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"You are what you eat -- right now," says David Heber, M.D., director of the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA and author of What Color Is Your Diet?
For example, Dr. Heber explains, every day your body is subjected to the damaging effects of oxygen particles known as free radicals. They can cause harmful inflammation anywhere in the body, which certainly can result in disease later on in life, but can also make you feel tired and dull today.
On the other hand, "Certain nutrients in foods can fight this inflammation, and the daily effects of getting them in your diet can be seen and felt," says Dr. Heber. Here, our top eight foods (okay, one is a drink) for more feel-good-now vitality.
1. Don't Fear Lean Red Meat.
Surprised to see beef on the list? Don't be. Millions of women in the U.S. are deficient in iron. Lean red meat is one of the best food sources of iron and zinc, which are needed to boost energy and repair damaged tissue, respectively. A new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who had lower levels of iron in their diets (but not anemia) were more fatigued when they exercised compared with those who had higher iron levels. Lean beef is a great source of protein, too.
"Most women don't eat enough protein," says Dr. Heber. "But it's crucial to have adequate amounts of this nutrient in your diet, about 20 percent of calories, to help sustain energy and reduce hunger." Although nutrition experts are not sure why, protein has been shown to satisfy hunger better than fats or carbohydrates do. Don't take this as an open invitation to move into the Slab o' Beef Steakhouse, however.
Two or three weekly servings of lean beef will keep your iron and zinc at healthy levels. And no, we're not talking 16-ounce T-bones here -- keep portion sizes to 3 to 4 ounces apiece.
2. Give a Standing Ovation for Oats.
Oatmeal is a great source of soluble fiber, which absorbs water in the digestive tract and bulks up, making you feel fuller longer than do carbohydrates without soluble fiber (such as a bagel).
Oatmeal is also low on the glycemic index, which means it doesn't cause a rapid increase in blood sugar, followed by a crash that can leave you tired, jittery and even hungrier, as you may experience after eating sugary foods. Steady blood sugar levels mean steady fuel to maintain your energy.
Two studies conducted at Pennsylvania State University, in University Park, showed that people who ate a fiber-packed high-carbohydrate breakfast, including oats, increased the amount of time they exercised.
In his book, Eating Well for Optimum Health, wellness expert Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends choosing steel-cut oats, which have an even greater effect on regulating blood sugar for the long haul. If you're not an oat-lover, try other whole grains such as barley, bulgur and quinoa.
3. Go Nuts for Walnuts.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are a type of polyunsaturated fat found in certain fish (more on that later), and in some plant foods, have been shown to improve skin health. Walnuts are one of the best sources of the plant-based type of omega-3 fat.
"Walnuts are also high in arginine, an amino acid that helps relax constricted blood vessels and improve blood flow," says Walter Willett, M.D., chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and author of Eat, Drink and Be Healthy. Better circulation provides a steadier supply of nutrients to the skin, which can improve your complexion. (Think of how your skin looks after you get some mild exercise, which also helps improve blood flow.) Walnuts also contain the inflammation-fighting antioxidants vitamin E and selenium, which protect arteries from damage from free radicals.
Enjoy nibbling on a handful of walnuts as a healthy snack instead of chips, or try toasting them on a baking sheet at 350 degrees for 10 minutes to enhance their flavor. (Shake the sheet occasionally and watch carefully to avoid burning.) Top yogurt or a salad with chopped toasted walnuts, and for an extra omega-3 bite, drizzle your greens with delicious walnut oil.
4. Munch a Bunch of Carrots.
Carrots contain powerful antioxidants called carotenoids, which themselves contain beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A in the body.
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that the amount of vitamin A stored in your body as well as contained in your diet is critical for skin health. High vitamin A levels improve the ability of the skin to retain moisture, which helps keep it soft and smooth.
High vitamin A levels also result in lower acidity of the skin surface, which helps protect against inflammation (meaning breakouts). In addition, the carotenoids in your diet can penetrate the upper levels of the skin and help neutralize the damage caused by free radicals that are produced by exposure to UV rays, says Dr. Heber. (Eating carrots, of course, is no substitute for sunscreen, and some face creams containing vitamin A may make skin more sensitive to the sun.)
It's easy to spot beta-carotene-rich foods, thanks to their bright orange hues -- think carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots and mangoes. Include two daily servings (a serving size is half a cup) of carotenoid-rich foods to protect your skin from the inside out.
5. Put Yourself on Orange Alert.
There's a lot to smile about with oranges and other citrus fruits, among the best sources of skin-supporting vitamin C. This antioxidant vitamin is needed by your body to make collagen, which is an essential part of the connective tissue that keeps skin from sagging.
And vitamin C can protect your dazzling smile: A State University of New York at Buffalo study of more than 12,000 adults found that those who consumed less than 60 mg of daily C had one-and-a-half times the risk of developing gum disease as those who consumed 180 mg of the vitamin. Symptoms of gum disease include tender, swollen or infected gums and bad breath that doesn't go away.
Choose two servings a day of C-rich foods such as a whole orange and a 6-ounce serving of grapefruit juice. Squeeze a wedge of lemon or lime into your water glass. And for a delicious veggie crunch, try adding vitamin C-rich green and red bell peppers to a stir-fry or pasta recipe.
6. Get in the Swim with Salmon.
Salmon has more omega-3 fatty acids than any other type of fish, and that's good news for your skin health. "Omega-3 fats reduce inflammation in the body, which then can provide relief from itchy, dry skin as well as for conditions such as psoriasis and eczema," says dermatologist Nicholas Perricone, M.D., author of The Perricone Prescription.
Omega-3 may help keep you feeling happy, too. Studies of people in more than 10 countries (including one on 3,000 adults in Finland) showed that people who consumed greater amounts of omega-3-rich fish experienced lower rates of depression than those who had less fish in their diets. Now nutrition experts everywhere are extolling omega-3's mood-enhancing benefits. Not in love with salmon? That's okay, there are other fatty fish in the sea.
Try albacore tuna, mackerel, herring, sardines or sablefish. Aim for two 4-ounce servings a week. And don't limit your fish to dinner only. Salmon burgers make a great lunch and, for the adventurous, a healthy Japanese breakfast of salmon and green tea is delicious and also loaded with antioxidants.
7. Be Berry Good to Yourself.
Sweet and juicy, these small fruits are packed with two types of antioxidants: anthocyanins and polyphenols, both of which are powerful inflammation fighters.
"Eating berries helps protect the tissues in the body from injury by neutralizing the effects of free radicals before they do damage," says Gary Stoner, Ph.D., chairman of environmental health at Ohio State University, in Columbus. Strawberries and raspberries are also a great-tasting source of insoluble fiber, which helps keep your digestive system running smoothly and prevents constipation.
Dr. Stoner recommends both fresh and frozen berries. Aim for at least one daily serving (half a cup). Naturally sweet, half a cup of berries contains less than 50 calories.
8. Stay Awash in Water.
Our bodies are chiefly composed of water -- you're carrying around about 10 gallons inside you right now -- and you need plenty of it to keep things running smoothly.
"Water's first jobs are to regulate your body's internal temperature, such as by sweating when you get overheated, and to flush toxins out of the system," says Edward L. Schneider, M.D., dean of the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and author of AgeLess -- Take Control of Your Age and Stay Youthful for Life. "Water plumps up your skin so wrinkles aren't as noticeable, expands fiber in your digestive system so it can do its job, and helps keep you feeling full so you may be less likely to overeat."
Constipation is the most common gastrointestinal complaint in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and it can make you feel bloated, uncomfortable and sluggish. Drinking more water (especially when combined with more fiber) can speed things up and provide quick relief. So, how much is enough? Even though there are many proponents of eight daily glasses of water, scientific evidence is lacking to support this recommendation.
A better idea is to drink water throughout the day and increase the amount when you exercise and when the weather is warm. A good rule: If you feel thirsty, drink up.