The Healthiest Foods... Based on What?
If we're about to have a conversation about what constitutes a healthy food, let alone the healthiest food(s), I first need to go all Socrates on you and toss up the following quote:
"The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms."
The French author and playwright, Voltaire – not to be confused with Volstagg, Thor's fat friend – pretty much said the same thing about 2400 years later:
"If you want to converse with me, first define your terms."
By first defining our terms, we'd make clear exactly what it is we're discussing; we'd avoid a lot of arguments, we'd all be on "the same page." Hell, if everyone did that, people on social media would have nothing to argue about. The ranks of Facebook and Instagram would dissipate to a few old ladies posting pictures of their grandkids and cats.
You'd still have tons of women with daddy issues showing off their boobs and butts on Tik Tok, but you get the idea.
So back to the term, healthy. It's important to define exactly what qualities define a healthy food because various factions define them differently.
The most conventional way to judge a food's health is by its vitamins and minerals. Others judge foods by their macronutrient makeup and how much fiber is present. Still others define a healthy food by what it doesn't contain, like saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium, things that we're not even sure are that villainous anymore.
There are plenty of such lists being generated by people or institutions of varying expertise, and they're often shared by fitness bloggers or local newspapers to fill space between hardware store ads. I fall into a different camp. For one, I kind of ignore the vitamins and minerals in most foods. Yeah, they're important, but the list of the most important ones is kind of short (about 19 or so), and they're not too hard to get, assuming you eat anything close to a well-rounded diet.
And judging the healthiness of a food by its protein content? Kind of trivial. For instance, people argue about which meat has the most protein. Okay, Mr. Protein, a chicken breast has about 24 grams of protein per 4-ounce serving, but kangaroo meat, for example, has about 25 grams per 4-ounce serving. Am I going to reach out to Aussie butchers to Fed-Ex me some 'roo meat because of a lousy gram of extra protein? Nah. Don't think so.
And yes, it makes sense to partly judge the merits of a food based on what unhealthy crap it doesn't contain, but if you took that argument to its extreme, sugar-free Tic Tacs would be the healthiest food because they only contain a handful of ingredients, none of which are fat, cholesterol, sugar, or sodium.
While I pay attention to all those things when judging the healthiness of a food, I give the most weight to polyphenolic density. That's where the magic is. That's a list of healthy foods I can nosh on.
Still, I don't want to overly dismiss the other "grading" systems. They do have their merits. Let's consider them briefly before I explain my system. First up is the PFV rating.
One system gives fiber equal footing to 16 other nutrients that include protein, calcium, iron, potassium, niacin, folate, etc. It's called the "Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables" classification. Unfortunately, as the name suggests, the list only considers fruits and vegetables. Here are their top 10 choices:
- Chinese cabbage
- Beet greens
- Leaf lettuce
- Romaine lettuce
- Collard green
Perhaps surprisingly, watercress comes out as the most nutrient-dense food, which jolly well pleases the aristocrats nibbling on their finger sandwiches at the Hotel Café Royal teahouse in London. Equally surprising is that only 7 of the 41 items on their list were fruits, with all of them ranking in the bottom half of the list. Notably missing off the list were blueberries, cranberries, and raspberries, three fruits that aren't used to be dismissed in such a flagrant manner.
Other items on their list include collard green, turnip green, Chinese cabbage, endive, and chard. What's frustrating is that you have go down to number 17, red pepper, before you hit a vegetable that most people have had a fighting chance of eating in the last couple of years, and probably because it was on a pizza.
This rating system is deficient and outdated, though, because it doesn't consider polyphenols at all. It's based almost exclusively on concentrations of potassium, fiber, protein, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, zinc, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K.
Harvard nutritionist Matt Lalonde looked at all the definitions of nutrient density and found many of the same problems I did, so he compiled his own list. He defined "healthy foods" as those that contained things that were important to human health. The list included essential fatty acids, essential amino acids, and a host of crucial vitamins and minerals.
After compiling and crunching the numbers, the group of foods that topped the list was organ meats, led by liver. More "primitive" societies have long recognized liver and other organ meats as the consummate nutrient-dense foods. For example, the Inuits classify it as both a meat and a vegetable. Similarly, Indian tribes in the continental U.S. used to feed the muscle meat of hunted animals to their dogs while they themselves feasted on the more nutritious organ meats.
This may sound strange, but let's pick a common nutrient, vitamin C, and do a comparison. An ordinary apple has 7 grams of the vitamin per 100 grams while liver has 27. Take that same apple and look at its B12 content. It contains zero B12, while red meat contains about 1.84 mcg. per 100 grams. Liver, however, contains 1111.3 mcg. per 100 grams.
And it's pretty much the same when you consider other nutrients like phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron, copper, vitamins A, D, and E, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, folic acid, or practically any other important nutrient.
Liver, as well as other organ meats, might be the most nutritionally complete foods in existence, at least on the Lalonde scale. The fact that we don't eat very much of it here in the States might well correlate with a whole lot of degenerative diseases that plague us.
Perhaps surprisingly, herbs and spices compete with organ meats on LaLonde's list. Their only drawback? It's difficult to pepper your foods with nutritionally significant amounts of cilantro, basil, spearmint, parsley, oregano, or thyme without causing your taste buds to have a seizure. Still, if you used spices often and as liberally as your taste buds allowed, you could upgrade your nutritional status considerably in the long term. Other interesting observations:
- Nuts and seeds rank very high, with Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, and coconuts leading the charge.
- Fruits rank surprisingly low, with apples and watermelons bringing up the rear.
- The common potato beats the sweet potato, except in Vitamin A content.
- Pork ranks really high, with bacon approaching superstar status (mostly unsaturated fat and lots of vitamins).
- Eggs are high, but for God's sake, eat the yolks, too.
- Exotic meats such as emu and ostrich rank high, but duck ranks low.
- Kale and seaweed rank very high.
- Legumes are low on the list.
- Grains are low (raw grains, according to Lalonde, rank higher, but they're indigestible in that form).
- Beef and pork rank higher than vegetables.
If there's a drawback to LaLonde's rankings, it's that they don't take polyphenols and other phytochemicals into consideration.
This rating system, devised and compiled by Korean scientists, was published in PLOS 1 in 2015. It's by far the most complex rating system ever put together. It is, however, difficult to assess exactly which nutritional criteria they considered when they compiled their list of the thousand most nutritious foods.
Apparently, they evaluated the nutrient composition of each food "in regards to satisfying daily nutritional requirements." Fair enough. Simple enough. To do so, they quantified the nutrient balance of foods and weighed it against the food's frequency of occurrence in "nutritionally adequate food combinations." Along the way, they identified key nutrients, such as choline and alpha-linolenic acid, "whose levels can critically affect the nutritional fitness of foods."
They also considered proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, cholesterol content, and whether nutrients in individual foods acted synergistically or even antagonistically with each other. They also found that certain foods were "bridge foods" that linked items from disparate food groups. I'll give you an example: they determined that northern pike liver and sprouted radish seeds had similar nutritional compositions, "especially in their relative amounts of fat, iron, and niacin.
Oy. It's rather impressive. But enough description. Here are the top 15 foods on their list (life is too short, as likely is your attention span, to list all 1,000):
- Almonds: Top dog mostly because of their desirable fatty acid profile: mostly monosaturated fats, which may help prevent heart disease.
- Cherimoya: It's a fruit that looks like a cross between a grapefruit and a confused artichoke. It's grown in the Andes Mountains in South America, and you'll likely never see one in the U.S. if you live anywhere else but L.A. or New York City. It's high on the list because it's full of vitamins A, C, B1, B2, and potassium.
- Ocean perch (sometimes called rockfish): It's surprising that fish, in general, would rate so high on this list, but the people who compiled it are hot on healthy fats and protein, which of course ain't bad.
- Flatfish (soul and flounder): Here for the same reason as the ocean perch.
- Chia seeds: Rich in fiber, protein, and alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid.
- Pumpkin seeds: Enviable depository of iron and manganese.
- Swiss chard: A rare source of betalain, a plant pigment (not a polyphenol, though) responsible for the alarming red urine you experience after eating beets (and enough Swiss chard). It's thought to increase exercise performance.
- Pork fat: A surprising inclusion, yes, but it's more unsaturated than beef fat, and it contains a lot of B vitamins.
- Beet greens: Calcium, iron, vitamin K, and a nice complement of B vitamins.
- Snapper: Protein, nice complement of healthy fats, and an assortment of vitamins.
- Dried parsley: Boron and calcium.
- Celery flakes: Nice complement of vitamins and minerals.
- Watercress: Related to broccoli and kale and is rich in vitamins and minerals.
- Tangerines: Vitamin C, along with a precursor for vitamin A.
- Green peas: Contain lots of magnesium, iron, zinc, and copper.
Admittedly, it's a seemingly odd list and requires some real sleuthing to see what's behind some of the choices. The biggest shortcoming of this list, though, is that, like the others, it fails to consider polyphenolic density.
In case you're a bit fuzzy on what polyphenols are, they're the chemicals found in plants that are often collectively called phytochemicals. There are at least 8,000 of these polyphenols in existence, and they have, individually and collectively, amazing effects on the animals that eat them.
You know when someone says this fruit, vegetable, or plant is anti-inflammatory? Or that it prevents or fights cancer? Or that it stabilizes blood sugar, improves fat metabolism, treats cardiovascular disease, prevents Alzheimer's, or improves the efficiency of the bacteria in your digestive system?
It's all because of polyphenols (and, to a slightly lesser extent, carotenoids). And yes, fruits and vegetables contain lots of them, but they aren't the only food groups that contain them. There are, in fact, four broad classes of polyphenols:
- Stilbenes: Resveratrol is a stilbene. It and its cousins are commonly found in red wines and peanuts, among other foods.
- Phenolic Acid: These types are found in coffee, teas, cherries, blueberries, and a bunch of other fruit drinks.
- Flavonoids: This is the biggest class of polyphenols. They're found in green tea, red wine, legumes, and all sorts of fruits and vegetables.
- Lignans: These are found in flax seeds, algae, cereals, legumes, various grains, and various fruits and vegetables.
The right kinds and right amounts of polyphenols may someday give us the supposedly mythical "exercise in a pill" that modern-day nutritional alchemists have been searching for. Polyphenols might end up curing innumerable diseases. They may extend not just life span but "health span," where men and women age but retain the vigor, strength, and mobility of youth.
That's why any list of the healthiest foods that doesn't take polyphenol content into consideration is suspect, and yeah, I'm talking about the three food classification systems I just finished describing. All of them should have referred to the Phenol-Explorer Database to see the top 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols.
If they had, they would have seen some food items that they hadn't even considered while compiling their lists of healthiest foods. And they also might have seen some of the same foods they included on their lists, but for different reasons.
Now, it strikes me that if you found food items that were deemed "healthiest" on one, two, or three other lists, seeing the same food on the top 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols list might have affected how you ranked that food.
In fact, that's what I looked for when compiling my list of healthiest foods, but before I list them, let's look briefly at the top 100 (top 104, really) list. Twenty-two of the top polyphenol foods were in the seasoning group, followed by fruits (20), seeds (16 items), vegetables (16 items), non-alcoholic beverages (11 items), cereals (10 items), cocoa products (4 items), alcoholic beverages (3 items), and oils (2 items).
The highest polyphenol content, by a wide margin, was found in cloves – yeah, those flower buds that look like tiny railway spikes that are a staple of Middle Eastern cooking. Cloves contained more than 15,000 mg. of polyphenols per 100 grams. At the bottom of the list was rose wine, with 7.8 mg. per 100 ml.
Now I'm going to stop right there and not divulge any more on the list, or at least this particular list. Maybe you already noticed the problem: Who the hell is going to eat a "serving" of cloves, or for that matter, 100 grams of any of the other 21 seasonings that rated high on the list?
Yeah, nobody. But the scientists who compiled the list were aware of the inherent problem of that list, so they came up with another list, one that was actually useful. If a particular food had more than 1 milligram of polyphenols per serving, it made the second list. So, instead of cloves leading off the list, the highest-ranking foods were a quartet of "black" colored berries.
As you might expect, none of the 22 seasonings that appeared on the first list made the second one (as there was no data found on the serving sizes of seasonings, probably because, as stated, no one eats "servings" of spices).
Of this second list, 23 were fruits, 23 were vegetables, 16 were seeds, 10 were non-alcoholic beverages, 6 were cereals, 5 were alcoholic beverages, 4 were cocoa products, and 2 were oils. Keep in mind, serving size varies enormously from food item to food item. For instance, a serving of blueberries is 145 grams, whereas a serving of dark chocolate is 17 grams, but this reflects much more realistically the way we might ingest these foods.
Here are the top 20:
- Black elderberry: 1956 mg. of polyphenols per serving
- Black chokeberry: 1595 mg.
- Black currant: 1092 mg.
- Highbush blueberry: 806 mg.
- Globe artichoke heads: 436 mg.
- Coffee, filtered: 408 mg.
- Lowbush blueberry: 395 mg.
- Sweet cherry: 394 mg.
- Strawberry: 390 mg.
- Blackberry: 374 mg.
- Plum: 320 mg.
- Red raspberry: 310 mg.
- Flaxseed meal: 306 mg.
- Dark chocolate: 283 mg.
- Chestnut: 230 mg.
- Black tea: 197 mg.
- Green tea: 173 mg.
- Pure apple juice: 168 mg.
- Apple: 149 mg.
- Whole-grain rye bread: 146 mg.
Other notables on the list – things which most of us in the U.S. might eat on a regular basis – include black olives (85 mg.), spinach (70 mg.), green olives (52 mg.), black beans (52 mg.), potatoes (36), broccoli (33 mg.), beer (22 mg.), almonds (19 mg.), whole grain wheat flour (14 mg.), extra virgin olive oil (10 mg.), carrots (7.6 mg.), cauliflower (2.7 mg.), banana (2.5 mg.), tomato (2.1 mg.), and pomegranate (1.1 mg.).
I've been aware of these various lists for a while, and I've used them, along with my knowledge of foods and nutrition, to come up with my own list of healthiest foods. It's based on most or all the considerations that the other individual lists were based on: vitamin and mineral content, protein, essential fatty acids, lack or dearth of unhealthy ingredients (saturated fats, cholesterol), and, of course, polyphenols.
However, some of the foods I included don't contain any polyphenols. Some don't contain any appreciable amount of protein or fatty acids. What I'm trying to say is that no one food or even 10 foods can fulfill every need and comprise a healthy diet. Instead, it should consist of superstars from several different categories.
With that being said, here's my list, again in no particular order (the first item isn't necessarily better than the last). And while it's tidy and cute to do so, I'm not going to artificially come up with a round number, like 10 or 20. It is what it is:
- Liver: This organ meat is incredibly nutrient-dense, so much so that it doubles as a plant or vegetable while still having the nutritional qualities of a meat.
- Coffee (decaf or regular, it shouldn't make a difference): The beverage ranks super high on the list of top polyphenolic foods.
- Cocoa (or, preferably, cacao, its less processed form): High in polyphenols that can enhance brain function, foster endothelial health, and treat a lot of what ails humans.
- Spices (cilantro, basil, parsley, rosemary, thyme, oregano): Admittedly, it's hard to get a "serving size" of any of these spices. To reap their polyphenolic bounty, use small amounts frequently so the cumulative effects will make a difference.
- Flaxseed: One of the few seeds that ranks high, serving-size-wise, in polyphenols.
- Nuts (almonds, walnuts): The former is higher in polyphenols, and the latter is higher in micronutrients and monosaturated fats.
- Sardines: On equal footing with salmon as far as omega-3 fatty acids, but sardines get the nod here because they're one of the few foods with significant amounts of vitamin D.
- Blueberries: In the top five of any list that lists polyphenol density.
- Pomegranate juice: High in punicalagin, a polyphenol that supports erectile function, prostate health, and healthy pipes.
- Teas (black and green): Rich sources of the EGCG, the most potent catechin, found to support cardiovascular, brain, metabolic, and cellular health.
- Spinach: Reduces blood vessel stiffness and blood pressure and may protect against diabetes or DNA damage.
- Olives (black or green, plus extra virgin olive oil): Contains lots of oleocanthal, famous for being a non-selective inhibitor of COX (an enzyme involved in inflammation and pain), which may make it responsible for the low incidence of heart disease associated with the Mediterranean diet.
- Superfood: While I deliberately chose not to include any polyphenol supplements on the list, I consider Biotest Superfood to be a food because it's made of 18 freeze-dried, highly polyphenolic fruits and vegetables.
I maintain that if you eat these foods regularly – including them in as many meals as possible and, at the minimum, eating some of them at least once or twice a week (e.g., liver) – you'll be doing your best to eat healthy.
- Pérez-Jiménez J et al. Identification of the 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols: an application of the Phenol-Explorer Database. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2010 Nov;64 Suppl 3:S112-20. PubMed.
- Roach M. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.
- Noia J. Defining Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables: A Nutrient Density Approach. CDC. June 5th, 2014.
- Luoma TC. Luoma's Big Damn Book of Knowledge. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2011.