More than just ancient Chinese secrets, modern medical research shows that consuming these natural super foods may yield some serious health benefits, from lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels—combating heart disease—to reducing the risk of cancer and diabetes.
The Chinese, who eat about one-fifth of the world’s seafood, have long made meals of Pacific Herring pulled from the Yellow Sea—and used its roe in Chinese herbal remedies. An excellent source of protein without the high saturated fat found in other meats, the American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week. Diets rich in fish have been linked to lower rates of dementia, and fatty versions like herring are high in two kinds of omega-3 acids, which may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Western substitute: Atlantic herring, salmon, mackerel, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna.
First developed in China by Buddhist monks about 2,000 years ago, tofu, or bean curd, is made from a mixture of ground soybeans and water. Produced in a variety of forms and textures, in the West it is most often associated with either the tough, leathery version or its equally unappealing bland, soggy rendition. At its best, fresh tofu is chewy and delicious, absorbing the flavors of the sauces it’s served with. High in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals, including potassium and folate, the soy it contains may help regulate estrogen. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition revealed that women who ate 30 grams of soy daily experienced a reduction in symptoms related to premenstrual syndrome (PMS), such as cramps, headaches and breast tenderness.
Western substitute: soy milk
Ginger, an essential part of the Chinese diet, is also used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to treat a range of ailments from motion sickness to arthritis—an American study revealed that highly concentrated forms of ginger helped reduce osteoarthritis-related knee pain. The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center concluded that the aromatic, mildly spicy root has shown promise in fighting ovarian cancer. Preliminary studies suggest that ginger has anti-inflammatory properties and may lower cholesterol and prevent blood clots.
Western substitute: fresh or dried sage, clove, thyme, oregano, peppermint, cinnamon and allspice
Bok Choy, the leafy green vegetable commonly used in Chinese cooking (particularly in soups and stir-fried dishes), according to thee World Cancer Research Fund, could lower the risk for many forms of cancer, including tumors of the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, colon, lung, pancreas and uterus. Packed with fiber, iron and essential vitamins and minerals, it also contains vitamin K, which promotes blood coagulation and may help prevent arthritis, diabetes and osteoporosis.
Western substitute: broccoli, cabbage, collard greens, kale and other cruciferous vegetables
Don’t let the fat content (14 grams per tablespoon) fool you—sesame oil’s mostly monounsaturated fat increases helpful HDL (the “good” cholesterol) and lowers harmful LDL. One of the safest sources of fat in a heart-healthy diet, this Chinese kitchen staple harbors a rich supply of polyphenols (which act as antioxidants) that can reduce your risk of heart disease. Harvard University scientists found replacing saturated fats with the unsaturated counterparts like sesame oil can cut the risk by 20 percent more than just lowering fat intake. And researchers at Annamalai University in India found that patients who switched to exclusively using sesame oil for cooking saw their high blood pressure drop to normal range in two months. The fragrant, nutty oil contains sesamin and sesamol, compounds thought to be powerful disease-fighting antioxidants.
Western substitute: olive oil, canola oil, flaxseed oil or walnut oil
Native to China and Southeast Asia, green tea has been consumed the Chinese for centuries. Historically favored by Taoist holy men as part of a detoxification treatment, the delicately flavored tea is believed to help flush toxins from the body. Although there has been conflicting evidence about its benefits, it contains compounds that are said to relax blood vessels, and it has been linked to reduced stress and anxiety. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s FASEB Journal reported that polyphenols in green tea could stop prostate cancer growth, while a study by the American Association of Cancer Research found that people who drink one or more cups of green tea per day are five times less likely to develop lung cancer. Note: Sugar dilutes the benefits of tea, and the popular instant, bottled, decaffeinated and latte versions contain fewer of the inherent healthy compounds.
Western substitute: hibiscus tea