize heartbeat, lower blood pressure, curb heart-harming inflammation, and reduce stroke risk. Include smaller fish such as sardines and anchovies, suggests Chace, "since larger fish accumulate more toxins." Aim for two to seven servings a week.
Crack open a walnut shell and you'll find plenty of plant sterols, compounds that help stop your gut from absorbing cholesterol. A source of blood-clot-preventing omega-3s, walnuts also nourish your heart with vitamin E, fiber, potassium, and protein. For better heart health, eat a handful of walnuts, almonds, cashews, or pistachios about five times a week.
Olive Oil With its abundance of polyphenols (antioxidants that may prevent heart trouble by keeping LDL, or "bad," cholesterol from oxidizing), healthy fats, and vitamin E, olive oil is your heart-healthiest option for sauteing veggies or dressing salads. Choose the extra-virgin variety, which contains more polyphenols.
Beans boost heart health by supplying magnesium, which helps to keep blood pressure in check, and folate, which decreases levels of homocysteine (an amino acid that raises heart-disease risk when it occurs at elevated levels). Include black, red, or adzuki beans in your repertoire; research suggests that darker beans deliver more antioxidants.
In a 2008 study, scientists discovered that polyphenols found in grapes might reduce blood clotting and prevent blood vessels from narrowing. Grape skins contain resveratrol, a phytonutrient that may elevate your levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol, notes Khalsa. Choose organic, since conventional grapes tend to be treated heavily with pesticides.
Dark-green leafy vegetables -- such as spinach, kale, and collard greens -- abound with cancer-fighting vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. In fact, says Pratt, "it's hard to be healthy your whole life without eating lots of green leafies." Aim for 2 cups each day.
Chomping on broccoli's deep-green florets releases chemicals that get converted into two powerful cancer fighters: isothiocyanates (shown to stop tumors from forming) and indoles (found to hamper the development of hormone-related cancers). Another broccoli compound, sulforaphane, may thwart the proliferation of breast-cancer cells. Pratt recommends getting four servings weekly, a mix of raw and cooked. When cooking broccoli, Pratt recommends steaming it to seal in nutrients.
Juicy red tomatoes get their color from lycopene, a carotenoid that may shield cells from cancer-causing oxygen damage. Best known for its prostate-cancer-preventing effects, lycopene may help fend off both breast and pancreatic cancer, too. In addition to eating more fresh tomatoes, add tomatoes to soups, sauces, and stews.
Besides being high in fiber and vitamin C, fresh or frozen blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries are nature's No. 1 source of anthocyanins, antioxidants that counteract the effects of free-radical damage. Seek out wild blueberries, which are especially high in antioxidants. As for cultivated berries, choose organic whenever possible.
Maitake and shiitake mushrooms may help ward off cancer by revving up your immune system, according to Khalsa. Each variety contains an abundance of polysaccharides, molecules that help promote an increase in natural-killer-cell activity, which wipes out malignant cells. Add them to soups and stir-fries regularly.
Citrus Oranges and other citrus fruits deliver big on vitamin C, an antioxidant that helps guard DNA against free-radical damage and prevent cancer, according to Pratt. Studies show that citrus may help lower the risk of lung cancer as well as stomach and esophageal cancer.
High in fiber, pumpkin provides two carotenoids (beta-carotene and alpha-carotene) that may protect against skin, lung, breast, bladder, and colon cancer. When autumn's over, look to canned pumpkin.
To keep your bones strong as you age, get 1,000 milligrams of calcium from your diet each day (1,200 if you're older than 50). An 8-ounce serving of low-fat yogurt provides 415 milligrams of calcium, and a half-cup of calcium-fortified tofu offers 204.
Certain veggies not only strengthen your bones by supplying calcium, but also deliver magnesium and potassium (both known to boost bone mineral density). For plant-based prevention of osteoporosis, look to turnip greens, kale, and Chinese cabbage.
Promising: Vitamin-K-Rich Veggies
A high intake of vitamin-K-rich foods may help stave off bone loss and reduce the risk of hip fractures, say a number of large-scale studies. Shown to work synergistically with vitamin D in preserving bone density, vitamin K is abundant in veggies like broccoli, kale, spinach, Swiss chard, and watercress.
At least four times a week, eat 3 ounces of wild salmon, sardines, or other fish high in omega-3s, which help lower Alzheimer's risk by lessening inflammation. Equally important for brain health: cutting back on saturated and trans fats.
Folic acid, a B vitamin, may lessen Alzheimer's risk, indicates a 2007 study from Archives of Neurology. Spinach is an especially rich source, says Khalsa, so feast on spinach salads and sauteed spinach at least two or three times a week.
Berries Berries help boost brain power by easing oxidative stress, an aging-related process associated with the onset of Alzheimer's and dementia. What's more, berries can reduce cholesterol; high levels were recently linked to increased Alzheimer's risk. Aim for three servings weekly.
Promising: Black Currants
Like other berries, black currants offer anthocyanins and polyphenols (potent antioxidants known to preserve brain health as you age). In a preliminary study, researchers found that compounds in black currants helped protect brain cells from stress brought on by Alzheimer's-associated proteins.
Type 2 Diabetes Barley While refined carbs can cause excess blood sugar to build up and raise diabetes risk, whole grains boost the body's ability to turn blood sugar (also known as glucose) into fuel for your cells. Like oats, barley contains beta-glucan, which helps guard against insulin resistance (a condition marked by diminished ability to remove glucose from the bloodstream). For diabetes prevention, Chace suggests getting at least six daily servings of whole grains, including barley.
Carotenoid-Rich Fruits and Veggies
Tomatoes, mangoes, apricots, cantaloupes, sweet potatoes, and spinach defend against diabetes by providing carotenoids, which decrease inflammation and encourage the efficient use of insulin.
Legumes Like whole grains and high-fiber fruits and veggies, legumes like beans and lentils help fight (and manage) diabetes by regulating your glucose levels, says Pratt.
Promising: Magnesium-Rich Foods
Eating more foods high in this mineral may help squash several diabetes risk factors, including high blood sugar, abdominal obesity, and excess blood fats, according to a 2006 study of more than 4,600 adults. To meet your daily needs, turn to foods like halibut, peanut butter, and spinach.
Certain spices may help prevent or treat diabetes, recent research suggests. One recent report revealed that cinnamon helps block the formation of compounds that contribute to damage caused by diabetes and aging. Another study found that mice that were fed turmeric (used in curry) were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Sprinkle cinnamon on oatmeal and toast, and add turmeric or curry to soups and stir-fries regularly.
Asthma and Allergies Omega-3-Rich Foods
Swapping omega-6-rich foods (such as red meat and partially hydrogenated oils) for top omega-3 sources (such as oily fish, flaxseed, and walnuts) may help guard against asthma, says David Grotto, R.D., author of "101 Foods That Could Save Your Life." Including more omega- 3-rich foods in your diet -- shown to tame inflammation and improve lung function -- may also bring relief to those who are already struggling with asthma and allergies.
An apple a day can keep you from sneezing and wheezing by elevating your levels of quercetin, an antioxidant that alters the immune response to allergic triggers. Crunching on apples regularly may also enhance lung health and lower your asthma risk, notes Pratt.
Vitamin-C-Rich Fruits Adults with low levels of vitamin C may be more asthma-prone, according to a 2006 study published in Thorax. To replenish your supply of the immune-boosting antioxidant, indulge in juicy fruits like citrus, organic strawberries, and kiwi on a regular basis.
As with asthma and allergies, omega-3 fatty acids help fight arthritis by easing inflammation. "Getting a healthy amount of omega-3s is like throwing a bucket of water on the fire when it comes to arthritis-related inflammation," says Grotto. Aim to eat an omega-3-rich food each day, alternating fatty fish with freshly ground flaxseed.
Promising: Low-Fat Dairy
Since calcium can help keep your joints limber, Grotto recommends getting three servings of low-fat dairy products like yogurt and cottage cheese each day.
Onions contain quercetin and vitamin C, which work together to stop pro-inflammatory chemicals from wreaking havoc on your joints. Besides protecting you from osteoarthritis, they may also defend against rheumatoid arthritis, says Pratt. Cherries For a sweeter inflammation fighter, try cherries, which decrease arthritis-related inflammation. "For people with arthritis, it's good to eat a variety of foods that end in 'erry' -- cherries, blueberries, strawberries -- every day," says Grotto.
The red seeds pop with compounds that could combat a host of inflammatory diseases, including arthritis, suggests a 2008 study from Case Western Reserve University. When the fruit's not in season, sip pomegranate juice to get the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Skimping on salmon, sardines, and other fatty fish might make you more prone to depression, says Chace. In a 2007 study, scientists sized up brain scans on 55 healthy adults and found that those with high omega-3 intake had more gray matter volume in parts of the brain that are associated with mood and emotional arousal. An earlier study from the same research team showed that people with low omega-3 levels were more likely to have a negative outlook and suffer from symptoms of depression. Chase recommends getting a small daily serving (1 to 3 ounces) of fish.
Slow-burning carbs (found in foods such as whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables) help your brain make serotonin, a mood-boosting chemical that has been detected at low levels in people with depression, says Khalsa. Bananas and oats may help fight depression by delivering tryptophan, an amino acid your body converts into serotonin.
Promising: B-Rich Foods
Depression is linked to deficiency in brain-nourishing B vitamins, so make B-rich foods such as leafy greens, peas, asparagus, and avocados part of your daily diet.
Vision Problems Leafy Greens
Kale, bok choy, and other greens offer a boost of lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids that form the yellow pigment in the central portion of the retina (known as the macula). In fact, says Pratt, eating green leafy veggies is essential for preventing age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness for older Americans -- so get at least one serving daily.
Fish A high intake of omega-3s could lower your age-related macular degeneration risk by up to 38 percent, according to a study published in the Archives of Ophthalmology last year. For optimal levels of omega-3s (also known to prevent dry-eye syndrome), Chace suggests eating five or six servings a week of oily fish such as wild salmon or sardines.
High in lutein, asparagus ranks among the plant world's best sources of vitamin E, an antioxidant linked with reduced risk of vision-clouding cataracts.
In a 2006 study from the Journal of Nutrition, eating one egg a day raised lutein and zeaxanthin levels in older adults without affecting their cholesterol levels. For extra protection against macular degeneration, crack an omega-3-enriched egg, says Chace.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
By dipping into low-fat yogurt daily, you can build up your gut's supply of probiotics, says Grotto. Friendly bacteria known to fight inflammation, probiotics may help lessen IBS-related gas, pain, and bloating as well as help food move through the intestine more quickly (particularly helpful for constipation).
Whole Grains Probiotics thrive on fiber, another agent for reducing the time it takes for food to pass through your digestive system. To keep IBS in check, Grotto suggests going for grains that contain both soluble and insoluble fiber (such as oats) and opting for whole-grain breads, pastas, and cereals over the refined variety.
Fiber-rich black, kidney, and pinto beans may also benefit those with IBS, says Grotto. But since fiber can worsen gas and cramping for some IBS sufferers, gradually increase your intake over the course of several weeks, and then assess whether or not your symptoms improve.
These green spears provide prebiotics, beneficial bacteria that stimulate the growth of stomach-soothing probiotics. When fresh is not available, frozen asparagus shoots should do the trick, says Grotto.
Prunes A "superfruit for people with IBS," says Grotto, dried plums contain sugar alcohols that act as natural laxatives in the body. In addition to stimulating digestive health, prunes deliver antioxidants and help cool inflammation, he adds.
Premenstrual Syndrome Magnesium-Rich Foods
PMS symptoms may be more common among women with low levels of magnesium, which helps keep your muscles from cramping. For more of the mineral, try cashews, almonds, halibut, and soybeans; a serving of each provides over 20 percent of the recommended daily intake.
Calcium-Rich Foods A high intake of calcium and vitamin D may reduce your risk of PMS, according to a 2005 study. While you're best off getting vitamin D from the sun, supplements, or both, load up on calcium by consuming low-fat dairy, sardines, salmon, and fortified orange juice.
Promising: Sesame Oil
Used to stimulate energy in Ayurvedic medicine, sesame oil may help alleviate PMS-related fatigue, says Khalsa. Each day, drizzle 1 tablespoon of cold-pressed, uncooked oil atop your salad or stir-fry.