The benefits of plants derive from their many natural chemical compounds, such as flavonoids and lignans. “These compounds are essentially information that tells about your genes. Some foods have substances in them that can activate anti-inflammatory genes, for example,” says Sonia Angelone, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “As a result, adding certain foods to your diet can help you avoid the costs and side effects of medications.”
The idea of food as medicine is not new. “Before we had real drugs, food was the primary option,” says Christy Alexson, clinical associate professor of nutrition at Arizona State University. “Of course, there are some conditions where you can only go so far with food, but for many of your normal day-to-day problems, food may be able to help.”
And since the following “recipes” are all healthy foods that are part of a well-rounded diet, it’s hard to go wrong. (If the problem persists, talk to your doctor to determine the cause and the best course of action.)
I try: Tart cherry juice. Gout is caused by a build-up of uric acid in the blood, which leads to the formation of crystals. These crystals can collect in joints and tissues throughout the body, causing inflammation and pain. A small 2019 study of overweight individuals published in the journal Current Developments in Nutrition found that drinking 1 cup of tart cherry juice daily for four weeks reduced blood levels of uric acid and C-reactive protein (a marker for inflammation) by almost 20 percent. “It contains a molecule similar to the drug allopurinol, which is used to treat gout,” says Alexson. “Look for 100 percent juice, not the sweetened kind.” Eating raw cherries can also help reduce the risk of a gout attack.
What to avoid: Alcohol, fatty meats and sugary drinks can make gout worse.
I try: Raspberries, artichokes and chia seeds. These are some of the best sources of a type of fiber (insoluble) that helps move stool through the intestines, says Alexson. Try a cup of raspberries as a snack, add some pickled artichoke hearts to a salad, or mix a tablespoon of chia seeds into a smoothie. “Dried fruits, such as prunes and apricots, can often be helpful for chronic constipation because they have a lot of insoluble fiber and contain other chemical components that have their own laxative properties,” says Joel Mason, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine and nutrition at Tufts University in Boston. Just be sure to increase your water intake when adding fiber-rich foods, says Alexson: “If you don’t, it can make the problem worse.”
What to avoid: Cut down on fatty meats, dairy products, and refined carbohydrates, which can reduce your intake of nutrient-dense, high-fiber foods.
I try: Oats or kiwis. “There is some research showing that a bedtime snack of some complex carbohydrates, such as oatmeal, can increase levels of the mood-regulating chemical serotonin, which helps induce sleep,” says Alexson.
Kiwifruit also has serotonin, and this may be one reason people in a small study (sponsored by a kiwifruit retailer) who ate two kiwifruits an hour before bed fell off more easily. They are also rich in folate, a B vitamin. Low levels of folate are associated with insomnia.
Overall, eating a Mediterranean-style diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, healthy fats and lean proteins is linked to better sleep quality, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Nutrients.
What to avoid: Drinking or eating caffeinated foods too close to bedtime can leave you staring at the ceiling, especially if you do it in the afternoon or evening. Alcohol can disrupt sleep in the middle of the night, and eating heavy foods too close to bed can upset your stomach or cause heartburn or acid reflux, which can also disrupt your sleep.
I try: Pumpkin seeds. These green seeds, also known as pepitas, contain compounds called sterols. Researchers believe they may help improve urination problems that accompany benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), which occurs when the prostate gland enlarges. A 2014 German study of almost 1,500 men with BPH found that those who ate the equivalent of about 2 tablespoons of pumpkin seeds per day saw greater relief of prostate symptoms than those who took a placebo or extract capsules of pumpkin seeds.
What to avoid: Diets high in fat and red meat can increase the risk of DPH. Alcohol and caffeine can cause the urge to urinate.
I try: Salmon, tuna, trout and sardines. These cold-water fish are rich in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), an omega-3 fatty acid known for its anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective benefits. A 2019 study published in Translational Psychiatry found that consuming omega-3s (up to 1,000 mg per day), especially those containing mostly EPA, helped improve depression. A 3-ounce serving of herring contains approximately 770 mg of EPA, 3 ounces of salmon has 590 mg, and 3 ounces of rainbow trout has 400 mg. Aim for at least two servings of fish per week.
What to avoid: Diets that consist of highly processed, refined foods and lack vegetables and nutrient- and fiber-rich whole grains can harm gut health. Research shows that the gut has its own mini nervous system that is connected to the brain. When there are digestive problems, the gut can send signals to the brain that can cause or worsen feelings of anxiety and depression.
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