By Dr. Mercola
If optimal health is your goal, there’s no getting around your diet. Your physical health is a direct reflection of what you put into your body, and how you live your life in general.
Pre-packaged processed foods may be convenient, but cooking from scratch using fresh unprocessed ingredients is a must if you want to improve your health.
Remember that one of the keys to staying healthy is avoiding processed foods as much as possible. This means someone, you, your spouse, or someone else, needs to spend regular time in the kitchen.
Once you’re eating non-adulterated foods—foods that are as close to their natural state as possible—then basically everything you eat is a “superfood.” You need nutrients—all of them—and nutrients are found in abundance in fresh, raw foods.
Still, lists of specific items can be helpful to steer you in the right direction. So to help you get started, the following 15 foods are items I recommend you keep on hand so that you always have healthy key ingredients to choose from for cooking and snacking.
1. Sunflower and Other Sprouted Seeds
One of the easiest and most efficient ways to optimize your nutrition is to add sprouted seeds to your vegetable juice and/or salad. While you can sprout a wide variety of seeds, my favorite is sunflower seeds.
Sprouted, the protein, vitamin, and mineral content of sunflower seeds soar, and will typically provide you with 30 times the nutrient content of organic vegetables! Sprouts in general also contain valuable enzymes—up to 100 times more enzymes than raw fruits and vegetables—that allow your body to absorb and use the nutrients of other foods you eat.
Sprouts are the ultimate locally-grown food, and can easily be grown in your own kitchen, even if you’re tight on space. And since they’re very inexpensive, cost is no excuse for avoiding them. I started sprouting seeds in ball jars nearly 15 years ago. Now I grow them in them in trays using soil instead. It’s far easier and produces far more nutritious and abundant food.
You can view the page I created for directions for growing seeds into harvestable sprouts. We have kits to grow spouts in our store. Sprouts-as-medicine.com1 is another good source for things relating to sprouts: their health benefits, recipes, and how to grow your own.
The British Verticalveg.org2 is another. The latter gives helpful growing tips for each month of the year. One of the benefits of sprouts is that you can grow them year-round, even when it’s cold and dark. The article “6 Easy Steps to Sprout Heaven”3 teaches you how to grow your own sprouts, from start to finish.
2. Organic Pastured Eggs
Proteins are essential to the building, maintenance, and repair of your body tissues, including your skin, internal organs, and muscles. Proteins are also major components of your immune system and hormones.
While proteins are found in many types of food, only foods from animal sources, such as meat and eggs, contain “complete proteins,” meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids. Eggs also contain lutein and zeaxanthin for eye health, choline for your brain, nervous and cardiovascular systems, and naturally occurring B12.
Eggs are powerhouses of healthy nutrition, provided they’re harvested from organically raised, free-range, pastured chickens. The nutritional differences between true free-ranging chicken eggs and commercially farmed eggs are a result of the different diets eaten by the two groups of chickens.
You can tell the eggs are free range or pastured by the color of the egg yolk. Foraged hens produce eggs with bright orange yolks. Dull, pale yellow yolks are a sure sign you’re getting eggs from caged hens that are not allowed to forage for their natural diet. Your best source for fresh eggs is a local farmer that allows his hens to forage freely outdoors.
To find free-range pasture farmers, ask your local health food store or refer to EatWild.com4 or LocalHarvest.com.5 Cornucopia.org also offers a helpful organic egg scorecard6 that rates egg manufacturers based on 22 criteria that are important for organic consumers.
Good old-fashioned butter, when made from grass-fed cows, is a rich in a substance called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA is not only known to help fight cancer and diabetes, it may even help you to lose weight, which cannot be said for its trans-fat substitutes.
Butter is a rich source of easily absorbed vitamin A (needed for a wide range of functions, from maintaining good vision to keeping the endocrine system in top shape) and all the other fat-soluble vitamins (D, E, and K2), which are often lacking in the modern industrial diet. Butter is rich in important trace minerals, including manganese, chromium, zinc, copper, and selenium (a powerful antioxidant).
As mentioned above, RealMilk.com7 can help you locate a source of raw butter. If you want to try your hand at making it yourself, check out Positron.org.8 They have an excellent web page with step-by-step instructions9 for making your own butter from scratch, using raw, grass-fed milk.
4. Fermented Vegetables
Your gastrointestinal tract (GI) houses some 100 trillion bacteria. These bacteria actually outnumber your cells 10 to 1. When your GI tract is not working well, a wide range of health problems can appear, including allergies and autoimmune diseases. If you suffer from any major illness, it’s imperative to “heal and seal” your gut in order to fully recuperate. Balancing the menagerie of microorganisms that occupy your GI tract is a key part of maintaining a robust immune system.
To maintain a healthy gut, fermented foods are a necessity. Just one quarter to one half cup of fermented food, eaten with one to three meals per day, can have a dramatically beneficial impact on your health. Yogurt and kefir are two examples, but there are many others. Ideally, you’ll want to include a variety of cultured and fermented foods in your diet, as each provides different beneficial bacteria. And, as with kefir and yogurt, you can easily and inexpensively ferment your own vegetables.
While you can do wild fermentation, which is allowing whatever is on the vegetable to just naturally take hold and culture the food, this method is very time consuming. Inoculating the food using a starter culture speeds up the fermentation process. My research team has also created a starter culture loaded with powerful probiotic strains to help produce high levels of vitamin K2, which many people are deficient in.
Avocados, which are actually classified as a fruit, are low in fructose and rich in healthy monounsaturated fat (which is easily burned for energy), and research has confirmed the avocado’s ability to benefit vascular function and heart health. Personally, I eat a whole avocado virtually every day, which I usually put in my salad. This increases my healthy fat and calorie intake without raising my protein or carbohydrate intake by much.
It is also very high in potassium (more than twice the amount found in a banana) and will help balance your vitally important potassium to sodium ratio. Avocados also provide close to 20 essential health-boosting nutrients, including fiber, vitamin E, B-vitamins, and folic acid. Besides eating them raw, you can use avocado as fat substitute in recipes calling for butter or other oils. Another boon of avocados—they’re one of the safest fruits you can buy conventionally-grown, so you don’t need to spend more for organic ones. Their thick skin protects the inner fruit from pesticides.
6. Macadamia Nuts and Pecans
Mounting research suggests that nuts may actually help you live longer, and help you lose weight. This isn’t so surprising considering the fact that tree nuts are high in healthy fats that, contrary to popular belief, your body needs for optimal function. Most nuts’ nutritional makeup closely resemble what I consider to be an ideal ratio of the basic building blocks—fat making up the greatest amount of your daily calories, followed by a moderate amount of high-quality protein and a low amount of non-vegetable carbs.
My favorite nuts are macadamia and pecans, as they provide the highest amount of healthy fat while being on the lower end in terms of carbs and protein. The main fatty acid in macadamia nuts is the monounsaturated fat oleic acid (about 60 percent). This is about the level found in olives, which are well known for their health benefits.
7. Organic Coconut Oil
Besides being excellent for your thyroid and your metabolism, coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, which converts in your body to monolaurin, a monoglyceride capable of destroying lipid-coated viruses such as HIV and herpes, influenza, measles, gram-negative bacteria, and protozoa such as Giardia lamblia.
Its medium chain fatty acids (MCTs) also impart a number of health benefits, including raising your body’s metabolism and fighting off pathogens. Additionally, a very exciting and recent discovery is that coconut oil may serve as a natural treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, as MCTs are also a primary source of ketone bodies, which act as an alternate source of brain fuel that can help prevent the brain atrophy associated with dementia.
Coconut oil is easy on your digestive system and does not produce an insulin spike in your bloodstream, so for a quick energy boost, you could simply eat a spoonful of coconut oil, or add it to your food. Make sure you choose an organic coconut oil that is unrefined, unbleached, made without heat processing or chemicals, and does not contain genetically engineered ingredients. As an added boon, coconut oil has countless other uses besides cooking and eating; from topical beauty applications to first aid treatments, to general household cleaning.
8. Fresh Herbs
Herbs are not only great in meals for spice and added flavor but are key to the nutritional density in the foods you eat. As just one example, plain black pepper actually increases the bioavailability of just about all other foods — herbs and other compounds! Herbs can protect you against diseases, clear toxins from your body, and provide you with vitamins and minerals. Every time you flavor your meals with herbs or spices you are literally “upgrading” your food without adding a single calorie.
As a general rule, you really can’t go wrong when using herbs and spices, and I recommend allowing your taste buds to dictate your choices when cooking. That said, herbs and spices also have a variety of medicinal properties, which you can read more about in my previous article on the nutritional and medicinal role of herbs and spices. Turmeric is one example of a spice with potent and scientifically proven medicinal benefits—against cancer no less.
9. Raw Garlic
Raw garlic is a food that should be on your menu daily. It boosts your body’s natural abilities to protect you from hypertension and osteoporosis, and research is mounting that it decreases your risk for various forms of cancer. It is a potent antimicrobial as well, working as a natural antibiotic, antifungal, antiviral, and antiparasitic agent. Garlic must be fresh to give you optimal health benefits, though. The fresh clove must be crushed or chopped in order to stimulate the release of an enzyme called alliinase, which in turn catalyzes the formation of allicin.
Research10 has revealed that as allicin digests in your body, it produces sulfenic acid, a compound that reacts with dangerous free radicals faster than any other known compound. To activate garlic’s medicinal properties, compress a fresh clove with a spoon prior to swallowing it, or put it through your juicer to add to your vegetable juice. A single medium size clove or two is usually sufficient, and is well-tolerated by most people. The active ingredient, allicin, is destroyed within one hour of smashing the garlic, so garlic pills are virtually worthless. You also won’t reap all the health benefits garlic has to offer if you use jarred, powdered, or dried versions. Fermented black garlic is another option that will provide the active ingredients in a more usable form.
10. Homemade Broth
Homemade bone broth is excellent for speeding healing and recuperation from illness, as it helps “heal and seal” your gut, the importance of which was discussed earlier. It contains healthy fat, of course, but also important minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulfur, and trace minerals, as well as the broken down material from cartilage and tendons—including chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine.
Making your own bone broth is extremely cost effective, as you can make use of leftover carcass bones that would otherwise be thrown away. One important caveat when making broth, whether you’re using chicken or beef, is to make sure they’re from organically-raised, pastured or grass-fed animals. (For detailed instructions on how to make your own broth, please refer to my previous article: “Bone Broth—One of Your Most Healing Diet Staples.”)
11. Himalayan Salt
Salt is essential for life, and your body needs it for optimal function. But it’s important to realize that there are major differences between the refined and highly processed salt found in processed foods and regular table salt, and unrefined natural salt, like sea salt or Himalayan salt. The former will promote damaging health effects, while the latter is important to many biological processes, including:
Being a major component of your blood plasma, lymphatic fluid, extracellular fluid, and even amniotic fluid Carrying nutrients into and out of your cells, and helping maintain your acid-base balance Increasing the glial cells in your brain, which are responsible for creative thinking and long-term planning. Both sodium and chloride are also necessary for the firing of neurons Maintain and help regulate blood pressure Helping your brain communicate with your muscles, so that you can move on demand via sodium-potassium ion exchange Supporting the function of your adrenal glands, which produce dozens of vital hormones
Natural unprocessed salt, such as Himalayan salt, contains about 85 percent sodium chloride and 15 percent naturally-occurring trace minerals—about 84 of them in all, including silicon, phosphorus, and vanadium. On hot days, or after exercising and sweating profusely, you can make a wholesome sports drink to replenish lost electrolytes and minerals by mixing a pinch of Himalayan salt and a dash of fresh lemon juice in a glass of water.
12. Canned Alaskan Salmon
Rising pollution levels have contaminated most fish to the point of being potentially hazardous, especially for children and pregnant women, if eaten too frequently, or in too high amounts. The key to eating fish these days is to choose fish that are high in healthy omega-3 fats, and low in hazardous contaminants. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon (NOT farmed) fits this description, and is one of the few types of fish I still recommend eating.
While fish will certainly stay fresh for a long time if frozen, another option is to stock up on canned salmon. Just make sure it’s labeled “Alaskan Salmon,” as Alaskan salmon is not allowed to be farmed. Avoid Atlantic salmon, as all salmon labeled “Atlantic Salmon” currently comes from fish farms. Also, sockeye salmon cannot be farmed, so if you find sockeye salmon, it’s bound to be wild, and therefore a good choice. Other canned fish that are in the safer category (having lower contamination risk and higher nutritional value) are sardines, anchovies, and pickled herring.
13. Raw Milk from Organic, Grass-Fed Cows
Contrary to popular belief, pasteurized milk is not safer than raw milk from a healthy, grass-fed cow raised according to organic standards. Data shows that even illnesses linked to raw milk are minimal, and far lower than those from pasteurized CAFO milk. Grass is a cow’s natural food. Corn and other grains are not. When cows eat grains—which is the standard fare in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—their body composition is altered, including the balance of essential fats. As a result of the animals’ diet, high-quality raw milk has many health benefits that pasteurized milk lacks. For example, grass-fed raw milk contains:
- Healthy bacteria that are good for your gastrointestinal tract
- More than 60 digestive enzymes, growth factors, and immunoglobulins (antibodies)
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
- Beneficial raw fats, amino acids, and proteins in a highly bioavailable form, all 100 percent digestible
- Vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and K in highly bioavailable forms, and a very balanced blend of minerals (calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron) whose absorption is enhanced by live lactobacilli
Getting your raw milk from a local organic farm is one of the best ways to ensure you’re getting high-quality milk. You can locate a raw milk source near you at the Campaign for Real Milk Web site.11 The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund12 also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.13
14. Whey Protein
Even if you don’t have access to raw milk, you can use a high-quality, minimally processed whey protein derived from the milk of organically-raised grass-fed cows to receive many of the same health benefits. Whey protein contains beta-glucans and immunoglobulins, which protect your immune system and support your body’s natural detoxification processes.
Whey protein is often referred to as the gold standard of protein, and when consumed 30 minutes before and/or after your workout, it can help increase both fat burning and muscle building. Amino acids found in high-quality whey protein activate certain cellular mechanisms, including a mechanism called mTOR,14 which in turn promotes not only muscle protein synthesis, but also boosts thyroid, and protects against declining testosterone levels after exercise.
15. Yogurt and Kefir Made from Organic, Grass-Fed Milk
Cultured dairy products such as yogurt and kefir made from organic, grass-fed milk are other powerhouses of nutrition you’ll want to keep in stock—and you can easily make them yourself, using a starter culture. Besides cow’s milk, you can also make them fusing raw goat or sheep’s milk. While both kefir and yogurt are cultured milk products, they contain different types of beneficial bacteria (probiotics).
Yogurt contains transient beneficial bacteria that keep your digestive system clean and provide food for the friendly bacteria that already are present. Kefir actually helps to colonize your intestinal tract — a feat that yogurt cannot match. Additionally, kefir contains several major strains of friendly bacteria and beneficial yeasts not commonly found in yogurt. Kefir’s active yeast and bacteria may provide more nutritive value than yogurt by helping digest the foods that you eat and by keeping the colon environment clean and healthy. It also contains vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids that help your body with its natural healing powers and maintenance functions.