By Dr. Mercola
In a survey of at-home spending patterns on food among US households, the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the US Department of Agriculture revealed Americans are throwing a lot of their food budgets toward very unhealthy foods.
The average US household spent most of their food budget (nearly 18 percent) on refined grains followed by sugar and candies (at nearly 14 percent). The next highest category was red meat (mostly from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs), followed by frozen or refrigerated entrees and beverages.1
In stark contrast, Americans spent less than 0.5 percent of their food budget on dark green vegetables and a similar amount on orange vegetables. Other vegetables made up less than 4 percent of at-home food spending and whole fruits just over 6 percent.
As reported by Forbes:2
“It is not that shoppers are spending less than they should on food in general. We spend 17 percent of our food shopping dollars on refined grains (more than three times what is recommended).
…And while the USDA recommends spending less than 1 percent on sugar and candies, most Americans spend closer to 14 percent of their food budget on sweets. This means that it is in fact not the desire to save money that makes us eat badly, but our own poor choices.”
I believe it is partly a matter of making good choices and partly a matter of getting educated about which foods are truly healthy. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to break the bank to eat good food. In fact, many of the healthiest foods that follow are quite economical.
Even better, because there are so many healthy foods, you can plan your meals around what’s in season… and what’s on sale.
In order to protect your health, I advise spending 90 percent of your food budget on whole foods, and only 10 percent on processed foods. Choosing from the list below is a very good start to feeding your family right.
The 30 Top Healthiest Foods
The slideshow above features 30 of the healthiest foods you eat. Below, I’ve detailed 15 of them.
Avocados, which are actually classified as a fruit, are low in fructose and rich in healthy monounsaturated fat and potassium, and research has confirmed the avocado’s ability to benefit vascular function and heart health.
Personally, I eat a whole avocado virtually every day, which I usually put in my salad. This increases my healthy fat and calorie intake without raising my protein or carbohydrate intake by much.
Avocados are also very high in potassium (more than twice the amount found in a banana) and will help balance your vitally important potassium-to-sodium ratio. Avocados also provide close to 20 essential health-boosting nutrients, including fiber, vitamin E, B-vitamins, and folic acid. Besides eating them raw, you can use avocado as a fat substitute in recipes calling for butter or other oils.
Another boon of avocados—they’re one of the safest fruits you can buy conventionally grown, so you don’t need to spend more for organic ones. Their thick skin protects the inner fruit from pesticides.
2. Swiss Chard
Swiss chard belongs to the chenopod food family, along with beets and spinach. It’s an excellent source of vitamins C, E, and A (in the form of beta-carotene) along with the minerals manganese and zinc.3 When you eat Swiss chard, you get a wealth of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
As reported by the George Mateljan Foundation:4
“The range of phytonutrients in chard is even more extensive than researchers initially suspected, and at this point in time, about three dozen antioxidant phytonutrients have been identified in chard, including betalains (both betacyanins and betaxanthins) and epoxyxanthophylls.
Many of these antioxidant phytonutrients provide chard with its colorful stems, stalks, and leaf veins.”
The betalin pigments in Swiss chard (which are also found in beets) support your body’s Phase 2 detoxification process, which is when broken down toxins are bound to other molecules so they can be excreted from your body. Swiss chard also contains an important mix of nutrients, including high amounts of both magnesium and vitamin K1, to support your bone health.
In addition, Swiss chard contains a flavonoid called syringic acid, which may help regulate blood sugar and provide benefits to those with diabetes, along with kaempferol, a flavonol that may help fight cancer and lower your risk of chronic diseases including heart disease.
Garlic is rich in manganese, calcium, phosphorus, selenium, and vitamins B6 and C, so it’s beneficial for your bones as well as your thyroid. It’s thought that much of garlic’s therapeutic effect comes from its sulfur-containing compounds, such as allicin, which are also what give it its characteristic smell.
Other health-promoting compounds include oligosaccharides, arginine-rich proteins, selenium, and flavonoids.5 There is research demonstrating garlic’s effects for more than 160 different diseases.6 In general, its benefits fall into four main categories:
- Reducing inflammation (reduces the risk of osteoarthritis and other disease associated with inflammation
- Boosting immune function (antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and antiparasitic properties)
- Improving cardiovascular health and circulation (protects against clotting, retards plaque, improves lipids, and reduces blood pressure)
- Toxic to 14 kinds of cancer cells (including brain, lung, breast, gastric, and pancreatic)
In addition, garlic may be effective against drug-resistant bacteria, and research has revealed that as allicin digests in your body, it produces sulfenic acid, a compound that reacts with dangerous free radicals faster than any other known compound.7 This is one of the reasons why I named garlic as one of the top seven anti-aging foods you can consume.
Sprouts may offer some of the highest levels of nutrition available, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and enzymes that help protect against free radical damage.
Fresh broccoli sprouts, for instance, are far more potent than whole broccoli, allowing you to eat far less in terms of quantity. For example, research has revealed that three-day old broccoli sprouts consistently contain anywhere from 10-100 times the amount of glucoraphanin—a chemoprotective compound—found in mature broccoli.8
The compound glucoraphanin also appears to have a protective effect against toxic pollutants by improving your body’s ability to eliminate or excrete them. Glucoraphanin has also been shown to protect against cancer.
Sprouts are far less expensive (90 percent or greater) if made at home rather than purchased, so I strongly recommend growing your own sprouts. Try broccoli sprouts, watercress sprouts, and sunflower sprouts, for starters.
Aside from being rich in protein, fiber, vitamin C, B vitamins, calcium, and minerals, mushrooms are excellent sources of antioxidants. They contain polyphenols and selenium, which are common in the plant world, as well as antioxidants that are unique to mushrooms.
One such antioxidant is ergothioneine, which scientists are now beginning to recognize as a “master antioxidant.” A study in the journal Nature9 discussed the importance of ergothioneine, which is fairly exclusive to mushrooms, describing it as “an unusual sulfur-containing derivative of the amino acid, histidine,” which appears to have a very specific role in protecting your DNA from oxidative damage.
In addition, some of the most potent immunosupportive agents come from mushrooms, and this is one reason why they’re so beneficial for both preventing and treating cancer.
Long-chain polysaccharides, particularly alpha and beta glucan molecules, are primarily responsible for the mushrooms’ beneficial effect on your immune system. In one study, adding one or two servings of dried shiitake mushrooms was found to have a beneficial, modulating effect on immune system function.10
Just one cup of kale will flood your body with disease-fighting vitamins K, A, and C, along with respectable amounts of manganese, copper, B vitamins, fiber, calcium, and potassium. With each serving of kale, you’ll also find more than 45 unique flavonoids, which have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.11
Kale is also a good source of cancer-fighting sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol. To date, kale has been found to lower the risk of at least five types of cancer, including bladder, breast, colon, ovary, and prostate.12 The glucosinolates in kale and other cruciferous vegetables break down into products that help protect DNA from damage.13
While some research suggests raw kale is best for cancer prevention, other studies suggest lightly cooked is best, in part because it improves kale’s ability to bind with bile acids in your digestive tract. This makes the bile acids easier for your body to excrete, which not only has a beneficial impact on your cholesterol levels, but also on your risk of cancer (bile acids have been associated with an increased risk of cancer).
Spinach is rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, including folate, vitamin A, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, and selenium. Spinach also contains flavonoids that may help protect your body from free radicals, while offering anti-inflammatory benefits and antioxidant support. As reported by the George Mateljan Foundation:14
“While this mixture of conventional nutrients gives spinach a unique status in the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory department, it is the unusual mixture of phytonutrients in spinach that “seals the deal” in terms of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components.
In terms of flavonoids, spinach is a unique source of methylenedioxyflavonol glucuronides, and in terms of carotenoids, its difficult to find a more helpful source of lutein and zeaxanthin. The epoxyxanthophyll carotenoids neoxanthin and violaxanthin are also welcomed constituents of spinach leaves.”
8. Collard Greens
Collard greens are a close cousin to kale and they are, nutritionally, very similar. Rich in vitamin K and phytonutrients – caffeic acid, ferulic acid, quercetin, and kaempferol – collard greens help lower oxidative stress in your cells while fighting inflammation. Collard greens contain glucosinolates called glucobrassicin that can convert into an isothiocyanate molecule called indole-3-carbinol, or I3C, a compound with the ability to activate and prevent an inflammatory response at its earliest stage.15
Other phytonutrients in collard greens, specifically diindolylmethane and sulforaphane, have been clinically proven to combat breast, prostate, ovarian, cervical, and colon cancer cells, help prevent their growth and even help prevent them from forming in the first place.16 Also noteworthy, collard greens are especially high in fiber, with more than 7 grams per cup, making it ideal for digestive support. They’re also particularly useful for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. According to the George Mateljan Foundation:17
“In a recent study, steamed collard greens outshined steamed kale, mustard greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage in terms of its ability to bind bile acids in the digestive tract. When this bile acid binding takes place, it is easier for the bile acids to be excreted from the body. Since bile acids are made from cholesterol, the net impact of this bile acid binding is a lowering of the body’s cholesterol level. It’s worth noting that steamed collards show much greater bile acid binding ability than raw collards.”
For the best collard greens flavor and texture, choose slightly smaller leaves than the toughest outer layer. If you’re not sure how to cook them, try this 5-minute collard greens recipe.
Tomatoes—especially organic tomatoes—are packed with nutrition, including a variety of phytochemicals that boast a long list of health benefits. Tomatoes are an excellent source of lutein, zeaxanthin, and vitamin C (which is most concentrated in the jelly-like substance that surrounds the seeds), as well as vitamins A, E, and the B vitamins, potassium, manganese, and phosphorus. Some lesser-known phytonutrients in tomatoes include:
- Flavonols: rutin, kaempferol, and quercetin
- Flavonones: naringenin and chalconaringenin
- Hydroxycinnamic acids: caffeic acid, ferulic acid, and coumaric acid
- Glycosides: esculeoside A
- Fatty acid derivatives: 9-oxo-octadecadienoic acid
Tomatoes are also a particularly concentrated source of lycopene — a carotenoid antioxidant that gives fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and watermelon a pink or red color. Lycopene’s antioxidant activity has long been suggested to be more powerful than other carotenoids such as beta-carotene, and research suggests it may significantly lower your risk for stroke and cancer.
In addition to lowering your risk for stroke, lycopene from tomatoes (including unsweetened organic tomato sauce) has also been deemed helpful in treating prostate cancer. Interestingly, when cooked, the bioavailability of lycopene increases rather than decreases, making cooked tomatoes, such as in tomato sauce, a particularly healthy option.
One serving of cauliflower contains 77 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C. It’s also a good source of vitamin K, protein, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, magnesium, phosphorus, fiber, vitamin B6, folate, pantothenic acid, potassium, and manganese. Cauliflower is a good source of choline, a B vitamin known for its role in brain development, and contains a wealth of anti-inflammatory nutrients to help keep inflammation in check, including I3C, which may operate at the genetic level to help prevent the inflammatory responses at its foundational level.18 Compounds in cauliflower also show anti-cancer effects. According to the National Cancer Institute:19
“Indoles and isothiocyanates have been found to inhibit the development of cancer in several organs in rats and mice, including the bladder, breast, colon, liver, lung, and stomach.”
Cauliflower also helps your body’s ability to detoxify in multiple ways. It contains antioxidants that support Phase 1 detoxification along with sulfur-containing nutrients important for Phase 2 detox activities. The glucosinolates in cauliflower also activate detoxification enzymes.20 It’s a rich source of fiber, as well, and has significant digestive benefits. Adding to cauliflower’s appeal is its extreme versatility. You can eat it raw, add it to salads, or use it in your cooking. Cauliflower can even be seasoned and mashed for a healthier version of mashed “potatoes.”
According to the George Mateljan Foundation:21 “Researchers have determined that the sulforaphane made from a glucosinolate in cauliflower (glucoraphanin) can help protect the lining of your stomach. Sulforaphane provides you with this health benefit by preventing bacterial overgrowth of Helicobacter pylori in your stomach or too much clinging by this bacterium to your stomach wall.”
To date, onions have shown a wealth of beneficial properties; they’re anti-allergic, anti-histaminic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant,22 all rolled into one. Polyphenols are plant compounds recognized for their disease prevention, antioxidant and anti-aging properties. Onions have a particularly high concentration, with more polyphenols than garlic, leeks, tomatoes, carrots and red bell pepper.23
In particular, onions are especially rich in polyphenol flavonoids called quercetin. Quercetin is an antioxidant that many believe prevent histamine release—making quercetin-rich foods “natural antihistamines.” Onions contain numerous anti-cancer compounds, including quercetin, which has been shown to decrease cancer tumor initiation as well as inhibit the proliferation of cultured ovarian, breast and colon cancer cells.24 People who eat more onions, as well as other allium vegetables, have a lower risk of many types of cancer, including:25
- Prostate and breast
- Ovarian and endometrial
- Colorectal and gastric
- Esophageal and laryngeal
- Renal cell
12. Wild-Caught Alaskan Salmon
Salmon provides omega-3 fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which can benefit many aspects of your health, from your cardiovascular system to mental and behavioral health to your digestive health. It may even help prevent premature death. Research suggests that eating oily fish like wild-caught Alaskan salmon once or twice a week may increase your lifespan by more than two years, and reduce your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 35 percent.26
Salmon also contains the antioxidant astaxanthin, which has been hailed as one of the most powerful antioxidants ever discovered due to its ability to quench multiple types of free radicals simultaneously. Findings have shown that it is stronger than other carotenoid antioxidants, such as vitamin E, beta-carotene, and lycopene.
Astaxanthin also exhibits beneficial properties that make it useful for heart, eye, and brain health, as well as for alleviating chronic pain. The key to eating fish these days is to choose fish that are high in healthy omega-3 fats, and low in hazardous contaminants. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon (NOT farmed) fits this description, and is one of the few types of fish I still recommend eating.
13. Organic Pastured Eggs
Proteins are essential to the building, maintenance, and repair of your body tissues, including your skin, internal organs, and muscles. Proteins are also major components of your immune system and hormones. While proteins are found in many types of food, only foods from animal sources, such as meat and eggs, contain “complete proteins,” meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids. Eggs also contain lutein and zeaxanthin for eye health, choline for your brain, nervous and cardiovascular systems, and naturally occurring B12.
Eggs are powerhouses of healthy nutrition, provided they’re harvested from organically raised, free-range, pastured chickens. The nutritional differences between true free-ranging chicken eggs and commercially farmed eggs are a result of the different diets eaten by the two groups of chickens. You can tell the eggs are free range or pastured by the color of the egg yolk. Foraged hens produce eggs with bright orange yolks. Dull, pale yellow yolks are a sure sign you’re getting eggs from caged hens that are not allowed to forage for their natural diet. Your best source for fresh eggs is a local farmer that allows his hens to forage freely outdoors.
14. Organic Coconut Oil
Besides being excellent for your thyroid and your metabolism, coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, which converts in your body to monolaurin, a monoglyceride capable of destroying lipid-coated viruses such as HIV and herpes, influenza, measles, gram-negative bacteria, and protozoa such as Giardia lamblia. Its medium chain fatty acids (MCTs) also impart a number of health benefits, including raising your body’s metabolism and fighting off pathogens.
Additionally, a very exciting and recent discovery is that coconut oil may serve as a natural treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, as MCTs are also a primary source of ketone bodies, which act as an alternate source of brain fuel that can help prevent the brain atrophy associated with dementia. Coconut oil is easy on your digestive system and does not produce an insulin spike in your bloodstream, so for a quick energy boost, you could simply eat a spoonful of coconut oil or add it to your food.
Make sure you choose an organic coconut oil that is unrefined, unbleached, made without heat processing or chemicals, and does not contain genetically engineered ingredients. As an added boon, coconut oil has countless other uses besides cooking and eating — from topical beauty applications to first aid treatments, to general household cleaning.
Mounting research suggests that nuts may help you live longer and even support weight loss. This isn’t so surprising considering the fact that tree nuts are high in healthy fats that, contrary to popular belief, your body needs for optimal function. My favorite nuts are macadamia and pecans, as they provide the highest amount of healthy fat while being on the lower end in terms of carbs and protein. The main fatty acid in macadamia nuts is the monounsaturated fat oleic acid (about 60 percent). This is about the level found in olives, which are well known for their health benefits.
And a Bonus: Bone Broth
Bone broth contains a variety of valuable nutrients, including calcium, collagen, and bone marrow, in a form your body can easily absorb and use. Homemade bone broth may help reduce joint pain and inflammation, promote strong bones, and boost hair and nail growth.
Visit Our Food Facts Library for Empowering Nutrition Information
If you want to learn even more about what’s in the food you’re eating, visit our Food Facts library. Most people are not aware of the wealth of nutrients available in healthful foods, particularly organic fruits and vegetables. By getting to know your food, you can make informed decisions about how to eat healthier and thereby boost your brain function, lower your risk of chronic disease, lose weight, and much more.
Food Facts is a directory of the most highly recommended health foods to add to your wholesome diet. Its purpose is to provide you with valuable information about various types of foods including recipes to help you maximize these benefits. You’ll learn about nutrition facts, scientific studies, and even interesting trivia about each food in the Food Facts library. Remember, knowing what’s in your food is the first step to choosing and preparing nutritious meals each and every day. So visit Mercola Food Facts today to get started.
Sources and References
- 1, 2 Forbes March 18, 2013
- 3, 4 World’s Healthiest Foods, Swiss Chard
- 5 Preventdisease.com August 14, 2013
- 6 GreenMedInfo, Garlic
- 7 Angewandte Chemie International Edition December 22, 2008: 48(1); 157-160
- 8 Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1997 September 16; 94(19): 10367–10372
- 9 Nature (2010) 17, 1134–1140
- 10 Nutrition Horizon April 24, 2013
- 11 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 57(16):7401-7408.
- 12 The World’s Healthiest Foods, Super Energy Kale Soup
- 13 Nutr Cancer. 2002;42(1):1-9.
- 14The World’s Healthiest Foods, Super Energy Kale Soup
- 15 Nutr Cancer. 2002;42(1):1-9.
- 16 World’s Healthiest Foods, Spinach
- 17, 19 World’s Healthiest Foods, Collard Greens
- 18 Nutrition and You, Collard Greens Nutrition Facts
- 20, 22, 23 World’s Healthiest Foods, Cauliflower
- 21 National Cancer Institute, Cruciferous Vegetables
- 24 J Med Food. 2009 Apr;12(2):374-82.
- 25 World’s Healthiest Foods, Onions