Wouldn't that be a great prescription?
It may not be too far off the mark. Studies are suggesting that some of the food on your dinner plates and the drinks in your glasses may be more than just life-sustaining, they may be life-preserving, too, loaded with real power to heal.
Here's a list of some of what experts are calling "nutraceuticals" or "functional foods:"
Dark chocolate. A U.S. study published in July in Hypertension brought sweet news: Volunteers who ate just under four ounces of dark chocolate per day saw their high blood pressure drop by 10 points over two weeks, along with improved insulin sensitivity.
"It has to do with the flavonoids that are in chocolate -- a type of antioxidant," explained registered dietitian Lona Sandon, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. She stressed that only dark chocolate -- not the milk variety found in most candy bars -- provides this antioxidant punch. And she added that "chocolate, no matter how it's packaged, comes loaded with added fat and calories. So this isn't a license to go wild."
Red wine. "Again, flavonoids -- particularly one called resveratrol -- as well as the tannins in red wines, may increase our HDL ("good") cholesterol and decrease our LDL ("bad") cholesterol," Sandon said. The heart-healthy effects of cabernet, merlot and their kin appear closely linked to the grapes these wines are made from, since plain grape juice produces similar effects.
Curry. Curry spice is actually a mix of many spices, and early (mostly animal) studies are suggesting that one in particular -- curcumin (turmeric) -- may actually help stop cancer cells from growing. The finding could explain why rates for stomach, colon and other digestive-tract cancers are much lower in India than the United States, Sandon said.
Cranberry juice. For years, many women have reached into the fridge for a cheap, delicious means of preventing urinary tract infections. Flavonoids in cranberry "appear to prevent bacteria from sticking to the walls of the bladder," Sandon explained. Studies suggest the juice may have a similar effect in preventing stomach ulcers and even gum disease.
Green tea. Although health-food manufacturers have rushed to praise green tea's powers, "the jury is still out among experts on its ability to reduce cancer risk," Sandon said. The key antioxidant in green tea, epigallocatechin gallate, has been touted as a cancer-fighter by some -- but not all -- studies, and has also shown weight-loss properties. But Sandon cautioned against overdosing on green tea, especially in high-potency extract form, since it can interfere with iron absorption and raise anemia risks.
Garlic. It warded off vampires in the movies, and early research suggests garlic may protect against cholesterol buildup and even bacterial and viral infections in real life. But Sandon again urged moderation: Too much garlic can trigger gastric upset and even interfere with blood-thinning medications like warfarin or coumadin.
Fish."There's a lot of research to support including more omega-3 fatty acids in our diet, and fish is the highest quality source," Sandon said. Omega 3s help babies' brains develop, keep cholesterol at bay, and work as a natural blood thinner to help prevent dangerous clots. While fish is the best source, supplements are fine, too, Sandon said, "but make sure you get good quality."
The Dallas expert advised the truly health-conscious to stick to the food that the nutrient is sourced from, rather than reach for a supplement. "How foods are put together in nature shows much more benefit than if you pull out just one tiny component and put it in a pill," Sandon said. "You just don't get the same effect."
And she stressed that the kitchen cupboard will never fully replace the medicine cabinet. "If your physician puts you on a medication, there's a good reason for that," Sandon said. "Don't throw out your cholesterol medication because you think garlic is going to do the trick instead."