The 10 Best Foods You Probably Aren't Eating... But Should: Here's One through Five

The most e-mailed story on the New York Times website last week was The 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating. It’s a list of the most healthful foods that we should, but probably don't, regularly eat.

The idea, according to Times Nutrition reporter, Tara Parker-Pope, came from a article last year on the Men’s Health web site. I checked it out and discovered a 10-item list (the Times did revise it a bit), which also included a brief explanation for why each food is healthful, as well as tips for how best to serve it. (And at half of them are grown right here in Minnesota.) There's a lot of good information here, so I wanted to share it with you. It will be published in two parts: part one will feature the first five foods: part two the last five. With much gratitude to Men's Health, here are...

The 10 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating [1 - 5]
By Jonny Bowden, Ph.D.

1. Cabbage

Absent from most American kitchens, this cruciferous vegetable is a major player in European and Asian diets.

Why It's Healthy: One cup of chopped cabbage has just 22 calories, and it's loaded with valuable nutrients. At the top of the list is sulforaphane, a chemical that increases your body's production of enzymes that disarm cell-damaging free radicals and reduce your risk of cancer. In fact, Stanford University scientists determined that sulforaphane boosts your levels of these cancer-fighting enzymes higher than any other plant chemical.

How to Eat It: Put cabbage on your burgers to add a satisfying crunch. Or, for an even better sandwich topping or side salad, try an Asian-style slaw. Here's what you'll need:

-  4 Tbsp peanut oil

-  Juice of two limes

-  1 Tbsp sriracha, an Asian chili sauce you can find in the international section of your grocery store

-  1 head napa cabbage, finely chopped or shredded

-  1/4 cup toasted peanuts

-  1/2 cup shredded carrots

-  1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Whisk together the oil, lime juice, and sriracha. Combine the remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl and toss with the dressing to coat. Refrigerate for 20 minutes before serving. The slaw will keep in your fridge for 2 days.

2. Beets

These grungy-looking roots are naturally sweeter than any other vegetable, which means they pack tons of flavor underneath their rugged exterior.

Why They're Healthy: Think of beets as red spinach. Just like Popeye's powerfood, this crimson vegetable is one of the best sources of both folate and betaine. These two nutrients work together to lower your blood levels of homocysteine, an inflammatory compound that can damage your arteries and increase your risk of heart disease. Plus, the natural pigments—called betacyanins—that give beets their color have been proved to be potent cancer fighters in laboratory mice.

How to Eat Them: Fresh and raw, not from a jar. Heating beets actually decreases their antioxidant power. For a simple single-serving salad, wash and peel one beet, and then grate it on the widest blade of a box grater. Toss with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon. You can eat the leaves and stems, which are also packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Simply cut off the stems just below the point where the leaves start, and wash thoroughly. They're now ready to be used in a salad. Or, for a side dish, sauté the leaves, along with a minced clove of garlic and a tablespoon of olive oil, in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Cook until the leaves are wilted and the stems are tender. Season with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice, and sprinkle with fresh Parmesan cheese.

3. Guava

Guava is an obscure tropical fruit that's subtly acidic, with sweetness that intensifies as you eat your way to the center.

Why it's Healthy: Guava has a higher concentration of lycopene—an antioxidant that fights prostate cancer—than any other plant food, including tomatoes and watermelon. In addition, 1 cup of the stuff provides 688 milligrams (mg) of potassium, which is 63 percent more than you'll find in a medium banana. And guava may be the ultimate high-fiber food: There's almost 9 grams (g) of fiber in every cup.

How to Eat It: Down the entire fruit, from the rind to the seeds. It's all edible—and nutritious. The rind alone has more vitamin C than you'd find in the flesh of an orange. You can score guava in the produce section of higher-end supermarkets or in Latin grocery stores.

4. Swiss Chard

Hidden in the leafy-greens cooler of your market, you'll find this slightly bitter, salty vegetable, which is actually native to the Mediterranean.

Why It's Healthy: A half cup of cooked Swiss chard provides a huge amount of both lutein and zeaxanthin, supplying 10 mg each. These plant chemicals, known as carotenoids, protect your retinas from the damage of aging, according to Harvard researchers. That's because both nutrients, which are actually pigments, appear to accumulate in your retinas, where they absorb the type of shortwave light rays that can damage your eyes. So the more lutein and zeaxanthin you eat, the better your internal eye protection will be.

How to Eat It: Chard goes great with grilled steaks and chicken, and it also works well as a bed for pan-seared fish. Wash and dry a bunch of Swiss chard, and then chop the leaves and stems into 1-inch pieces. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large sauté pan or wok, and add two garlic cloves that you've peeled and lightly crushed. When the oil smokes lightly, add the chard. Sauté for 5 to 7 minutes, until the leaves wilt and the stems are tender. Remove the garlic cloves and season the chard with salt and pepper.

5. Cinnamon

This old-world spice usually reaches most stomachs only when it's mixed with sugar and stuck to a roll.

Why It's Healthy: Cinnamon helps control your blood sugar, which influences your risk of heart disease. In fact, USDA researchers found that people with type-2 diabetes who consumed 1 g of cinnamon a day for 6 weeks (about 1/4 teaspoon each day) significantly reduced not only their blood sugar but also their triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol. Credit the spice's active ingredients, methylhydroxychalcone polymers, which increase your cells' ability to metabolize sugar by up to 20 times.

How to Eat It: You don't need the fancy oils and extracts sold at vitamin stores; just sprinkle the stuff that's in your spice rack (or in the shaker at Starbucks) into your coffee or on your oatmeal.

Still five more to go. What’s six through ten? Come back tomorrow to find out.