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Manuel's Top Five: Delicious Super-Foods for Better Health

By L.K. Regan

Last week, our nutrition expert Manuel Villacorta of MV Nutrition, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You, took us grocery shopping, giving us strategies to get through the grocery store without being tempted or deceived. This week, Manuel is shifting gears to give us a list of super-foods: the top five functional foods that every guy should keep in stock.

What does Villacorta mean by "functional food"? Here's the basic idea: "Functional foods," he tells us, "are foods that have health-enhancing roles in that they contain active food components like phytochemicals and antioxidants. Studies show that these components may provide health benefits beyond the traditional nutrient role of the food." Phytochemicals, for example, constitute, Villacorta explains, "the plant's immune system, protecting it against bacteria, viruses, funghi—and so they can also be good for us, and for our immune systems." There are hundreds of phytochemicals that you get in every bite of functional foods, and they occur naturally, as part of the organic system of that food.

Even so, Villacorta says, "While Mother Nature offers a tremendous number of functional foods that provide health benefits beyond nutrition, research hasn't found a 'magical food' that resolves every single health problem." That may not be surprising, but despite this obvious fact, Villacorta says, "Marketing always tries to tell you that some foods are the one. The new kids on the block right now are acai, goji, mongasteen—these are berries that, when you see them in bottles, seem like the cure of all diseases, and the only thing you ever need to eat for health. But this is not true; there is no one food that does it all." Think instead, he tells us, "balance, balance, balance!" For Villacorta, far more important than finding a single super-food source is varying both the individual foods we eat and the different food groups.

For the purposes of today's discussion, Villacorta has chosen five super-foods or super-food categories, but he wants to be clear that there are more than these five that are excellent food choices. "Today," he says, "I am thinking not just about great functional foods, but also about location. Assuming most readers are in the U.S., I want to offer choices that are grown here. Acai, for instance, is not so local. From that perspective, other choices will be more sustainable." OK, all caveats aside, let's get to it: five super-foods for better health.

  1. Blueberries: These are the original super-food—forty times more potent in anti-oxidant activity than any other fruit, rich in fibers, carotenoids, folic acid, vitamin C and hundreds of other compounds. Blueberries are also grown in the US, plentifully. To get the benefits, however, Villacorta says to eat them regularly, and in fairly large quantities: "You'll need to eat 3/4 cup to one cup most days of the week; it's not enough to just sprinkle 10 or so on your salad," he says. Good to know. So how do you get all those blueberries into your diet? Here are a few of Villacorta's favorite suggestions: "Add them to your breakfast cereal, oatmeal, or even waffles and pancakes; or, make them a mid-afternoon snack, putting a cup of them next to the computer to pop in your mouth like M&Ms, only healthy." One other idea is to buy them fresh in the summer, then freeze them and eat them chilled, when they make a crunchy, cool, refreshing snack.

  2. Flax seed and fish: These two things seem dissimilar—unless you are looking to get omega-3s in your diet. It turns out that flax seed and fish are among the most omega-3 rich foods. Omega-3 fatty acids lower heart disease risk, protect against some cancers, and improve cognitive function. In terms of fish, try salmon (Alaskan wild when in season and when fishing stocks permit) a couple of times per week. "You want to eat about six to eight ounces per week, ideally," Villacorta says. He also advises canned salmon or, if you have the taste buds for them, canned sardines. Vegetarians and vegans, do not despair! There are plenty of Omega-3s in flax seed and other naturally occurring foods, such as walnuts. "I eat flax seed in almost anything," Villacorta says. "I aim for about two tablespoons, either whole or freshly ground, per day. I put it in oatmeal, on salads, in my brown rice, even in my yogurt. And I mix ground flax seed into my baked goods as well, right in to the dough." As he points out, there are many sources of omega-3s, but these are among the best.

  3. Whole grains: This is a broad category, but an important one, particularly in an era when so many people are determined to avoid carbohydrates. Whole grains are key to good health; they provide protein, fiber, vitamin E, polyphenols, B-vitamins, and a hundred other phytonutrients. Likewise, they help to reduce the risk of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. But whole grains are not just bread—Villacorta reminds us to vary our diet with quinoa, whole corn, couscous, even amaranth. What's that last one? "Amaranth is a tiny whole grain that has been used like quinoa by our Inca ancestors," Villacorta says. There's a lot of room for culinary exploration in the world of whole grains.

  4. Broccoli: This is the king of the cruciferous vegetables—a great cancer-fighting super-food. Broccoli is high in fiber, with hundreds of good antioxidants. Most of us simply do not eat enough green, leafy vegetables, and while any of these will have the same healthy effects, broccoli is a brilliantly concentrated super-food. But let's face it. A lot of people just don't like it. Villacorta has a suggestion for making broccoli delicious: "I cook the broccoli very lightly—steaming it just a little to soften it, but so it still has a crunch. Then I make a sauce of the juice of two lemons, a fair amount of sliced garlic (depending on your taste for garlic), one teaspoon olive oil, and sea salt and pepper to taste. I stir all of that together and dip the broccoli in it to eat. It's so good!" Turns out, it is possible to salivate at the thought of broccoli!

  5. Nuts: "It's really important to remember that nuts are not a low calorie food, to be sure," Villacorta says. "But they have tremendous health benefits, including heart disease prevention, lowering cholesterol, and providing antioxidants, good fiber and healthy fats. Plus, they are plentifully grown in the U.S." But, since they are so high in fat, he recommends being very conscious about nut consumption. "You definitely do not want to just open the bag and go for it," Villacorta says. "Instead, add them to things. I put two tablespoons crushed walnuts in my oatmeal, or a dozen almonds on my salad." This will make you enjoy the nuts more, too. "When you eat 12 almonds alone it feels like nothing," Villacorta points out, "but when they are part of a salad, it's more satisfying." And those nuts on a salad are healthful in another, less obvious way as well. "A lot of guys who are watching their calories will avoid eating fat," Villacorta says, "but many phytonutrients require the presence of fat&38212;some, not a lot—for absorption into the body. So if you eat your salad without any fat, you may not get all the nutrients you were eating that salad for to begin with. A few almonds can take care of that." Sounds like a pretty good reason to make a salad more delicious.

There you go—five super-foods for better health. Next week, we shift gears entirely and take a trip to the butcher for the leanest and most nutritious cuts of meat. Stay tuned!