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Powerhouse foods equal better health

February 21, 2007|by LYNN F. LITTLE

A hectic lifestyle makes it easy to skip a meal or to grab less-than-nutritious food on the run; however, a busy day doesn't have to keep you from good health. Choosing powerhouse foods as part of your healthy diet will keep your energy up and your immune system strong.

Powerhouse foods are high in phytonutrients, chemicals that occur naturally in food. They protect against diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. When you choose these foods more often, you are doing your body a favor.

When making your powerhouse food choices, moderation is important. Some of these super foods are calorie-laden and should not be super-sized. Also, including powerhouse foods does not make up for an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle, such as inactivity. In alphabetical order, here is a list of 10 powerhouse foods to help you start down the path to better health:

· Avocados. Avocados contribute monounsaturated fat, which lowers cholesterol for heart health. Because they're high in calories, limit your daily consumption. You could enjoy avocado on a daily dinner salad. A recommended serving size is 2 tablespoons, or about one-sixth of a medium-sized avocado. Each serving provides 5 grams of fat and 55 calories. A whole avocado contains 30 grams of fat!

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· Broccoli. Broccoli contains sulforaphane, a phytonutrient, which is one of the most powerful cancer-fighting components in food, Broccoli also is high in vitamins A and C, antioxidants that prevent damage to your body's cells. It's a nutritional bargain at only 43 calories in a 1-cup serving.

· Cranberries. Long known for promoting urinary tract health, cranberries come in several forms. Buy fresh cranberries in season, pop in the freezer and use later. Toss dried cranberries into homemade granola. The light version of the juice - at 40 calories a glass - is just as effective as cranberry juice cocktail for 140 calories in an 8-ounce glass.

· Dark chocolate. More isn't better in the case of chocolate. Dark chocolate, rather than milk chocolate or white chocolate, can have some health benefits. Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids, which positively affects heart health and blood flow (including reducing blood pressure). Including a small amount, less than an ounce, in an otherwise balanced diet might be good for your health. That's good news for those of us who are chocoholics. However, along with chocolate come sugar, butter and cream, which translate into plenty of calories.

· Nuts. Though the evidence isn't definitive, including nuts two to five times a week might protect against heart disease by lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol. Nuts are high in protein and good unsaturated fat. Nuts are calorie-dense at 200 calories per ounce.

· Pomegranates. Pomegranates might increase blood flow to the heart, reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and be effective against cancer. Each one contains about 800 seeds and 100 calories. Sprinkle the seeds over salad or mix them with fruit. Pomegranate juice, filled with antioxidants, is more convenient and available year-round, but it also has added sugar to offset its natural tartness.

· Soy. High in polyunsaturated fat, soy can benefit your heart health, especially when eaten in place of other proteins, which are typically high in saturated fat. Edamame, boiled soybeans, have become a popular snack. Be adventuresome and try them in place of chips.

· Tea. Try black, green or white tea. Tea is calorie-free and might reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and ovarian cancer. Keep in mind that during processing, decaffeinated and bottled teas lose some of the beneficial polyphenols, antioxidant compounds that act as anti-inflammatories to protect heart health. Bottled teas are often loaded with sugar. Your best bet is to brew your own.

· Whole grains. Oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat bread and other whole-grain foods, protect the heart when they're eaten in place of refined grains. Don't be fooled by packaging that touts "multigrain goodness." Take the time to read the ingredients label. A whole grain should be listed first. Check the remaining ingredients to see if it's filled with other, less healthful refined grains.

· Wild salmon. A rich source of essential omega-3 fatty acids, wild salmon eaten twice a week can reduce the chance of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids cannot be manufactured by the body. Farm-raised fish are more likely to contain contaminants than those raised in the wild. The bottom line though is to include more fish more often.

Keep these powerhouse foods on hand so you have healthy choices, especially when you are in a hurry. Choosing only a few foods off the list is better than choosing none. If you want more than a bandage effect, include more of these foods regularly. Start by adding one or two new powerhouse foods to your daily diet.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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