A forkful of prevention may help stave off illness HEALTH FOODS

March 15, 1994|By Susan Male Smith | Susan Male Smith,New York Times Features Syndicate

Tired of being told what you can't eat? Here's good news: Scientists have zeroed in on dozens of foods you should dig into regularly because they may help prevent cancer, heart disease and more.

Using foods as medicine isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.

The National Cancer Institute is researching the way certain foods protect health. The secret may be in the hundreds of chemicals hidden in everyday foods.

"Many fruits and vegetables contain anti-oxidants like beta carotene and vitamins C and E," says Jeffrey Blumberg, associate director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.

The nutrients are famed for their ability to vanquish free radicals -- harmful molecules that circulate in the body and damage healthy tissue.

Other disease-beaters include everything from fiber to chemicals with tongue-twisting names. Read on and then eat up.

* Amaranth. Technically a fruit, this can be used as a grain in breads, muffins and other flour-based foods.

It's high in muscle-building protein and chock-full of immune-boosting copper, magnesium and zinc.

* Apricots. These are a super source of the anti-oxidants vitamin C and beta carotene, which may help protect against lung cancer. They are also full of fiber.

* Bananas. This fruit may help lower blood pressure. The magic ingredient? Potassium. Bananas are also rich in vitamin B6, which research shows to be essential in maintaining a strong immune system.

* Barley. This is brimming with beta glucans, a type of soluble fiber that can lower your risk of heart disease by reducing levels of artery-clogging LDL (low-density lipoproteins).

Hull-less, waxy varieties contain the most beta glucans. Look for the term "unpearled" on the box, meaning unprocessed and thus higher in fiber, which helps lower blood pressure.

* Beef (lean). Lean beef may help ward off infections and protect against cellular damage that can lead to cancer. That's because lean beef is an excellent source of niacin, which may prevent cancerous changes, and zinc, an immune-strengthener.

* Black beans. These and other beans are full of soluble fiber, which helps lower LDL and reduce blood pressure. It also helps keep blood-sugar levels on an even keel, staving off hunger and even reducing the need for insulin among diabetics.

* Bran cereal. Choose one high in wheat bran, a great source of cancer-fighting insoluble fiber, which increases stool bulk and speed of elimination. (Scientists think that the faster toxins move through your bowels, the lower your risk of colorectal cancer.) Look for a cereal that provides at least 5 grams of fiber per serving.

* Broccoli. Broccoli is bursting with cancer-fighting fiber, beta carotene and vitamin C, plus boron, bone-building calcium, chromium, folic acid and potassium.

* Brown rice. This contains oryzanol, which can reduce LDL. The high-fiber rice bran found in brown rice may help lower cholesterol. Brown rice also contains copper, magnesium, niacin, thiamine, vitamins B6 and E, which can strengthen the immune system and reduce the risk of heart disease and cataracts, and zinc.

* Cabbage. A member of the cruciferous family of cancer-fighting vegetables, its anti-cancer key may be the presence of indoles, one of which may help prevent breast cancer.

* Cantaloupe. This is brimming with beta carotene, fiber, folate, potassium and vitamins B6 and C. Carotene's anti-cancer effect may protect against oral cancers as well as cancers of the cervix, stomach and uterus.

* Carrots. Best for their sky-high beta carotene content. A recent study of 87,000 women found that those who ate five or more servings of carrots a week were 68 percent less likely to suffer a stroke than those eating one or fewer carrots a month.

* Figs. Figure on getting fiber, magnesium, potassium and vitamin C from figs. A recent study at Harvard School of Public Health found that only fruit fiber, like that found in figs, is linked to reduced systolic blood pressure (the upper number, which represents pressure during the heart's contractions). All fiber is associated with reduced diastolic blood pressure (the lower number, which represents the pressure when the heart is at rest between contractions).

* Fish. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oils are the fix for lowering blood fats, especially triglycerides. They also help reduce blood pressure and may ease arthritis symptoms. Anchovies, bluefish, herring, lake trout, mackerel, salmon and sardines have the most fatty acids.

* Garlic. Research suggests garlic helps protect against heart disease and stroke. It may also lower blood pressure. Garlic also contains allylic sulfides, which may detoxify carcinogens. It has also been linked to lower rates of stomach cancer.

* Ginger. This may be a natural diet aid, possibly boosting the rate at which the body burns calories. It's also a natural anti-oxidant.

* Grapes. Grapes are a great source of boron, a mineral that may help ward off osteoporosis.

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