Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Turns out the old saying “you are what you eat” holds true, and scientists around the globe are delving into just exactly what foods have the “it” factor when it comes to getting into — and staying in — fabulous shape. Here, we’ve collected the latest research on food science and came up with a precise, head-to-toe nutrition guide for total-body health. Make over your menu with these foods and drinks to look and feel like a million bucks.
For those coveted glossy locks, you need plenty of vitamin D: According to research, the sunshine vitamin can help create new hair follicles and may “wake up” follicles that have gone dormant, potentially thickening your mane. Get your daily D from fatty fish like salmon, fortified milk, or by sauteing up a package of UV-exposed mushrooms, fungi that have been exposed to UV light to kick-start their vitamin D production.
If you find a troubling amount of hair in your shower drain, your diet might be lacking in zinc: A study in the Annals of Dermatology found that women experiencing hair loss were more likely to have lower blood levels of zinc, which is necessary for the creation of enzymes that support hair development and prevent hair loss. Avoid bad hair days by tossing a tablespoon or two of zinc-rich pumpkin seeds onto oatmeal, yogurt and salads.
Seems like smart people do crunch more kale: A study in the journal Neurology found that people who ate the most leafy greens per day had more youthful brains than those who ate less. These nutrient-rich greens can help sharpen your mind, but eat them in their natural state: Research shows that noshing on raw vegetables and fruits is better at boosting brain power; the cooking process diminishes their nutritional firepower.
Itty-bitty gut bugs may help you look on the bright side of life: Researchers in Australia found strong evidence to suggest that an increased intake of probiotics can reduce symptoms associated with depression, anxiety and general stress. Scientists theorize that we have a gut-brain axis and that the beneficial bugs in our digestive tract also can impact brain function. Feed your gut a daily serving of tangy kefir, which has even more friendly critters than yogurt.
Your avocado toast habit is good news not just for your social media feed but also for your peepers. Research shows that frequent avocado consumption is a surefire way to bolster levels of lutein, the antioxidant proven to reduce your chances for age-related vision problems such as macular degeneration.
Study results published in JAMA Ophthalmology found that the flavonoid compounds in dark chocolate, especially bars with a cocoa percentage of 70 or higher, may sharpen your eyesight by increasing retinal blood flow and improve your vision quality. Treat yourself to a square or two daily to fine-tune your ocular abilities.
Now hear this: Eat more fish. An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that women who consumed two or more servings of fish per week experienced reduced rates of hearing loss. This benefit was even stronger with fish that provided lots of omega-3 fats — such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout and sablefish (black cod). These fats help improve blood flow to your ears to improve hearing.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Improve your aural capacity by eating a diet made of nutrient-dense, whole foods. A study in the Journal of Nutrition discovered that women who followed a Mediterranean-style diet, which focuses on items like extra-virgin olive oil, whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish, benefited from a 30 percent lower risk of hearing loss, as compared to women with a diet higher in processed foods.
Olive oil contains oleocanthal, an antioxidant that helps reduce inflammation on a level comparable to an adult dosage of ibuprofin, according to research.
After years of being wrongly deemed a heart attack waiting to happen, eggs eaten in moderation are actually associated with a lower overall risk for cardiovascular disease. Sure, eggs are a source of dietary cholesterol, but they also contain high-quality protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that keep your heart beating strong.
Go nuts for walnuts: A study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology discovered that the rate of heart disease among 81,337 subjects was 40 percent lower in those who got the most protein from nuts and seeds. Nuts contain a powerful mix of ticker-friendly plant protein, fiber, healthy fats, minerals and antioxidants. Eat an ounce of walnuts daily and you’ll also get a dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fats.
British researchers found that an increased intake of carotenoids — the antioxidant pigments found in colorful vegetables like sweet potatoes, tomatoes, butternut squash and bell peppers — over a six-week period had a beneficial effect on skin’s appearance. It’s likely that the carotenoids decreased the oxidative skin damage associated with everyday hazards like UV radiation and air pollution and that the beta carotene abundant in sweet potatoes offered protection against sunburn. What’s more, a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that higher intakes of vegetables and fruits can protect against adult acne.
Go ancient to get youthful: A report in the Journal of Nutrition concluded that the polyphenols abundant in green tea offer protection against the damaging effects of UV radiation while improving measures of skin quality such as elasticity. Sip two or more cups per day to reverse tired skin and prevent flaking by increasing blood flow.
You probably know that vitamin D is a major player in bone health, but if your diet is lacking in magnesium, you won’t get its full benefit: A recent study in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found that vitamin D is not properly metabolized without sufficient magnesium, and another study found that people typically get only 50 percent of their recommended daily magnesium intake. Beans are super high in magnesium — 1 cup of black beans contains 120 milligrams, which is 30 percent of your recommended daily intake — as are other legumes such as lentils, whole grains, nuts, seeds and dark, leafy greens.
Protein isn’t just for building bigger muscles, it’s also needed to construct break-resistant bones. A large review of studies published in Osteoporosis International found that a protein- and calcium-rich diet is beneficial for bone mineral density, a major determinant of overall bone health. Furthermore, researchers found no evidence supporting the theory that the acid load because of higher dietary protein digestion is damaging to our bones. With about 14 grams of protein per ½-cup serving and about 100 milligrams of calcium, cottage cheese is a bone-strengthening powerhouse.
These health bombs can help you bounce back quicker after a spirited workout. Recent research shows that daily blueberry consumption can improve various markers of muscle recovery, including reduced oxidative stress, increased levels of anti-inflammatory compounds, and faster return of peak muscle strength in response to both endurance and weight training. It is likely that the anthocyanin — the antioxidant in blueberries that gives them their blue color — has a lot to do with this benefit. Shoot for about 1 cup of fresh or frozen blueberries each day added to oatmeal, salads or smoothies.
Beef or Chicken Protein Powder
Whey protein isn’t the only postworkout muscle-building powder around: A study in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition found that lean body mass gains in women in response to an eight-week resistance-training program was just as high when beef protein isolate or chicken protein isolate was consumed as compared to when the same amount of whey protein isolate was consumed. A scoop of the Paleo-friendly powders infuses your body with large amounts of essential amino acids to kick-start muscle-making pathways.
Mounting research suggests that higher intakes of cruciferous vegetables — which include broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts — can reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. A payload of vitamins, minerals and supercharged antioxidants such as sulforaphane in broccoli is likely why it helps keep the big C at bay.
These budget-friendly swimmers deliver a potent one-two punch against breast cancer because they are one of the best sources of vitamin D and omega-3 fats, which have both been shown to reduce the chances of developing breast cancer. What’s more, a British Journal of Nutrition study found that women with higher blood levels of vitamin D had a better chance of surviving a bout of breast cancer. Add a can of water-packed sardines to sandwiches, salads and even scrambled eggs.
Kick This Quad to the Curb
These four food groups — if you can call them that — are bad news when it comes to building a healthy body. Here’s why.
White Bread = Whiteheads
A recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found a link between the intake of high-glycemic foods like white bread, white rice and sugar-laden drinks with pimple flare-ups. For blemish-free skin, swap the processed junk for quality carb options like brown rice, quinoa and whole rye bread.
Soda = Smaller Brain
Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine found that people who frequently drank sugary beverages like soda and bottled iced tea were more likely to suffer from memory issues and had smaller brains overall. Instead, go with seltzer, water with lemon or homemade, sugar-free iced tea.
Booze = Breast Cancer Risk
A Journal of Clinical Oncology study cites evidence that women who consume just a single alcoholic drink a day face a slightly higher risk of breast cancer. Our bodies break down alcohol into acetaldehyde, a carcinogen that may raise the chances of developing cancer. Limit your imbibing to once or twice a week, or opt for mocktails when out with the girls.
Deli Meats = Weaker Bones
Deli meats are super high in sodium, running on average between 250 to 300 milligrams per ounce for most brands. Excess sodium intake can increase the amount of calcium that is flushed from your body, meaning there is less available for strengthening your skeleton. Keep your calcium in pocket by choosing fresh meats over processed ones, and beware of the sodium content in other supermarket staples like bread, soup and cheese.