Wednesday, October 17, 2012

5 Superfoods For Optimal Health



Superfoods are on everyone's radar nowadays. You hear them talked about on the news and see them in advertisements by health food stores and grocery chains. So what's all the hoopla about? Is there a magic cure to these foods?

The answer is 'yes' and 'no'. News media and advertisers love to market the biggest upsides of products without giving you the whole picture. This is what sells after all. Glamour and glitz not blood and guts. The truth is superfoods ARE the key to superior health and longevity, BUT ONLY if you consume them on a regular basis as part of a health-promoting diet. They need to make up the foundation of your total dietary plan and not serve as a mere supplement to being a junk food junkie. It really is important to stay away from the crap food if you wish to achieve optimal health. You'll never achieve glamour and glitz by washing down a large order of fries and a double bacon cheeseburger with an antioxidant-rich green smoothie. The human body doesn't work that way. To achieve optimal health you need to practice optimal eating habits. This includes adopting a whole foods, plant-based diet of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts/seeds while passing on visits to Outback steakhouse and Dairy Queen for dessert.

With that being said, superfoods [foods low in saturated fat, high in fiber, with an abundance of antioxidants and phytochemicals] CAN and DO make a difference in one's journey towards optimal health. Here's a few of my favorites that should be included in your regular diet on a weekly if not daily basis:


5 First-Class Superfoods



1) Kale  -  If you haven't heard it by now then get used to it... Kale is the new beef!

Kale belongs to a group of vegetables known as brassica vegetables (aka cruciferous vegetables). Brassica vegetables contain powerful phytochemicals called glucosinolates. These glucosinolate compounds are further broken down into metabolites known as isothiocyanates which give kale its powerful anticancer properties[1].

Kale's health benefits go beyond stopping cancer. It's also a key player in the fight against heart disease and helps boost the immune system. Click on the videos below to learn about this.



I consume kale nearly every single day. It's one of my favorite dark leafy greens. I put handfuls of it in my smoothies. I also add it to soups and other dishes to pack in more nutrition. Below is a fantastic burrito bake I made the other day with approximately 12 oz (large bag) of chopped kale added to it.


For more information on kale check out this interesting site by registered dietitian Diana Dyer - 365 Days of Kale.


2) Spinach  -  It turns out that Popeye had it right all along. Spinach is the perfect food to increase strength and energy.

Spinach contains nearly the same percentage of total calories from protein (30.5%) as a hamburger patty (32.9%). The difference is spinach contains far less fat and a superabundance of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Spinach is specifically known for providing these vital nutrients:

Vitamin K - Sufficient vitamin K intake is important in several aspects of human health. Prolonged vitamin K deficiency (typical of the western diet) has been shown to be an "increased risk factor for accelerated bone loss, vascular calcification, and cancer" according to a study data released in April of 2012[2].

Vitamin A (carotenoid family) - "Dietary carotenoids are thought to provide health benefits in decreasing the risk of disease, particularly certain cancers and eye disease. The carotenoids that have been most studied in this regard are beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin."[3]

Folate - Studies show that the higher the intake of folate from one's diet the lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, strokes, and breast cancer in these individuals[4,5].

Vitamin C - Higher dietary intakes of vitamin C have been shown to lower the incidence of age-related cataracts, reduce the risk stomach and other related cancers, and prevent a condition known as hyperuricemia which leads to painful episodes of gout[6,7,8]. Low vitamin C levels also play a role in the development of asthma[9].

Manganese - Like vitamin C, low manganese levels due to low dietary intake can increase one's risk of developing asthma[9]. Manganese is also important in bone health as it acts as a vital cofactor in bone metabolism[10].

If you want excellent health then do as Popeye does and eat lots of spinach. Spinach is great for making salads or toss it in smoothies. You can also make a number of delicious, healthy dishes like the one below to get more spinach in your diet.



3) Blueberries - Berries are of the most nutrient-dense fruits on the planet and blueberries are a classic favorite of many.

Blueberries are loaded with a class of antioxidants known as anthocyanins. It's what gives them their attractive blue and/or purple color. There's no doubt that Mother Nature knew exactly what she was doing when making blueberries. We were born to crave these juicy bits of fresh, flavorful fruit.

The anthocyanins found in blueberries and other berries are a force to be reckoned too! Their job is to neutralize free radical activity all throughout the body. By doing so, they gift us with a number of protective health benefits[11]:

- Lower incidence of cardiovascular disease
- Decrease age-induced oxidative stress
- Reduce chronic inflammation which lowers the overall rate of degenerative diseases
- Improve our neuronal and cognitive brain function (click on video below)


Blueberries make for the perfect dessert and there's no better way to quench your sweet tooth than by whipping up the following recipe.


Don't stop at blueberries though. Make sure and include the entire berry group in your regular eating habits. Your overall health will benefit immensely and your taste buds won't suffer a bit. Click on video below to see how the different berries stack up against one another in terms of overall nutrition.



4) Black Beans - The legume group is the third healthiest food group behind the fruit and vegetable groups. And black beans are one of their superstars.

Black beans are loaded with nutrients. They lead the pack in terms of overall antioxidant capacity compared to other commonly consumed beans in the U.S. with the exception of the kidney bean which ranks slightly higher[12].

Black beans have been studied for their potent anticancer effects. They've been shown to reduce the risk of breast, liver, and colon cancer[13]. This should serve as an important reason to include them in your regular diet because breast and colon cancer are two of the top 10 cancers that afflict Americans or anyone eating the rich, western diet.

Legumes (including black beans) are also a rich source of soluble fiber which helps lower total and LDL cholesterol levels, thereby reducing one's risk of coronary heart disease[14]. In addition, black beans are high in a non-digestible form of starch called resistant starch. Resistant starches decrease blood sugar and insulin levels after a meal is consumed, lower plasma cholesterol and triglyceride levels, improve whole body insulin sensitivity, increase satiety, and reduce fat storage[15]. This makes black beans, and all beans for that matter, the perfect food for fighting against type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

If you're wondering how to incorporate black beans into your diet then try the recipe below. It's perfect for a backyard barbecue or any get together with friends. 


For more information on beans (including a comprehensive chart of their nutritional value) check out my article titled Beans, Beans, the Musical Fruit.


5) Flaxseeds - Such a tiny, little seeds with such BIG, BIG benefits. Flaxseeds round out my list of superfoods and rightfully so.

Flaxseeds are filled with goodness from their high omega-3 content to their healthy dose of fiber. But what stands out the most with flaxseeds is their generous helping of lignans. Lignans are a special group of compounds only found in plants that are crucial in warding off breast cancer (and to a lesser extent prostate cancer). Lignans make up one of two classes of phytoestrogen antioxidants. Flaxseeds are the most concentrated source of lignans on the face of the planet so if you're a woman I highly recommend you consume flaxseeds every day. However, all you men out there should consider doing the same.

You only need a tablespoon or two a day to get all the benefits that flaxseeds have to offer. Make sure you grind them first though or buy them in their ground form to ensure they don't pass through your digestive tract and into your stools. Store flaxseeds in the refrigerator as well to lengthen their shelf life. The videos below do an excellent job of summarizing the benefits of flaxseeds. 



I consume ground flaxseeds everyday. I usually top off my cereal or oatmeal with them, but I've also added ground flaxseed to my smoothies and sprinkled it on my salad from time to time. If you want to try something a bit more exciting then check out the recipe below. These might just become your new favorites!


Thanks for stopping by and feel free to check out my list of favorite recipe sites for more ideas on how to make meal time healthy and delicious! 







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Photo credits:
Spinach - Delazon
Blueberries - Freedigitalphotos.net

References:
1 Rungapamestry V, Duncan AJ, Fuller Z, Ratcliffe B. Effect of cooking brassica vegetables on the subsequent hydrolysis and metabolic fate of glucosinolates. Proc Nutr Soc. 2007 Feb;66(1):69-81. Review.
2 Vermeer C. Vitamin K: the effect on health beyond coagulation – an overview. Food Nutr Res. 2012;56.
3 Johnson EJ. The role of carotenoids in human health. Nutr Clin Care. 2002 Mar-Apr;5(2):56-65. Review.
4 Zhang CX, Ho SC, Chen YM, et al. Dietary folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and methionine intake and the risk of breast cancer by oestrogen and progesterone receptor status. Br J Nutr. 2011 Sep;106(6):936-43.
5 Bazzano LA, He J, Ogden LG, et al. Dietary intake of folate and risk of stroke in US men and women: NHANES I Epidemiologic Follow-up Study. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Stroke. 2002 May;33(5):1183-8.
6 Yoshida M, Takashima Y, Inoue M, et al. Prospective study showing that dietary vitamin C reduced the risk of age-related cataracts in a middle-aged Japanese population. Eur J Nutr. 2007 Mar;46(2):118-24.
7 Tsugane S, Sasazuki S. Diet and the risk of gastric cancer: review of epidemiological evidence. Gastric Cancer. 2007;10(2):75-83.
8 Gao X, Curhan G, Forman JP, et al. Vitamin C intake and serum uric acid concentration in men. J Rheumatol. 2008 Sep;35(9):1853-8.
9 Patel BD, Welch AA, Bingham SA, et al. Dietary antioxidants and asthma in adults. Thorax. 2006 May;61(5):388-93.
10 Saltman PD, Strause LG. The role of trace minerals in osteoporosis. J Am Coll Nutr. 1993 Aug;12(4):384-9.
11 Zafra-Stone S, Yasmin T, Bagchi M, et al. Berry anthocyanins as novel antioxidants in human health and disease prevention. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2007 Jun;51(6):675-83. Review.
12 U.S. Department of Agriculture. Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) of Selected Foods—2007. November 2007.
13 Dong M, He X, Liu RH. Phytochemicals of black bean seed coats: isolation, structure elucidation, and their antiproliferative and antioxidative activities. J Agric Food Chem. 2007 Jul 25;55(15):6044-51.
14 Bazzano LA, Thompson AM, Tees MT, et al. Non-soy legume consumption lowers cholesterol levels: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2011 Feb;21(2):94-103.
15 Higgins JA. Resistant starch: metabolic effects and potential health benefits. J AOAC Int. 2004 May-Jun;87(3):761-8. Review.

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