Superfoods are like superstars. Brad Pitt may steal the spotlight, but Gerard Butler works just as hard. What does that have to do with your grocery cart? Well, simply that it doesn't have to be full of A-listers to be award winning. "People get fixated on the idea that it's one particular type of fish, cooking oil, or nut that will change their health," says FITNESS advisory board member Mark Moyad, MD, MPH, author of Dr. Moyad's No BS Health Advice. "They don't realize that similar foods also have solid research and may cost less." Give these 10 foods a chance to shine in your kitchen.
The superstar: Blueberries
They rose to fame after researchers discovered that they have one of the highest antioxidant capacities of any fruit.
The understudy: Strawberries
These berries are another exceptional pick. They're bursting with antioxidants; one 53-calorie cup has more vitamin C than a navel orange. Good news, since research shows that ascorbic acid, a form of vitamin C found in strawberries, may help reduce blood pressure and control levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Strawberries may also speed up your recovery after a long run or a tough kickboxing class, because they contain anthocyanins, natural pain relievers. "Consistently including these berries in your diet may mean you have less muscle pain and soreness after grueling workouts," Dr. Moyad says. Beauty bonus: "They contain malic acid, which can act as a natural tooth whitener," says Keri Glassman, RD, author of The O2 Diet.
The superstar: Red wine
It's a cocktail of disease-fighting antioxidants and a plant compound called resveratrol, which studies show can protect against cancer and heart disease.
The understudy: Beer
The grape debate is whether white or red is better for you, but who knew that hops were in the running? Your favorite brew is also made with antioxidant-rich plants. In a study of nearly 29,000 women, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that those who sipped up to one drink a day — liquor, wine, or beer — had a lower risk of developing high blood pressure than nondrinkers. Beer has also been linked to greater bone density in postmenopausal women, according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. One of the brew's bone-building secret ingredients is possibly the mineral silicon (a study found that India pale ale has the most and wheat beers the least). But limit yourself to one alcoholic drink a day; research shows that more than that may have the opposite effect on your health.
The superstar: Almonds
These nuts are good for your ticker; they have been shown to lower both total and LDL (bad) cholesterol.
The understudy: Peanuts
This legume contains the same healthy oil that almonds do, so it also works hard at reducing your heart-disease risk. Plus, it can be a great weight-loss snack: People who eat peanuts and peanut products tend to have lower BMIs than those who nix them, a study from Pennsylvania State University found. This may be because they take the place of unhealthy treats. Research from the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital showed that people who ate a reduced-calorie diet that included peanuts, peanut butter, and other healthy fats lost more weight and were better able to stay on track than those who ate a low-fat diet. Just shop carefully and watch portions. Stick to one-quarter cup of unsalted regular or dry-roasted peanuts or two tablespoons of natural peanut butter daily. "Store nuts and seeds in the fridge so they won't spoil," says David Grotto, RD, author of 101 Optimal Life Foods.
The superstar: Tomatoes
You say "tomato," I say "antioxidant": The two are practically synonymous. The fruit is loaded with lycopene, which may help protect against cancer and heart disease.
The understudy: White button mushrooms
Toss the budget-friendly fungi onto salads and order them on your next pizza; the antioxidant powers of white buttons rival those of wild cream and brown varieties, such as the fancier and pricier shiitake, French researchers have discovered. Mushrooms also contain vitamin D, which aids calcium absorption for strong bones and may even help regulate levels of the feel-full hormone leptin. One study in the journal Appetite found that white buttons can be a good lower-cal alternative to red meat: People who ate lunches made with these 'shrooms consumed at least 300 fewer calories than those eating lunches of the same size made with beef. Plus, they were just as satisfied as the carnivores afterward, according to researchers. Fake out your taste buds by making lasagna, stir-fry, chili, and fajitas with mushrooms.
The superstar: Flaxseeds
Packed with omega-3 fats and fiber, flaxseeds lower cholesterol, research finds.
The understudy: Sunflower seeds
The trail-mix staple is a worthy addition to salads and cereal. One ounce (about one-quarter cup) has three grams of fiber to help keep you full, plus almost half your daily requirement for antioxidant-boosting vitamin E. The crunchy kernels offer a dynamic duo to keep you going during workouts: iron (low levels can make you drag) and thiamine, a B vitamin that helps convert carbs and protein into energy. Thanks to magnesium, a mineral that eases muscle contractions, the seeds may help with cramps when you exercise or have PMS. Seek out unshelled seeds at the supermarket: "When snacking is labor-intensive, your brain has time to register when you're full," Grotto says.
The superstar: Broccoli
The green giant packs vitamin C and plant compounds that may fight cancer.
The understudy: Cauliflower
One cup of broccoli's cruciferous cousin (chopped) supplies about three-quarters of the vitamin C you need daily and contains the same anti-cancer compounds: Isothiocyanates may block the activity of a protein linked to melanoma tumors, a scientist at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine found, while other research published in the journal Carcinogenesis suggests that sulforaphane inhibits the growth of breast-cancer cells. But cook with caution, since boiling and microwaving florets diminishes the antioxidants (dry cooking generally preserves nutrients better). Brush with olive oil and roast for crunchy popcornlike bites, or toss in oil, wrap in foil and grill until brown and crispy, Grotto suggests.
The superstar: Salmon
This fish receives all the buzz for being an omega-3 powerhouse, since it's one of the best food sources of healthy fatty acids you can find.
The understudy: Trout
You'll reel in similar health benefits from this cold-water fish, which packs those same omega-3s — fats that reduce inflammation, lowering your risk for cardiovascular disease and even easing post-workout soreness. The American Heart Association recommends getting two servings of fatty fish per week; one three-and-a-half-ounce trout fillet gives you half the recommended omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA plus a small dose of calcium. Can't find trout at your fish counter? Halibut is also full of omega-3s, but since it's higher in mercury, limit yourself to one three-ounce serving weekly.
The superstar: Olive oil
The Mediterranean diet MVP gets top billing because it's rich in monounsaturated fat.
The understudy: Safflower oil
Like olive oil, high-oleic safflower oil (the kind that's typically easiest to find in your supermarket) is high in monounsaturated fat, which research has shown helps fight the dreaded — and dangerous — muffin top. Some experts believe that when this belly fat wraps around your internal organs, it may release fatty acids into your liver and trigger insulin resistance, which is linked to diabetes and metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms that raise heart-disease risk. Safflower oil's neutral flavor makes it a good bet for salad dressings and sauteing, and since it has a higher smoking point than olive oil, you can also stir-fry with it. It spoils easily, though, so keep safflower oil in the fridge; simply bring to room temperature before using. (Surprise: Most oils keep longer in the refrigerator.)
The superstar: Edamame
This sushi-restaurant favorite supplies four grams of fiber in just a half-cup, and a healthy dose of protein.
The understudy: Black beans
There's no doubt that legumes do your body good: In one study of 9,600-plus people, those who ate them at least four times a week had a 22 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease than those who ate them less than once weekly. Cooked black beans, which have 7.5 grams of fiber per half cup, get extra points for having tons of healthy plant compounds called phytochemicals, Glassman says. In fact, when scientists in one study tested the antioxidant capacity of nine legumes, these babies came out at the top of the list. So put them on baked potatoes, make a meat-free burrito, or mix up a corn-and-bean salad (if you opt for canned, rinse them beforehand to help slash sodium).
The superstar: Brown rice
The go-to supper side dish contains more nutrients, minerals, and cholesterol-lowering fiber than its white counterpart.
The understudy: Barley
"Like other whole grains, barley is a source of complex carbs, which your body converts to energy," Glassman says. So what sets it apart? The kernels are large and hearty, and if you choose whole-grain (aka "hulled") barley, you get a whopping 16 grams of fiber per half cup, more than eight times the amount in brown rice. Even the more common, processed pearl barley, which is not technically a whole grain, provides more fiber than brown rice. The grain has been shown to lower total cholesterol levels and, with its special fiber, called beta-glucan, possibly to help keep appetites in check. People in one study reported feeling fuller after eating cooked cereal made with barley than after eating others containing less beta-glucan. Because it's not hot-cereal or soup season, toss chilled cooked barley with chopped veggies and salad dressing.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2010.