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Onions are part of the family of vegies called alliums - these also include leeks, garlic, shallots (or green onions), spring onions and eschalots. These vegetables have been associated with a lower risk of several cancers, including cancer of the stomach, colon, oesophagus, pancreas, breast, prostate and brain.
You have no doubt heard of probiotics – healthy bacteria that we want to colonise the gut – well research suggests that prebiotics might be more important. These are compounds in food that act as specific fuel to these good bacteria. Having prebiotics in your diet therefore encourages the growth of healthy bacterial populations and pushes out the bad guys. Alliums provide a particular group of these prebiotics called fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS).
FOS can cause problems for people with irritable bowel disease (IBS), but that may be due to having an imbalance of bacterial groups present, with more of the bad guys. See a dietitian or other health professional for more advice.
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!
Cucumbers have been cultivated for over 300 thousand years, originally in India. Today they are produced all over the world with China being the largest producer by a long shot, producing well over 400 million tonnes a year! They belong to a family of vegetables called Cucurbitaceae that includes squash, pumpkins, zucchini and melons.
If you're thinking that cucumbers are mostly water you're absolutely right - they are 95% water. This means that they contribute to your hydration levels and they are excellent added to vegie juices and smoothies. Unsurprisingly they are extremely low in energy - 50g of cucumber (about 6 slices) has only 25kJ and less than a gram of carbohydrate, with no fat and only a tiny trace of protein. They are not devoid of nutrients however. You will get small but significant amounts of vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin A and traces of several other nutrients.
So while cucumbers are not exactly a superfood delivering stacks of nutrients, they do add texture and a lovely crunch and refreshing taste to salads, sandwiches and wraps.
Cucumbers are best when they are fresh, plump and full of water. But because of the high water content they can freeze in the bottom of your fridge if it is too cold. This breaks the plant cell walls and you will lose the lovely crisp texture of the cucumber. If this is happening keep your cucumbers on the top shelf of your fridge instead.
Spinach is one of the most versatile leafy greens and therefore super easy to use to nutrient-boost your day. It contains many of the nutrients found in kale, although in lower amounts for most, but is a better source of folate.
Folate is well known for it's benefits during early pregnancy, but in fact we all need a decent daily folate hit due to its role in protecting cells and DNA from damage. A high folate intake can slow the aging process as well as reduce our risk of many chronic diseases. A cup of spinach gives you about 15% of your recommended intake of folate and over half your vitamin A, all for only 30kJ!
Spinach also has excellent levels of vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper and manganese. It's a fairly impressive line up for a humble green leaf!
Frozen spinach often has higher levels of vitamin C than fresh. That's because it is snap frozen on the day of picking, whereas the fresh spinach on the shelf may be a few days old. Vitamin C is lost rapidly after the leaves are picked, so the fresher your spinach the better. I still like to but fresh for my salads, for wilting to have with my poached eggs, and for tossing through pasta dishes right at the end of cooking. But I do always have frozen boxes of spinach in my freezer to use in cooked dishes such as soups and casseroles, to add to smoothies, and to use in my filo parcels with salmon or chicken.
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.
Wholegrain bread is bread made from flour milled using the entire grain. In contrast white bread uses only the starchy centre of the grain. The advantage of the former is that it retains all of the fibre and the many nutrients that are found in the outer layers of the grain. Research is building to show that this processing step is important as it affects how the resultant food impacts on our health. Eating more wholegrains is related to better health, including better weight control and lower risk of several chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. In contrast eating too many refined grains can wreak havoc on your body systems and result in major health problems. Let's not make the mistake of lumping all these grain foods together.
Wholegrain bread is much more than a 'carb'. All bread contains a significant amount of protein with every slice providing 3-5g depending on the variety. For comparison a large egg has on average 5.5g. So when you team a couple of slices of toast with your boiled eggs for brekkie, the bread is actually providing pretty close to half the protein in the meal.
Wholegrain bread is also a significant provider of B group vitamins including folate, niacin and thiamin, and minerals including iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus and manganese. What is lesser known about wholegrain foods is how awesome they are for antioxidants. In many cases the antioxidant capacity is equal to that of vegies and fruits! It shouldn’t really be that surprising – grains are fellow plant foods after all.
Is bread fattening? Read more.
Grain foods, including bread, contribute more fibre to our diets than any other food. Furthermore cereal fibre seems to play a particular role in gut health. It helps to keep you regular, reduces the risk of several bowel diseases including cancer, and the emerging interest is its role in ‘feeding’ the good bacteria that live in our bowels. The enormous impact these microorganisms have on our health is only just being realised.
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.
Technically we ought to call it maize, as corn has come to mean a whole load of products produced from the cereal crop maize. Here we are specifically talking about fresh corn - either on the cob, or as the kernals removed from the cob and sold canned or frozen.
A cooked medium ear of corn provides around 335kJ, 3g pf protein, 10g of carbohydrate and 2g of fat. That's not much carbohydrate per cob so this makes corn ideal for those of you trying to keep your carbs down, but if you need a higher carb intake post exercise for example you are best to add another smart carb to your meal. I classify corn as a smart carb because it has a low GI of 48 (low GI is classified as 55 or less) and it's one of the most minimally processed cereals you can buy. I also love that portion control is made easy by cooking it directly on the cob.
Corn is fibre-rich with a single cob providing almost 4g. It's also a good source of the B group vitamins thiamin, niacin and folate, and has significant amounts of the minerals magnesium, phosphorus and zinc.
We often hear of foods of the ancient Mayan civilisation sold as superfoods, but did you know that corn was one of them? It is so widely cultivated today that we tend to forget it is in fact a ancient grain. Unfortunately there is much criticism of the genetic modification of corn in the US and the loss of crop diversity to make way for more corn (not all used for food), that the health aspects of corn as a food are lost. In Australia corn is not so widely grown and genetically modified plants are not cultivated. My thoughts are this a crop humans have eaten for many thousands of years, nutritionally it delivers far more than more popular grains such as rice, and it's mouth-wateringly good with a little olive oil, black pepper and sprinkle of sea salt and grilled on the BBQ.
Tomato is actually a fruit, but since we eat it as a vegetable I am including here as a vegie. Tomatoes originated in South America but have spread all over the world, featuring in many traditional cuisines, including of course a starring role in Mediterranean Diets. They are consumed raw in salads, or cooked to create deliciously rich sauces. You can buy them raw, canned, bottled as passata, or concentrated into a thick paste.
Tomatoes are rich in several members of the carotenoid family of antioxidants. But most famously they are rich in lycopene. This carotenoid has been widely studied and intake reduces the risk of prostate cancer in men, breast cancer in women and possibly other cancers too including lung and stomach.
The interesting thing about lycopene is that levels are actually higher in processed tomato products - a terrific example of how processing foods sometimes improves the nutrition! 2 tablespoons of tomato paste has 42.2mg/100g of lycopene, while raw tomato has only 3mg/100g. You also need some fat to absorb the lycopene and so it seems the Mediterranean classic pairing of tomatoes with extra virgin olive oil brings a wonderful health benefit.
Additionally tomatoes are fabulous sources of vitamin C, many of the carotenoids can be converted to vitamin A in the body, and they are a good source of vitamin K, potassium and manganese. Since they also have a very low energy density - a cup of cherry tomatoes has only 110kJ - so you can pretty much eat as much as you like!
So how much tomato do you need to eat to benefit? The best studies from Harvard suggest eating one or two tomato products every day. Try adding tomato pasta to casseroles and sauces, spread on wholegrain pizza bases, use canned tomatoes or passata to create a sauce for meat or seafood, and use raw tomatoes in salads, sandwiches, slice onto avocado toast, or chop to make a salsa dip.
Many people complain that supermarket tomatoes have become tasteless. They do still provide valuable nutrition, so don't use that as an excuse not to buy them. However there is no doubt that spending a little more for tomatoes on the vine is a whole different experience. To know if you have good tomatoes, smell them - they ought to have a wonderful aroma. For the best flavour keep them in your fruit bowl to serve at room temperature.
Yoghurt is simply fermented milk and it probably came about as a method of making milk last longer. In doing so there were unexpected side effects and they were beneficial. Many cultures (excuse the pun) around the world from Nepal and India to the Middle East and Europe have long considered yoghurt a medicinal food and for good reason.
Yoghurt is rich in top quality protein, an excellent source of calcium and gives you a serious boost in several B group vitamins including riboflavin, magnesium and zinc.
While many people cut out dairy foods from their diet while trying to lose weight, this is quite contradictory to what the research shows. Studies where dairy foods are included as part of an energy restricted diet show that they promote better weight loss, and most importantly they seem to help improve body composition. That means they help you to lose fat and keep your muscle. Exactly what you want for a lean and fit body. Just what it is about dairy that is responsible for this effect is not fully understood, but it seems to be a combination of the protein and in particular the amino acid leucine high in dairy including yoghurt, along with calcium.
Dairy foods can also help to reduce blood pressure and big population studies show associations with lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
But of course not all yoghurts are the same. They have different levels of fat, added sugars, may have fruit and other additions, and some are thickened with gums or have other additives. Always read the ingredients list to know exactly what you are getting. Your absolute best options are natural yoghurts with live cultures, and nothing else in the ingredients list.
If you buy yoghurt with live cultures (probiotic bacteria) these have the potential to boost the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut while minimising the growth of pathogenic bacteria. The knock on benefits to your health includes a stronger immune system with fewer coughs and colds, and a healthier gut.
The live bacteria in the yoghurt also help to break down the milk carbohydrate lactose. This means that if you are lactose intolerant, as many adults are, you might well find that while you are running to the loo after milk, you can eat yoghurt.
If you live in the States or parts of Europe you might know coriander by its Spanish name Cilandro, or in parts of Asia as Chinese parsley. Coriander is a fragrant herb used extensively in many cuisines including Asian, Mexican, Mediterranean, African and Scandinavian.
You can both use the fresh or dried leaves, as well as the coriander seed. You can buy the seeds whole, and then crush in a mortar and pestle, or ready ground. Generally I prefer to buy the whole seeds and grind fresh, but for convenience the ground seeds are useful. Just be sure to use frequently to ensure freshness - all to often spices sit in our pantries for months (or years!) on end and lose both their flavour and their potential health benefits.
Like other herbs and spcies, coriander is a powerful phytochemical mix. The seeds and the leaves contain various terpenes including linalool which gives coriander it's characteristic scent, and pinene. These have protective functions in the plant, including having a natural pesticide effect, and research is ongoing to uncover the potentialy beneficial effects in humans.
Use coriander seeds to make curries and marinades for meat, while the fresh leaves are divine added right at the end of cooking to curries, stir fries and South American dishes such as fajitas.
Coriander leaves provide a whole range of carotenoids including beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin. These all have antioxidant potential in their own right, but the latter two also play an important role in eye health, reducing the risk of age-related cataracts and macular degeneration.
When I first came to Australia I was completely confused by what Australians call spring onions, green onions, scallions and shallots. It seems that there is a difference between the terms used in Sydney and Melbourne! As extraordinary as that seems, here I will stick to the classifications most cookbooks and botanical encyclopedias. But many of these terms seem to be used in different parts of the world, so refer to the picture to see the type of onion I am talking about.
Spring onions look like mini leeks and they are indeed in the same allium family of vegetables that includes all onion varieties, leeks, garlic and shallots. They have a far milder taste than onions and are therefore more palatable raw in salads or scattered over a meal just before serving.
As you'd expect spring onions contain very few kilojoules so you can consume them freely. They are however significant source of vitamin C and they are high in vitamin K, essential for healthy blood. There are small amounts of many other vitamins and minerals, but given that you are only likely to eat one or two other foods are far more important sources of these.
What is far more interesting than the micronutrients is the amounts and types of phytochemicals present. The allium family of vegetables contain particular sulphur compounds that have been shown to have anti-tumour effects in the stomach, colon and liver. Indeed in China and Italy a high consumption of alliums is linked to a low rate of stomach cancer.
Black beans, sometimes called turtle beans due to their glossy black coat, belong to the legume family. They are one of my favourite beans as they are winners nutritionally while also delivering on taste and meaty texture, keeping their shape during cooking. It used to be hard to find them ready cooked and canned, but recently they have become much more available and you should now spot them in your local supermarket. You can of course cook them from dried, but do be sure to soak overnight before cooking to reduce the anti-nutrients and reduce the levels of compounds such as raffinose that can cause flatulence.
A cup of black beans (which counts as a protein block or as a carbohydrate block on Get Lean) delivers 31g of available carbohydrate, 16g of plant protein, very little fat and an impressive 16g of fibre. Importantly the fibre includes insoluble fibre found in the skin, and both soluble fibre and resistant starch in the bean itself. This makes it a fabulous food for fuelling good gut bacteria, keeping you regular and promoting general gut health.
Black beans are one of the best plant sources of iron, delivering over 4mg. You’ll also get a good dose of folate – important for protecting DNA from damage as we age – magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and the B group vitamins thiamine and riboflavin.
We usually think of fruits and vegetables being our primary sources of phytochemicals such as antioxidants, but black beans score impressively well here too. The gorgeous dark purplish black colour comes from a group of anthocyanins – a sub-group of flavonoids being studied for their ability to protect cells throughout the body from free radical damage.
Black beans are traditionally used in Latin American dishes such as burritos and in Spanish, Portuguese and Punjabi cuisine. They are very versatile in cooking from soups to salads to casseroles.
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