Everyone knows that some foods are healthier than others. What’s not always clear is which foods are best for specific problems. When it comes to “food cures,” most of what you read is questionable.
Here is what the science really shows for insomnia, high cholesterol, memory loss, stomach pain and more…
Don’t depend on warm milk when you can’t get to sleep. It does produce some of the relaxing hormone serotonin, but it isn’t particularly helpful by itself.
Best food: Tart cherries. They’re among the richest food sources of melatonin, the same sleep-inducing hormone that is produced by the pineal gland in the brain. The body’s production of melatonin declines with age, which is part of the reason that older adults often have trouble sleeping. A study in Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that small doses of melatonin—about 0.3 milligrams (mg)—helped insomniacs get a better night’s sleep. One cup of tart-cherry juice or about one-eighth of a cup of dried tart cherries contains roughly the same amount. Sweet cherries also contain melatonin but not as much.
What to do: Eat tart cherries or drink one cup of juice about an hour before bedtime. The juice is very tart—you might want to mix in a little apple or pineapple juice.
In the past, oats (particularly oat bran) were touted as the best food for lowering LDL “bad” cholesterol. Oats help because they’re high in soluble fiber, which can help lower cholesterol by nearly 70 points. But they are not the only plaque-fighters in town.
Best food: Benecol spread…Lifetime Low-Fat Cheese…Heart Wise Orange Juice…and other foods enriched with phytosterols, plant-based compounds that can lower LDL by up to 14%.
What to do: For people with high cholesterol, the National Cholesterol Education Program recommends two grams of phytosterols daily. Serving sizes will vary, depending on the food. One tablespoon of Benecol spread will provide a little less than one gram.
Also helpful: Avocado. It increases HDL, the “good” cholesterol that helps fight heart disease. One study found that people who added avocado to their diets had an increase in HDL of 11% in just one week.
Many people think of broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables as the best cancer-fighting foods. These are excellent choices…but they are not the best.
Best food: Black beans. They’re high in anthocyanins and triterpenoids, potent antioxidants that can reduce cell-damaging inflammation and possibly increase the destruction of abnormal cells.
All beans with vivid colors—such as kidney beans (red), pinto beans (brown) and adzuki beans (deep red)—contain these cancer-fighting compounds.
What to do: Eat at least three cups of cooked beans a week. One study found that people who ate beans more than twice a week were 47% less likely to develop colon cancer than those who ate them less than once a week.
Also helpful: Tomatoes in all forms, including ketchup and tomato paste. Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, a compound that appears to reduce the risk for prostate cancer. Cooked tomatoes actually provide more lycopene than fresh. But don’t overdo ketchup—it’s loaded with sugar and salt.
If names are escaping you or you’re always losing your keys, you may need to enhance your diet.
Best food: Blueberries. Studies have shown that patients at risk for dementia have improvements in memory when they eat more blueberries. The berries contain flavonoids and other antioxidants that reduce inflammation. In the brain, inflammation can lead to a decline in memory and other cognitive functions.
What to do: Eat one cup of blueberries at least twice a week. If you don’t like blueberries, you can substitute strawberries, raspberries and/or cranberries.
This is a dangerous condition commonly associated with diabetes in which blood sugar levels fall below 70 mg/dL. It can happen periodically to some people with diabetes when the drugs used to treat the condition, such as insulin, work too well and cause an excessive drop in blood sugar.
Best food: Apricots. Seven to eight dried apricot halves provide 15 grams of a fast-acting carbohydrate when you have a crash in blood sugar. Fresh apricots also will help, but the carbohydrates (sugars) aren’t as concentrated. And dried apricots are easy to store and take with you.
What to do: Eat seven or eight dried apricot halves as soon as you notice the symptoms of hypoglycemia, such as fatigue, dizziness, sweating and irritability.
Also helpful: Anything sugary, including a small amount of jelly beans. When your blood sugar is “crashing,” you need sugar immediately. Toby Smithson, RD, LDN, a nutritionist who has had diabetes for 40 years, always carries jelly beans. They’re even mentioned on the American Diabetes Association Web site.
Other sources of fast-acting sugars include honey and fruit juices.
Maybe you ate too much…or life’s stresses affect your stomach first. You could take an antacid, but it doesn’t always help and often causes side effects, including constipation or diarrhea.
Best food: Hot peppers. You wouldn’t think that tongue-torching hot peppers would be good for your insides, but they are. They contain capsaicin, a proven pain reliever that works on the inside as well as externally.
One study, which looked at 30 patients with dyspepsia (stomach upset), found that those who consumed about one-half teaspoon of dried red pepper daily for five weeks had a 60% reduction in symptoms. Hot peppers also seemed to help with heartburn.
What to do: To help prevent stomach trouble, eat meals daily that contain “heat”—from chili powder, hot peppers, hot curry and the like. Or add a small amount of cayenne pepper to hot water for a spicy tea.
Periodontal (gum) disease is the leading cause of tooth loss. Research shows that this infection and/or inflammation of the gums also can lead to heart disease.
Best food: Kefir. This fermented milk is high in calcium (good for tooth enamel). It also contains the beneficial probiotic organism Lactobacillus, which secretes hydrogen peroxide and other substances that help kill the bacteria that cause gum disease.
What to do: Drink kefir in place of regular milk. Two or more one-cup servings daily have been linked to a reduced risk for tooth loss.
Also helpful: Live-culture yogurt. Many brands contain the same strain of Lactobacillus that is in kefir.