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Lentils are often thought of as vegetarian fare and since they are one of the best plant sources of iron, they are indeed a fantastic food to include if you don't eat meat. Just be sure to include a food rich in vitamin C at the same time to help improve the absorption of the non-haem (plant) iron.
But if you are a meat eater there are many good reasons to add lentils to your shopping list. I love to use them as my smart carb as they are one of the lowest GI foods with most values in the range 20-30 depending on the type. They therefore deliver there energy slowly with minimal impacts on blood glucose levels, and require minimal insulin to be dealt with by the body.
They are also a good plant protein source and this is why you can alternatively count them as your protein on the Dr Joanna Plate as part of a vegetarian meal. A cup of lentils will provide around 18g of protein.
They are also a great choice for those trying to get lean and stay lean. They have a high nutrient density but low energy density, with less than 500kJ per 1/2 cup cooked. Those nutrients include folate, essential for cellular health, including the building of new cells and the protection against damage of existing cells. This makes folate an essential anti-aging nutrient.
Finally lentils are terrific for gut health and help to bost the numbers of good bacteris in your gut. A half cup of lentils provides around 8g of fibre putting you well on your way to your daily target of 25-30g. If you're not used to it, you might therefore find lentils make you a bit farty to begin with. But I urge you to stick with it! If you build up slowly to allow your gut time to adjust, you'll gain the benefits. However those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may find it too difficult to get used to lentils. All I can suggest is start small!
Lentils are brilliant in a meal in place of our more regular carbs such as potatoes. I love to cook them with garlic and herbs, then serve with chicken or fish and plenty of veg. You can also use them to eek out the meat a little further - a great way to budget as they cost far less. Try adding them to bolognaise, lasagne, burgers and meatballs.
Chia are rich in plant omega-3 fats, antioxidants, protein and contain both soluble and insoluble fibre. Put your chia seeds in water and you can see the soluble fibre for yourself – in just a few minutes the water becomes a gel. This process in your gut after eating the seeds is a good thing! It slows the access of your digestive enzymes to any carbohydrates present in the meal, thereby lowering the GI and helping you manage your blood sugar levels. You’ll also feel fuller and find you are satisfied with less food. The fibre in chia fuels the good bacteria in your colon, lowering your risk of colon cancer and other gut disorders, while boosting immune function.
Chia are also one of the few plant foods to supply high amounts of the plant omega-3 fat ALA. While this is not quite the same as the long chain omega-3s found in oily fish, it is beneficial nonetheless and plays an anti-inflammatory role in the body. 10g of chia seeds provides about 2g of omega-3 fats. The National Heart Foundation recommends that we consume plant omega-3s every day, but also try to consume an oily fish or other source of long chain omega-3s twice a week.
Chia seeds are about 20% protein and unusually for a plant they contain all of the essential amino acids. They are therefore a valuable addition to vegetarian and vegan diets.
Chia is also one fo the few foods that are truly wholegrain - you buy and eat them completely intact.
Chia as a food source can be traced back to the Mayans and Aztecs around 3500BC. They recognised its value in giving them energy and the messengers who travelled on foot allegedly carried a bag of chia to keep their energy levels up while running. If you've read the fantastic book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall you'll know the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico - legendary long distance runners - also use chia to fuel their running.
Coconuts are thought to have originated in Malaysia, but today are grown in tropical regions all around the world, although less common in the equatorial regions of Africa or South America. Coconut is not a true nut, but a kind of fruit called a 'drupe'. But nutritionally it is much more like a nut.
The energy from coconut comes almost entirely from fat. 1/2 cup of grated coconut flesh provides 550kJ, 1.5g of protein, 1.5g of carbohydrate and 13g of fat. Like other nuts it's also fibre rich with 3.3g.
The fatty acids present are quite different to tree nuts - where tree nuts are high in unsaturated fatty acids, in coconut 93% of the fatty acids are saturated. This has put coconut on the 'eat sparingly' list of heart health recommendations around the world. However this is now being revisited as the association between saturated fat and heart disease is questioned.
The other thing we now understand is that not all saturated fats are the same. Coconut fat is extremely rich in a particular saturated fat called lauric acid. This is a 12 carbon chain fatty acid, putting it at the low end of what are called the long chain fatty acids. Unlike the longer chain saturated fats, lauric acid has a beneficial effect on blood cholesterol profiles, and in fact if it is replaced by refined carbohydrates in the diet this makes matters worse. In other words, cutting out coconut and eating lots of low fat snacks made from white flour would have a detrimental effect on your blood lipid profiles and your risk of heart disease.
Coconut also has small levels of medium chain (8 and 10 carbon chain) saturated fats and these are burned more readily as fuel in the body than other fats. But this doesn't make coconut fat burning, as I've seen it promoted. Adding coconut to a meal will not magically make you burn more fat - you still have to burn off that extra energy it brings you! But certainly having coconut in place of other less healthy fats may be beneficial, but there is much we have to learn in this area.
Despite coconut being hailed as the latest superfood, the evidence isn't quite there to make it so. I'm all for enjoying it as part of your plant-food rich, whole food diet, but it just doesn't have the nutritional credentials of other nuts. It's not particularly rich in any vitamin or mineral bar manganese, otherwise there are only small levels (4% or less of your recommended daily intake in a half cup) of niacin, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc. There may be some phytonutrients present, but there is as yet scant information on this. So by all means enjoy a little coconut in your diet, but be sure to include the fat-rich foods we do have truckloads of evidence for such as nuts, avocado and extra virgin olive oil.
Peanut butter is one of those foods once thought of as fattening, due to its high fat content, but now being reappraised as we understand more about types of fat and how they influence our bodies.
Fat is indeed the major source of kilojoules in peanut butter; fat provides over 70% of the kilojoules. But over 50% of the fat is monounsaturated fat - the type also found in olive oil and avocadoes - and a further third is polyunsaturated fat. When these fats replace saturated and trans fats, and/or refined carbohydrates in our diet, we see an improvement in blood cholesterol profiles and a reduction in blood triglycerides. Together these factors lower our risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases.
This doesn't mean you can eat peanut butter by the jar. It is an energy dense food with a tablespoon providing around 650kJ. However by adding peanut butter to wholegrain toast, or spreading on celery sticks, you create a nutrient-dense meal or snack that will satisfy and help prevent you from overeating the wrong foods. Just watch your portion size.
That same tablespoon also provides 6g of protein. This makes a valuable addition to vegetarian and vegan diets in particular, but all of us should be eating more plant protein and reducing our reliance on animal proteins. I encourage us all to have as broad a mix of protein sources as possible.
Peanut butter is a stand out for niacin with a tablespoon providing over 40% of your recommended daily intake. We need niacin daily as it's a water-soluble vitamin and we don't store it in the body. It's required to convert our food into energy, for healthy skin, it's involved in preventing and repairing DNA damage, and is essential for the nerve and digestive systems.
Peanut butter is also a good source of phosphorus and magnesium, with significant levels of thiamin, zinc and folate.
Peanuts are however an allergen and one of those most likely to result in a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. Be sure to leave peanuts and peanut butter out of kids lunchboxes for that reason. But do remember the majority of kids are not allergic, and so for families not affected you can happily give them peanut butter at home.
Be choosy when buying peanut butter. The best brands have only peanuts listed in the ingredients list. You should also find that some of the oil has separated and is floating on top of the jar. This is normal and a sign that no emulsifiers have been added. Simply give the contents a stir before using. By contrast many commercial varieties add salt, sugar, emulsifiers and sometimes preservatives. These will be listed on the ingredients list and I suggest you avoid these. Best of all, you can also make your own peanut butter if you own a powerful blender such as a Vitamix. Once you've experienced warm, freshly made peanut butter you'll never go back! It's cheaper too and you can be assured of the quality of the nuts used.
Dates are the fruit of the date palm and are native to North Africa and the Middle East. They are sometimes referred to as 'candy that grows on trees' and for good reason. They are sticky, soft, sweet and really are a wonderfully unprocessed, all-natural sweet treat of nature. They have been consumed by humans for many thousands of years, tracing back to 4000-6000BC in Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula.
Dates have almost no fat and only a trace of protein. 98% of the energy in dates comes from carbohydrate, and most of that from the sugars present. This has made them a key ingredient in many whole food or raw bars, so that they can then claim 'no added sugar'. I actually support this in favour of using added refined sugar, but be careful not to think that means you can eat such foods with no restraint. Read the nutrition label to understand the appropriate portion size.
The dates so far tested for their GI have low to moderate values. This is good news, although once part of a processed food product the result may not be the same.
They are fairly energy dense so do watch your portion sizes. 4 dates (about 100g) provides 1160kJ, 75g of carbohydrate and 2g of protein. They are rich in fibre with 7g per 100g. That makes them pretty fabulous to keep you regular.
The high carb content makes them a terrific option for fuelling endurance sporting events. I have used dates as part of my fuel kit for my half Ironman, my 100km Coastrek walk and while climbing Kilimanjaro. I much prefer this strategy over using lollies and jelly snakes as are more common!
Maple syrup is the concentrated sap of the maple tree. Be careful not to confuse maple-flavoured syrups with the real thing. These are usually just a processed glucose syrup with added flavourings to mimic the real thing. It’s much cheaper as a result.
Real maple syrup is so much tastier and since it's far sweeter than regular sugar you can use less. It contains small amounts of nutrients, including riboflavin, manganese and zinc, but let's be honest - we can get these nutrients in far greater quantities elsewhere. However it also contains a whole host of antioxidant compounds - the darker the colour the more antioxidants present. These may well be of benefit to our health.
The sugars present in maple syrup are primarily sucrose, with small amounts of glucose and fructose. It has a low GI of 54, making it a good choice for blood glucose control.
I love using maple syrup as an all natural, minimally processed sweetener and it tastes fabulous. When using maple syrup in place of table sugar, you only need about 2/3 of the amount, allowing you to cut down the total sugar level.
Theobroma cacao is the proper name for the species tree that produces the cacao bean. I've noticed a trend for everything cocoa to suddenly be called cacao. Technically though cacao is the unfermented, fresh seed and once fermented it becomes cocoa, although there are those who argue the word cocoa came form a mis-spelling of cacao. Regardless the two terms seem to often be used interchangably. The cacao beans are used to make cocoa butter, cocoa powder, cocoa solids and ultimately chocolate.
Cocoa is rich in a group of antioxidants known as polyphenolic flavonoids. Cocoa consumption has been associated with a number of health benefits including lower blood pressure, improved blood cholesterol profiles, improved blood vessel health and overall may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Cacao nibs are the least processed cocoa products. The beans are roasted before the outer shells are cracked and removed. The resultant pieces of the bean are the cacao nibs. These are sold in health food shops and although expensive, they contain the highest levels of the potentially beneficial plant compounds found in the whole bean. Be aware however that one of these is theobromine, a compound similar to caffeine. While it may have some benefits, such as helping to reduce blood pressure and acting as diuretic, it can affect your sleep. Avoid having too much cocoa late in the day for that reason.
Cocoa nibs can be separated into cocoa butter and cocoa powder. Cocoa powder retains many of the beneficial antioxidants and is an easy way of adding cocoa into your diet without the kilojoules (or sugar in most) of chocolate. It even provides some iron and other minerals. Cocoa powder is however usually further processed with alkali – called Dutch processing - to reduce the bitter taste and make it more soluble. Unfortunately this also reduces the flavonoid content. Look for raw cocoa powder to maximise the antioxidants present, but be ready for a more powerful cocoa taste!
Cocoa butter is rich in saturated fats, although about a third is stearic acid. This saturated fat acts differently to other saturated fats in that it is not cholesterol raising, and in fact it lowers LDL-cholesterol. Another third of the fats in cocoa butter is the monounsaturated fat oleic acid, the same as that found in olive oil. This makes it a pretty healthy fat overall.
Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of a group of related trees and has a long history of use as both a flavouring in food and for its medicinal value. Cinnamon is a rich source of antioxidants and has antibacterial and antiviral effects.
Cinnamon has been reported to help with blood sugar control, but studies have not been conclusive as yet. If there is an effect it comes not from ‘true’ cinnamon but from cassia cinnamon grown in China, Vietnam and Indonesia. Be sure to check the labeling of the cinnamon you purchase to ensure you have the right type.
We can't eat an unlimited amount of cinnamon as it contains a potentially toxic substance called coumarin. This does not present us with any issues in the usual doses of cinnamon, but there are upper levels that can be used in cinamon flavoured products for that reason.
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