Most of us know that we could be eating better than we are – and that we’d probably look and feel better if we did. But what exactly are the most important types of foods we should be embracing or rebuffing, and why?
In this interview, Mark Hyman, MD, author of UltraMetabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss, describes a basic blueprint for healthy eating – the same blueprint he suggests for the vast majority of his patients. “I see people who are chronically ill, with problems that no one else can solve,” says Hyman. “And by far the most powerful tool I have in my toolkit to help these people get better isn’t drugs or surgery – it’s food.” Start eating this way now, notes Hyman, and food may be the only medicine you’ll ever need.
5 Priority Foods
1. Omega-3 Fats
What You Want: “Omega-3 fats traditionally come from wild foods, which, except for fish, we now rarely eat. Ninety-nine percent of us are deficient in omega-3 fats. Fish is really the only remaining rich, natural source of omega-3 fats in our diet. Coldwater fish such as wild salmon, herring, sardines, black cod or sable are considered relatively safe sources. Other fish, like swordfish and tuna, also contain omega-3 fats, but they are high in mercury, so I wouldn’t recommend them. Omega-3 eggs, which come from chickens fed omega-3 fats, are a new source of omega-3s in the diet. They have as many or more omega-3 fats as fish. They’re a little expensive, but certainly cheaper than buying wild salmon. Flaxseeds – either ground flaxseeds or flax oil – are also great sources of omega-3 fats.”
Why You Want ‘Em: “Omega-3 fats make up the basic building blocks of all our cells, and they regulate a number of different functions through that activity. They’re very important fats that have been shown to reduce cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart attacks. They prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia; they help reverse and treat diabetes; they aid your metabolism; they help in the blood to prevent clotting. They help your hair, skin and nails grow. They treat and reverse depression and control bipolar disease. They also reduce inflammation, a root cause of arthritis, autoimmune disorders and a great many other diseases.”
How to Get ‘Em: “Omega-3 fats are so important that unless people are eating sardines or an omega-3 egg daily, most need to be taking a high-grade quality fish-oil supplement. Be sure to take a purified form that doesn’t contain any pesticides or heavy metals.” (Learn more at “The Omega Balance“.)
2. Cruciferous Vegetables
What You Want: “Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, collard greens, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, Chinese broccoli, broccoli sprouts and kohlrabi. You can find organic versions at many markets these days.”
Why You Want ‘Em: “These veggies are all powerful sources of nutrients for health, including folate, the B vitamins and magnesium. They also have powerful compounds called phytonutrients, which are plant-based chemicals that can activate genes that help us fight aging and disease. These compounds have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer. They help regulate enzymes in the liver that help us get rid of heavy metals and pesticides. They are very powerful detoxifying compounds.”
How to Get ‘Em: “I encourage people to eat at least 1 to 2 cups of cruciferous vegetables daily if at all possible. Most aren’t that great raw, so I would just quickly wash and chop the broccoli, collards or kale, and then either sauté them in olive oil and garlic or steam them. Be sure not to overcook them, though. That reduces their nutritional value.”
What You Want: “Almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans and, to a lesser extent, cashews are all healthy choices and are widely available.”
Why You Want ‘Em: “Eaten in moderation, these nuts can help with weight loss and reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They’re very good sources of nutrients that are deficient in our diets, such as magnesium and vitamin E. They’re also wonderful sources of fiber and vegetable protein, which is much easier on our bones, our kidneys and our livers than animal protein. They also help control appetite: They’re very calorie- and nutrient-dense, so you don’t need a lot of them to feel satisfied. These nuts contain healthy monounsaturated fats, along with some omega-3s.”
How to Get ‘Em: “Buy bags of nuts and eat them as healthy, high-quality snacks or sprinkle them on salads. Try not to buy salted, roasted or fried nuts because they add extra calories and salt, and when nuts are cooked, the fat oils oxidize and become somewhat toxic. You can make nut ice cubes by soaking the nuts overnight in water, then blending them. This makes a delicious nut cream that you can freeze in an ice-cube tray, then blend into smoothies.”
4. Deeply Colored Fruits
What You Want: “Go for blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, pomegranates, red grapes – even mangoes and papayas. Anything with lots of color and pigment.”
Why You Want ‘Em: “These fruits are rich in a number of anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-aging compounds. For example, the dark-red color of grapes contains ‘resveratrol,’ a flavonoid compound that has been found to activate genes that prevent aging.”
How to Get ‘Em: “Eat them in their natural state, as a snack before dinner, or as a dessert, or put them into a smoothie or another type of drink. One of my favorites is pomegranate juice with a little bit of seltzer water or club soda and lemon – it’s a powerful and refreshing antioxidant drink.”
5. Green Tea
What You Want: “Any green tea will do, but higher-quality, whole-leaf teas tend to be the tastiest and the highest in beneficial compounds.”
Why You Want It: “Green tea contains a class of compounds called catechins, which have been shown to have wide-ranging effects, from increasing your metabolic rate and helping with weight loss, to reducing inflammation and increasing enzymes that help prevent cancer, to helping detoxify the liver and regulate key genes related to aging.”
How to Get It: “Green tea is a wonderful alternative to coffee or soda (drinks we often use as a false energy source). Try carrying a bottle of warm or iced green tea with you to sip throughout the day.”
5 Foods to Avoid
1. Most Processed Food Products
Why: “Conventional processed foods and drinks tend to be very calorie-dense and nutrient-poor. They typically contain a lot of food additives, low-quality ingredients and chemicals that interfere with our metabolism, making us feel sluggish and that fuel food cravings. Consumed as a major part of our diet, these foods contribute to a wide range of diseases and health problems, including obesity.”
How to Avoid: “Shop around the perimeter of the supermarket; don’t go down the aisles.” (For more on that, see “The Shopping Cart Cure“.) “Say no to ‘diet’ foods and snacks, including diet drinks and shakes. Make a point of putting real, whole foods at the center of your diet.”
2. High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Why: “High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was nonexistent in our food supply 30 to 40 years ago, and now it has replaced sugar as the predominant sweetener. Not only is this corn syrup much sweeter than regular sugar, it has biological effects, such as causing increases in fatty liver and diabetes, throwing off your whole blood-sugar metabolism and increasing your appetite. It really should not be in our food supply.”
How to Avoid: “The best way to avoid HFCS is to read product labels – all labels. An astonishing number of foods, snacks, condiments and drinks contain HFCS.”
3. Trans Fats
Why: “Trans fats are dangerous man-made fats that damage our tissues and metabolic processes. They activate genes that cause heart disease, cancer and diabetes. They make you gain weight by slowing down your metabolism, and they block the action of healthy omega-3 fats in our system. Trans fats are very inflammatory, and they raise cholesterol more than any other type of fat.”
How to Avoid: “Look closely at the ingredients list of any food you’re considering: If it says, ‘partially hydrogenated’ anywhere on the label, don’t buy it – and don’t eat it. Also avoid restaurants that use trans fats.”
4. Refined Sugar and Flour Products
Why: “Refined sugars and flours are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, where they produce a spike in insulin. That leads to a cascade of events that result in increased appetite, weight gain and inflammation in the body. Regular consumption of such foods also raises our risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”
How to Avoid: “Take stock of all the sugar and flour products (including crackers, cookies, breads, pastas and cereals) you currently eat on a daily basis, then begin choosing healthier alternatives whenever possible. If you need an occasional sweet, go for a square of dark chocolate. Experiment with replacing starchy, flour-based carbs in your diet with vegetable, legume and whole-grain carbohydrate sources.”
5. Any Food That Gives You Trouble
Why: “Any food you are sensitive or intolerant to will tend to create inflammation and irritation in your body, causing symptoms that can range from mild to very serious, even life-threatening. Gluten and dairy are food categories that cause food sensitivities for a lot of people. They don’t affect everybody, but I encourage everyone to take a holiday from these foods for a week or two just to see how the body responds – you might see remarkable changes in your health. Seventy-five percent of the world’s population is lactose-intolerant, and my clinical experience leads me to believe as much as 40 percent of the U.S. population may have trouble with gluten.”
How to Avoid: “If you suspect a food is causing trouble for you (digestive or otherwise), it probably is. If you avoid it for several days in a row and feel better, that’s your confirmation. When it comes to avoiding troublesome ingredients, reading labels is a good start, but because things like gluten and dairy show up in the ingredients of a great many processed foods and condiments, it can take some education to find out what’s in what. Dairy, of course, includes milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, etc. Gluten is present in wheat, oats, spelt, rye and triticale. But you can also find both gluten and dairy in sauces, coatings, mixes and prepared foods of all kinds.
“So the simplest, surest way to avoid them (particularly for testing purposes) is to eat just fruits, vegetables, rice and fish for a week or so. Most detox diets include good instructions for eliminating dairy, gluten and other common irritants. In UltraMetabolism, I offer very detailed instructions and suggestions. Once you know what you can and can’t eat comfortably, you can educate yourself about alternative diets and experiment with the eating approach that works best for you.”
Dr. Hyman wraps it up this way: “It’s important to remember that every person, and every body, is different. So while the recommendations I’ve made here are bound to be beneficial to virtually anyone who pursues them, I also know that each individual will experience different results. That’s why, in the end, what’s ‘in’ and ‘out’ of your diet is ultimately up to you. Just keep in mind that food is powerful medicine, and that each of us becomes, quite literally, what we eat. Our tissues, organs, bones and genes – the vitality of every cell, the strength of our metabolism – it all hangs in the balance.”
So, now, what do you want for dinner?
This article originally appeared as “In With the Good, Out With the Bad ” in the April 2007 issue of Experience Life.
Mark Hyman, MD, is editor-in-chief of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. For a free look at his book UltraMetabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss, check out www.ultrametabolism.com.