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By Jay Weinstein
October 31, 2008

(LifeWire) - Can you remember what you had for dinner last night? If you ate salmon, you might remember better.

So say researchers who link certain foods to better brain function, longer memory and resistance to Alzheimer's. Other foods, nutritionists say, can make you stronger or better looking or even prevent cancer. And guys, some — such as watermelon — may even improve sexual performance, much like Viagra, according to a recent study.

These super-foods aren't rare, newly-discovered shoots from the Amazon. They're standards at your local Shop 'n Save.

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to find foods that are good for you, but a brain scientist might help identify the foods that are incredibly good for you. Spinach once made Popeye throw anvils and lift cars. Weren't eggs once "the perfect food"? Have these perfect foods been replaced by substances with names like spirulina, chlorella and blue-green algae?

Yes and no, says Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, 50, professor in neurosurgery and physiological science at the University of California at Los Angeles. His research on food's effect on the brain, published in the July 2008 issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, found that certain mainstream supermarket-variety foods are superstars.

Mom was right: Fish is brain food. And eggs are a wonder. Eggs "contain the highest-quality food protein known to mankind. It is so nearly perfect, in fact, that egg protein is often the standard by which all other proteins are judged," says dietitian Carolyn Snyder of the Cleveland Clinic.

Even better, these foods in combination are greater than the sum of their parts, and some new foodstuffs really do work miracles in our bodies. "Going back just five years ago," Gomez-Pinilla says, "scientists were talking about blueberries being 'good for the brain.' Now we know specific components." Blueberries are packed with polyphenols, antioxidant compounds believed to aid long-term memory, learning ability and recovery from brain damage.

Gomez-Pinilla gets most animated when he tells fish stories. For one project, he developed a menu that combined brain-empowering ingredients — such as salmon and lentil dhal, a dish made with legumes and spices — for maximum effect. "Salmon," he says, "has high-value omega-3 fatty acids that benefit cardiovascular health, brain function, reduce Alzheimer's. The lentil dhal contains spices that are the antioxidant component. It complements the salmon."

Turmeric, a spice used in dhal, contains an extremely high concentration of curcumin, a powerful antioxidant. Among other super-foods he recommends, avocados have the highest omega-3 content of all fruits. He also touts desserts pairing dark chocolate with blueberries or kiwis because the foods' already high antioxidant strength is enhanced when they're eaten in combination.

Ultra-nutritive green powerhouses such as the algae-based drinks containing spirulina and chlorella provide concentrations of antioxidants and vitamins you'll never get from any amount of blueberries. Wheatgrass juice's spicy, stimulating taste is matched by a stellar nutrient profile of protein, vitamins and amino acids. Scientists stress that eating real foods is better than taking vitamin pills.

"Chlorella, wheatgrass and spirulina are very complete in vitamins and proteins, so we don't need to be eating vitamin pills and supplements," says Gomez-Pinilla. Julia Zumpano, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, concurs. "Nutritional supplements are always inferior to the actual food," she says. "Your body can always get the best nutrition through foods as opposed to a supplement."

Debra Harrigan, nutritional and holistic health counselor at Full Circle Therapies in Dallas, says yesterday's super-foods aren't as super as they once were.

"A lot has changed because of the way foods are produced now," she says. "Due to mass production, long transportation and consumer demand, we've become accustomed to having everything available year-round. Fruits are picked and packed before they're ripened, and put through processes to keep them 'fresh.' They could be two weeks old by the time you get them. If you do a nutritional profile, they're not where they used to be." But she swears by the value of wheatgrass, barley grass, green algae and other drinks to boost immunity and promote general good health.

Clinical nutritionist and educator Gerri French says the source of the food is crucial. "The whole egg is still considered a 'perfect' food because of its amino acid profile," she says. But to get the kind of benefit our moms received, the egg should come "from a chicken that has access to pasture and gets its natural diet."

"Spinach is still, in my opinion, a super-food," French says, "since it contains significant amounts of magnesium and carotenoids, especially lutein." She concedes that spirulina, wheatgrass, blue-green algae and chlorella are "valuable additions to a healthy diet" and notes that even in our overfed nation, many people do not get enough vitamin D, B-complex vitamins or essential fatty acids. Cleveland Clinic nutritionist Gillian Culbertson says just 13.5 percent of teenage girls and 36.3 percent of teenage boys meet their calcium needs.

Just because experts agree that an array of super-foods offers health benefits doesn't mean that every meal should be avocados and salmon on quinoa with dhal, blueberries and almonds. "When people eat more healthy foods, hopefully they'll have less room to eat the unhealthy food," French says.

Adds Gomez-Pinilla: "Eat a balanced diet."

Wheatgrass, nutrition counselor Debra Harrigan says, treats anxiety, depression, irritable bowel, acid reflux, acne, migraines and more. "We could just go through the whole body. Wheatgrass and substances like it protect every cell in the body from free radicals," she says. The nutrient-dense grasses improve cognitive function by giving your body the building blocks to produce your own serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter that's often synthesized for antidepressant drugs, she says.

Here are some other foods she says offer health benefits:

  • Almonds are anti-inflammatory, cardio-protective, cholesterol-lowering and serotonin-producing, and they improve cognitive function.
  • Dark leafy greens such as kale, Swiss chard, collards and, yes, spinach enhance liver function, detoxify and cleanse the bloodstream and fight inflammation.
  • Quinoa, a deliciously chewy grain, stabilizes blood-sugar levels (helping diabetics), provides fiber for digestive health and reduces cholesterol levels.
  • Salmon benefits the cardiovascular system, improves joint health and enhances the beauty of hair, skin and nails.
  • Papaya, which Harrigan says contains the same enzymes produced by our pancreas, reduces inflammation and mucus.
  • Cider vinegar, which makes excellent dressings, is being rediscovered by health experts for alkalinizing the bloodstream, counteracting the acidifying effects of the meat, cheese and sugar common in the standard American diet.

"The buzzword now is anti-inflammatory foods, since inflammation tends to be the fire that causes much disease," nutritionist Gerri French says. "Both antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods are found in colorful plant foods." Like Dr. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, she strongly endorses fatty fish for the anti-inflammatory properties of its omega-3 fats. She also concurs on curcumin. Other foods she links to specific health goals include:

  • Better memory: blueberries.
  • Clearer skin: avocado.
  • Muscle development: fish combined with exercise.
  • Circulation: nuts.
  • Resistance to infection: garlic.
  • Better digestion: yogurt.

Five nutrition experts at the Cleveland Clinic, contacted for this article, provide their own picks for the title of "super-food," echoing the theme that foods high in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids are the ones most beneficial to human health:

Carolyn Snyder: The egg may have a new place in health, given the aging U.S. population and the lutein found in eggs that helps prevent macular degeneration. Also, choose fresh, wholesome and colorful fruits and vegetables, lean cuts of meat and poultry, whole grains high in fiber and low-fat dairy products.

Julia Zumpano: She picks nutrition-packed foods such as salmon, flaxseed, dark greens, pomegranates, walnuts, soy, whole grains and green tea. "People commonly say to me, 'Just give me a list of foods that I can eat.' I think an overall healthy diet, with special attention to plant-based foods — and a variety of them, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, soy — will maintain good health without needing to supplement."

Gillian Culbertson: Antioxidants act as "free radical scavengers" and prevent and repair damage. They may improve cell function and possibly lower risk of infection and cancer. Aim for a variety of color such as orange, red, dark green, yellow, purple and blue; colorful options include purple grapes, pomegranates, cranberries, tea, tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon, kale, collards, broccoli, kiwi, carrots, brussels sprouts and spinach. She also advocates whole high-fiber foods such as beans, flaxseed, oatmeal, barley and rye.

Terra Weston: In general, foods that are heart-healthy are also brain-healthy. Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (wild salmon, sardines, anchovies and tuna) are strongly linked to brain health. Nuts contain monounsaturated fats, which help keep arteries clear and prevent depression. One ounce — about 12 walnuts or 24 almonds — a day is the ideal serving. Dark chocolate — at least 70 percent cocoa — helps increase the release of dopamine, a mood booster. Aim for one ounce a day.

Maxine Smith: To improve memory, she says to try red pepper. A half-cup provides all the vitamin C, which may help improve memory, needed in a day. She recommends fish for clearer skin. Preliminary evidence suggests that consuming a diet low in the glycemic index — a ranking of carbohydrates based on their effects on blood-sugar levels — may help thwart acne. Fish also has anti-inflammatory properties. To develop muscle, go for protein. Nonfat milk provides an abundance of protein. Oatmeal, which is rich in carbohydrate and B vitamins, can heighten energy levels, and yogurt can aid resistance to infection.

LifeWire provides original and syndicated content to web publishers. Jay Weinstein, a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America, is a New York-based food writer, editor and cookbook author whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Travel and Leisure, National Geographic Traveler and other publications. His latest book, "The Ethical Gourmet," focuses on ecologically sustainable fine foods.

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