Special Foods

Ever since Eve pulled that apple (really a pomegranate) off the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, people have been attributing special powers to one food or another. This article is by no means the complete A+ list. For example, I haven’t included chicken soup, because what more can anyone say about this universal panacea?

Ditto for garlic and onions, both now honored as probably heart-healthy. Winnowing down the list was hard, but somebody had to do it! So here are my nominations, plus a bonus list of baddies assembled by Men’s Health magazine.


Alcohol beverages play such an important part in human culinary and nutrition history. Simply listing alcohol’s natural properties tells you right off why ancient peoples called it a “gift of the gods” or the “water of life.” It’s an effective antiseptic, sedative, and analgesic.

Moderate alcohol consumption relaxes muscles and mood, expands blood vessels to lower blood pressure temporarily, and appears to lower the risk of heart disease, either by reducing the stickiness of blood platelets (small particles that can clump together to form a blood clot) or by relaxing blood vessels (making them temporarily larger) or by increasing the amount of HDLs (“good cholesterol”) in your blood.

Although some forms of alcohol, such as red wines, have gotten more press attention with regard to these effects, the truth is that controlled studies show similar effects with all forms of alcohol beverages — wine, beer, and spirits. Common wisdom to the contrary, alcohol sometimes may also be beneficial to the brain.

Yes, drinking can make you fuzzy, which is why — really — you should never drink and drive. However, recent studies from the Institute of Preventive Medicine at Kommunehospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland hint that regular consumption of moderate amounts of wine may keep minds sharp into older age. Next time you lift a glass and say, “To your health,” consider yourself right on the money.


Modern science says that beans lower cholesterol levels with gums and pectin, soluble dietary fibers that mop up fats and prevent their being absorbed by your body. Oats, which also are rich in gums, particularly a gum called beta glucan, produce the same effect.

Beans are also valuable for people with diabetes. Because beans are digested very slowly, eating them produces only a gradual increase in the level of sugar circulating in your blood. As a result, metabolizing beans requires less insulin than eating other types of high-carb foods such as pasta and potatoes.

In one well-known study at the University of Kentucky, a diet rich in beans made it possible for people with Type 1 diabetes (their bodies produce virtually no insulin) to reduce their daily insulin intake by nearly 40 percent. Patients with Type 2 diabetes (their bodies produce some insulin) were able to reduce insulin intake by 98 percent.

Just about the only drawback to a diet rich in beans is gas resulting from the natural human inability to digest some dietary fiber and complex sugars such as raffinose and stachyose, which sit in your gut as fodder for the resident friendly bacteria that digest the carbs and then release carbon dioxide and (ugh) methane, a smelly gas.

One way to reduce intestinal gas production is to reduce the complex sugar content of the beans before you eat them. Here’s how: Bring a pot of water to a boil. Turn off the heat. Add the beans. Let them soak for several hours.

The sugars leach out into the water, which means you can discard the sugars by draining the beans and adding fresh water to cook in. If that doesn’t do the job, try two heat-and-soak sessions before cooking.


“Cholesterol buster” is easy to say. “Pterostilbene” (ter-o-STILL-bean) is a tongue twister. But USDA researchers at the Natural Products Utilization Research Unit in Oxford, Mississippi, think they may be synonyms. Pterostilbene, an antioxidant found primarily in blueberries (as well as cranberries, lingonberries, and huckleberries), appears to step up the activity of cells in your liver that reduce the production of cholesterol and other artery-clogging fats.

In fact, the USDA people hint that pterostilbene could be extracted from blueberries to make commercial anticholesterol meds with fewer side effects than those currently on the market.

Until human tests are run, nobody will know how many blueberries you have to eat to lower your cholesterol, but some nutrition studies suggest that ounce for ounce, blueberries have one of the highest antioxidant contents in the whole wide vegetable and fruit world. So enjoy.


Bison is back. The really big bovid ruminant (translation: an animal related to a cow) is no longer an endangered species. In fact, according to the 2,500- member National Bison Association, the current bison herd is up to a whopping 350,000 animals to be shipped to your table as the other red meat — translation: beef.

Ounce for ounce, bison has less fat, less sat fat, less cholesterol, fewer calories, and more protein than you-know-what. It’s pretty tasty, too, with a rich meaty flavor that survives broiling and grilling but may, alas, turn dry when roasted.

Not to worry: Most Americans get their first taste of bison as the broiled burger now popping up on coffee shop menus all across the country. While you’re waiting to be served, take a gander at the widely distributed four-color table tent, which lists relative amounts of nutrients in 3.5-ounce (100-gram) servings of bison, beef, pork, and chicken.

As you may expect, the bison wins. One more thing: Never say “buffalo” when you mean “bison.” The scientific name for American bison is — no kidding — Bison bison. The word buffalo comes from French explorers who called bison “boeuf” (meaning beef). English changed that to “buff.” Common usage smoothed that out to “buffle” and eventually “buffalo.” Actual buffalo are native to Asia and Africa.

Breast Milk

Human breast milk is more nutritious than cow’s milk for human babies. It has a higher percentage of easily digested, high-energy fats and carbohydrates.

Its proteins stimulate an infant’s immune system, encouraging his or her white blood cells to produce plenty infection-fighting antibodies, including those that go after viruses linked to infant diarrhea, which accounts for 23 percent of all deaths among children younger than 5.

And get this: In 2004, a report in the British Medical Journal Lancet said that feeding a baby breast milk rather than formula for the first month of life may lower the child’s cholesterol levels later in life, reduce the child’s eventual risk of high blood pressure, and keep a person slimmer as he or she grows older. All in all, a pretty good way to start off in life, doncha think?


Westerners have been fools for chocolate ever since the Spanish conquistadors discovered it at Montezuma’s Mexican court. And why not? The cocoa bean is a good source of energy, fiber, protein, carbohydrates, B vitamins, and minerals (one ounce of dark sweet chocolate has 12 percent of the iron and 33 percent of the magnesium a healthy woman needs each day).

Nutritionwise, the rap on chocolate is that cocoa butter (the fat in chocolate) is 59 percent saturated fat, primarily stearic acid. But nobody seems to have told stearic acid that it’s a villain. Unlike other saturated fats, stearic acid neither increases LDLs (“bad cholesterol”) nor lowers HDLs (“good cholesterol”).

In addition, stearic acid makes blood platelets less likely to clump together into a blood clot, thus lowering you risk of heart attack or stroke. And don’t forget the phytosterols, steroidlike compounds in plants that sop up cholesterol in your gut and zip it out of your body before it reaches your bloodstream.

Phytosterols, the heart-healthy ingredients in Take Control and Benecol margarines, are found in cocoa beans and chocolate, leading canny researchers at the University of California-Berkeley Division of Cardiovascular Medicine and the Department of Nutrition to investigate whether drinking a cocoa beverage once a day or eating a chocolate chew twice a day can lower cholesterol levels in postmenopausal women.

In addition, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January 2006 credits the cocoa compound (–)epicatechin (translation: minus epicatechin) with the ability to help blood vessels relax. And as we all know, relaxing your blood vessels means lowering your blood pressure — and your risk of heart attack.

Does all this mean chocolate is a bona fide health food? Not yet. But is chocolate healthful as part of a balanced diet? You bet. Especially because it’s a veritable happiness cocktail containing caffeine (a mood elevator and central nervous system stimulant), theobromine (a muscle stimulant), phenylethylamine (another mood elevator), and anandamide, a chemical that stimulates the same areas of the brain that marijuana does.

No, eating chocolate won’t get you high. You’d have to consume 25 pounds or more at one sitting to get the smallest marijuana-like effect. Nonetheless, I think chocolate was Montezuma’s way of making up for his, ahem, “revenge.”


For years, there was nothing but bad news about coffee. Pancreatic cancer. Cystic breasts. High cholesterol. Heart disease. Stroke. Birth defects. Heartburn and reflux. But the worm — okay, the coffee bean — has turned: Later studies show no link at all between drinking coffee and an increased risk of any of these conditions.

True, coffee may upset your stomach and keep you up at night, but for most people, these effects are almost always linked to excess consumption. (How much is “excess”? The amount varies from person to person, but when you hit your limit, you’ll definitely know. Trust me.)

In the end, the simple fact is that taken in moderation, regular coffee definitely qualifies for anybody’s list of super foods. Its most active ingredient, caffeine...

  • elevates your mood and increases your ability to concentrate
  • may improve your athletic performance
  • can help shrink the swollen, throbbing blood vessels that make your head ache; and
  • boosts the effect of painkillers, which is why caffeine is often included in over-the-counter analgesic (pain-relieving) products. Which is also why, time after time, the java really does the job.


Did your great-grandmother call fish “brain food”? If so, it was because fish is rich in iodine, the mineral that allows your thyroid gland to churn out thyroid hormones vital to your ability to think and move. Once upon a time, back in great-granny’s day, people living far from the ocean (our best natural source of iodine) were often sluggish, sometimes even mentally retarded, because they were lacking iodine.

But this condition became rare in the U.S. after the introduction of iodized salt in the 1920s. Fish’s modern reputation for medical magic comes from its ability to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, in large part, because of its omega-3 fatty acids. These unsaturated fats make blood less sticky, thus reducing the incidence of clots.

They also knock down levels of bad cholesterol. You want proof? Here’s proof: In 2002, data from the long-running Harvard Health Professionals Study indicated that people who eat 3 to 5 ounces of fish just once a month have a 40 percent lower risk of ischemic stroke, a stroke caused by a blood clot in a cranial artery.

The Harvard study did not include women. But a report on women and stroke published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2000 says women who eat about 4 ounces of fish — think one small can of tuna — two to four times a week appear to cut their risk of stroke by a similar 40 percent.

And in 2005, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published several reports from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis project concluding that “any fish consumption confers substantial relative risk reduction compared to no fish consumption, with the possibility that additional consumption confers incremental benefits,” including a “17% reduction in death from heart attack, with each additional serving per week associated with a further reduction in this risk of 3.9%.”

Of course, there are catches to this catch. First, some fish are high in mercury, a metal that can damage a developing fetus, but small amounts of fish, say two 3-ounce servings a week, seem to be safe for everyone else. Second, frequent servings of fish may increase the risk of a stroke caused by bleeding in the brain.

This situation is common among Native Alaskans who eat lots of fish and have a higher than normal incidence of hemorrhagic, or bleeding, strokes. The Harvard study found no significant link between fish consumption and bleeding strokes, but the researchers say more studies are needed to nail down the relationship or lack thereof. While we’re waiting, pass the chips. Sat fat– and trans fat–free, of course.


Pass up the pretzels. Skip the chips. At snack time, reach for the almonds. Although nuts are technically a high-fat food, a series of studies including several at California’s Loma Linda University say that adding moderate amounts of nuts to a cholesterol-lowering diet or substituting nuts for other high-fat foods such as meats may cut normal to moderately high levels of total cholesterol and LDLs (“bad cholesterol”) as much as 12 percent.

These guys should know. A while back, they made headlines with a walnut study in which volunteers were given one of two diets, both based on National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) recommendations. People on Diet #1 got 20 percent of their calories from fats in oils and fatty foods such as meat.

Folks on Diet #2 got 20 percent of their calories from high-fat nuts instead of meat, but both controlled-fat diets appeared to lower cholesterol levels. The take-home message here is that although nuts are high in fat, their fats are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated cholesterol busters.

And let us not forget that nuts also provide other hearthealthy nutrients such as arginine (an amino acid your body uses to make a clot-blocking compound called nitric oxide), folate (a B vitamin that lowers blood levels of homocysteine, a risk factor for heart disease), vitamin E, and dietary fiber.

So feel free to go (sensibly) nuts for nuts. Crunch.

White Tea

Black and green? So 20th century. The hot new color in tea is white. The leaves for all three teas come from one plant, Camellia sinensis. But those leaves meant for black and green teas are rolled and fermented before drying, while those destined for white teas — which actually brew up pale yellow-red — aren’t.

Nutritionwise, this small change makes a big difference. Flavonoids are natural chemicals credited with tea’s ability to lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of some kinds of cancer, and protect your teeth from cavity-causing bacteria.

Fresh tea leaves are rich in flavonoids called catechins, but processing the leaves to make black and green teas releases enzymes that enable individual catechins to hook up with others, forming new flavor and coloring agents called polyphenols (poly = many) that give flavor and color to black and green teas.

Because white tea leaves are neither rolled nor fermented, fewer of their catechins marry into polyphenols. According to researchers at the Linus Pauling Institute (LPI) at Oregon State University, the plain catechin content of white tea is three times that of green tea.

Black tea comes in a distant third. Why should you care about this? Because all those catechins seem to be good for living bodies. For example, when LPI researchers tested white tea’s ability to inhibit cell mutations in bacteria and slow down cell changes leading to colon cancer in rats, the white tea beat green tea, the former health champ.

And when scientists at University Hospitals of Cleveland and Case Western Reserve University applied creams containing white-tea extract to human skin (on volunteers) and exposed the volunteers to artificial sunlight, the creamed skin developed fewer pre-cancerous changes.

To be fair, green tea preparations were also protective, but white tea has less caffeine than either green or black tea, which makes it the perfect brew for a recovering caffeine fiend. Sip.

Whole Grains

If you’re a man who plans to live forever, a team of nutrition scientists at Harvard/Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have three words for you: whole grain cereal. When the investigators took a look at the health stats for a one-year period in the lives of the 86,190 male doctors in the long-running Physicians’ Health Study, they found 3,114 deaths among the study volunteers, including 1,381 deaths from heart attack and stroke.

Then they looked a little closer and discovered that eating habits count. Men who ate at least one serving of whole grain cereal a day were 27 percent less likely to die than were men who ate refined grain products.

The whole-grain group was also as much as 28 percent less likely to succumb to a heart attack, regardless of how much they weighed, whether they smoked or drank alcohol or took vitamins pills or had a history of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Nobody yet knows exactly why this should be so.

But they do know that whole grains are a treasure trove of dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals (plant compounds such as antioxidants) that protect by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol while improving the body’s ability to process nutrients, particularly carbohydrates.

The question is, how much cereal must you eat to benefit? The studies say more is better, but one serving a day is better than none at all. To find the right cereal, haul out your magnifying glass or bifocals to check the Nutrition Facts label.

If whole grain is the first ingredient and there’s at least 2 grams dietary fiber per serving, you’ve found breakfast. For those who absolutely, positively hate cereal, try whole-grain bread. And, yes, whole grains are an equal opportunity dish. Earlier studies suggest that women, too, may come out ahead by adding whole grain to their daily diets.


Yogurt is milk with added friendly bacteria that digest milk sugar (lactose) to produce lactic acid, a natural preservative that gives the flavor of yogurt its pleasant bite. Yogurt is definitely magical for people who are lactase deficient (meaning they don’t produce enough lactase to digest milk sugar so that they get gassy whenever they drink milk).

But there’s no evidence to show that yogurt is a longevity tonic, a claim traced back to Ilya Ilyich Metchnikoff, a Russian Nobel Prize winner (1908; Physiology/Medicine) who believed that people die prematurely entirely because of the action of “putrefying bacteria” in the intestines.

Searching for a way to disarm the putrefiers, Metchnikoff ended up in Bulgaria, a place where many people lived past 50 and a significant percentage made it into their late 80s. Historians may argue that the only way to live that long in Bulgaria was to avoid Bulgarian politics, but Metchnikoff credited the organisms used to make Bulgarian cultured milk.

He was wrong. The bugs, christened L. bulgaricus, make nice yogurt but don’t take up residence in the human gut. This hardly mattered to Metchnikoff, who died in Paris in 1916, at the relatively young age of 71. His faith in yogurt, however, continues to cycle in and out of fashion.