12 Of The Healthiest Health Foods

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In my book How Not to Die, I suggest we center our diets around whole plant foods, but all plant foods are not created equal. Some are healthier than others. You can live for extended periods eating almost nothing but white potatoes, for example, and, by definition, that would be a whole food, plant-based diet  — but not a healthy one.

The more I’ve researched over the years, the more I’ve come to realize that healthy foods are not necessarily interchangeable. Some foods and food groups have special nutrients that aren’t found in abundance anywhere else. For example, sulforaphane, the amazing liver-enzyme detox-boosting compound, is derived nearly exclusively from cruciferous vegetables. If you didn’t eat any broccoli, cabbage, or other veg from the cruciferous family, you could eat mountains of other kinds of greens and veggies without getting any appreciable sulforaphane. Same with flaxseeds and their anti-cancer lignan compounds: Flax may average a hundred times more lignans than other foods. And mushrooms? Well, they belong to an entirely different biological classification — they aren’t even plants! — and contain some nutrients, such as ergothioneine, that may not be made anywhere in the plant kingdom. So, technically, I should be referring to a whole food, plant- and fungus-based diet … but that doesn’t sound as appetizing.

As my research progressed and the list of foods I tried to fit into my daily diet grew, I made a checklist on a dry-erase board and posted it on the refrigerator. How many boxes could I tick each day? This evolved into my Daily Dozen. In my video Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen Checklist, you can see the checklist of everything I try to fit into my daily routine, the minimum servings I recommend, and examples of foods that go into each category. My Daily Dozen includes beans, berries, other fruits, cruciferous vegetables, greens, other vegetables, flaxseeds, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, whole grains, beverages, and exercise.

By beans, I mean legumes, which also include split peas, chickpeas, and lentils. It may not seem like you’re eating beans when you have a bowl of pea soup or dip carrots into hummus, but you are. We should try to get at least three servings a day. How much is a serving? A quarter cup of hummus or bean dip; a half cup of cooked beans, split peas, lentils, tofu, or tempeh; or a cup of fresh peas or sprouted lentils. Peanuts are legumes, technically, but, nutritionally, I put them in the nuts and seeds category of my Daily Dozen. Similarly, I put green beans, snap peas, and string beans into the other vegetables category.

My Daily Dozen includes at least one serving of berries a day, which is a half cup of fresh or frozen berries or a quarter cup of dried. Biologically speaking, avocados, bananas, and even watermelons are technically berries, but, to simplify things, I use the colloquial term for any small edible fruit. So, this category includes grapes, raisins, kumquats, and fruits that are typically thought of as berries even though they technically aren’t, like blackberries, cherries, mulberries, raspberries, and strawberries.

For other fruits, a serving is a medium-sized fruit, a cup of cut-up fruit, or a quarter cup of dried fruit, and I recommend at least three daily servings. Again, I’m using the colloquial rather than the botanical definition, which is why I put tomatoes in the other vegetables group.

I recommend at least one-half cup daily serving of cruciferous vegetables, which include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, collards, and kale. My Daily Dozen also calls for a minimum of two servings of greens, cruciferous or otherwise, and two servings of other vegetables each day, with a serving being a cup of raw leafy vegetables, a half cup for raw or cooked non-leafy vegetables, and a quarter cup of dried mushrooms.

We all should include one tablespoon of ground flaxseeds in our daily diet, along with one serving of nuts and seeds. A quarter cup of nuts is considered a serving, or you can have two tablespoons of nut or seed butters, including peanut butter. (Nutritionally, chestnuts and coconuts don’t count as nuts.)

For my herbs and spices category, I recommend a daily quarter teaspoon of the spice turmeric as well as any other salt-free herbs and spices you’d like.

To meet my Daily Dozen, you also need at least three servings of whole grains. A serving can be a half cup of hot cereal (like oatmeal), cooked whole grains or so-called pseudograins (like amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa), cooked pasta, or corn kernels; a cup of ready-to-eat cold cereal; one tortilla or slice of bread; half a bagel or English muffin, or three cups of air-popped popcorn.

The serving size of the beverage category is one 12-ounce glass, and I recommend you get at least five servings a day — and that’s in addition to the water you take in naturally from the foods in your diet. Why five glasses? I explain my rationale in my How Many Glasses of Water Should We Drink a Day? video.

Finally, my Daily Dozen calls for at least one daily “serving” of exercise. You can do it all in one go or split it up over the course of a day. I recommend 90 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, such as walking briskly (four miles per hour, for instance), or 40 minutes of vigorous activity, like jogging or active sports. See my video How Much Should You Exercise? if you’d like more information.

This may sound like a lot of boxes to check, but it’s easy to knock off several at once. A humble peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole-grain bread can check off four boxes, and imagine how many Daily Dozen boxes you could tick off with a beautiful salad of two cups of spinach, a handful of arugula, some walnuts, a half-cup of chickpeas, a half-cup of red bell pepper, and a small tomato. Seven boxes with just one salad! Sprinkle on some flaxseeds, add a handful of goji berries, enjoy it with a glass of water, and finish your meal with fruit for dessert, and you’ve just met nearly half of the Daily Dozen in just a single meal. (And, if you ate it while walking on your treadmill … kidding!)

Do I check off each glass of water I drink? No. In fact, I don’t even use the checklist anymore. I had used it initially as a tool to get me into a routine. Whenever I sat down to a meal, I challenged myself by asking, Could I add greens to this? Beans? Can I top my dish with some flax or pumpkin seeds? What about dried fruit? The checklist simply got me into the habit of wondering how I can make each meal even more healthful.

It also helped while I was strolling through the grocery store. Although I always keep bags of frozen berries and frozen greens in my freezer, the Daily Dozen helps me figure out how much kale, blueberries, or other fresh produce I need.

In fact, the checklist even helped me picture what a meal might look like. When you look over the Daily Dozen, as you can see at 6:44 in my video, you can see that it includes three servings each of beans, other fruits, and whole grains, and about twice as many vegetables in total than any other component when you add up the servings for cruciferous vegetables, greens, and other vegetables. So, glancing at my plate, I can imagine a quarter of it filled with grains, a quarter with legumes, and vegetables taking up the other half, along with a side salad and fruit for dessert, for instance. If you’re like me and really like one-bowl meals where everything’s mixed together, the checklist can help visualize that, too. Instead of a big bowl of spaghetti with some veggies and lentils on top, I envision a big bowl of vegetables with some pasta and lentils mixed in. Rather than a big plate of quinoa with some stir-fried vegetables, picture a meal that’s mostly vegetables with some quinoa and beans added in there as well. 

There’s no need to be obsessive about the Daily Dozen. On hectic travel days, when I’ve burned through my snacks and find myself stuck in some airport food court, I’m lucky if I hit even a quarter of my goals. 

If you eat poorly one day, just try to eat better the next.

To help track your progress, volunteers created Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen apps for both iPhone and Android. You can download and use them both for free with no ads and no cost.

My hope is that the checklist will serve as a helpful reminder to try to eat a variety of some of the healthiest foods every day.

This content was first published on NutritionFacts.org.

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Written By

Dr. Michael Greger

A founding member and Fellow of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Michael Greger, MD, is a physician, New York T... See Full Bio

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