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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.
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!
Chickpeas are legumes - the dried seeds of podded plants. They are known to have been cultivated for many thousands of years in the Middle East and are eaten in many cuisines. In Italy they are known as 'ceci' and are eaten in salads and in soup. In France they are called 'pois chiches' and they stew them in stock with herbs and also add them to soup. You may also have heard of them as 'garbanzos', their Spanish name, where they are also added to meat stews - a great idea as it makes expensive meat go much farther. The largest producers of chickpeas worldwide is India, where they are known as 'Bengal gram'.
You probably know them best in the Middle Eastern dish hummus, where the chickpeas are blended with tahini, garlic and lemon. Hummus is so much better homemade and if you have a food processor or blender it takes only a couple of minutes. You can of course buy it ready-made, and then I always read the ingredients list to look for the one with only the ingredients I use at home with no undesirable additives. Use hummus in sandwiches and wraps as your Dr Joanna Plate Good Fat (the fat comes mostly from the tahini), as a dip with carrot and celery sticks, and in many Middle Eastern style dishes. It's really good with chicken.
Nutritionally chickpeas are pretty fantastic. They are a good source of plant protein with every half cup providing 6g, and all of the essential amino acids are present in good quantities. This makes chickpeas a smart addition to vegetarian and vegan diets, but I encourage meat-eaters to reduce their reliance on animal foods and include more plant sources of protein in their diets too.
Chickpeas are full of fibre with a half cup providing 4g, and they'll also give you 13g of slow-release carbs - chickpeas have a very low GI. This mix of protein, fibre and low GI carbs makes them a smart choice to help control your appetite and blood glucose levels.
Although I've classified them in the Dr Joanna Plate as a protein choice, they can also count as your smart carb. Count them as your protein in vegetarian meals, and for meat and fish-eaters they're a terrific choice as your low GI carb.
Chickpeas are also rich in many micronutrients. A half cup provides 14% of your recommended intake for folate - essential across your lifetime in protecting against DNA damage that ultimately causes aging. You'll also get 8% of your magnesium, 11% of your zinc and 9% of your iron for pre-menopausal women, 20% for men and post-menopausal women. If you don't eat meat, add a good source of vitamin C to the meal to help you absorb more of this plant iron.
You can buy your chickpeas dried or ready-to-eat in a can. Nothing is wrong with using the latter for convenience, and it probably means you will eat more chickpeas. I do look for brands that do not have plastic linings on their cans - but I have only seen one brand with this labelled externally. Trial and error is the only way to find out. If you do fancy cooking them yourself, soak the chickpeas in water overnight. Discard the soaking water and then put them in a large pan with fresh water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat so they are only gently simmering and cook for a couple of hours until tender.
Garlic stands out as having particularly potent anti-cancer effects. It has high levels of allicin and other sulphur compounds that are thought to be responsible. Garlic is also anti-bacterial, it can block the formation of carcinogenic substances, can enhance the repair of DNA in cells around the body and can assist in killing off rogue cells that may progress to cancer. The World Health Organisation recommends we eat a clove of garlic a day for general health.
High heat, prolonged storage and exposure to light are known to affect the levels and form of the potentially beneficial substances in garlic. But on the other hand raw garlic disagrees with many people. You might find that raw garlic repeats on you and garlic breath is not so desirable! Or you may find it causes heartburn or indigestion. Since there are many studies showing a benefit of cooked and raw garlic, as well as other cooked allium vegetables, there is clearly still a benefit from enjoying them in this way. What you might like to do is rather than frying your garlic at the start of the dish, try adding it a little later to the pan to reduce the heat exposure.
Garlic can help to improve your blood cholesterol profile by raising HDL-chol by 10-15% and reducing LDL-chol by 10-20%. These studies used garlic supplements of between 600 and 1200mg a day. Unless you're prepared to munch on raw garlic cloves every day, a supplement is probably the way to go to hit these levels!
Mushrooms are thought of as a vegetable, but they are actually a fungus with no roots, leaves, flowers or seeds. They are rich in many micronutrients including the B group vitamins riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid and biotin, along with the minerals copper, chromium and selenium. All this for less than 100kJ a cup.
Mushrooms are also one of only a few foods to provide vitamin D. Look out for special Vitamin D mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light to boost their vitamin D levels, but even regular mushrooms exposed to sunlight for an hour can provide you with 100% of your daily vitamin D! This is a terrific way to get your vitamin D in winter, or for those who cover up during the sunnier summer months.
Mushrooms truly are a unique plant food and well worthy of a place in your shopping basket. For more information on mushrooms head to Australian Mushrooms.
Shiitake mushrooms originated in Asian where they have been consumed and used medicinally for thousands of years. Some of the earliest books on Asian herbal medicine discuss the therapeutic value of the shiitake mushroom. Today scientific research is uncovering various phytochemicals in shiitakes, and other mushrooms, which may account for the legendary health benefits. These include:
Lentinan – a polysaccharide shown to have anti-cancer properties in the lab. Studies are ongoing using extracted lentinan with promising results in cancer patients. It also seems to play a role in strengthening the immune system and early studies indicate it may be of value to individuals infected with HIV.
Eritadenine – a compound shown to lower cholesterol in animal studies.
Ergothioneine – a powerful antioxidant found in the highest quantities in mushrooms. Wheat germ and chicken liver were previously thought to be the best sources until mushrooms were tested. Shiitake, oyster, king oyster and maitake mushrooms were found to contain as much as forty times the amount in wheat germ. The more common button mushrooms can’t quite match this, but still contain appreciable amounts and up to 12 times as much as in wheatgerm.
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.
Thyme has been shown to have benefits in maintaining strong bones by reducing bone resorption (the loss of minerals from bone). Thyme contains the phytonutrients thymol with antibacterial action, and camphor which is a little like menthol. It is cooling on the skin and essential oils of thyme are used topically to treat itchy skin and fungal nail infections.
Of all herbs measured, those with the highest antioxidant capacity include thyme, marjoram, sage, mint and oregano. Is it any coincidence that these herbs feature strongly in the super healthy Mediterranean Diet?
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