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You don’t have to add kale and blueberries to your plate to get a superfood in every meal. Nor do you have to splurge for exotic ingredients like aÇai berries or maqui berries. These have rightfully been dubbed “superfoods” because they deliver exceptional nutritional value, but they’re far from the only foods that do so. In fact, there are plenty of ultra-healthful, antioxidant-rich foods out there, many of them widely available and extremely affordable, says registered dietitian nutritionist Sharon Palmer.
Check out these humble foods that are some of the world’s best superfoods in disguise…
Black pepper often is an afterthought, typically just shaken or ground onto prepared meals to add a bit more flavor. But black pepper is much more than just a flavoring. Numerous studies have found that piperine, the alkaloid in black pepper that gives its distinctive bite, has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antihypertensive, anti-arthritic and neuroprotective properties. Even better: When combined with other spices, piperine has a synergistic effect. Example: The spice turmeric, commonly used in Asian and Indian foods, contains the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound curcumin—and when turmeric and black pepper are consumed together, the piperine improves the body’s absorption of the curcumin by 2,000%, according to a study by researchers in India.
Canned tomatoes have greater antioxidant activity than fresh tomatoes—that’s surprising since typically fresh ingredients are most healthful. The cooking process for canned tomatoes significantly increases the bioavailability of the antioxidant lycopene—in other words, it increases how much lycopene is absorbed by the body. Lycopene reduces risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease. Tomatoes are versatile, too—stir them into pasta dishes, casseroles, soups, stews and more—and they are a great source of potassium and fiber. Note: Cooking tomatoes does somewhat reduce the amount of vitamin C they deliver but not dramatically so. You could buy fresh tomatoes and cook them yourself, but canned tomatoes generally are less expensive than fresh tomatoes when they are out of season and can be stored for months.
Peas might not be glamorous, but they’re excellent sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and “slow-digesting carbs”—the body takes a significant amount of time to break down these carbs. This results in a slow-and-steady release of glucose into the bloodstream that is linked to lower rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. A recent study by researchers at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital found a strong link between the consumption of peas and other legumes with lower risk for cardiovascular disease. Frozen peas are as nutritious as fresh peas, and—like canned tomatoes—they’re inexpensive, last for months and are easy to add to many different meals.
Onions contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. Onions have been linked to better heart health, improved immune system function and reduced rates of some cancers. One review of dozens of previous studies by Italian researchers at the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research concluded that people who regularly eat lots of vegetables of the genus Allium, including onions and garlic, are 22% less likely to get stomach cancer than people who rarely eat onions. They often are used like a spice because of their bold flavor, but they actually are vegetables and are a particularly good source of potassium and vitamin C.
Similar: Garlic has the same anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties as onions. Numerous studies suggest that garlic protects against heart disease and lowers cholesterol and blood pressure. It also is an excellent source of the minerals manganese and selenium. Garlic powder even can serve as a heart-healthy substitute for salt in many dishes, and it contains the active ingredients found in fresh garlic.
Medjool dates (shown below) are the rare food that can deliver health benefits while satisfying a sweet tooth. They are rich in fiber and several important minerals, such as potassium, selenium and magnesium. They’re also a good source of heart-healthy antioxidants, according to several studies, including one by Algerian researchers. You can eat dates on their own as a snack, or grind them up and use them to sweeten desserts.
Sunflower seeds are among the best sources of cholesterol-lowering phytosterols, according to numerous studies. They’re also rich in heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats, fiber, the antioxidant vitamin E and minerals including manganese and magnesium. And they are an excellent plant-based protein source. The seeds can be roasted or turned into sunflower butter, which can be used in place of peanut butter.
Similar: Hemp seeds offer many of the same benefits as sunflower seeds, plus they’re rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are great for heart and brain health. Hemp seeds tend to be a bit pricier and harder to find than sunflower seeds. Sesame seeds are rich in fiber and healthy fats and a great source of important minerals, including copper, manganese, calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc. They provide lignans, which research suggests could reduce risk for heart disease and certain cancers…and cholesterol-controlling phytosterols. Tahini, made largely from sesame seeds, is a tasty and versatile dressing and sauce.
Beans are a healthful, low-fat source of protein, especially when compared with red meat, the most common protein source in the US. One big health plus: Beans provide antioxidants. The amount and type of antioxidant vary depending on the bean variety, but black and other dark-colored beans are great choices—the compound that provides their dark pigmentation, anthocyanin, is an antioxidant linked to lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. Beans also are fiber-rich and satiating relative to the number of calories they contain, so we tend to feel full after eating them. That helps explain why eating beans regularly tends to reduce body fat and waist size, according to a study by Brigham Young University researchers…and reduces risk for type 2 diabetes, according to a study by researchers at Australia’s University of Sydney.
Celery is loaded with fiber, potassium, folate and vitamins K and C. It also contains coumarin compounds that appear to lower cancer risk…and phthalides that reduce high blood pressure. A study by Indonesian researchers confirmed that drinking celery juice regularly significantly reduces both systolic and diastolic blood pressure among people who have hypertension. Just chop up a celery stick and toss it into a sauté or soup, and you’ve added an unobtrusive serving of a very healthful vegetable.
Bell peppers are rich in vitamins A and C. They’re also great sources of antioxidant carotenoids such as lycopene and beta-carotene, which are associated with lower risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Different-colored bell peppers have different antioxidants, so including several varieties in a meal broadens its health benefits.