Week 9: Foods Fit for Living - the List

This site began with a simple, personal goal: eat well.

Doing so proved more difficult than we thought it would be, requiring knowledge beyond what is readily offered by both the food industry and the US government. A constant negotiation between Washington, DC elected officials and lobbyists seesaws between human and economic health. Food labels - the only tangible outcome of this perpetual tug-of-war, are are only moderately helpful, focusing on calories, fats, sugars, sodium and fiber. While these are important metrics, they are hardly comprehensive. More key nutritional data are missing on labels than is included: that of all 14 vitamins and 16 minerals, as well as detailed information related to the make-up of a food's fatty acids, proteins and carbohydrates. The differences within each category are essential to whether something is good for you, or bad. Furthermore, when we eat out, whether at a pizza joint or a fine restaurant, it's impossible to determine whether our body's needs are being met. Instead, we are forced to rely on instinct and rules of thumb: 'eat some salad', 'skip the cheesecake', 'leave some fries on the plate'...

In establishing FFFL, we had a few fundamental questions in mind: 

  1. What foods are healthiest, and why?
  2. What are the best sources of each nutrient, and in what form?
  3. What do we need to consume in order to meet 100% of the 'recommended daily intake' of all nutrients? Is it even possible to do so in a single day, from real foods? And what would that menu look like? 
  4. Once we have answers, can we create a single chart of the world's healthiest foods with comprehensive nutritional data, as a reference for people?

The answer to the last question is yes - and we've included it here, for you. Comprised of the 81 foods we consider both healthiest and widely available, they run the gamut between single-nutrient dynamos and pan-nutrient superstars. 

You can download a high-resolution version of the chart here. Print it. Study it. Keep it as a reference in your kitchen, with your cookbooks or taped on the inside of a cabinet door. We do. Serving sizes are included both in volume and in weight, to help quantify things that don't measure easily, like greens. To that end, a kitchen scale is a small investment that can help you to develop an instinct for portion size and remove the mystery. Nutrient levels below 7% of daily recommended intake have been omitted, to focus instead on significant contributors to dietary health. Percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie diet for an 'average' person. Lastly, nutrient levels vary - sometimes dramatically - based on a food's freshness, preparation, and growing methods. We always recommend you buy the freshest food possible, grown in the most natural way available, and eat it in its least altered state. 

What follows is a selective list of foods/groups that everyone should include regularly in their diets. They include just some of the foods from our comprehensive chart, to dive a little deeper into what makes them so good for us. They are powerhouses across a variety of key nutrients; are readily available, most anywhere; and will, together, provide you with the ingredients for long-term dietary health. Beyond these, remember the well-worn adages: eat the rainbow (all colors); vary your intake (for broader nutritional health); process (i.e.: cook/blend) whole foods minimally, while avoiding all things laboratory-made; eat at peak ripeness (local beats transported); and prepare it yourself, to the greatest degree practical (so that you know exactly what you are eating).

Avocados 

Avocados deliver nature's highest dose of monounsaturated fats, which help reduce levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, thus lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke. After avocados, the foods next highest in monounsaturated fats are olives and olive oil, cashews, salmon and almonds.

The fats in avocados (and the other foods listed above) are key to promoting the body's absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. In the case of vitamin A, avocados increase the absorption of carotenoids in low-fat foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach and kale by 200-600%. They also improve the conversion from beta-carotene to vitamin A. Carotenoids (like beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein, to name a few) are key to eye health (the reduction of retina degeneration) and positively influence a wide spectrum of systems, from male reproductive health to liver, prostate, colon, breast and lung health.

Surpassed only by beans and barley, one avocado serves up 40% of your DRI of fiber - 63-82% of which is insoluble, in the California and Florida varieties, respectively. Soluble fiber lowers blood cholesterol and glucose levels by slowing the absorption of sugars. Soluble fiber also helps you feel full longer, reducing your urge to overeat and thereby aiding in weight loss and reducing rates of obesity. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, remains intact through your lower intestine, where it pushes waste, including toxins, out of your system, keeping you 'regular'. 

Beans

Yes - I just lumped all beans together. While there are over 40,000 types of bean, fewer than a dozen make up the overwhelming majority of those broadly cultivated and consumed. Most of these are included on our list: pinto, garbanzo (chickpeas), black, kidney, navy, lima and soy, as well as lentils and green peas. While nutrient densities vary, all beans follow a similar profile with respect to being a significant source of fifteen vitamins and minerals, with occasional standouts in any particular category. 

Beans are the plant world's reigning monarchs in protein content, packing roughly 30-60% of your daily recommended intake (DRI). Queen among queens is the soybean, with nearly 29g (57%) per cup. All beans contain at least 30% of your DRI. If you are vegetarian or simply avoid animal proteins due to (largely well-founded) health concerns, then the bean family, which includes lentils and green peas, are a phenomenal resource.

Folate is a broad group of B-vitamin nutrients, of which folic acid - the only form found in fortified foods - is just one. Women in particular are familiar with the need for adequate folate intake, as it is a key nutrient in female reproductive health, insofar as reducing the risk of neural tube defects in pregnant women. Beyond this well-published benefit, folate is a key contributor to human neurological health, maintenance of a healthy colon, and - when combined with zinc sulfate, has been shown to augment male sperm count by 74%, along with their motility and morphology rates. While folate (from the latin root word for 'leaf') is often associated with dark, leafy greens, beans are the single greatest source of this nutrient, with lentils (90% of DRI) leading the charge, and pinto and garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas) comprising a close second.

Fiber. Yet again, in this category, beans occupy the top nine spots in the world's best source of dietary fiber. From navy beans (76% DRI) to kidney beans (45% DRI), fiber is the digestive system's ally, providing all the benefits to general health that we've already outlined just above.

Cruciferous vegetables

While we covered this category of wonder foods in detail in Week 8's post, any list would be incomplete without them. The group is varied, and includes such seemingly different vegetables as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, turnips, bok choy, and Chinese cabbage, in addition to arugula, horse radish, radish, wasabi, and watercress. Part of their key value as a group is their glucosinates, which offer several benefits, including reduction of lung and colorectal cancer risk, and fortification of the gut's lining - keeping toxins inside of it so that the digestive system can purge them. Beyond glucosinates, crucifers are powerful anti-inflammatories. Chronic inflammation, as we reported in Week 3's post - and which is caused in great part by what we eat - can 'lead to environments that foster genomic lesions and tumor initiation' - i.e.: cancer, as summarized in a highly detailed 2006 entry in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine here. Put in plain English: cancer cells feed on inflamed tissue, while the reverse - a reduction in inflammation - starves the cancer cells of the nutrients that allow for their proliferation in our bodies. 

Individually, the nutrients in crucifers vary far more than they do in the bean family. Let's look at three individual all-stars in brief. These three vegetables are individually among the world's healthiest foods.

Broccoli is the plant world's best manager of corporeal inflammation, oxidative stress (which does damage to cells, pointedly DNA) and toxicity. Together, these three processes are interwoven, with an imbalance of one creating an imbalance or reduced ability to manage the others. Broccoli does two things: it manages the relationship between them, and it contains nutrients that are themselves anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and detoxifying. Although we cut inclusion of nutrients off at 7% DRI on the FFFL list, one cup of broccoli contains at least 5% of twenty-four separate vitamins and minerals, making it one of the most robust in the plant kingdom, including 240% of vitamin K, 135% of vitamin C - far more than an orange! - and nearly half of your folate. In addition, that serving provides 8% of your omega-3s, 21% of your fiber and 7% of your protein, to highlight just a few.

Brussels Sprouts top the list of glucosinate content among crucifers, besting even broccoli in this regard and making them an anti-cancer champion. Like broccoli, they are also great detoxifiers, anti-inflammatories and anti-oxidants. From a nutrient standpoint, Brussels sprouts contain twenty-one separate vitamins and minerals. Most of these track closely with those in broccoli. Brussels sprouts have the edge in also providing 10% of your iron, and 11% of your omega-3s. Beyond the percentages of your DRI (daily recommended intake) within each category, the specific make-up of glucosinates and anti-oxidants vary between crucifers, and so you will want to vary your intake and sources.

Arugula (called Rocket in the UK) has a bitterness that the Mediterranean farmers where it originates enjoyed, and which, like herbs, green tea and radishes, stimulates an entirely different digestive process than do other non-bitter foods. Those who advocate nutrient balance suggest we get adequate amounts of foods that contain all four basic tastes (leaving umami aside): sweet, salty, bitter, sour. Each one aids in a feeling of satiety, reducing the urge to overeat. Beyond this, bitter foods like arugula activate taste buds that simultaneously promote enzyme production and bile flow. These processes are key to digestion, which breaks down foods into nutrients the body can then use. Besides arugula's broad nutrient base - fourteen vitamins and minerals - these bitter greens are natural liver detoxifiers.

A last note on arugula (and other dark, leafy greens): beyond measuring vitamin and mineral content, an index of great value exists that analyzes content and density of the root nutrients behind the vitamins and minerals that contain them, since vitamin and mineral names are, frankly, just convenient labels for groups of organic compounds produced and consumed by plants and animals alike. The index is called the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI), and measures phyto-chemicals like polyphenols, carotenoids, retinoids, glucosinates and chlorophylls, among others. Arugula scores sixth highest on the ANDI, behind other foods you may have intuitively expected: kale, collard greens, bok choy, spinach and Brussels sprouts. ANDI scores don't replace other measures of nutrition in any way. They do provide information about a growing area of scientific research into the relationship between phyto-chemicals and health. While broad conclusions are highly contested, a large number of researchers are beginning to connect high phyto-chemical content with lowered risks of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancers, diabetes and neuro-degeneration. An interesting resource for more information can be found here.

Spinach

Spinach is, gram per gram, the single most nutrient-dense food in the world. So much so that it almost feels like a 'gimme' to spend time discussing it here. But then again, if everyone knew what we do about nutrition, we wouldn't need sites like this to help connect people with real data from people who don't sell anything or have a vested interest in specific outcomes. So where to begin with this god among plants? Spinach is a good to excellent source of twenty-four distinct vitamins and minerals, with a single serving providing your entire DRI of vitamins A and K, the majority of your manganese and folate, and between one quarter and one third of your magnesium, iron, copper, vitamins B2 and B6, vitamin E, calcium, vitamin C and potassium. Like kale, spinach tops the list of bone health-promoting vitamin K, at nearly 1,000% of your DRI in a single serving. After nuts and beans (and soybeans' derivatives, tofu and tempeh), spinach is among the highest sources of plant-based protein, adding 11% of your DRI. Only green peas, at 15% (!) and oats, at 13%, rank higher. Lastly, spinach plays the same anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and detoxifying role as crucifers, keeping your systems healthy.

(Side note: the common green pea is a powerhouse on its own - an excellent source of fifteen vitamins and minerals, has significant protein, as we saw, and 30% of your daily fiber.)

Marine Foods

Salmon, sardines, scallops and shrimp - all in one alliterative breath. What do two fish, one mollusk and a crustacean have in common? Apart from being sea creatures, which matters from a health standpoint, they are perhaps the healthiest contributors to several essential nutrients that are almost entirely absent from the plant world. These include vitamins B12 and D, choline and selenium. B12 is essential to DNA production, brain and nervous system health. Luckily, it can also be stored for years in the body, unlike all other B vitamins. Vitamin D is key to bone health, increasing calcium in the bloodstream. Choline is central to production of phosphatidylcholine - a key structural building block of cells - keeping them elastic yet impermeable. And in addition to its anti-oxidant protection, selenium is responsible (with iodine) for strong thyroid function, turning T4 hormones into T3. In just 2 months of a low-selenium diet, thyroid function can begin to suffer. 

Thus, the inclusion of animal foods is key to ensuring adequate intake of all four key nutrients and avoiding deficiency and its attendant health risks. Salmon provides the second highest density of B12 (236%), the highest of D (128%), the fourth highest of selenium (78%), and reasonable choline (19%) - leading the list among healthy animal foods for that reason. Sardines top the list of B12 (338%), are second best in D (44%), third highest in selenium (87%) and provide reasonable choline (16%). Scallops provide 102% of B12, excellent choline (30%), and 45% of daily selenium. Shrimp provide excellent B12 (78%), chart-topping choline (36% - followed only by that found in egg yolks), and a selenium content (102%) second only to tuna, which we do not recommend due to high mercury content and overfishing.

Apart from these unique nutrients, all four sea creatures provide excellent protein, at approximately half of the DRI, and critical, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon and Sardines each provide more than half the DRI of omega-3s, while scallops and shrimp each provide 15%. Lastly, all four are extremely low in mercury levels and other toxins (if the salmon you eat is from Alaska, which it should be - either sockeye or coho), making them the safest and most sustainable in the aquatic world.

Nuts and seeds

This is another broad category to lump together, but is done so intentionally here. We typically use both food gropus as garnishes: that is, they don't make up the focal point of a meal or even a single dish, unless you're given to meals of PB+J. Serving amounts, similarly, tend to be quite small: a generous sprinkle over a salad; a handful eaten as a snack... Lastly, it would be difficult to single out one nut or one seed as a standout. The fact is, when it comes to individual nutrients, there is likely a nut or a seed that tops the list out of any food, and therefore you should include a variety of these heart-healthy, protein-dense, good-fat-filled mini-foods as a regular part of your daily diet. Some highlights: Peanuts. No food is higher (88% DRI) in biotin - a B-complex vitamin essential to skin health and blood sugar balance (since biotin promotes insulin production). Almonds are second highest, at 49%. Almonds are the second highest food in vitamin E (40%), after Sunflower seeds (at 82%). Vitamin E is a potent anti-oxidant that protects cells from free radical damage, and protects against heart disease by preventing the body's cholesterol from becoming oxidized. Flaxseeds are the food world's reigning champion (133% DRI) in omega-3 fatty acids, which, as we've seen in Week 3's post, are essential fats that reduce chronic inflammation, bad cholesterol, blood pressure, risk of stroke, heart disease, arrythmia, arthritis and dementia. Hemp seeds are a close second, at 127%, with walnuts following closely, at 113%. You should include all of these as a regular part of your diet. They all provide double the amount of omega-3s found in those cold water, fatty fish that we love so much and discussed above, like Alaskan salmon and Pacific sardines.  Sesame seeds - the kind often found on that decidedly unhealthy bagel we love so much - are the highest food in copper (163% DRI). Cashews follow next, at 98%. Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and cashews each comprise a quarter of your DRI of zinc - the highest of any plant-based food. Zinc is an essential nutrient in promoting good immune function and skin health. For men, zinc also increases both the motility and quantity of sperm. Lastly, oddly, low levels of zinc have been associated with loss of taste and appetite. Protein? One serving of hemp seeds delivers 22% of your DRI - more than any other plant-based food, after beans. Almonds, cashews, walnuts, flax and sunflower seeds each deliver approximately 10% of your protein DRI. If you're a vegetarian, nuts and seeds are important sources of this tissue-building and -repairing nutrient.

Oh - and one more thing.

That perfect food day? The one in which a realistic, easy-to-assemble-and-eat set of foods delivers the hypothetical 100% of all daily nutrients? It's not as hard as you might imagine. We've made one, below, simply to illustrate the point. A high-res download is available here. Our one shortfall? Iodine. But if you eat your salmon wrapped up in nori and rice - a la Japanese - you've just hit a 100% day.

Enjoy!

Week 1: Nutrients A to Z - An Introduction

We are what we eat.

There are no truer words to describe our relationship with food. Our bodies contain 14 vitamins, 7 macro-minerals and 9 micro- (or trace) minerals, as well as a number of carbohydrates (fiber, starch and sugar) amino acids (proteins) and fatty acids (saturated and unsaturated). 

The body needs every one of these nutrients to function, and as it uses each up, needs to replace it in order to support the body's living tissue - brain and body alike - as follows:

Copyright FFFL

As soon as we eat something, the body begins to break it down so that it can use its nutrients. This is called metabolism: a series of chemical reactions that transform food into components that can be used for the body's basic processes. Proteins, carbohydrates and fats move along intersecting sets of metabolic pathways that are unique to each major nutrient. Fundamentally - if all three nutrients are abundant in the diet - carbohydrates and fats will be used primarily for energy while proteins provide the raw materials for making hormones, muscle and other essential biological equipment.

Some nutrients - like carbohydrates - are used very quickly, and must be replenished accordingly. Others - like fats - can be stored by the body for later use. Fats that aren't used right away are packaged in bundles called triglycerides and stored in fat cells, which, according to Dr. Erika Gebel, PhD, have unlimited capacity. 

Vitamins fall into two basic categories: fat-soluble (vitamins A, D, E and K) and water-soluble (all B-complex vitamins, C and folate). Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in chylomicrons (fat globules), and what is not used is stored in the body's tissue, where it tends to remain. For example: in northern climates, adequate summer exposure to sun allows the body to create and store enough fat-soluble Vitamin D - used for bone health - to get you through the sun-starved winter months. Water-soluble vitamins, on the other hand, travel freely through the body and are absorbed by various tissue for immediate use. Excess amounts of these are usually excreted by the kidneys, in the form of urine. Accordingly, water-soluble vitamins - like Vitamin C - must be replenished more frequently - almost daily. Thus, from a dietary focus, we need to consume adequate fat-soluble vitamins over the long term, but replenish water-soluble vitamins continually.

Like vitamins, minerals fall into two basic categories: macro-minerals (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium potassium, chloride and sulfur) and micro-minerals (iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, molybendum, selenium and bromine). Macro-minerals are thus named because the body needs them in larger doses than it does micro- (or trace) minerals. Food sources of these nutrients are as varied as the jobs they perform in keeping the body's bones, blood, organs and systems functioning properly. As with vitamins, the best way to ensure adequate intake of each is to adopt a very varied diet of both plant-based and animal-based foods, as some nutrients are almost exclusively found in one or the other. There is a reason we are called omnivores: it is not simply because we enjoy the act of eating food from both groups; it is because our bodies need them in order to function as we evolved to.

As we'd expect, the inadequate intake of any of these - or in the case of nutrients that the body stores, an excess - prevents the body's 'machinery' from functioning optimally. The result - very slowly or very quickly, but invariably - is illness. Moreover, there are several factors we need to consider with respect to foods: nutrient quantity (which generally declines over time, diminshes with an increase in factory processing, and is affected by preparation choices at home); nutrient quality (nutrients in fortified foods and supplements - while better than none - are not nearly as effective as those in real foods); and nutrient bio-availability (the absorption of which can either be enhanced or hindered based on the combination of the foods we eat - not just whether or not you ingested it.)

It may sound obvious, but the best source of these nutrients is food - real food, as found in Nature. We evolved because of it and with it; our genes have adapted - and continue to adapt - to use it; medically, we are uncovering bits and pieces about how it works and what it does to us; and we are just beginning to understand that the interactions between nutrients are far more complex and co-dependent than we previously understood. We also know that the human body has not evolved beyond needing any of its developmental nutrients - despite what food engineers, the multi-national agribusinesses that employ them and the shareholders who demand profit above all - would have you believe. We in 2015 are the product of a 50-year trend away from traditional modes of eating and a sprint toward consolidation and homogenization of nutrient sources, which poses a direct conflict with the body's evolutionary need for broad variety of real, high-quality foods. The good news is that nutritional science is catching up with food engineering, as is the consumer's awareness of our need for real food. Luckily, there are still myriad sources of quality produce containing everything your body needs, available at a market near you.

So what are these magical nutrients? What does each one do in detail? What happens to me if one is missing? How fast does the body consume each one, and how fast do I need to replenish it? How much of each do I need? What are the best food sources for each, and which do I avoid? What if I have a special condition or a particular sensitivity? How do I parse marketing-speak from truth amid a glut of information in books, ads and the internet?

In short, what do I need to know to eat well

These are the questions that this website proposes to answer over the next 52 weeks. Each week we will post another piece to the puzzle. In a year's time, we intend to have created a complete guide to nutrition: what you need and where to source it in the 'real world' where time, funds and access are sometimes limited. Finally, how to begin effecting change immediately.

Central to the health challenge is a daunting Goliath nicknamed Big Ag  - the agricultural monopolies whose practice of producing 'food-like substances' is anything but nourishing or varied, consisting primarily of infinite forms of the same basic cash crops that dominate the farming landscape and your supermarket: corn, soybeans and wheat. Generating over $110 Billion per year in cash sales in the United States alone, these three crops, like their parent companies, monopolize the shelves, from the obvious snack and packaged foods to the less obvious fruit and vegetables coatings - the latter made invariably from a corn starch derivative. With massive advertising budgets and even greater influence on Capitol Hill (the subject of a future blog), Big Ag have thoroughly saturated the consumer market. Their success has grown exponentially alongside an alarming human trend toward lower expenditure in both food dollars and time spent creating meals. Worst of all, Big Ag's food-like products are by most scientific accounts directly responsible for a dramatic increase the incidence of many, if not most, of modern society's chronic diseases, from cancers to diabetes to heart disease to cardiovascular disease to osteoporosis and beyond. According to a phenomenal paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, more than 280,000 people die directly from obesity each year in the United States alone; 38.5% of all US deaths are due to cardiovascular disease; and fully one-third of all US cancer deaths are due to nutritional factors.

If this sounds scary, it is. It's also the reason we have created this site. 

There are solutions. 

So here we go...