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12 Foods With Surprising Health Benefits

author image Katherine Brooking
Katherine Brooking is a registered dietitian with a Master’s degree in nutrition education. She co-founded Smart Cookie Productions, Inc., which publishes AppforHealth.com and produces a weekly nutrition series, Appetite for Health. She a frequent nutrition contributor to the TODAY show, The Early Show on CBS and Good Morning America Health. She is the co-author of "The Real Skinny: Appetite for Health's 101 Fat Habits & Slim Solutions."

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12 Foods With Surprising Health Benefits
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Would you ever put chocolate, nuts, or even honey on your "healthy foods" list? You may be surprised to learn that these foods and many others have an array of hidden health benefits. Read on to learn about 12 foods that you're likely to find in your kitchen that boost not just flavor, but also your health.

1. White Produce: Onions, Garlic and Cauliflower
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Onions, cauliflower and garlic lack the vibrant colors of many other veggies, but color isn’t always a good indicator of the healthfulness of the veggies. In fact, onions and garlic contain unique compounds like allicin and quercetin, which may help protect against certain types of cancer. If you don’t have a strong affinity for garlic and onions, have no fear -- cauliflower possesses anticancer properties too. Cauliflower is part of the cruciferous vegetable family, and research shows that the isothiocyanate compound in raw cruciferous veggies possesses potent anticancer activity.

Related: 10 Ways to Add the Health Benefits of Cauliflower to Your Diet

2. Tart Cherries
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Wondering what gives cherries their red hue? That would be the antioxidant anthocyanin, which has been shown to help reduce the aches and pains associated with arthritis. For athletes and even weekend warriors, research has shown that tart cherry juice helps speed up recovery time between workouts and decreases muscle pain after exercise. And here’s more good news for cherry lovers: They’re also rich in a phytochemical called melatonin, which has been shown to be beneficial in improving sleep duration and quality. A half cup of cherries is just over 100 calories, so it’s a great sweet fix for those watching their waistline.

Related: 20 Best Smoothie Ingredients

3. Mushrooms
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Did you know that mushrooms are one of the only natural food sources of vitamin D? Just as our skin can manufacture vitamin D from ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun, mushrooms can manufacture vitamin D through exposure to sunlight. In fact, some varieties of mushrooms, such as maitakes, contain more than 100 percent of the daily recommend value of vitamin D per one-cup serving. Another health benefit of mushrooms is that they are rich in the B vitamins riboflavin and niacin, which have both been shown to increase cognitive function. Use this non-starchy veggie in stir-fries or as an alternative to meat on a burger, or whip up this celeriac mash with mushrooms for a hearty meal.

4. Maple Syrup
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While maple syrup might seem like more of a sweet indulgence than a health food, research suggests otherwise. This natural sweetener contains diverse phytochemicals that impart potential health benefits by reducing oxidative damage, thus helping to prevent certain diseases. Additionally, preliminary research shows that specific antioxidant compounds in maple syrup have been shown to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. When choosing maple syrup, opt for the darker-colored syrups because these tend to contain more antioxidants (meaning more health benefits). Just keep in mind that maple syrup is still a form of sugar, so practice portion control. Use it as a topping for healthy whole-grain meals and snacks like oatmeal or whole-grain waffles. It also makes a great glaze for Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes.

5. Chocolate
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Chocaholics, rejoice! Don’t feel guilty about indulging the next time a craving strikes because chocolate is good for your heart! Studies show that the rich flavanol content of chocolate may help with heart health and vascular protection. It may also aid in boosting your mood, confirming that craving chocolate when experiencing PMS symptoms is not just a myth. In fact, research suggests that cocoa polyphenols may enhance positive-mood states. While chocolate is loaded with health benefits, it should still be viewed as a decadent treat. Just one ounce of dark chocolate contains nearly 170 calories and 12 grams of fat, so it is important to keep portions in check.

Related: Chocolate and 15 Other Snacks That Are OK to Eat at Night

6. Yogurt
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Yogurt is a nutritionist’s best friend -- and for good reason. It’s packed with probiotics, beneficial bacteria that can help to improve gut health. And if you’re looking to shed a few pounds, yogurt is an excellent choice. Research supports the fact that dairy consumption is associated with a lower risk of obesity. Yogurt is also a great option when it comes to bone health. With nearly 345 milligrams of calcium per eight-ounce serving, you get almost 35 percent of the daily recommended value. Yogurt is a great choice for those who don’t like milk but are at risk of osteoporosis. Whenever possible, opt for plain or varieties sweetened with fresh fruit because the “fruit on the bottom” varieties can be loaded with sugar.

Related: Which Type of Yogurt Is Best for You?

7. Herbs and Spices: Cinnamon, Ginger, Mint and Turmeric
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Did you know that adding certain herbs and spices to your food may add years to your life? Research shows that flavoring food with cinnamon, mint, ginger and turmeric not only adds a delicious kick, but that it is also loaded with healthful benefits. For instance, a dash of cinnamon in your morning coffee has been shown to improve blood sugar, lipid and total cholesterol levels in individuals suffering from Type 2 diabetes. Prone to a sensitive stomach? Brew a cup of mint tea. Studies show that the major compound in mint -- menthol -- possesses gastroprotective and antidiarrheal properties. If you suffer from arthritis, ginger and turmeric may help. Ginger has been used in Asia since ancient times, and research points to its ability to alleviate symptoms associated with osteoarthritis. Similarly, the mustard-yellow spice known as turmeric also aids in fighting inflammation and has a slew of other health benefits, including potential cancer-fighting properties.

Related: 7 Ways to Add the Health Benefits of Turmeric to Your Diet

8. Honey
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If you’re not a fan of maple syrup, honey also makes for a terrific natural sweetener. Like maple syrup, it’s a source of antioxidants, and the variety of concentration depends on the region from where the honey was harvested. It’s also a natural cough suppressant, and preliminary research shows that it may possess potent anti-inflammatory properties and help to inhibit the release of inflammation-inducing nitric oxide, which is good news for those suffering from arthritis. If you feel the need to add sugar to a meal or snack, reach for the honey instead and reap all of the health benefits it has to offer. Honey works well in yogurt, tea, as a topping for oatmeal and as an alternative to sugar in baked goods. Like maple syrup, honey still has sugar and calories (about 130 calories and 34 grams of sugar per two tablespoons), so it is important to pay attention to portions.

9. Beans
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Beans are a terrific source of plant-based protein, containing a whopping 14 grams per cup. This vegetarian staple is also a rich source of hunger-squashing fiber, clocking in at just under 14 grams per cup. It is this combination of protein and fiber that helps to keep blood sugar levels stable and energy levels consistent throughout the day. Studies also show that beans are good for your heart and can help to reduce bad (LDL) cholesterol levels. Beans are extremely versatile: Mix them with veggies, pasta and salads, or even add some garlic, chopped onion and a little olive oil and you’ve got a delicious meal. Ideally, it’s best to purchase beans uncooked and soak them, but if you prefer the convenience of canned varieties, look for ones that are lower in sodium (ideally under 350 milligrams per serving) and higher in fiber (at least four grams of fiber per serving).

Related: Beans and 13 Other Foods to Help You Get Lean

10. Coffee
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For all you java lovers who can’t live without your morning caffeine fix, here’s another reason to love coffee -- it’s loaded with health benefits. Studies show that caffeine can have a protective effect on memory, and a 2010 study found an association between caffeine intake and a lower risk of cognitive decline in women, thus helping to protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s. Further, early research showed promising results of caffeine consumption’s potential to be protective against certain kinds of cancer, such as skin cancer. So go ahead and enjoy your morning brew -- hot or iced -- it has important health benefits, and research confirms the fact that it does a lot more than just taste good.

Related: Coffee and 17 Other Foods With a “Bad” Rap That Are Actually Good for You

11. Orange Produce: Mango, Pumpkin and Sweet Potato
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Here’s some news that might just make orange your new favorite color. Orange produce like mango, pumpkin and sweet potato contains an antioxidant called beta-carotene that is converted into vitamin A in the body and is involved in the repair and growth of tissues. When it comes to the more cosmetic health benefits, such as glowing skin and luscious locks, research points to the importance of vitamin A. In fact, vitamin A has been found to increase collagen production (which helps keep skin firm), meaning it can help to reduce fine wrinkles associated with natural aging. When it comes to hair health, an animal study found that beta-carotene can help to regulate the hair cycle and also alter the immune response to slow the progression of hair loss. Mango, pumpkin and sweet potatoes all provide well over 100 percent of the daily recommended value for vitamin A, evidence that orange produce is truly a nutritional powerhouse.

Related: Mango and 13 Other Foods to Help You Get Lean

12. Nuts: Pistachios, Almonds and Walnuts
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Nuts are bursting with important vitamins and minerals and are a great topper to pastas, salads and yogurt. They can also be enjoyed on their own as a standalone snack. Pistachios are known as the most “slimming nut,” clocking in at just about three calories a pop. Pistachios are also rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, two antioxidants associated with a reduced risk of age-related macular degeneration. If you’re not a fan of pistachios, munching on almonds and walnuts is also a good choice. Almonds can help improve blood lipid levels and reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease, while the polyphenolic compounds in walnuts have been shown to help maintain brain health.

Related: 9 of the Healthiest Nuts

What Do YOU Think?
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Were you surprised by any of these foods and their benefits? Do you already eat some of the foods on the list? Are there any you’re going to add to your diet? Share your thoughts below in the comments.

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