There’s no question that maintaining a nutritious diet can help keep your body healthful. But when it comes to which foods can specifically benefit which body parts, science remains surprisingly sketchy. For all the hype about the health benefits of, say, antioxidants and probiotics, a scan of the scientific literature reveals how much we don’t know.
Here’s a guide to foods whose benefits to the body are supported, to varying degrees, by reputable research.
Food: Egg yolks, yellow corn
Benefit: Lutein, one of the brightly colored compounds called carotenoids that give fruits and vegetables their color, may help ward off age-related macular degeneration, probably by acting as a cell-damage-fighting antioxidant.
Food: Salmon, tuna, sardines
Benefits: The omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in cold-water, fatty fish is thought to play a role in protecting against dementia; one study found that people who ate lots of fatty fish had a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for eating four ounces of fish, twice a week.
Food: Milk, fortified soy beverages
Benefit: The calcium found naturally in dairy products and added to some soy beverages is a building block of bone tissue early in life; later, it helps fight osteoporosis. The Dietary Guidelines recommend three cups of low-fat or nonfat milk daily.
Food: Baked potato, prune juice
Benefits: Research has found that potassium, found in many fruits and vegetables, lowers the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, especially when consumption of sodium is reduced. Most of us should have about 4,700 mg of potassium daily; a small baked potato has 738, a cup of prune juice 707.
Food: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy
Benefits: Vegetables — the Dietary Guidelines call for three cups a day — are associated with reduced cancer risk. And research suggests that the glucosinolate in cruciferous vegetables (those in the same family as cabbage, whose name means “cross-bearing” and refers to the shape of the petals) might be especially useful in keeping carcinogens from damaging DNA, thwarting cancer’s development.
Benefits: There’s evidence that eating ginger can battle motion sickness and perhaps nausea associated with pregnancy. As little as a gram of powdered ginger might tame nausea or vomiting, though medications appear to work better at fighting those ills.
Food: Beans and peas
Benefits: Beans and peas are excellent sources of fiber, whose health benefits include keeping you regular. The dietary guidelines say women should consume 25 grams of fiber daily; men need 38.
Food: Green tea
Benefits: Although studies have been scant, promising research suggests that green tea’s antioxidant polyphenols may help prevent cancer of the prostate and other organs. Green tea is generally considered safe to consume in abundance.
Food: Ice cream
Benefits: A 2007 Harvard study found that women who consumed high-fat dairy products such as ice cream reduced their risk of infertility. It’s not clear why; the authors surmised that the fat might somehow improve ovarian function when women are trying to conceive.