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Lettuce falls into the category of leafy greens and collectively I endeavour to eat these foods every day, and the more different types the better. There is no doubt that the darker green leafy veg are richer nutritionally, but don't let that put you off using all sorts of lettuce varieties. Iceberg lettuce may not be as impressive on the nutrition front as spinach, but it adds wonderful texture and crunch. A baby cos lettuce is ideal for san choy bau dishes, while butterhead lettuce lives up to its name and almost melts in your mouth.
In general all lettuce has much to offer nutritionally and so indulge and enjoy all varieties as suits your dish. Lettuce is a good source of vitamin C, contains carotenoids that can be converted to vitamin A, folate, manganese and vitamin K.
Eating lettuce dressed with oil and vinegar can be traced back to Roman times! Why reinvent the wheel - it's a classic flavour combination that just works.
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.
Pine nuts are the seeds of pinecones and are found in forest regions in the northern hemisphere. They’ve have been a staple food in the Native American diet for over 10,000 years. Pine nuts have a very elegant, sweet and buttery taste with crunchy texture. Heating them gently over a medium heat enhances their flavour beautifully. I love to add them to salads, toss them through a pasta or grain dish, they are essential in a classic pesto or I simply scatter them over my poached eggs for brekkie.
Pine nuts are an absolute nutritional powerhouse being rich in several vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. They are especially rich in magnesium with a tablespoon of nuts providing over 33mg - that's 10% of the recommended dietary intake (RDI) for adult women and 8% for adult men. Magnesium is crucial for proper nerve and muscle function, and for a strong healthy heart. Pine nuts are also fabulously rich in Vitamin E, the major fat-soluble antioxidant in the body. While there is no RDI set for Vit E, a tablespoon of pine nuts provides 27% of that considered adequate for an adult woman and 20% for the adult man. The other stand out nutrient is zinc, often low in Western diets, with that same tablesoon giving adult women 10% of their RDI and adult men 6%.
As with other nuts and seeds, pine nuts are rich in fats, but these are predominantly the good fats we want in our diets. Almost 60% comes from polyunsaturated fats. When these replace saturated fats in the diet research clearly shows that this reduces LDL-cholesterol and improves HDL-choclesterol levels, in turn reducing heart disease risk. The Vitamin E present in pine nuts is there to protect these fats from oxidative damage; a wonderful example of how nature works in harmony. A further 34% of the fats present are monounsaturated fats, similar to those found in olive oil and avocado. While only 6% are saturated fats.
Pine Nuts have been consumed for thousands of years. There is evidence of both the Romans and Greeks eating pine nuts as early as 300BC.
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.
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.
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