Did you know that falling asleep easier, preventing PMS and easing the aches and pains of arthritis could be as easy as stocking your kitchen with the right foods?
Take 47-year-old Sarah. When I first met her, she was 50 pounds overweight and had high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. Together we created a plan that incorporated the best foods into her diet. After just three months, Sarah's cholesterol dropped by 60 points and she had lost 30 pounds. Even better, she was able to say goodbye to her diabetes and blood pressure meds!
Another client, Eleanor, had long suffered from debilitating migraines. But within two weeks of adding 1 to 2 cups of spinach to her diet daily and eliminating trigger foods (like cheese and wine), she saw a dramatic improvement.
These are just two stories that inspired my book, "Joy Bauer's Food Cures," which shows how you can radically improve your health with some simple nutrition upgrades. Obviously food can't always take the place of medication, but it can be a part of your better-health solution. Here, some of my best findings. Dig in!
What's ailing you: Arthritis
Why it's good: This spicy root contains compounds that work similarly to some anti-inflammatory medications. However, ginger can also act as a blood thinner, so if you're taking a blood-thinning medication, ask your doctor if it's safe to eat ginger.
Eat up! Ideally you want to get a hit of ginger every single day. Steep a few slices of the root in hot water to make tea, grate it into stir-fries or add ground ginger to smoothies.
Why it's good: Research has shown that certain antioxidants may help prevent arthritis, slow its progression and relieve pain by reducing inflammation associated with this condition. And pumpkin's bright-orange hue is a clue that it's rich in two of these antioxidants: beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin. In fact, researchers from the UK found that people whose diets were high in beta-cryptoxanthin were half as likely to develop a form of inflammatory arthritis as those who ate very foods containing it.
Eat up! Try to eat one can of 100 percent pure pumpkin purée (not pumpkin pie filling!) every week. I make a "pudding" by stirring a dollop of pumpkin purée into vanilla yogurt along with a dash of cinnamon. You can also add a scoop of the puree to ground turkey meat sauce, taco filling or chili (the puree doesn't altar the taste).
Red bell pepper
Why it's good: Red bell peppers contain an impressive amount of inflammation-fighting carotenoids, but they also have more than 250 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C. Research suggest that people who eat a diet low in vitamin C may be at greater risk for developing certain kinds of arthritis.
Eat up! Aim to have three red bell peppers a week. Mix pepper with cucumber, chickpeas and feta for a quick and easy lunch.
What's ailing you: Type 2 diabetes
Why they're good: Whether they're kidney, pinto or navy, beans provide a winning combination of high-quality carbohydrates, protein and fiber that helps stabilize your body's blood sugar levels and keeps hunger in check. (People with type 2 diabetes have trouble keeping their blood sugar levels stable because their bodies can't produce or properly use insulin, which helps move glucose from your bloodstream into your cells.)
Eat up! Have beans as often as you can. Protein-rich beans and lentils are a smarter side dish than carb-filled pasta, rice or potatoes. Turn chickpeas (garbanzo beans) into a crunchy snack. Pat cooked beans dry, sprinkle with paprika, cumin or other spices, and roast in a 400°F oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until lightly browned and crunchy.
Why they're good: Egg whites are the perfect base for a diabetes-friendly meal because they're low-calorie (17 calories apiece) and rich in high-quality protein, so they can help keep your weight and blood sugar level on an even keel. And they’re cholesterol-free, since all the cholesterol is in the yolk.
Eat up! Aim to have at least three or four egg-based meals a week. An omelet with 4 egg whites (or 1 whole egg plus 2 or 3 egg whites), plenty of vegetables and some reduced-fat cheese for breakfast will set you up for a day of even-keeled blood sugar.
Why they're good: Nuts — all types, including peanuts, walnuts, pistachios, pecans and cashews — are primarily composed of heart-healthy fats and protein, two ingredients that keep blood sugar stable by slowing down the rate at which your body absorbs carbohydrates. Nuts also contain monounsaturated fat and, in some cases, omega-3s, both of which improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Since having type 2 diabetes also puts you at a higher risk for heart disease, nuts are a win-win.
Eat up! Snack on an ounce (one small handful) of your favorite nut daily — they all contain healthy fats.
What's ailing you: Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
Why it's good: Studies have found that women with PMS have lower levels of calcium around ovulation than women who don't experience PMS symptoms, so amping up your intake of cheese and other dairy products is worth a shot if you're prone to cramps and mood swings.
Eat up! Make sure you're getting at least the recommended amount of calcium daily — experts say only 10 percent of us are getting it through diet alone! Women younger than 50 need 1,000 mg; if you're 50 or older, 1,200 mg. Aim for three servings of calcium-rich foods like cheese and yogurt daily; women older than 50 should tack on a fourth serving. If you don't think that's possible, talk to your doctor about taking a calcium supplement.
Why it's good: This fruit has three things going for it. First, it's one of the best sources of manganese, and one study found that women with low manganese intakes were more likely to experience premenstrual mood swings, breast tenderness and cramping. Second, pineapple and other water-rich fruits and vegetables (think berries, citrus fruits, melon, cucumbers, bell peppers) can help banish bloat associated with your monthly cycle because their high water content helps flush out excess fluid. Lastly, deliciously sweet pineapple is a healthy way to indulge sugar cravings, which often intensify as your period approaches.
Eat up! In the seven to 10 days leading up to your period, have 1 cup of fresh pineapple daily. If it's too expensive or underripe, see if your store carries frozen chunks or canned pineapple packed in 100 percent juice.
Why they're good: Almonds are an excellent source of magnesium, another mineral that may provide some PMS relief. Studies have found that magnesium — in addition to helping relieve PMS headaches — can improve mood and lessen water retention in the week or two before you get your period.
Eat up! Enjoy an ounce of almonds (about 22 nuts) a day, and enrich your diet with other magnesium-rich foods like quinoa, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, dark leafy greens, edamame and green beans.
What's ailing you: Osteoporosis
Why it's good: Broccoli gives you four bone-building nutrients in one convenient package: vitamins C and K, potassium and some calcium. Studies have found that getting enough of vitamins C and K is linked to having high bone density. Potassium (and other compounds found in produce) may reduce bone loss by acting as a buffer against metabolic acids, which some studies suggest contribute to the breakdown of bone tissue.
Eat up! Serve broccoli at least three times a week, and if you need extra incentive to dig in, sprinkle your florets with a bit of grated cheese (which adds more calcium!).
Why it's good: Skim milk is an obvious choice for strong bones, since 1 cup contains 300 mg of calcium — about a third of the daily recommended amount.
Eat up! Work it into your daily diet by making oatmeal with a cup of skim milk instead of water, including 1 cup in a fruit smoothie, or having a mug of low-fat cocoa made with 1 cup of nonfat milk. Feel free to substitute soy or almond milk (as long as the carton says it's fortified with calcium).
Why it's good: If you don't get enough calcium in your diet your body will start "borrowing" what it needs from the calcium stored in your bones. What's great about yogurt is that it's a good source of calcium and protein — and both are necessary for bone strength. Studies show that people who don't get enough protein have lower bone density.
Eat up! Opt for Greek varieties over traditional yogurt to get twice as much protein (and go for non-fat).
What's ailing you: Heart disease
Why it's good: It's rich in soluble fiber, which latches on to cholesterol compounds and helps carry them out of your body. Research shows that people who eat an average of 2.5 servings of whole grains (like oats) daily have a 21 percent lower risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke than people who hardly eat any.
Eat up! Enjoy oatmeal at least three times a week, and spruce it up with berries, nuts, dried apricots, even peanut butter.
Why it's good: Sweet potatoes deliver more heart-healthy fiber than their white cousins, along with a hefty dose of potassium, a mineral that helps offset sodium's negative effect on blood pressure.
Eat up! Try to eat at least two of these spuds a week. I like to mash them with a drop of skim milk, a pat of whipped butter and a bit of cinnamon.
Why it's good: Wild salmon is one of the most concentrated sources of omega-3 fats, which can help lower triglycerides, raise levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol, and help reduce inflammation in the body — a factor that's been linked to an increased risk of diabetes as well as heart disease. What's more, numerous studies have found that people whose diets are high in omega-3s have a substantially lower risk of coronary heart disease, as well as sudden death from arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat).
Eat up! Aim to eat salmon at least twice a week. Although wild and farmed salmon contain similar levels of omega-3s, wild is lower in contaminants and has as much as four times the amount of vitamin D. But wild salmon is more expensive and not as widely available as farmed. If you can't make room for it in your budget, you're better off eating farmed salmon than going without it completely.
What's ailing you: Migraine headaches
Why it's good: Magnesium deficiency has been linked to migraines, and 1 cup of whole grain quinoa, a protein-rich seed, provides 30 percent of the daily recommended amount of magnesium. Getting enough of this mineral seems to be particularly helpful in preventing menstrual migraines.
Eat up! Have a helping at least three times a week in place of rice, pasta or other starches. Turn quinoa into a pilaf with chopped carrots, enjoy it as a hot cereal (like oatmeal), or use it as a base for a stir-fry or chili.
Why it's good: Studies have shown that omega-3s — found in high amounts in flaxseeds — can help reduce the frequency, duration and severity of headaches, probably by reducing inflammation.
Eat up! Add a tablespoon a day to yogurt, oatmeal, cereal or smoothies. You can also mix ground flaxseed into meatballs or combine with whole-wheat bread crumbs for a crispy coating for baked chicken tenders.
Why it's good: Spinach contains a good amount of magnesium as well as riboflavin, a B vitamin that may help reduce headache frequency and severity.
Eat up! Squeeze in at least three servings of spinach a week, and try to get more of other riboflavin-rich foods like lean beef, whole-grain cereals, mushrooms and asparagus. Also, speak to your doctor about whether riboflavin supplements might help.
This article was written by Dr. Joy Bauer for WomansDay.com and is republished here with permission.
Red pepper: A writer afoot/Flickr
Black beans: cookbookman17/Flickr
Broccoli: La Grande Farmers' Market/Flickr
Oatmeal: nate steiner/Flickr
Sweet potato: MinimalistPhotography101.com/Flickr
Quinoa: Chasqui (Luis Tamayo)/Flickr
Ground flaxseed: AlishaV/Flickr