Spring is just around the corner and if you haven't been good about New Year's resolutions to be healthier, thoughts of warm weather may help reignite that spark to eat better. Confusing and conflicting health claims can make it a challenge to select healthy food, but the good news is that there are many nutritious options. "There are so many 'good-for-you' foods to choose from that the list could be a mile long," says Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN, a nutritionist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "But if I had to pick just five, I would start in the produce aisle of the grocery store."
During National Nutrition Month®, the nutrition team at Dana-Farber reminds everyone that maintaining a healthy diet that is rich in plant-based foods is one of the best ways to help prevent cancer. "It really is an excellent choice for everyone," Kennedy says. Look for bright colored, in-season, preferably local, fruits and vegetables. "The key is color," says Kennedy. "That is where the phytonutrients, or cancer-fighting properties, can be found. They help protect the produce and can also be beneficial for humans by strengthening the immune system." A simple way to remember it is if it comes from the ground and can stain a shirt, you want to be eating it.
Here is a list of five of Kennedy's favorite foods, as well as easy-to-make recipes for each. All can be found on the Dana-Farber Nutrition Services web page, as well as Dana-Farber's free Apple iPhone® nutrition app Ask the Nutritionist: Recipes For Fighting Cancer.
Kale may be the new "it" food but long before it was popular, it was one of Kennedy's favorites. "Kale is one of my go-to choices because it's rich in a phytonutrient called indoles, which stimulates liver detoxification and helps fight cancer," says Kennedy. Indoles are found in the rich, dark green color of kale. Other members of the cruciferous family include broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts. The American Cancer Society suggests consuming one serving of cruciferous vegetables a day, and studies show people who have diets rich in these vegetables have been found to have lower incidences of lung cancer, prostate cancer and stomach cancer. Kale that is cooked by steaming also may have cholesterol-lowering benefits.
"Tomatoes are a great food because they are rich in a phytonutrient called lycopene, which has been associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer," explains Kennedy. Tomatoes are available year-round in the supermarket, but when they are in season, try to buy them at local farm stands. That's when they are at their nutritional peak. A tip for getting the most nutritional value from tomatoes is to buy local, make them into a sauce, and freeze it to use year-round. The lycopene is best absorbed when the tomato is cooked. Including a healthy fat, like olive oil or avocado, helps pack a more nutritional punch.
3. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes and yams are other foods that should be enjoyed year-round. They are rich in a phytonutrient called carotenoids. "As little as two servings a day of carotenoids have been shown to help reduce the risk of breast cancer, lung cancer and ovarian cancer," says Kennedy. What other foods are rich in carotenoids? Think orange like carrots, acorn or butternut squash, and pumpkin.
Phytonutrients like carotenoids are available in pill form, but Kennedy warns that they do not have the same protective properties as those found in whole foods and may even cause harm in certain individuals. To get the healthiest boost, Kennedy says it is best to eat the food in its whole form.
Studies suggest that eating at least one apple a day can help prevent throat, mouth, colon, lung and possibly breast cancer. Besides being crisp, sweet and juicy, apples contain quercetin, a nutrient that protects the cell's DNA from damage that could lead to the development of cancer. "It's best to choose organic, when possible, and eat them raw and with the skin on," says Kennedy. "That's where many of the nutrients are found."
Although it may not be found in the produce aisle, quinoa (keen-wah) is a great source of protein. It's naturally gluten-free and often called an ancient grain because it's been grown for thousands of years. Quinoa is actually a seed that can be ground into flour. It is considered a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa is also rich in fiber and minerals like iron, magnesium and calcium, plus phytonutrients like quercetin.
Quinoa is a nice alternative to protein-rich foods like meat and fish. Other alternatives include lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and dark green, leafy vegetables. Looking to expand your palate?
Editor's Note: Dana-Farber's free nutrition app is available for all Apple iPhone® users with IOS 5 or higher. It can be downloaded by going to the Apple iTunes® store. High resolution images and a video showing how to use the app are available at www.dana-farber.org/nutritionapp. Ask The Nutritionist: Recipes for Fighting Cancer was designed and developed in partnership with iFactory, a Boston-based interactive agency. More information about nutrition and cancer can be found on Dana-Farber's Nutrition Services web page and Dana-Farber's blog Insight.