The most harmful and deadly diseases plaguing America today are caused by food--cheap, low-quality processed foods high in sugar, fat, salt, genetically modified ingredients--and pesticides. But when you reach for whole, nutrient-dense, organic foods, you get a food-remedy tool kit that not only will ward off cancer and heart disease, but also colds, flu, allergies, and a host of other ailments that plague us every day.
With so many great healing foods out there, it's hard to choose just 12, but if you stock your kitchen with a plentiful supply of these staples, recommended in The Green Pharmacy Guide to Healing Foods by James A. Duke, PhD (Rodale, 2009), you'll ward off everything from cancer and colds to arthritis and menopause.
Beans are the cheapest healthy food you can buy, and their high isoflavone content wards off heart disease, improves bone and prostate health, and eases some symptoms of menopause. Being low in fat and high in protein, beans are easy swaps for red meat, so add them to soups, stews, dips, and even pasta sauces (pureed white beans can be used as a substitute for high-fat Alfredo sauces). Nutrient-wise, it doesn't make much difference if you use dried or canned, though canned beans can contain high levels of salt and often come packaged in cans lined with harmful bisphenol A. We like Eden Organics canned beans, which contain very little added salt and are packaged in BPA-free cans.
Members of the same plant family, garlic and onions do so many things for your heart and immune system, it's hard to list them all. Garlic's 70 active phytochemicals may decrease high blood pressure by as much as 30 points, and it lowers rates of ovarian, colorectal, and other cancers, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Onions are the single best source of quercitin, a flavonoid shown to keep your blood healthy and prevent clots. Both are must-haves for natural allergy prevention. To boost garlic's health effects, be sure to crush the cloves and let them stand for up to 30 minutes before heating them. Most of an onion's nutrition is in the skins, so Duke suggests putting the skins in a mesh bag and allowing them to steep in soups or sauces.
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Addicted to coffee? In love with chocolate? That's good. Caffeinated foods, including coffee, chocolate, and tea, have high levels of polyphenols, dubbed "super" antioxidants for their ability to fight everything from cancer to depression. A Harvard University study even found that drinking five cups of coffee daily cuts the risk of developing diabetes in half. That much coffee could give you the jitters, though, so most experts recommend limiting intake to two cups a day, or switching to decaf. Whether you prefer tea or coffee, studies seem to suggest that decaf versions contain just as many antioxidants as the regular stuff. And, of course, dark chocolate is better than sugary milk chocolate or white; check out our organic chocolate taste test results for the best organic, Fair Trade brands.
Next time you need a crunchy afternoon snack, reach for the celery, not the carrot sticks. Rich in minerals, vitamin C, and phenolic acids, it wards off cancer, cold and flu, and allergies. Compounds called phthalides make it a good cholesterol-lowering food remedy, too. The more the better, most research suggests. Duke says to eat at least four stalks a day. Because its flavor is relatively mild, you can dress it up with peanut butter or use it in place of chips or crackers for your favorite dip. Celery is also one of the rare veggies that don't lose nutritional value when cooked, so add lots of it to stocks, soups, and casseroles. Use the leaves, as well, because they're rich in calcium and more vitamin C.
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Cinnamon's most notable and studied benefit to the immune system has been its ability to lower blood sugar. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that the Christmas-y spice could lower blood sugar by 13 to 23 percent. The author of that study suspected that had to do with cinnamon's antioxidants, which activate insulin receptors in your cells. A German study showed that it could suppress Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria, the cause of most urinary tract infections, and Candida albicans, the fungus responsible for vaginal yeast infections. Duke adds that friends of his have successfully quit smoking by sucking on cinnamon sticks whenever they had the urge to smoke. Add a teaspoon to your morning oatmeal or to a glass of organic apple cider.
The stars of the fall and winter fruit season, citrus fruits contain close to 200 cancer-fighting compounds, cholesterol-lowering fiber, and inflammation-lowering flavonoids. An Australian review of 48 studies on diet and cancer found that consuming a daily serving of citrus fruit may cut your risk of mouth, throat, and stomach cancer by up to one half. Grapefruits are also high in lycopene, a cancer-fighter usually found in tomatoes, which are out of season when grapefruit is at its peak. To get the most benefit, eat your fruit whole, not in the form of juices, so you also get all the valuable fiber. Many of the healthy compounds hide in the rinds, too, so use citrus marmalades, which contain bits of the rinds, and use the zests of oranges, tangerines, and lemons in your cooking.
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Though widely used as an effective antidote to queasiness, it can also keep cholesterol levels under control, lower blood pressure, and help ease the inflammation associated with arthritis. Researchers have also found that ginger helps kill the influenza virus, plus it helps the immune system fight infection. A study at the Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Miami found that ginger extract significantly reduced pain related to osteoarthritis of the knee. About an ounce a day will bring benefits, Duke says. Using it in stir-fry dishes or meat marinades will give you enough to help. You can also grate gingerroot and steep it in hot boiling water to make an herbal tea.
Forget the mints your associate with gum or mouthwash. There are actually hundreds of plants in the mint family that you may have never realized were technically classified as mints, including basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender, sage, and lemon balm. When used in teas, these herbs can soothe an upset stomach, but emerging research suggests that their individual compounds can prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps keep your memory sharp.
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Whether hot and spicy or sweet and crunchy, there are enough peppers out there to suit anyone's taste, and they're all equally healthy for you. Spicy chile peppers have high levels of capsaicin, which interferes with your mind's pain receptors, and therefore act as natural painkillers. Capsaicin, which gives peppers their heat, has also been found to aid in weight loss by keeping your metabolism in check. Sweet peppers have a similar compound called dihydrocapsiate that comes without the spicy kick of capsaicin but with the same effects on pain and weight loss. The also contain loads of vitamin C and beta-carotene. Toss a few spicy peppers into your next batch of tacos or Asian stir-fry; bell peppers retain most of their vitamins when eaten raw.
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Pomegranates have been used for centuries in the Middle East, Iran, and India as a folk remedy, Duke writes, and for good reason. They're a good source of potassium, vitamin C and antioxidants that ward off cancer. They could also help fight Alzheimer's disease. Loma Linda University researchers discovered that mice that consumed pomegranate juice experienced 50 percent less brain degeneration than animals that drank sugar-water. A final benefit? Pace University researchers found that pomegranate juice can kill the S. mutans bacteria, one of the main causes of cavities. Pomegranate juice is a good way to get the most out of these sometimes-messy fruits, as manufacturers use the entire fruit, as opposed to just the edible seeds.
A relative of ginger, turmeric is the spice that gives curries their vivid golden hue and yellow mustard its bright color. For thousands of years, people in India have considered turmeric a healing herb. Studies show that it protects the stomach, helping to prevent ulcers, and it aids in the digestion of fats. The spice may also fight Alzheimer's disease. Researchers have found that elderly villagers in India appear to have the world's lowest rate of the disease, possibly because of the anti-inflammatory compound curcumin in turmeric. Incorporate turmeric onto your chicken, turkey, rice, or vegetables to get used to the different taste. Duke suggests sprinkling it on cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and kale.
Read more: Your Spice Rack Holds Hidden Power
Few foods are better for your brain than walnuts. They're a great source of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that curbs your appetite, as well as vitamin E, magnesium, folate, protein, and fiber. Walnuts boast more heart-healthy omega-3 fats than salmon, making them a good antidote to seasonal depression. This wonder nut is also packed with anti-inflammatory polyphenols. Many of the compounds in walnuts, such as vitamin B5 and folic acid, can be destroyed by heat, so it's best to eat them raw. If you find them too bitter to eat whole, use them in place of pine nuts in your pesto or grind them up and sprinkle them over cooked vegetables.