Within the next few hours, you will probably do something with potentially powerful health benefits — you’ll eat. And which of the foods you choose is likely to do the most good? There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Reason: Optimizing the health benefits of your diet depends in part on getting the specific nutrients proven to help protect against the particular health problems for which you as an individual are most at risk.

Fred Pescatore, MD, MPH, CCN, an integrative physician, author and president of the International & American Associations of Clinical Nutritionists, said, “The best way to get these nutrients is to eat the natural foods that were put on this planet. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and good fats help prevent, delay or minimize chronic diseases in a way that no drug or dietary supplement can match.”

Check the list below to see which health problems you are at risk for and the nutrients that best protect against them. Then see the “Top Food Sources” section that follows for Dr. Pescatore’s recommendations on the foods that provide the nutrients you need most. To assess your risk: Remember that, along with the risk factors listed for each disease, your risk also rises with age and with a personal or family history of that disease.

Arthritis. Risk factors: Excess weight… joint injury… repetitive stress on a particular joint. Protective nutrients: Calcium, curcumin, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, vitamin D.

Asthma. Risk factors: Allergies… excess weight… pollution exposure… smoking or secondhand smoke exposure. Protective nutrients: Beta glucan, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium.

Breast cancer. Risk factors: Excess weight… excessive alcohol consumption… giving birth to your first child after age 30, never giving birth or never breast-feeding… hormone therapy use… menstruating before age 12… radiation treatments to the chest as a child or young adult… reaching menopause after age 55. Protective nutrients: Indole-3-carbinol, isoflavones.

Colon cancer. Risk factors: Diabetes… excess weight… excessive alcohol consumption… inflammatory disease of the colon… sedentary lifestyle… smoking. Protective nutrients: Calcium, insoluble fiber, vitamin D.

Diabetes. Risk factors: African-American, Asian, Latino or Native American descent… excess weight… cardiovascular disease… history of gestational diabetes… polycystic ovary syndrome… sedentary lifestyle. Protective nutrients: Chromium, gymnemic acids, magnesium, soluble fiber.

Heart disease. Risk factors: Diabetes… excess weight… high blood pressure… high cholesterol… sedentary lifestyle… smoking… stress. Protective nutrients: Beta glucan, folate, insoluble fiber, niacin, omega-3 fatty acids, proanthocyanidins, resveratrol, soluble fiber, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, vitamin K-2.

High blood pressure. Risk factors: African-American descent… diabetes… excess weight… kidney disease… sedentary lifestyle… sleep apnea… smoking… stress. Protective nutrients: Calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin D.

Macular degeneration. Risk factors: Cardiovascular disease… Caucasian descent… light-colored eyes… obesity… smoking. Protective nutrients: Lutein, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, vitamin C, zeaxanthin, zinc.

Osteoporosis. Risk factors: Excessive alcohol consumption… gastrectomy (a type of gastric bypass surgery)… history of an eating disorder… hyperthyroidism… long-term use of corticosteroid medication… sedentary lifestyle… severe celiac disease that has caused intestinal damage… small frame… smoking… underweight. Protective nutrients: Calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin K-2.


Now that you’re aware of the nutrients that may be particularly important to you, you need to know which foods are especially rich sources of them. Here’s what to eat to boost your intake of…

  • Beta glucans (a type of carbohydrate): Found in maitake and shiitake mushrooms and oats.
  • Calcium: Found in collard greens, dairy products, dandelion greens, kale, okra, salmon (canned with bones), sardines, spinach, tofu and turnip greens.
  • Chromium: Found in chicken, eggs, liver, oysters and wheat germ.
  • Curcumin (a plant pigment): Found in turmeric and curry powder.
  • Folate: Found in asparagus, avocados, beans (black, navy, pinto), black-eyed peas, dark green leafy vegetables, liver and peanuts.
  • Gymnemic acids: Found in gymnema sylvestre herbal tea (available online).
  • Indole-3-carbinol (an antioxidant phytonutrient): Found in broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, dark green leafy vegetables and turnips.
  • Insoluble fiber: Found in beets, brown rice, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, nuts, rye, turnips and whole grains.
  • Isoflavones (a type of phytoestrogen, a plant-based compound with estrogen-like effects): Found in soy foods, such as miso, soy milk, tempeh and tofu. (Choose soy foods labeled “organic” to avoid products that have been genetically modified.) Important: Avoid soy if you have a history of estrogen-sensitive breast cancer.
  • Lutein (a yellow pigment): Found in corn, dark green leafy vegetables, egg yolks, kiwi fruit, oranges and yellow squash.
  • Magnesium: Found in almonds, artichokes, black beans, Brazil nuts, bulgur (cracked wheat kernels), halibut, pumpkin seeds, quinoa and spinach.
  • Niacin: Found in beef, bulgur, chicken, couscous, fish (haddock, halibut, salmon, tuna), green peas, peanut butter, veal and whole wheat.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in fatty fish (such as salmon and sardines), flaxseed, flaxseed oil, nuts and nut oils.
  • Potassium: Found in bananas, beet greens, clams, grapefruit juice, lima beans, oranges, potatoes, raisins, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and white beans.
  • Proanthocyanidins (a type of flavonoid): Found in bilberries, black currents, cranberries, pomegranates and red grapes.
  • Resveratrol (an antimicrobial plant compound): Found in Itadori tea, mulberries, peanuts, red grapes and red wine.
  • Selenium: Found in barley, Brazil nuts, cheese (cottage, ricotta), clams, duck, fish (haddock, halibut), oysters, red meat, sunflower seeds, turkey and whole wheat.
  • Soluble fiber: Found in apples, barley, beans, citrus fruits, oats, peas and strawberries.
  • Vitamin C: Found in blackberries, citrus fruits, guava, kiwi fruit, kohlrabi, mango, raspberries, strawberries and sweet peppers.
  • Vitamin D: Found in eggs, fish (herring, rockfish, salmon, sardines, tuna), pork and shiitake mushrooms. Important: Also get 15 minutes of sun exposure per day without sunscreen — sunlight triggers vitamin D synthesis in the body.
  • Vitamin K-2: Found in beef liver, chicken, egg yolks, fermented cheeses (Jarlsberg, Swiss) and natto (fermented soybeans).
  • Zeaxanthin (a yellow pigment): Found in corn, egg yolks, kiwi fruit, oranges and peppers.
  • Zinc: Found in beans, beef, crab, duck, lamb, oat bran, oysters, ricotta cheese, turkey and yogurt.