Top Five Foods for Optimum Health

Consumers today know that it is healthier—and far more cost-efficient—to prevent the development of chronic conditions in the first place rather than treating them as they come. Along with physical activity, a healthy diet is one of the most powerful weapons in this fight. The vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, beneficial fats and other substances in certain foods and drinks can help maintain optimal function for the human body.

Certain items in the kitchen may be more nutrient-packed than others. Here are five of the most beneficial.

1. Flaxseed: More Than Five Millennia of Wisdom

For at least the last two decades, American health enthusiasts have been interested in the health benefits of flaxseed. However, this food has been consumed in Europe and Asia since 5,000 B.C. This comes as no surprise, considering that flaxseed contains plenty of potassium, protein and fiber, which is essential for digestive health.

Flaxseed has also drawn attention from scientists because it is a source of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Specifically, flaxseed has alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body converts to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Both EPA and DHA have been linked to improvements in blood pressure and atherosclerosis, as well as reductions in risk of heart attack and stroke.

Other potentially beneficial substances found in flaxseed are lignans, which some studies suggest may improve cholesterol metabolism and cancer risk, according to the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

Flaxseed is usually available in whole, ground and oil form. According to the Mayo Clinic, flaxseed oil contains omega-3s, but none of the fiber. Furthermore, it may be more beneficial for individuals to consume ground flaxseed rather than whole because the latter is less efficiently digested.

People who buy raw, whole flaxseed can run it through a coffee grinder and store the powder in an airtight container. Ground flaxseed can easily be added to breakfast cereal, mayonnaise, mustard, yogurt and flour for baked goods.

2. Red Wine: A Toast To Your Health

Both health enthusiasts and connoisseurs alike may be familiar with the concept of the French Paradox, a phenomenon in which people who consume rich French cuisine tend not to develop as many cardiovascular problems as expected. People have speculated that this was the result of the consumption of red wine.

Because of the intrigue surrounding this observation, scientists have approached the potential benefits of red wine carefully—and they are coming back with promising results, particularly in studies surrounding the compound resveratrol. According to the Mayo Clinic, this substance may protect the blood vessels, reduce levels of unhealthy cholesterol and prevent dangerous blood clots.

“Resveratrol has potential as a therapy for diverse diseases such as type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease,” said researcher Jay Chung, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the Laboratory of Obesity and Aging Research at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). “However, before researchers can transform resveratrol into a safe and effective medicine, they need to know exactly what it targets in cells.”

It has not always been clear whether the alcohol or other substances in red wine were responsible for the beverage’s cardiovascular benefits, according to a study published in the European Heart Journal. However, experiments on non-alcoholic red and white wine revealed that red varieties may be more healthy.

Chung himself led a study that demonstrated how resveratrol affects a specific process within cells that is associated with energy metabolism.

More research is needed to verify the health benefits of resveratrol. In the meantime, medical experts remind people that red wine should only be consumed in moderation. According to the NHLBI, that means no more than one drink for women and two drinks for men a day. (For red wine, one drink is the equivalent of five ounces.)

3. Curry: The Spice That Turns Down the Heat

People who enjoy more of a kick to their food may pep up their dishes with curry powder, which contains various spices, such as turmeric. Studies show that not only are some of these spices tasty, but that they also confer various health benefits.

In general, research reveals that curcumin, a substance found in turmeric, has anti-inflammatory properties, according to the University of Michigan Health System. For this reason, curry can help people who have problems with chronic pain, and may even have an impact on the risk of cancer.

These properties may also be important for individuals with weight management problems, a condition that often increases inflammation and risk of type 2 diabetes. In one experiment, conducted by scientists from Columbia University Medical Center, researchers fed turmeric to a group of obese mice. They observed that these animals had lower blood glucose levels and greater tolerance for insulin. Also, the mice had small but significant improvements in body weight.

In addition to tempering inflammation, research also suggests that turmeric may have other influences on the immune system. Scientists from Oregon State University noted in a lab study that turmeric causes a modest increase in the levels of a cathelicidin antimicrobial peptide, a protein in the immune system. Therefore, the spice may help the body fight infection.

Other studies on curcumin show that the substance can decrease the production of proteins that are associated with arthritis. Furthermore, curcumin may have an impact on the process in which bone tissue breaks down, suggesting that it may provide some protection against osteoporosis.

4. Green Tea: A Brew To Boost Your Well-Being

For thousands of years, people in Asia drank green tea to support good health. Today, research shows that there is a good deal of truth to this practice. In general, green tea contains several health compounds that have been linked to mental clarity, weight management, optimal cholesterol levels and the prevention of several malignant diseases.

In 2010, research published in Cancer Prevention Research demonstrated that mice that consumed green tea had more protection against the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation. Laboratory tests showed that this was likely because green tea boosted the DNA repair process in these animals and improved responses in the immune system.

Green tea’s effects on the immune system may also help people manage rheumatoid arthritis, as published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2008.

More recently, a study that appeared in a 2011 issue of Obesity touched upon scientists’ interest in epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a compound found in green tea. For this research, two groups of mice ate a high-fat diet. Animals in one arm of the experiment also received EGCG. Results showed that these animals tended to gain weight more slowly and absorb less fat, compared to mice in the other arm.

Another study published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research evaluated the effects of EGCG on neurological health. For the experiment, scientists found that the compound increases the production of neural progenitor cells in the brains of mice, which led to improvements in the animals’ performance on tests of memory and spatial learning.

5. Yogurt: A Well-Balanced Snack

Most people are familiar with cravings in between meals. The hazard here is that too much snacking can lead to problems with weight and metabolism, particularly if the foods eaten are heavy on empty calories. The trick is picking the right foods.

Yogurt is an excellent option, especially if it’s been fortified to provide essential nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D. For those who need to watch their weight, plain Greek yogurt may be the best choice. Compared to American varieties, Greek yogurt has more protein, which promotes feelings of satiety. Furthermore, Greek yogurt is less likely to contain added sugar.

Recently, research presented at the American Heart Association’s High Blood Pressure Research 2012 Scientific Sessions suggested that yogurt consumption may be linked to improvements in hypertension. This conclusion is based on data collected from more than 2,000 individuals over the course of 15 years. An analysis showed that when subjects’ ate the equivalent of six ounces of yogurt every three days, they were 31 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure.

Yogurt’s vitamin D content may be important in the fight against deficiencies in the nutrient. According to doctors from Johns Hopkins University, low levels of vitamin D may lead to problems with the immune system, bone growth and metabolism. They suggest a diet that includes yogurt and other foods can prevent these issues.

And no conversation about yogurt is complete without mentioning probiotics, those beneficial strains of microorganisms that benefit the digestive system and other aspects of health. However, yogurt is a less effective delivery system for probiotics compared to supplements that are specially designed to protect the probiotics from the environmental harshness of the digestive tract.

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