If this story piqued your interest, chances are you already know that the foods you eat impact your body. Eating is your greatest opportunity to take charge of your health because, well, you do it every day, three or more times a day. It’s simple, and almost automatic, unlike working out.
What isn’t so simple is making the right food choices among the hundreds of options in our refrigerators and pantries, grocery stores, and restaurants. That’s why meal plans, menus, and curated lists can be so helpful in guiding us toward better health.
In his best-selling book Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself, physician-scientist Dr. William W. Li, MD, lays out a strategy called the 5 x 5 x 5 framework that provides readers with a structure to add beneficial foods into their diets rather than cutting foods out.
“Five defense systems form key pillars to your health and each system is influenced by diet,” says Dr. Li, whose TED Talk, “Can We Eat to Starve Cancer,” has received 11 million views. “The 5 x 5 x 5 framework is a strategy to support your body’s five health defense systems by working a minimum of five health-supporting foods you already like to eat into five meal and snack opportunities a day.”
The 5 Health Defense Systems
The following are the five health defense systems and some of the common foods that make them stronger. Choose at least one food from each defense category to eat each day, says Dr. Li. (Note that many of the foods support multiple defense systems.)
Angiogenesis is the process our body uses to grow and maintain blood vessels. A healthy angiogenesis system is a defense mechanism that regulates where blood vessels should grow and can cut off the blood supply to tumors, according to Dr. Li. Certain foods can help your angiogenesis system remain in a healthy state of homeostasis. “You can eat to starve cancer, grow vessels to feed your heart, and stave off deadly diseases to live a longer, healthier life,” he says.
Best supporting foods: almonds, apples, berries, broccoli, cabbage, chicken (dark meat), cinnamon, dark chocolate, green tea, licorice root, olive oil, pink grapefruit, pistachios, red wine, soy, tomatoes, tuna, watermelon, and more.
Your body is constantly rebuilding. Powered by more than 750,000 stem cells throughout your bone marrow, lungs, liver, and almost every organ, your body regenerates itself every day. Some foods mobilize those cells to regenerate. Other foods can kill deadly stem cells that spark cancer growth.
Best Supporting Foods: apple peel, arctic char (and other good sources of fish oil), barley, black tea (and green tea), berries, carrots, celery, coffee, kiwifruit, onions, peanuts, purple potatoes, red-leaf lettuce, salmon, spinach, Swiss chard, turmeric, walnuts, whole grains, and more.
Our gut microbiome is a key defense system because “it controls our immune system, influences angiogenesis, and even helps produce hormones that influence our brain,” says Dr. Li. But the system can quickly become unbalanced. Disturbances of the gut microbiome triggered by unhealthy eating patterns, environmental factors, and the use of antibiotics have been associated with serious health conditions like obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and many more. One way to help support our microbiome is to eat microbe-rich foods.
Best Supporting Foods: apricots, arugula, blueberries and other berries, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, dark chocolate, flaxseed, kale, kimchi, mushrooms, oranges, pumpkin seeds, red wine, sauerkraut, turmeric, among others.
“Our DNA has surprising repair mechanisms that protect us against damage caused by solar radiation, chemicals, stress, poor sleep, and diet habits, among other insults,” says Dr. Li. “Certain foods can prompt DNA to fix itself while others turn on helpful genes, turn off harmful ones, and lengthen our telomeres, which protect our DNA.”
Best Supporting Foods: almond butter, basil, berries, bluefish, bok choy, cauliflower, coffee, flax seeds, grapefruit, green tea, kale, macadamia nuts, mangoes, nectarines, olive oil (EVOO), oysters, plums, salmon, sardines, soy, strawberries, tuna, turmeric, walnuts, among others.
The immune system is like a double-edged sword. It produces an army of cells that go out and defend us against the common cold and other simple infections as well as serious threats like the COVID-19 virus. On the flip side, when the immune system continues to attack even if you’re not sick or injured, it can cause what’s known as low-grade chronic inflammation that can damage our tissues over time. The right types of foods can support your immune system’s ability to resist disease while reducing the damaging inflammation.
Best Supporting Foods: aged garlic, apples, arugula, Belgian endive, berries, broccoli rabe, chamomile tea, cherries, chia seeds, chili peppers, cranberries, dark chocolate, eggplant, flax seeds, green tea, kimchi, kale, mustard greens, olive oil (EVOO), pomegranates, red wine, sauerkraut, shiitake mushrooms, strawberries, Swiss chard, turmeric, turnips, white button mushrooms, among others.
To use Dr. Li’s 5 X 5 X framework, pick your favorite foods from the above lists. Then select five foods to eat each day, making sure each one supports at least one of the defense systems. Also, be sure you’re covering all five systems across these five food choices. You can eat all five foods you’ve chosen for the day as part of one meal or spread out through all five meals and snacks or other eating occasions over the course of the day. “Just make sure you get all five foods in each day,” says Li. That’ll guarantee that you’re making clear strides toward improving your health.