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Go backHealthy Choices: Summer Superfoods

It seems the science is often missing, but the constantly changing headlines make it known that certain foods may protect against certain types of cancer. Determining what news is and isn’t accurate can be frustrating.

One thing seems to stay fairly consistent. The old adage, you are what you eat, may be much truer than anyone could have imagined, at least in terms of having a better chance at good health. So how do you know what superfoods to choose if the news continually changes?

Regardless of the hype, one thing will always remain true; selecting fresh fruits and vegetables is a great place to begin. And summer is a perfect time to take advantage of the nourishing choices available to us.

While the American Institute for Cancer Research tells us that no one food can protect us from cancer, there is strong evidence that a diet filled with a variety of plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans helps lower the risk for many cancers.

The ACRI’s findings indicate that foods can fight cancer directly, since laboratory studies have shown that many individual minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals demonstrate anti-cancer effects. Researchers caution, however, that evidence suggests it is the synergy of compounds working together in the overall diet that offers the strongest cancer protection. In other words, we may know that people who eat kale are less likely to develop certain types of cancer, but what else are they eating (doing, etc.) that may be combining with their food choice to provide this protection?

Since studies have found that carrying excess body fat increases the risk of seven cancers (esophagus, pancreas, colon and rectum, endometrium, kidney, postmenopausal breast, and gallbladder), the take-home message is simple: making sure we are choosing fruits and vegetables which are generally low in calories, as well as grains and legumes that are fiber- and mineral-filled just makes sense.

A few fabulous foods that are thought to fight cancer

  • Apples – one apple provides at least 10 percent of the daily recommended amounts of vitamin C and fiber
  • Blueberries – this little powerhouse is filled with phytochemicals, nutrients and fiber
  • Broccoli and cruciferous vegetables – these non-starchy veggies contain dietary fiber, folate, carotenoids (including beta-carotene) and vitamin C
  • Cherries -- contain numerous phytochemicals, nutrients and fiber
  • Cranberries – like the apple, one serving of this robust fruit provides at least 10 percent of the daily recommended amounts of vitamin C and fiber
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables – hurray for spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, leaf lettuce, mustard greens, collard greens, chicory and Swiss chard! Make these a mainstay in your diet and they provide excellent sources of fiber, folate and a wide range of carotenoids (carotenoids, are the colorful plant pigments some of which the body can turn into vitamin A).
  • Legumes (dry beans, split peas and lentils) – a serving of legumes provides at least 20 percent of the recommended daily amount of folate and fiber
  • Garlic – garlic belongs to the family of vegetables called allium. Onions, scallions, leeks and chives are also part of this family. It is believed that foods belonging to the allium family of vegetables probably protect against stomach cancer. Garlic, in particular, probably decreases one’s chances of developing colorectal cancer

Even powerhouse fruits and vegetables are not created equal

Between family and work (and often, medical considerations), most of us are kept busy just getting through the day, so being able to take the necessary time to create healthy meals isn’t always easy. When faced with time constraints, knowing which healthy choices may provide more nutritional bang for your buck is important.

National nutrition guidelines emphasize consumption of powerhouse fruits and vegetables (PFV), since these foods are most strongly associated with reduced chronic disease risk. Until recently, efforts to define PFV have been lacking, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently shared a new study that developed a classification scheme to define PFV: they are foods that provide, on average, 10% or more daily value per 100 kcal of 17 qualifying nutrients. Of the 47 foods studied, 41 satisfied the powerhouse criterion and were more nutrient-dense than were non-PFV.

In this study, which was conducted by Jennifer Di Noia, PhD, all but six of the foods studied satisfied the powerhouse criterion (the 6 are raspberry, tangerine, cranberry, garlic, onion, and blueberry). The following is an easy to view breakdown created for the study:

a Calculated as the mean of percent daily values (DVs) (based on a 2,000 kcal/d diet) for 17 nutrients (potassium, fiber, protein, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, zinc, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K) as provided by 100 g of food, expressed per 100 kcal of food. Scores above 100 were capped at 100 (indicating that the food provides, on average, 100% DV of the qualifying nutrients per 100 kcal).

It’s important to notice that several items in the cruciferous (watercress, Chinese cabbage, collard green, kale, arugula) and green leafy (chard, beet green, spinach, chicory, leaf lettuce) groups were concentrated in the top half of the distribution of scores, whereas items belonging to yellow/orange (carrot, tomato, winter squash, sweet potato), allium (scallion, leek), citrus (lemon, orange, lime, grapefruit), and berry (strawberry, blackberry) groups were concentrated in the bottom half.

"Higher-ranking foods provide more nutrients per calories," says Di Noia. "The scores may help focus consumers on their daily energy needs, and how best to get the most nutrients from their foods. The rankings provide clarity on the nutrient quality of the different foods and may aid in the selection of more nutrient-dense items within the powerhouse group."

Di Noia also noted that all of the top vegetables contain high levels of B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, riboflavin, niacin and folate – nutrients that help protect people against cancer and heart disease.

As long as these powerhouses are not boiled, they provide good nutrition. When they are eaten fresh and raw, you get 100 percent of the vitamins and minerals they provide. When they are cooked, a small percentage of the nutrients are lost, but it’s not a significant loss. Boiling, however, can drain veggies of B-vitamins, vitamin C and other nutrients, according to Di Noia.

If you choose to boil vegetables like spinach or collard greens, be sure to save the nutrient-rich water so you can use it in sauces or soups to reap the otherwise lost benefits.

Exotic fruits from around the globe may hold promise

Acai

The acai (ah-sigh-EE) berry is a grape-like fruit harvested from acai palm trees, which are native to the rainforests of South America. Although they have yet to be proven, Acai berries are touted to be helpful for a variety of health concerns, including arthritis, cancer, weight loss, high cholesterol, erectile dysfunction, detoxification and improving general health.

It is believed that Acai berries may be a good source of antioxidants, fiber and heart-healthy fats.

Aronia

This fruit, which grows on a bush in clusters, owes its nickname — the chokeberry — to its extraordinarily tart taste.The Los Angeles Times recently extolled this fruit as one of the new powerhouse choices because it has three times the antioxidants as a blueberry. Although these berries are known for their tartness, they are widely used in Europe in jams and jellies.

Buffaloberry

Business Insider recently reported on this berry (perhaps because you can buy seeds to grow your own shrubs on Amazon.com)! They can grow most anywhere, including dry environments. Unlike some of their counterparts, these berries contain enough natural sugar to be eaten as a fresh fruit. Buffaloberries are so new to the superfruit list their commercial production is still quite limited, which probably explains why Business Insider made the Amazon connection. Packed not only with lycopene, they are also brimming with other phenolic antioxidants, so it’s a safe bet you will be hearing more about these guys soon!

Pichuberry

Considered by many to taste like a cross between a passionfruit and a cherry tomato, this fruit is often called the lost Incan treasure. There is actually a website devoted to bringing this healthy fruit to a mainstream audience (http://www.pichuberry.com/).

Three-fourths of a cup of pichuberries provides 39 percent of the recommended daily dose of vitamin D. They are also filled with antioxidants, withanolides (anticancer compounds), and high levels of B12.

People living in the Phoenix and Tucson areas can find these little gems at their local farmer’s markets. The rest of us may have to wait a bit – but if the health claims are true, it won’t be long before we’ll be sipping on those Pichuberry smoothies to our heart’s content.

Gogi Berries

Considered both a fruit and an herb, goji berries are typically found in Asian and European countries. Goji berries are an excellent source of antioxidants, although health claims about reducing cancer risk and being a "fountain of youth" aren't currently backed by scientific research.

It’s important to note that these berries aren't for everyone either. Anyone using blood thinners or taking medications for diabetes should use caution because negative reactions have been reported.

A recipe for success (and because all of this reading has made you hungry)Here’s a great summer salad you can share with your family and friends. You definitely won’t have to question whether this is healthy:


Salad ingredients:
2 cups packed baby kale
1 cup packed spinach
1 cup packed arugula
1/2 cup raw cashews, toasted in a dry pan
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
2 oz. soft cheese of your choice
1/4 sundried tomatoes, packed in olive oil

Basil-lime vinaigrette
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp. brown rice syrup
1 tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Coarse sea salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste

If you want to add another healthy protein besides the cheese and cashews, feel free to include chicken, shrimp or tofu.

Summing up your summer’s super selections

The quick nutrient density chart created by Dr. Jennifer Di Noia that we shared earlier, is a fantastic tool to use on a daily basis to make sure you are making healthy choices.

When you are eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables it’s important to remember you will want to avoid pesticide residue whenever possible, and since two-thirds of produce samples in recent government tests had pesticide residues, this is another area where smart shopping is essential.

The Environmental Working Group (http://www.ewg.org) keeps an updated list on their website providing information about which produce has the highest levels of either known to be or possibly harmful chemicals.

They have recently expanded their Dirty Dozen list to include what they are calling the Dirty Dozen Plus™ that highlights hot peppers and leafy greens which can often be tainted with unusually hazardous pesticides.

If you are going to take the time and energy to create a healthier diet, their site will give you up-to-date information so you can rest assured you’ve done your homework.

En Bonne Santé!