A balanced diet contains regular servings of foods from all major groups, including grains, dairy, proteins, fruits and vegetables. All such foods offer some protective value and health boost, but foods that are richest in vitamins, minerals, essential nutrients and disease-fighting compounds known as antioxidants tend to carry the biggest benefits.
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Vitamin- and mineral-rich foods are full of antioxidants, special beneficial compounds that have the ability to neutralize free radicals in the body. Because free radicals are responsible for causing cell damage and contributing to the development of serious disease, making antioxidant-rich foods a primary part of your diet can make a huge difference in disease prevention. Eating more fruits and vegetables can reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Protective foods have benefits beyond disease prevention as well. The calcium and nutrients found in low-fat dairy products, vegetables, fruits, grains and lean proteins, for example, can guard against bone loss, kidney stones and stroke. Although vitamins and dietary supplements provide many of the same substances, they are not as beneficial. MayoClinic.com says such supplements don’t stack up against protective foods because they aren’t able to offer the dietary fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals that those foods have.
Healthy men and women can stay in the best shape possible by including specific foods in their diets that address health problems for which they are particularly at risk. For example, the American Dietetic Association recommends that men eat tomatoes or tomato products at least once a week because tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene, an antioxidant that can reduce the risk of prostate cancer. For women, HelpGuide.org recommends eating nonfat or low-fat dairy products daily because extra calcium can help guard against osteoporosis and bone loss.
Foods with protective compounds and antioxidants tend to have low energy density levels, which means they are low in calories and fat, and have high fiber and water content. According to MayoClinic.com, their nutritional profiles make them optimal for weight loss and healthy weight maintenance. Prime examples of low-energy-density foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, nonfat dairy products such as skim milk and plain yogurt, whole grains and lean proteins such as tofu, skinless poultry, fish, beans and legumes.
Including protective foods in your diet is a natural way to fight disease, ward off infection and maybe even extend your lifespan. To get personalized advice and health recommendations regarding which foods might be most beneficial for you, consult your doctor or a registered dietitian.