Food-aceuticals: Drink – and Eat – to Your Health

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From omega-3 fatty acids to flavonoids, the ingredients in foods you eat every day may be potent weapons in the battle against disease.

Once-forbidden foods like LDL cholesterol levels when eaten instead of saturated fats. However, olive oil contains about the same amount of total fat grams and calories as other types of fat.

New research released this year also helped explain the role of antioxidants, for better and for worse.

“Some years ago, we thought that was protective against heart disease. Now we’re not so sure about that,”>Cancer Research. “We used to think that vitamin E was valuable for a whole variety of benefits, but now we’re not so sure about that either.”

Several studies have cast doubt on earlier health claims about vitamin E, and a study released in November showed that taking high doses of the antioxidant may actually be hazardous to your health and shorten your life span.

“There was so much excitement over vitamin E because it seemed like such an easy answer,” says Lichtenstein. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t upheld with studies.”

But vitamin E is just one of many antioxidants that may have potentially healthy effects, and the good news about antioxidants this year is that they may be found in unexpected places, like cereal.

Researchers have long thought that fruits and vegetables were the primary sources of antioxidants in the diet. But new research presented this year suggests that a different type of antioxidant and other phytochemicals may also be found in whole grains.

“Phytochemicals seem to be in what we call the free form in fruits and vegetables, and when we looked for these in whole grains they weren’t found,” says Polk. “What researchers have now discovered is that they were in different form in whole grains. They are attached to cell walls of the plant and don’t get absorbed into the blood until bacteria act upon them during digestion.”

“We didn’t know about this bound form of phytochemicals until recently, and so the benefits of whole grains are even greater than what we thought before,” says Polk.

Polk says these findings may also help explain why studies that have looked at the potential anti-cancer properties of the fiber found in whole grains have produced conflicting results.

“We know diets that are high in fiber are cancer protective, but there has been some question about whether or not it is the fiber itself,” Polk tells WebMD. “It may not be fiber but maybe something else in high-fiber foods.”

Confused? Mix It Up

If the conflicting research about the health benefits of different foods has you confused, researchers say the best recipe is to mix it up.

Researchers say every time they try to isolate one of the components behind the potential health benefits of a food, it doesn’t seem to work.

“We have been so unsuccessful in finding that perfect food or that perfect nutrient that if you just pop a supplement you’re going to have decreased risk,” says Lichtenstein.

In contrast, new research suggests that it may be the ways various phytochemicals and ingredients in different foods work together that produce the biggest health benefits.

For example, a recent study showed that mice with prostate cancer fed a diet rich in both broccoli and tomatoes experienced much less tumor growth than those fed either food alone.

Another study showed that people who ate “polymeals” consisting of wine, fish, dark chocolate, fruits and vegetables, almonds, and garlic on a daily basis had a lower risk of heart disease and lived longer than those who didn’t. A polymeal is a combination of foods that have been individually shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.

“When you look at individual phytochemicals, it’s very exiting to see that each individual phytochemical has its own function in terms of cancer prevention and health protection. But the possibilities of looking at what they can do together working as a team could be phenomenal,” says Polk. “The best way to get these substances is by eating whole foods.”

Lichtenstein says researchers are now coming to the realization that certain diet and lifestyle patterns are associated with a lower risk of disease, rather than any one food.

“Fortunately those are virtually the same for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes,” says Lichtenstein. “It’s to consume a diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat and nonfat dairy products, legumes, and fish and have regular physical activity.”