From oats and strawberries to black beans and avocado, Michelle Gelok lists 10 of the best foods to boost nutrition
If you've broken your new year's resolution to eat more healthily, don't despair. Achieving your goal might be easier than you think. Research shows certain foods go the distance at boosting health, preventing chronic disease and helping to maintain a healthy weight. And it turns out that some of the best health foods aren't expensive and obscure novelties. Here is a list of the 10 best everyday foods to boost health and nutrition.
Walnuts are an obvious choice when it comes to healthy eating, but walnut oil doesn't always get the attention it deserves. Walnut oil is an exceptional source of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fat, which helps lower cholesterol levels and supplies essential fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Studies show that people who consume the most ALA are 40 per cent less likely to have a heart attack, and 50 per cent less likely to develop heart disease. Research also shows that including walnuts and walnut oil in the diet can help lower blood pressure in stressful situations. Walnut oil is sensitive to heat, so it's best used on raw foods, such as salads, or added to food after cooking.
While often referred to as a whole grain, quinoa is actually the seed of a leafy green vegetable native to South America. Quinoa has an exceptional nutrient profile that few other grains can rival, thanks to its high protein, iron and calcium content. Studies show that people who eat the most whole grains, including quinoa, reduce their risk of diabetes by 30 per cent and consistently weigh less than people who eat the least whole grains. When cooked, quinoa has a subtle nutty flavour and crunchy texture; it fares well when added to soups, salads, muffins and eaten on its own as a hot cereal in the morning. Look for it at Spinneys and the Organic Foods & Café in Dubai.
Black beans, also known as turtle beans, are hard to beat when it comes to health and nutrition. Not only are they a good source of protein, they're also low in fat, high in fibre and packed with a range of nutrients, including folate, magnesium and iron. Studies show a diet high in legumes, such as black beans, can reduce the risk of heart disease by up to 30 per cent. Black beans also have a low glycaemic index, which means they cause a gradual rise and fall in blood sugar levels, and are especially healthy for diabetics.
While traditionally eaten around the Thanksgiving holiday in North America, sweet potatoes deserve to be a staple all year round. They're an excellent source of beta-carotene, a phytochemical that supplies the body with vitamin A, acts as a powerful antioxidant and gives sweet potatoes their distinctive orange colour. Sweet potatoes outrank all other orange-coloured vegetables when it comes to beta-carotene, including carrots, pumpkin and winter squash. Beta-carotene is fat-soluble, so pair sweet potatoes with healthy fat or oil, such as olive oil or sliced avocado, to reap the most health benefits.
Affordable, nutritious and easy to prepare - cabbage is a health food must. While most popular from its use in the Cabbage Soup Diet, cabbage is so much more than an ingredient in a fad diet. Cabbage belongs to the cruciferous family of vegetables, which have been shown to lower the risk of lung, prostate and pancreatic cancer, as well as protect against heart disease and stroke. Cabbage, especially red cabbage, is an excellent source of vitamin C and also contains considerable amounts of vitamin K.
Most healthy eating recommendations, including those from the American Dietetic Association, recommend getting at least half of your daily grain servings from whole grains, such as oats. Oats contain a special type of dietary fibre called beta-glucan that can help reduce blood cholesterol. Studies show that consuming just three grams of soluble oat fibre per day, equivalent to 375ml cooked oatmeal or 175ml uncooked oats, can lower total cholesterol levels by up to 23 per cent.
Flax seeds may be small in size, but they deliver big benefits when it comes to heart health. They help protect against heart attacks and stroke by lowering blood lipids, maintaining healthy blood vessels, and decreasing inflammation. Studies show eating as little as two to six tablespoons (15-50 grams) of milled flaxseed everyday for six weeks can significantly decrease cholesterol levels. Flax seeds have a very hard shell, which means they can pass through the body undigested if eaten whole. Look for milled flax seeds, such as Virginia Harvest at Lulu, or Hodgson Mill at Spinneys, or grind your own in a clean coffee grinder.
While it's true that avocados are high in fat (one medium avocado has a whopping 30 grams), it's actually their fat content that is responsible for their many health benefits. Avocados are rich in monounsaturated fat, the type of fat that can lower total and LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and raise HDL ("good") cholesterol levels. Studies show that when eaten together, avocados help boost the absorption of nutrients from vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes, lettuce and spinach. What's more, avocados are also rich in folate and potassium, two nutrients essential for heart health.
Few other vegetables can rival green leafy vegetables, including kale, when it comes to health and disease prevention. It's well known that high intakes of fruit and vegetables can offer protection against disease and illness, but green leafy vegetables seem to offer the most protection. Studies show a diet rich in green leafy vegetables, such as kale; can reduce the risk of heart disease by 23 per cent and the risk of ovarian cancer by more than 50 per cent. Green leafy vegetables are also important for maintaining eye health. Of all the leafy green vegetables, kale is one of the highest in lutein and zeaxanthin, two phytonutrients that help protect vision and eyesight.
Blueberries usually get the limelight when it comes to berries and their link to health, but studies show that strawberries may be just as effective. Strawberries have heart protective and anti-inflammatory properties, but perhaps most impressive is their ability to fight cancer. One study found that older adults who consumed the most strawberries were a staggering 70 per cent less likely to die from cancer than people who ate the least amount of berries. What's more, strawberries outrank all other berries in terms of their vitamin C and folate content.