5 foods you should eat every day for optimal health

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published March 24, 2021

Key Takeaways

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And, as it turns out, that old adage is especially true when it comes to certain foods like apples, mushrooms, and whole grains, to name a few. 

Nutrient-dense foods have health-sustaining and medicinal properties. Unfortunately, many Americans are inadequately nourished. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 35.2 million Americans lived in food-insecure households in 2019. Food insecurity is defined as being uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food for every person in a household because of poverty, unexpected financial blows, access to fresh and affordable food, and other reasons.

And the pandemic has only made things worse. Due to the coronavirus, 42 million people may experience food insecurity in 2021, according to Feeding America

Those who are food-insecure often skip meals or eat highly processed and fast foods, which tend to be more affordable, rather than choosing healthful options.

Patient education can help. Many people simply do not know the basics of nutrition. Steering patients toward healthy foods may help combat cardiovascular disease, lower cancer risk, and improve cognitive function, among other benefits. If nutritional counseling isn’t in your professional wheelhouse, you can work with a registered dietitian to help your patients. 

Here, we address how to follow a healthy eating pattern, and five foods everyone should be eating daily.

First things first: servings and portions

According to the NIH, a healthy eating pattern for people 50 or older should include the following nutrients every day:

  • 2-3 cups of vegetables

  • 1.5-2 cups of fruits

  • 5-8 ounces of grains

  • 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat dairy

  • 5-6.5 ounces of protein

  • 5-7 teaspoons of oils

If you can’t visualize these amounts, you can measure them out until you gain an intuitive appreciation. Additionally, you can follow the USDA’s MyPlate recommendations aimed at making every bite count. The MyPlate plan consists of a personalized food approach that provides your food group target, and the types and quantities of food you should eat, based on your age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level. 

A “serving size,” according to the NIH, is a standard amount of food, such as a cup or ounce. Serving sizes are often printed on food packaging. A “portion” is slightly different and refers to how much of a food you eat. And of course, portions can vary from meal to meal and can be bigger than a serving size. For example, the serving size on the nutrition label of your cereal box might be 1 cup, but you might pour yourself 1½ cups in a bowl.

So what should you be putting on your plate? Here are five foods that pack a healthy nutritional punch, according to research.  


They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away—an axiom apparently supported by evidence. Apples (and berries) are rich in the anthocyanin, Cyanidin 3-O-galactoside (Cy3Gal). Anthocyanins are water-soluble chemicals composed of aglycone, sugar, and acyl groups. They are flavonoids, which are strong antioxidants. Regular intake of anthocyanin is linked to decreased risk of cancer, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes.

The health benefits of Cy3Gal are evident alone or in combination with other plant micronutrients, according to the authors of a review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

“The antioxidant properties and other health effects, including anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antidiabetic, anti-toxicity, cardiovascular, and nervous protective capacities, are highlighted in purified Cy3Gal and in its combination with other polyphenols,” wrote the authors.


The USDA classifies mushrooms as a vegetable, with regard to nutrition. Mushrooms, however, are fungi, and lack roots, seeds, and leaves, and require no sunlight to grow.

Whether eaten alone, mixed into food, or served as a salad topping, mushrooms make the perfect everyday addition to the diet. They are low in calories, carbohydrates, fats, and sodium, and chock-full of several healthy bioactive compounds, including phytochemicals, fiber, selenium, polysaccharides, vitamins, and the antioxidants ergothioneine and glutathione, which have been strongly tied to cancer prevention.

According to the authors of a systematic review and meta-analysis published in Advances in Nutrition, “Higher mushroom consumption was associated with lower risk of cancer. In particular, breast cancer appeared to be the most affected site because a significant association with mushroom intake was only observed for cancers at this site.” 

The authors added, “Importantly, mushroom consumption was associated with lower risk of cancer in both cohort and case-control studies. The effect was much stronger in case-control studies than in cohort studies.”

Whole grains

To meet the daily recommended intake of grains, it’s a good idea to lean heavily toward whole grains. Refined grains are processed to be fully digestible, and thus plentiful sources of energy, after being metabolized to monosaccharides like glucose in the small intestine. In addition to glucose, however, whole grains contain indigestible fibers, which further contribute to health. 

According to the authors of a review published in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, these fibers “impact gut motility and transit and are useful substrates for the gut microbiota affecting its composition and quality.”

Generally, the authors wrote, the nutritional quality of carbohydrates depends on the profile of digestible and indigestible carbohydrates and their complexity. “Whole grains are more complex than refined grains and are promoted as part of a healthy and sustainable diet mainly because the contribution of indigestible carbohydrates, and their co-passenger nutrients, is significantly higher,” they noted.

Further, higher consumption of whole grains is linked with a lower incidence of (and mortality from) cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. This may in part be due to impacts on the gut microbiota, the authors added. 

Satiety is another benefit of eating whole grains. A recent review published in Advances in Nutrition focused on the impact of whole-grain intake on appetite and energy intake. After analyzing 32 studies, the authors found that whole-grain foods had a significant appetite-suppressing effect compared with refined grains, which may explain the inverse association between whole-grain intake and obesity.

Nontropical vegetable oils

With all the oils on the market, it can be difficult to choose the healthiest one. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), it is best to select a nontropical vegetable oil with fewer than 4 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon and devoid of partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats. Examples include canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower.

“Blends or combinations of these oils, often sold under the name ‘vegetable oil,’ and cooking sprays made from these oils are also good choices. Some specialty oils, like avocado, grapeseed, rice bran and sesame, can be healthy choices but may cost a bit more or be harder to find,” noted the AHA.

Olive oil, in particular, boasts cognitive benefits. Consuming olive oil has been independently linked to better cognitive function in older people on a Mediterranean diet.


Across the pond, and in numerous other places around the world, tea time is a daily ritual for many. And with good reason—the daily consumption of tea can be quite healthy, according to research.

In a meta-analysis published in Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, investigators found that tea intake was a significant protective factor in terms of cognitive health—drinking 1 cup of tea yielded a 6% decrease in the risk of cognitive deficits and deficits.

In other results, they found that drinking fewer than 11 grams of alcohol per day or less than 2.8 grams of coffee per day was also related to a decreased risk of cognitive deficits.

Indeed, some would even say tea is as good as medicine

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