They might sound boring, they look funny, and they’re pricey but based on everything I’ve ever learned about diet and disease prevention, I’m convinced that daily consumption of these three foods will do more to extend my life than pretty much anything else I can put in my body.
Watercress, a member of the cruciferous family, consistently ranks at the top of most best of lists when it comes to assessing the antioxidant power of plants. It is one of the most nutrient dense of all foods, as measured by the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI). Watercress contains more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk, and more vitamin C than oranges. It provides 106 percent of your daily requirement of vitamin K, which strengthens the bones and limits neuronal damage in the brain.
Most of the research on watercress is in the area of cancer prevention. Cruciferous vegetables in general are thought to be the most effective cancer fighting foods we can consume and the benefits have been attributed to compounds called isothiocyanates. All isothiocyanates fight disease but watercress is the richest source of phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC), a particularly potent anti-cancer compound. PEITC has been shown in research to not only prevent the initiation phase of cancer development but also to inhibit the progression of tumor formation.
PEITC targets multiple proteins to suppress various cancer-promoting mechanisms such as cell proliferation and metastasis. PEITC is the most effective isothiocyanate in inducing apoptosis – a type of cell suicide – in cancer. This effect has been shown in several cancer cell lines, and, in some cases, is even able to induce apoptosis in cells that are resistant to some commonly used chemotherapy drugs.
PEITC has been widely studied and shows great promise in preventing or slowing the spread of cancer cells and their ability to form tumors. I’ve come across at least 37 studies demonstrating the protective benefits of PEITC in cancer types ranging from breast and prostate to leukemia and lung.
A phase II clinical trial presented at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) showed that watercress exerts some of its benefits by protecting against DNA damage. The trial specifically demonstrated that watercress extract removes environmental carcinogens and toxicants found in cigarette smoke, and that “the effect is stronger in people who lack certain genes involved in processing carcinogens.” (if you were one of these people you probably wouldn’t know about it so err on the side of caution and load up on watercress!)
Cutting or chewing watercress will release the enzymes needed to produce isothiocyanates. Eat it raw, as heat can reduce isothiocyanate content. I throw a fistful into my daily salad or smoothie. It’s bitter and peppery but I find it gets “lost” amongst the other ingredients.
Black garlic has been consumed in Korea for generations but has experienced a revival in recent years, particularly among chefs at high-end restaurants and the foodies that frequent them. It’s fermented at high temperatures (60–90°C) under controlled high humidity (80–90%).
Think of black garlic as white garlic on steroids. Take anything good you’ve heard about regular old garlic and multiple it by 25, literally – that’s how much more potent it’s considered to be. Japanese researchers have found that black garlic is more effective than fresh garlic in reducing the size of tumors, according to an article published in the journal Medicinal and Aromatic Plant Science and Technology. In another study, black garlic was found to have twice the antioxidant levels as its white cousin, with the aging process appearing to double the amount of antioxidants.
Allicin is the compound in regular garlic responsible for its health benefits. However, allicin can also be toxic when consumed in large quantities. The aging process of black garlic creates a compound called s-allyl-cysteine (SAC), which is 30 times less toxic than the allicin in white garlic. A person can therefore consume significantly more black garlic with no side effects. SAC is also water soluble, which means it is absorbed more quickly and easily by the body.
In 2015, the Journal of Life Sciences published a thorough review of black garlic from the Department of Emergency Medical Technology at Hirosaki University in Japan. Benefits include the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, circulatory problems, and rheumatoid arthritis. Black garlic also has the following properties:
- lowers high blood pressure
- lowers cholesterol
- prevents obesity
- fights diabetes
- regenerates skin cells
- strengthens the immune system
- reduces allergies
- A 2010 mouse study found that animals injected with a 1 mg of black garlic extract three times in a 6 day period saw their tumors shrink by an average of 50%. This effect was not seen with white garlic.
- In a 2015 study on rats, it was demonstrated that black garlic lowers cholesterol levels even when fed a high-fat diet.
- Aged garlic extract can reduce the duration of a cold by up to 61%, according to studies carried out at the University of Florida.
- According to The Journal of Nutrition, black garlic can help the body process glucose, which makes it easier to fight off cravings for carbs and sugar.
- Recent tests by Japanese scientists show that chemicals in the bulb can help to reduce fatigue from exercise and even improve physical strength.
- Black garlic can also have a positive impact on blood pressure and circulation and it could be helpful in preventing diabetic complications.
- Preliminary research suggests the antioxidant powers of black garlic may have a role in improving cognitive abilities in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
- Early studies indicate that black garlic could be a tool at some future point for preventing and treating colon cancer.
I order the RioRand brand by the pound since I go through so much of it but I’ve seen smaller containers at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. You can expect it to become more widely available as word spreads.
Black garlic is sweet and I have no problem getting my 3-year old son to eat it plain – no bribery needed. It’s soft, chewy, and has a jelly-like texture. It’s got a hint of balsamic vinegar so I usually chop it and throw it in a salad but it’s pretty versatile and can be added to sauces and spreads. You can also try rubbing it on chicken or fish. If I feel I’ve been exposed to something less-than-desirable at a restaurant, I’ll chomp on a piece as-is once I return home to help mitigate some of the potential harm. The best news? No bad breath!
Sulforaphane is the compound that gives broccoli it’s cancer-fighting effects. Researchers have determined that broccoli sprouts are the most concentrated source of sulforaphane, having 100 times the amount found in mature broccoli. This means that with broccoli sprouts, you can get a therapeutic dose of phytonutrients in a whole food form from eating about a cup per day! You would need hundreds of cups of other cruciferous vegetables to get that dose.
Sulforaphane is exciting stuff. It’s the most powerful activator of a pathway that regulates over 200 genes. These genes are largely responsible for detoxification. One of these genes -Nrf2 –protects the brain and may improve cognitive function when administered following traumatic brain injury. It also guards against neurodegenerative states and the amyloid plaque buildup associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The Nrf2 gene pathway also removes excess estrogen and can prevent the estrogen dominance that has been implicated in increased rates of breast, uterine, ovarian, cervical, colon, and prostate cancer.
Additional research has demonstrated that the Nrf2 pathway may protect against the enormous metabolic stress that diabetes creates and helps to stabilize blood sugar levels and even undo some of the damage caused by the disease. Nrf2 deficiency has been associated, at least in animal studies, with an increased risk of autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis.
Sulforaphane also works its magic by boosting our body’s levels of Phase 2 enzymes, which are tasked with neutralizing disease processes. It also inhibits Phase 1 enzymes involved in the activation of carcinogens and prevents Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria from colonizing in the gastrointestinal tract, which can decrease your risk of stomach, intestinal, and colorectal cancer.
Several studies have shown that the highest cancer protective properties are most concentrated in these sprouts at a time of 3 days following sprouting.
“Three-day-old broccoli sprouts consistently contain 20 to 50 times the amount of chemoprotective compounds found in mature broccoli heads and may offer a simple dietary means of chemically reducing cancer risk,” according to Dr. Paul Talalay of Johns Hopkins University, where most of the early research on broccoli sprouts was conducted. Dr. Talalay is the Founding Director of the school’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Chemoprotection Center.
Beyond it cancer prevention effects the nutrients in broccoli sprouts may actually reverse the damage already created by existing cancer in your body. Several mechanisms have been proposed: broccoli sprouts stimulate the production of glutathione, which is considered your body’s “master” antioxidant. Glutathione protects every cell in the human body and blocks the signals that tell cancer cells to reproduce and spread.
Then there’s quercetin, an antioxidant whose presences coaxes cancer to commit the aforementioned cellular suicide, a process known as apoptosis. Broccoli sprouts are loaded with quercetin, which can help reduce inflammation, protect the cardiovascular system, and remove the metabolic waste that oxidative stress creates in our cells.
- Combining sulfur-containing foods seems to enhance the antioxidant properties of sulforaphane so make sure you’re also eating lots of onions and garlic with your broccoli sprouts.
- Research has shown that the anticancer properties of broccoli sprouts pretty much disappear after about two months so try consuming them several times per week for maximum benefit.
- The sulforaphane is created when the sprouts are masticated so it is important to chew them well, blend, or juice.
- I buy mine at Whole Foods but I’ve seen the local brand Jonathan’s at “regular” supermarkets in my area like Wegman’s and Shaw’s. It’s not necessary to buy the patented BroccoSprouts product but do opt for organic, if available.
As with watercress and black garlic, I get my daily broccoli sprout fix in the form of a salad. But if you’re a newbie and not yet that adventurous, here are a couple of different ways to sneak some sprouts into your diet:
Broccoli Mint Smoothie
1 cup organic broccoli sprouts
½ cup organic mint
1/3 cup organic blueberries (optional)
1 cup coconut milk
1 tbsp MCT oil
2 tbsp freshly ground flax
1 scoop grass-fed whey protein
1 tbsp grass-fed gelatin protein
Place all ingredients in a blender. Blend to desired texture and consistency. Add more coconut milk to thin out, if desired.
2 cups organic broccoli sprouts
2 cups organic purple cabbage
½ cup avocado oil mayo (I like Primal Kitchen brand)
1 tbsp raw apple cider vinegar
1 tsp yellow mustard
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp garlic powder
Mix vinegar, mayo, mustard, and spices in a small bowl. Toss dressing with cabbage and broccoli sprouts in a large bowl. For best flavor, allow slaw to marinate in the fridge for 1 hour or longer.
I hate the word superfood but I’m so thoroughly convinced of the health benefits of watercress, black garlic, and broccoli sprouts that I find ways to continue eating them even on vacation. When my family travels within the U.S., we stay in either a hotel suite with a kitchen or an Airbnb rental so we can cook most of our own meals and stick to our “normal” diet as much as possible. My first stop is usually to the local Whole Foods or other natural foods store. I’ve even been known to have a few pantry staples shipped ahead to our vacation address. While this approach might sound extreme, I feel the same way about the food debauchery a lot of people engage in when traveling. I used to be one of them. But now when I return home I don’t feel like I need to detox, cleanse, or kill myself in the gym for two weeks straight.