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Carrots are fantastically rich in the antioxidant beta-carotene. In fact that's what makes carrots orange, and how beta-carotene got its name. It can also be converted to vitamin A in the body. This is important since vitamin A is not so widely distributed in foods. 100g of carrots provides more than 2.5 times your vitamin A needs for the day. Vitamin A has many roles, but is key for eye health and good vision. This is why carrots got their reputation for helping you to see in the dark.
While an excess of pre-formed vitamin A can be toxic (it is particularly harmful during pregnancy), there is no danger of this from eating beta-carotene-rich foods. A word of warning however – supplements are not the same. While beta-carotene rich diets have been shown to benefit health, supplements do not have the same effect and can be harmful. Stick to real foods such as carrots to gain all the benefits without any risks.
Carrots also provide fibre, vitamin K and manganese, and smaller amounts of B group vitamins, copper and iron. All for very few kilojoules - less than 150kJ/100g.
Be sure to eat your carrots with some fat however - beta-carotene is fat-soluble and therefore you won't absorb much of it without any fat present. Another reason for using a delicious olive oil vinaigrette with your salad!
Zucchini is a vegie with many names. Often called a courgette in the UK or a squash in the United States, zucchinis are come in two varieites - one with a green skin and the other with yellow.
Zucchini is a very low GI and low kilojoule food that is extremely versatile. It contains a good amount of Vitamin A, folate and potassium. There are many ways to cook zucchini - it can be baked in savoury bread or muffins, included in stir fries, added to casseroles or soups, or shredded to create zucchini pasta. I love to slice it and chargrill on a hot plate or BBQ brushed with extra virgin olive oil. You can then add to salads or eat warm straight from the grill.
Zucchini is one of the easiest vegies to grow in the garden! But biggest is not best! The most flavourful zucchinis are small to medium sizes.
Almonds are rich in healthy monounsaturated fats - the same family of fats found in olive oil. They are also fibre rich and provide some plant protein. This makes them an excellent snack as they help to cut hunger pangs and keep you satisfied until mealtime. Despite their relative energy density, almonds as with all nuts are associated with better weight control. Make sure you therefore you are not choosing low fat processed snack foods in place of all natural, nutrient dense almonds.
Almonds are head and shoulders above other nuts for vitamin E. A handful is pretty much all your need for your daily vitamin E quota. Vitamin E is the major fat-soluble antioxidant in the body.
Almonds provide you with calcium - especially important if you don't consume any dairy foods. They're great for many B group vitamins, especially riboflavin and folate, minerals including magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and copper. You'll also benefit from a significant amount of iron and zinc - both commonly low in Western diets. That's a pretty impressive package for a single natural whole food!
Recent research has shown that eating a handul of nuts a day is associated with living longer! It's one of the easiest and tastiest ways to improve your health. I add almonds to my homemade muesli, sprinkle over my kids porridge and snack on them in the afternoon while I drink my green tea. Thank goodness the low fat days are long gone!
If you’re confused over eggs you’re not alone. Once upon a time, before we really understood how diet affects blood cholesterol levels, it made sense to limit foods high in cholesterol. Since egg yolks come under that category, the advice was to limit the number of eggs you ate. Today we know that the types of fat in your diet plays a more important role in determining your blood cholesterol profile and dietary cholesterol is far less of a factor. Even if you have high blood cholesterol, the current advice is that you can happily enjoy up to 6 eggs a week - and I can't see what more would be a problem. That’s great news as eggs are a nutritional smorgasbord!
Eggs provide very high quality protein, with a near perfect balance of the amino acids the human body needs. There’s a reason why eggs have been a body-builders’ staple for many years!
The yolk is especially rich in the B group vitamins folate, vitamin B5, vitamin B12, thiamin (B1) and riboflavin (B2). The fat is important as it also contains excellent levels of the fat-soluble vitamins A and E, and one of the few foods to provide vitamin D.
Eggs are a terrific breakfast choice. Studies have shown that people who eat eggs for breakfast are less hungry later and correspondingly eat less at lunch.
There is no truth to the rumour that cooking eggs damages nutrients; in fact the reverse is true. Egg white contains a protein called avidin and this binds to the vitamin biotin tightly making it unavailable for uptake and use by the body. When you cook the egg white this denatures avidin and the problem does not occur. Actually it would only be a problem if you were eating raw egg whites every day and didn't have significant other sources of biotin in other meals - extremely rare. It has been documented in body builders following very strict diets and eating drinks with raw eggs in them repeatedly over months. Generally though it's not something we need to worry about.
Raw eggs can of course carry E Coli or other pathogenic bacteria. Pregnant women, young children and those with compromised immune systems should play safe and avoid raw eggs.
Don't throw the yolks away! Not only do they contain most of the nutrients, they are rich in two carotenoids called lutein and zeaxanthin. These are found in high concentrations in the eye and seem to play a crucial role in eye development and ongoing eye health throughout life. Eating foods such as egg yolks that are rich in these two carotenoids reduces your risk of macular degeneration and cataracts.
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.
Quinoa is cooked and eaten as a grain alternative, but it is in fact a seed. You’ll often hear it called a pseudo-grain for that reason, similar to amaranth. While it might be relatively new to many of us, quinoa has been a staple food for thousands of years in the Andean region of South America. The Incas reportedly considered it sacred, calling it ‘the mother of all grains’.
It boasts an impressive nutritional profile. It has double the protein of rice and provides all of the essential amino acids – the building blocks of protein. By comparison most commonly eaten grains tend to be low in the amino acid lysine, essential for muscle growth and repair. This makes quinoa an especially good choice for vegetarians. It's rich in several B group vitamins required to turn the food you eat into energy to fuel your body. A serve of quinoa will provide you with folate, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6 and smaller amounts of niacin.
Quinoa is carbohydrate-rich, but has a low GI. This means those carbohydrates are digested and absorbed slowly. In turn this means both glucose and insulin responses are gentler. This helps you to feel fuller for longer, better manage your appetite and provide your body with sustained energy. In other words you won’t crash and burn after eating a bowl of quinoa! It also has 7more than double the fibre of brown rice making it excellent for gut health.
Despite its popularity as a health food in recent years, its not without controversy. There have been reports that in some areas of South America, including Bolivia, the local farmers can no longer afford to eat the quinoa they have grown for thousands of years as the overseas demand is now so high. This shows the complexities of the global food network and is clearly not acceptable simply for us to enjoy a crop. Look for brands that support fair trade policies to protect farmers. We also have the first crops of quinoa being grown in parts of Australia and other parts of the world.
Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats – they are also only one of two fruits that are fat rich (the other being the avocado). A solid body of scientific evidence supports making these fats the major ones in your diet. They can help you to achieve a healthier blood cholesterol profile, improve your insulin sensitivity, help you to control blood glucose levels, improve a fatty liver, and even reduce the amount of fat you store around your abdomen.
The Mediterranean diet is hailed quite rightfully as one of the healthiest in the world. This diet has been associated with lower rates of heart disease, lower blood pressure, lower risk of stroke, better cognitive health, lower risk of diabetes, and lower risks of many cancers. There are many factors that may contribute to this, but one of the key characteristics is the use of olive oil as a staple food and the principal fat.
It is important to buy extra virgin olive oil however and not products labeled as “light”, “pure olive oil” or “pomace”. These are all refined products and do not contain the health promoting qualities of fresh extra virgin olive oil. Refining the oil removes many of the antioxidants, phytosterols and polyphenols present in the fresh extra virgin oil that benefit us. Oil is not like wine – it doesn’t get better with age. The fresher it is the better. Choose quality over quantity and you will reap the benefits.
It’s a myth that cooking with extra virgin olive oil destroys its benefits. Good quality extra virgin olive oil has a high smoke point of around 210°C. It can be used for stir-fries, on the BBQ, roasting foods in the oven and pan-frying. Store your oil in a cool dark place to retain the freshness and health-promoting properties. And use it regularly so that you are always consuming this year’s batch.
Fat helps deliver taste and flavour, but it is also necessary for the absorption of many antioxidants including beta-carotene, not to mention the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Drizzling extra virgin olive oil over your salad or steamed veg adds flavour (so you eat more plant food) and makes sure you can absorb more of those beneficial plant compounds.
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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