I’ve never done a Ten Healthiest Foods list, mostly because I don’t believe in them. Well, I guess I’m a hypocrite now!
Here’s how this is going to work. I’m not going to limit myself to ten. I’m just going to keep writing until I use up my three pages. I’m going to exclude foods that feel more like supplements (so no spirulina or hawthorn berry); brand-name products (Manna bread), and foods that bear too disturbing a resemblance to the ectoplasm in the movie Ghost Busters.
I won’t rank foods based on what they have, but rather what they are, and what they do. So much nutritional advice these days is based on the reductionist idea that we can understand a food by quantifying a few dozen nutrients, “adding up” the good ones, and “subtracting” the bad ones. It’s mathematical! And yet by this logic, a vat of margarine “fortified with 13 essential vitamins and minerals” might be a healthy snack. Meanwhile, green tea with no vitamins and minerals worth mentioning wouldn’t even show up on the charts. And then there’s this bizarre idea that calories are inherently “bad”…?!
(Editor’s note: On this subject, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, is a great read.)
In the end, I’m not looking for “complete” or “perfect” foods. In fact, nothing on this list will have all the nutrients essential to support life. Some of them won’t even have the nutrients essential to support a decent snack. What I’m looking for here are foods that can add a little something special to an already-healthy diet.
Perhaps the most nutritious thing to eat is variety. (In alphabetical, not numerical order….)
1. Cacao (the chocolate bean) is a profound antioxidant. Unfortunately, cacao is usually synonymous with white sugar, white flour and hydrogenated oil. But it doesn’t have to be. Cacao has been shown to reduce wrinkles, strengthen the structures of the vascular system, and improve circulation to the brain. Due to caffeine content and other reasons, you don’t want to eat enormous amounts of this one….
2. Coconut: People just seem to feel good when they eat a lot of coconut. Whole coconut is a very good source of fiber, and potassium. Coconut juice (“coconut water”) is an extraordinary source of potassium.
Coconut fats (mostly medium-chain triglycerides) are special fats. They burn quickly and efficiently in the body, so they’re both slightly energizing and good for controlling weight. (Adding coconut oil to the diet will not help you lose weight, but replacing other oils with coconut will). Meanwhile, because they’re so easy to process, MCTs help people keep weight on when the liver’s ability to process normal fats is compromised.
More about coconut fats: they’re some of the most stable for high-heat cooking, and have significant antiviral and antifungal properties as well. I stir-fry crisp veggies in coconut oil; Jim, our store’s British manager, breaks from tradition each holiday season when he makes the entire staff Christmas pudding with coconut oil instead of lard.
And now we’re seeing coconut sugar in the U.S. Made from the sap of coconut flowers, this is by far my favorite sweetener. I mean, maple syrup and raw honey are both wonderful, too, but they taste almost too distinctive to use in a lot of recipes. Coconut sugar, on the other hand, tastes like sugar, crossed with some sort of earthy-yet-heavenly caramel. It can replace cane sugar 1:1 in recipes. And it’s got a glycemic index value in the mid-30s, better than just about anything else out there.
3. Dyes… By which I simply mean foods that can stain your clothing. The worse something stains your clothing, generally speaking, the more it protects our cells from damage. So think red wine, grapes, blueberries, turmeric, saffron, beets…. A darker colored version of something is almost always better for you than its lighter cousin. So think black beans versus lima beans, dark cherries versus Rainier cherries. (St. Patrick’s Day green beer is an exception to this rule).
4. Pastured Eggs: My grandma used to say that the “experts” changed their minds on eggs about once a decade, but she never did. She just kept on eating them.
Pastured eggs come from birds that forage for their own food, all those yummy seeds and grains and worms and bugs. They’re much healthier than eggs that are “free range” (a term notorious for meaning as much or as little as people find convenient), or eggs from battery-raised hens. The dark yellow yolks of pastured eggs are rich in the healthy omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, and loaded with eye-protecting lutein. With all that, plus their dense phospholipids, pastured eggs are a phenomenal “brain food” really, a phenomenal food for all of our cell membranes from infancy through old age.
Eggs also get extra points for being practical. First, for being cheap. Even pastured eggs and yes, they cost more than regular ones are a bargain compared to fish, steak or chicken. But practical also means easy and versatile. Dinner, lunch, and breakfast are never more than five minutes away.
(But what about the cholesterol? Well, cholesterol is only a problem when our bodies mismanage it. And eggs are the richest natural source of lecithin, a phospholipid emulsifier that helps us manage it. There have been three solid research trials which have shown that eggs do not raise people’s LDL “bad” cholesterol at all).
5. Goji Berries: Some might think this breaks the “no supplements” rule. And it’s true: for many people, goji is something they “take” instead of something they “eat,” a juice measured by the ounce. But the dried berries are like little raisins. You can munch them, add them to hot cereal, bake them into sweet pilafs, etc.
Goji has immune-building polysaccharides like the ones in medicinal mushrooms, aloe vera, and astragalus root. They’re packed with antioxidants of especial value to the eyes, where they strengthen night vision and prevent degeneration. They are a strengthening food in general. Over time they feed the good bacteria in our guts, and reduce LDL cholesterol. Two benefits I’ve seen only with the juice are greater energy and increased libido in both men and women. (But please note: goji won’t do anything “weird” to kids).
6. Green Tea: No other food or beverage has accumulated such impressive research data for preventing just about everything that might kill us. Period.
7. Fresh Herbs: No matter what tropical superfruit is crowned by the hype-masters as the next “king” antioxidant, it will pale in comparison to the oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary growing in our back yards. Look at the USDA ORAC data. It’s amazing.
8. Maitake Mushrooms: Most gourmet mushrooms are deeply immune strengthening, but Maitake is king. Yeah, it’s weird-looking. Sauté in a little butter or oil don’t worry, it’s supposed to break into little pieces and then add to grain dishes (especially buckwheat and/or barley), sauces, soups. It tastes a little like chicken.
9. Pomegranate: According to some pretty solid research, pomegranate lowers heart disease risk big-time. It’s too early to say, but it might do the same for cancer as well. And a recent study ranking various juices for antioxidant levels put pomegranate at the very top. (2nd place, incidentally, went to our very own Concord Grape, followed by blueberry, black cherry, acai, cranberry, orange, then apple see “Dyes.”)
10. Seaweed: Our richest source of trace minerals, period; and one of our best detoxifiers for toxic heavy metals. A sprinkle of kelp or dulse adds a pleasant mineral saltiness to savory foods. Go easy on them, though, as it’s possible to get too much iodine.
11. Sesame: The only way to explain what makes sesame special is to get deep into the science of the liver, and the pathways of essential fatty acid metabolism. So I won’t. Just trust me: sesame improves the way we process fats especially the healthy essential fatty acids found in fish, flax, nuts and seeds, pastured eggs, borage, and evening primrose and fatty antioxidants, like the vitamin E tocopherols. This isn’t something sesame does better than other foods; as far as I’ve been able to tell, this is something that only sesame does.
I love adding a spoonful of tahini (roasted sesame seed butter) to sauces, dressings, pilafs, and soups especially minestrone and miso. It’s one of the most versatile things in my pantry.
12. Stocks: My grandmother always saved the water from steaming vegetables. “Don’t pour it down the sink!” she’d say. “That’s where all the vitamins are!” (To which I’d ask, if all the vitamins are in the water, then why do I have to eat the vegetables?)
Whether or not we want it to, hot water picks up a lot of nutrition from food. By making a stock, we do this on purpose, salvaging nutrition from parts of the food we otherwise compost or throw away: onion peels and shiitake stems, bones and the pieces of meat that hang on to bones, fish heads and shrimp tails, etc.
I don’t believe in recipes for stock. Instead, I collect kitchen scraps in plastic bags in my freezer. I keep a bag each for vegetables, meat, mushrooms and shellfish. When I have enough material, I make stock, mixing and matching, adding a bit of salt or rosemary, or maybe onion or garlic. Each time, it tastes a little different.
Bone broth is extraordinarily good for supporting the bones and tissues of the body. Mushroom broth (in my kitchen, always from shiitake stems) is a wonderful immune strengthener.
13. Turmeric: This curry spice will raise the antioxidant status of the liver and reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. Research also strongly suggests it may prevent age-related cognitive decline including Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. It’s a good anti-inflammatory. And it appears to fight herpes as well.
14. Almost Made The Cut: Caviar (or the much cheaper “fish eggs” you get on sushi), beets, burdock root, undenatured whey protein, cold-water fatty fish, high mineral content waters, liver, marrow, flax seeds, and fermented foods. And I’ve always had a hunch that mulberries and poppy seeds were both tremendously healthy in some magical way. But I’ve never been able to find any data. Anyone have any, let me know!