Recently our society has been waking up to the fact that food and health are directly connected in both protective and destructive ways.

First, an overview: Our bodies contain five defense systems that not only protect us from illness but heal us when we’re sick—angiogenesis, regeneration, the microbiome, DNA protection and immunity. In broad terms, they all help us fight off illness while keeping our organs healthy. Activating these systems can prevent many of the diseases we’re most worried about, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. Research is proving that certain foods activate these systems. In fact, there are more than 200 foods that can intercept or even reverse certain diseases by boosting our health defenses. Of course, other foods that can damage our health have been shown to suppress the same systems, leaving us vulnerable to disease. 

You may be thinking that you already know that barley, broccoli and dark leafy greens are good for you. You may be comfortable with your food choices, but challenging yourself to add the surprising foods identified here is well worth the effort. All are backed by extraordinary science…and none are in that “yuck, health food” category. You can easily add them to your meals to enrich and diversify your diet.

Chicken thighs. Did you think white meat was the healthiest choice? Surprise! 

Why it’s so good for you: Dark chicken meat contains vitamin K-2 (also known as menaquinone), which has been shown to help control ­angiogenesis, one of our five defense systems. Angiogenesis is the process our bodies use to form and grow blood vessels. A healthy angiogenesis system regulates when and where blood vessels should grow and can prevent tumors from getting the blood they need to thrive. 

Research at University of Illinois and Hiroshima University in ­Japan has found that vitamin K-2 can directly attack prostate cancer and colon cancer cells. Vitamin K also has been associated with a reduced risk for lung cancer. (See the section on Gouda cheese below.)

Keep in mind: Chicken thighs often are attached to chunks of fat, so trim off the fat before cooking. 

Mangoes. I call the mango a grand-slammer food because, from a health standpoint, it activates all five defense systems at once, hitting a home run for your health.

Why they’re so good for you: ­Mangoes ­contain the bioactive compound mangiferin. Bioactive compounds modulate metabolic processes in the body. Mangiferin improves blood-sugar control and can prevent tumors from forming, according to research from several leading Chinese hospitals and universities. 

Keep in mind: If you can’t find fresh mangoes, frozen ones are just as nutritious. Even though they can help your metabolism, remember that mangoes are high in natural sugar, so people with diabetes or others who are limiting their sugar intake should ask their doctors about the recommended amount to eat. 

Purple potatoes. These ­strikingly hued potatoes are becoming more available and often are seen on restaurant menus. 

Why they’re so good for you: Research has shown that purple potatoes can kill colon cancer stem cells and reduce the number of tumors. Scientists at Penn State University fed the equivalent of one purple potato a day for a week to mice that were at high risk for colon cancer, and they found that they had 50% fewer tumors than mice not fed the potatoes. That is similar to the effect seen in prescription drug ­recipients. 

Note: Ask at your grocery store if it carries the Purple Majesty variety—the kind used in the research. Purple potatoes can be prepared in different ways and still offer a health benefit.

Sourdough bread. Remarkably, the element that gives sourdough bread its mildly sour taste is also what makes it healthful. 

Why it’s so good for you: The ­probiotics. Sourdough bread starter uses a natural, healthy bacteria called Lactobacillus reuteri, which has been shown in the lab to improve immunity, suppress tumor development, slow weight gain and speed up wound healing. The bacteria even can stimulate the brain to release oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. Scientists had long assumed that the health benefits of Lactobacillus reuteri were destroyed in the heat of an oven, but researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that even the fragments of killed bacteria can deliver the same benefits. 

Keep in mind: Some sourdough bread does not actually use the right bacteria and is just flavored to taste tangy. Buy at bakeries where you can ask about the process. Eating bread loads you up with calories, so don’t go overboard eating sourdough.

Gouda cheese. It’s surprising that cheese has health benefits, but it is indeed true when it comes to certain hard cheeses, such as Gouda.

Why it’s so good for you: Just like chicken thighs, Gouda is high in ­vitamin K-2. Landmark research from Germany (the EPIC–Heidelberg study) examined the link between K-2 and cancer and found that eating between one and three slices (about one to three ounces) of hard cheese each day was associated with a 62% drop in risk for lung cancer. And eating the equivalent of two slices per day led to a 35% decrease in the risk for prostate cancer.

Keep in mind: Cheese is a source of saturated fat and high sodium, so less is more. 

Kiwifruit. This fruit—which is actually a large berry—came from ­China, where it was known for its benefits for digestion.

Why it’s so good for you: Researchers at National University of Singapore showed that kiwi makes it easier for your gut microbiome to grow healthy bacteria, which can improve the state of your immune system. Meanwhile, scientists in Scotland found that kiwi can help prevent and repair damage to our DNA that is caused by the environment and linked to many serious diseases, including cancer. 

Keep in mind: Eating one kiwifruit a day is beneficial, but even more benefits were seen by researchers with three ­kiwifruits per day. 

Concord grape juice. OK, technically this is a beverage. But it’s a powerhouse nonetheless. 

Why it’s so good for you: Besides being good for the heart as reported in previous studies, grape juice boosts your immune system, according to a study from University of Florida. Drinking one and a half cups of Concord grape juice every day for nine weeks was found to increase the level of T-cells, which play an important role in immunity and fighting cancer. 

Keep in mind: Like all fruit juice, grape juice contains natural sugar, so if you need to control your blood sugar for any reason, check with your doctor before adding this to your diet. Also avoid juices with added sugars or artificial sweeteners. 

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