Most health-conscious Americans do their best to follow basic dietary recommendations, such as eating seven to nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, these guidelines don't tell us which foods provide the maximum nutritional value.

Now: Researchers have targeted a handful of specific foods that contain phytonutrients (disease-fighting plant-based chemicals), vitamins, minerals and healthful fatty acids. These nutrients act as powerful antioxidants (to fight heart disease, cancer, even the aging process) ...anti-inflammatories (to reduce inflammation that can lead to heart disease, eye disease and cancer)...and immune system boosters (to help ward off infection).

This is not to say that these foods are the only ones worth eating. Each has "healthful cousins" that are nearly as beneficial.

Example: Any vegetable in the cabbage family (brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy) of fers some of the same benefits as broccoli. But broccoli combines the greatest number of healthful nutrients.

The Top Three

When it comes to nutritional value, three foods qualify as the best of the best…

  • Blueberries contain more antioxidants than any other fruit. Besides plentiful quantities of vitamins C and E, blueberries contain such phytonutrients as anthocyanins (which give the fruit its distinctive color) and ellagic acid. These phytonutrients work synergistically—that is, the unique combination of nutrients maximizes the benefits of each.

Research shows that blueberries have antiinflammatory effects, improve mental performance and reduce rates of urinary-tract infection.

Healthful cousins: Red grapes, cranberries, blackberries, cherries, raspberries, boysenberries, strawberries.

Goal: One to two cups fresh or frozen daily.

  • Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which control inflammation and keep cell membranes healthy. It's also rich in vitamin D, selenium and protein.

Increasing your intake of omega-3s will reduce your risk for coronary artery disease, cancer and age-related macular degeneration. Omega-3s also have been shown to lower high blood pressure and ease symptoms of arthritis and lupus.

Important: Much of the salmon available today is raised on fish farms, where it is exposed to high levels of contaminants, such as PCBs. Whether fresh, canned or frozen, buy only salmon that is clearly marked wild Alaskan.

Healthful cousins: Halibut, sardines, herring, sea bass and trout, which are all low in mercury. Canned albacore tuna is rich in omega-3s, but it's best to limit consumption to one can per week because of possible mercury content.

Goal: Three ounces, two to four times every week.

  • Spinach is rich in the antioxidants lutein and beta-carotene...the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc...and omega-3 fatty acids. It's also a good source of betaine, a fat-derived compound that fights elevated homocysteine, a cardiovascular risk factor.

A number of studies link spinach consumption with lower rates of colon, lung, stomach, ovarian, prostate and breast cancers. It also appears to protect against cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.

Healthful cousins: Kale, collards, Swiss chard, mustard greens, romaine lettuce.

Goal: Two cups raw or one cup steamed every day.

High In The Hierarchy

  • Oats are the nutritional powerhouse of whole grains. They are a rich source of fiber, including beta-glucans, which help to protect against heart disease...and minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium, all of which lower the risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Healthful cousins: Wheat germ, flaxseed, whole wheat, barley, buckwheat, millet.

Goal: Five to seven daily servings (one serving equals one cup cooked...three-quarters to one cup dry).

  • Pumpkin is rich in healthful carotenoids. It is also the best source of the combination of alpha-carotene (twice as much as carrots) and beta-carotene—compounds which work optimally as a team.

Carotenoid-rich foods (not supplements) have been shown to reduce the risk for lung, colon, breast and skin cancers. Canned 100% pure pumpkin is just as nutritious as fresh.

Healthful cousins: Carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash.

Goal: One-half cup most days.

  • Tomatoes are a cornucopia of carotenoids—alpha-carotene and beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, phytoene and phytofluene.

All are beneficial, but lycopene deserves special mention. It's been linked to reduced rates of cancer particularly prostate malignancies). When joined with lutein, lycopene also fights age-related macular degeneration.

Important: Although uncooked tomatoes have higher levels of other carotenoids, the lycopene in cooked tomatoes is most readily absorbed by the body.

Healthful cousins: Pink grapefruit and also watermelon.

Goal: One daily serving of processed tomatoes (one-half cup sauce) or healthful cousins (one watermelon pink grapefruit), and multiple servings of fresh tomatoes each week.

  • Walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, potassium, protein, fiber and cholesterollowering compounds known as plant sterols.

Studies suggest that eating a handful of nuts (about one ounce) five times a week lowers the risk for heart attack by up to 50%.

Caution: Because nuts are high in calories, do not overindulge.

Healthful cousins: Almonds, pistachios, sesame seeds, pecans.

Goal: One ounce, five times a week.

Other Superfoods

To complete the list, try to incorporate tea (black or green) or raw broccoli...yogurt (with live cultures)... skinless turkey...and/or beans (pinto, navy, lima, chickpeas) in your diet on all or most days of the week.

Get Hooked on Fish—Without Getting Caught...

Eating fish benefits your cardiovascular health, but experts at the Mayo Clinic say people should be wary of the mercury levels.

Fish is lower in total fat, saturated fat and calories than comparable portions of meat or poultry. Fatty, coldwater fish-such as salmon, mackerel and herring-are high in omega-3 prevent blood clots that can cause heart attacks Omega-3s are also found in anchovies, sardines and lake trout.

But fish can also contain toxins, such as mercury and other pollutants.

For most people, the amount of mercury ingested by eating fish is not a health concern. But for developing fetuses, babies and young children, even small amounts of mercury may be dangerous, the Mayo Clinic authors conclude.

Children under age 5, nursing mothers and women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should avoid fish that has the highest mercury levels—tile fish, swordfish, king mackerel and shark. They should also limit their intake to no more than 12 ounces a week of fish and shellfish that contain low levels of mercury—shrimp.

Albacore tuna is higher in mercury than canned light tuna, so consumption of this type should be limited to no more than six ounces a week, the experts say.

Eating a variety of fish may reduce the potential negative effects of any environmental pollutants.

Try to avoid farm-raised fish, which may contain higher levels of contaminants due to toxins in their feed. Farm-fed fish also tend to have more fat and calories and slightly less protein than wild fish, according to the experts.

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in