Herbs can also be incorporated into the menu, and they deliver their benefits as easily when they're served as a food as when they're taken as medicine. Edible herbs with proven health benefits are called functional foods.
Several varieties of edible mushrooms are considered medicinal. In particular, reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), shiitake (Lentinula edodes), and maitake (Grifola frondosa) appear to support immunity, fight infection, and even offer protection against diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Mushrooms contain carbohydrates called polysaccharides, which stimulate the immune system. Some specifically stimulate the “natural killer” cells, which can recognize and attack cancer cells.
Many types of mushrooms are also loaded with antioxidants, and studies show that some varieties have more antioxidant power than brightly colored vegetables like carrots and tomatoes.
Studies suggest that other polysaccharides may help protect bone marrow from the effects of chemotherapy and enhance its ability to fight cancer. Research also shows that mushrooms typically contain large levels of a material called chitin, which can lower cholesterol.
It's not just the gourmet fungi that have benefits: Inedible mushrooms can pack a real medicinal punch, too. For instance, a recent study found that dried extracts of the cordyceps mushroom (Cordyceps sinensis), a mainstay of Chinese medicine, appear to increase aerobic fitness in middle-aged adults.
Eating soybeans (or soy-based products like tofu and tempeh) has been proven to improve your health in many ways. The isoflavones in soy have proven anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, and cancer-fighting benefits; eating soy has also been linked to a reduction of menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes.
Garlic and Onions
They might wreak havoc on your breath, but these two herbs — actually part of the same genus of plants — can do wonders for your health.
In order to reap the benefits of fresh garlic, you've got to eat it raw, as any cooking dramatically reduces its disease-fighting activity. And don't eat the cloves whole — garlic's active constituent, allicin, is created when the enzyme allinase is released by chopping or crushing the cloves and exposing them to air for more than ten minutes.
Studies show that both onions (Allium cepa) and garlic (Allium sativum) contain sulfur compounds that can help with diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. In other research, garlic has been shown to prevent artery damage caused by LDL — or “bad” — cholesterol.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a healthy addition to many dishes, whether you use the root fresh or dried and powdered. Studies show that it can reduce many types of pain and inflammation, including the type associated with rheumatoid and osteoarthritis.
Ginger can also relieve nausea and vomiting from many causes, including seasickness, anesthesia, and pregnancy.
Eating dark chocolate made from Theobroma cacao has proven health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol levels, fighting age-related cognitive decline, preventing blood clots during prolonged travel, and even reducing the risk of certain cancers. And drinking cocoa helps, too. A new study found that older men (aged sixty-five to eighty-four) who consumed the most cocoa had half the risk of dying during the study's fifteen-year span than those who got none.