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Bananas are a pretty fantastic natural snack, served up in it's own biodegradable packaging. If you've been avoiding them because you're scared to eat carbs, then it's time to reevaluate the humble banana. It has a whole load more to offer you than a commercial, highly processed high protein bar!
A medium banana provides about a third of vitamin C, 13% of your potassium, 12% of your magnesium, 10% of your riboflavin and 10% of your folate for the day - all for only 350kJ. The carbs are not in fact much higher than many other fruits, with a medium sized fruit providing ~18g. Furthermore those carbs are slowly absorbed as the GI of bananas is 52 (low GI is 55 or less). This is what makes them such a popular snack with athletes.
Freeze ripe bananas, removing the skin and stringy parts first, to use in smoothies or in your Yonanas machine.
When bananas are still firm and slightly green, they are high in resistant starch. This is starch that resists digestion by us, and so acts like fibre, entering the colon where it is preferentially fermented by the 'good' bacteria present. This helps to promote their growth and push out the 'bad' bacterial groups. A healthy gut flora improves our immune system, can help improve blood cholesterol profiles, has an effect on our brain health and may even influence our body composition.
Sunflower seeds are one of the richest sources of vitamin E, with a tablespoon of seeds providing 22% of the daily requirement for women and 16% for men.
Vitamin E is the chief fat-soluble antioxidant in the body, and plays a crucial role in protecting cells from damage, including sun damage to the skin. That’s one reason why you’ll find vitamin E in so many face creams, but you want to make sure you feed your skin from the inside out too!
Intakes of vitamin E have been associated with heart health. For example a study of over 5000 Finnish adults, followed for 14 years, found that those with higher vitamin E intakes from food were significantly less likely to die from heart disease.
A 30g serve of sunflower seeds will also give you a significant dose of iron, magnesium, thiamin, vitamin B6, phosphorus, copper, manganese and selenium. They really are a real food multivitamin and mineral!
About 3/4 of the energy in sunflower seeds comes from fat, but primarily from healthy polyunsaturated fats that are good for our hearts in particular. Although I don't agree with using seed oils - these are highly processed and refined, and provide way too many omega-6 fats that can then impede our absorption of omega-3s - I do promote eating the seeds in their intact form. This will not give you the high concentrated doses of omega-6 fats, but will give you all the nutrients, fibre and protein the whole seeds contain.
The humble oat is hard to beat when it comes to a complete nutritional package. They have a low to moderate GI, depending on the form, and they are also relatively high in protein. In fact about 12% of the energy in oats comes from protein making them an especially valuable grain for vegetarians.
Oats are fibre-rich, and they contain a partcular type of soluble fibre called beta-glucan. These have been shown to reduce cholesterol reabsorption in the gut, helping to improve blood cholesterol profiles.
They also contain a relatively high amount of fat compared to other grains - about 20% of the total energy comes from fat. But this is almost all healthy unsaturated fat. The fat present also carries fat-soluble vitamin E, a key player in the team of disease-fighting anti-oxidants in the body. 100g of raw oats provides roughly 20% the RDI for vitamin E for women, and 15% that for men.
Oats provide a whole host of other micronutrients including the B group vitamins, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, manganese and the anti-oxidant mineral selenium.
You can buy oats as rolled oats, where the nutritious outer husk is relatively intact as the grain is lightly steamed and pressed into flat flakes. As steel cut oats - these are roughly cut groats (the whole grain). They undergo little processing and consequently are an excellent source of fibre and nutrients. Or as oatmeal which is made from roughly ground oats. The only ones I would avoid are the instant porridges. These have a much higher GI and usually have added sugar and other flavourings added. It really doesn't take long to make traditional porridge and it's well worth the effort.
There has been some controversy over the years as to whether oats can be included in truly gluten-free diets. Oats do not contain the same protein - gluten - as found in wheat and other grains. They contain a similar protein called avenin. Research has shown that most people with coeliac disease are not affected by avenin.
However oats are usually produced in the same factories as other grains and so contamination is highly likely. Recently there has been a rise in the number of oat products being sold as gluten free, with claims that they are produced separately to other grains.
International authorities are divided. Coeliac UK states that most people with coeliac disease can consume gluten-free oats, whereas Coeliac Australia advises a more prudent approach and avoidance until there is more research. For that reason I have not labelled oats as gluten free here. However if you are just lowering your gluten intake (ie not coeliac), oats are certainly a good choice.
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!
Pepitas are pumpkin seeds. Around 70% of the energy in pepitas comes from fat, but it's primarily healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Including these fats in your diet is important for heart and brain health, and can even help you to stay lean.
They are especially rich in iron, making them a valuable addition to vegetarian and vegan diets. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies around the world. A tablespoon of pepitas provides about 10% of the daily iron requirement for adult women and over 20% for men and post-menopausal women.
Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of magnesium, needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body. You need it for a healthy immune system, to keep your blood pressure where it should be, for normal muscle and nerve function, to manage blood glucose levels and to keep your bones strong.
They're also rich in manganese, phosphorus and magnesium, and pretty good for vitamin K and copper too. So all up pepitas are truly a nutrient dense food that is worthy of adding to your shopping basket.
Although I classify all seeds in my Good Fats section of the Plate, pepitas are also good sources of protein. A 30g serve of pepitas sprinkled over your salad adds about 7g of protein. That's pretty impressive and especially important for vegetarian and vegan meals.
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 the same as the long chain omega-3s found in oily fish - we have a limited ability to elongate ALA to make the long chain omega-3 fats the brain and other body cells need - 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 of few foods that are truly a whole food - 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.
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.
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