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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.
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. In fact, recent analysis shows that eggs are much higher in vitamin D than previously thought, with a serve of 2 eggs providing 82% of the recommended daily intake.
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.
Sesame seeds contain a wonderful array of minerals. They are particularly rich in manganese and copper, and also provide significant levels of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. But of course a few seeds sprinkled on your bread roll aren’t enough to make much of a difference! Try using tahini – sesame seed spread – to really give your body a sesame nutritional boost.
I love to coat fish fillets in white or black sesame seeds before baking or BBQ. It makes the dish look just a little bit fancy, and adds a delicious crunch and taste to the fish. You could then mix tahini with a little natural yoghurt and lemon juice for a creamy salad dressing or dopping sauce to go with the meal.
Figs are a wonderful, sensual Mediterranean fruit that can be eaten alone as a snack, served with cheese or as the Italians do, with proscuitto and mozzarella as an elegant starter.
Figs have a low energy density, but a high nutrient density - just what we want for our core everyday foods. 2 fresh figs provides around 195kJ (46 calories in old currency), about a gram and a half of protein, no fat and 8g of carbohydrate. They are terrific for fibre with the same serve providing 3.3g. Although prunes are the fruit that comes to mind for keeping you regular, figs fare well in this department too!
Figs are not outstanding for any particular vitamin or mineral, but they do contain small amounts of vitamin C, B group vitamins, magnesium, zinc and iron. The vitamin C is lost in the drying process to make dried figs, but the other nutrients including the fibre, are well preserved. They are a valuable addition to your team of plant foods.
The Ancient Greeks believed so fervently that figs were health promoting, they fed them to their athletes competing in the original Olympic games.
If you only ever eat hazelnuts when you succumb to the lure of a Ferrero Rocher, then it's time to give them their share of the nutritional spot light. 80% of the fat present in hazelnuts are monounsaturated fats - the same family of fats we find in olive oil and avocado.
They provide a whole host of nutrients including the major fat-soluble antioxidant vitamin in the body - vitamin E. A 30g handful of hazelnuts provides 45% of your recommended daily intake. They are also good for the minerals copper and manganese, and the B group vitamin folate.
You probably think of vegetables as foods to give us antioxidants, but hazelnuts are pretty good competitors here. They are rich in a number of beneficial plant compounds with antioxidant power - giving them high overall antioxidant power. Most of these compounds are found in the skin, so be sure to eat the whole nut.
If you're a vegetarian, hazelnuts are especially useful in adding plant protein, while all of us can benefit from their fibre content.
If you're worried that nuts including hazelnuts, are very energy dense, rest assured that studies have consistently shown that nuts are helpful in weight control, and not fattening at all.
Although they are indeed energy dense, it seems that we don't absorb and utilise all of the energy and because they are so nutrient dense, they do a great job of reducing our appetite and preventing us from eating less nutritious foods. And if you're following a gluten free diet, you might like to try using hazelnut meal in place of gluten containing flours in baking. Look for one that contains the nut skins, or you can make your own if you have a Vitamix or similar quality blender.
Wholegrain flour is made using the whole grain kernal. The intact grain is milled through a series of rollers to create the flour. To make white flour this mixture is then sifted to separate out the bran and the outer layers of the grain kernal. However this step is omitted to make wholegrain flour.
Nutritionally that is important as it is the outer layers of the grain kernal that contains most of the fibre and micronutrients. Comparing wholegrain to white flour, it contains three times as much fibre, almost twice as much niacin, almost three times as much folate and magnesium, two and a half times as much zinc and twice the iron. It also has about 10% less carbohydrate but slightly more protein. All up the nutrition credentials of wholegrain flour are head and shoulders above white flour.
This does mean that it bakes differently however. White flour is popular because it makes fluffy muffins, bread and cake. If you bake at home you'll find that white flour will make your recipe rise more and be lighter in taste. But that comes at a cost. Our bodies break down the carbohydrates in white flour very quickly and most foods made from it have a high GI. Part of it I believe is just getting your family used to the taste from wholegrain flour and often a clever recipe designed for using wholegrain will add ingredients that improve the outcome. Just start experimenting and you'll soon find everyone gets used to the new taste. You can also use half and half to gradually move your family over to a more wholesome, nutritious end product.
It's not just fruits and vegetables that provide phytochemicals such as antioxidants. Wholegrains are also a pretty fabulous source. They are also plant foods after all and grains are the seeds of grasses - it's not that surprising that they are rich in various beneficial compounds. Even phytates, given a bad rap as they bind some of the minerals present preventing them from being absorbed, have been shown to have beneficial effects including being anti-inflammatory. Phytates will only be a problem to you if you are a strict vegetarian or vegan and are consuming a large amount of wholegrains like wheat flour. For the rest of us there are plenty of other food sources of minerals in our diets making the effect of phytates pretty small and probably unimportant.
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.
Honey is truly one of the most natural sweeteners we can use. There is evidence of honey being eaten since hunter-gatherer days, and honey has even been found in ancient Egyptian tombs.
Honey bees make honey in their hives using the nectar from flowers. The local flora therefore makes an impact on the flavour profile of the honey. Pure floral honeys have low GI values, but the cheaper blended honeys tend to be high. For a low GI honey look for Yellow Box, Stringy Bark, Red Gum, Iron Bark, Yapunya, Eucalypt or those labeled as pure floral honey.
In terms of nutrition remember that honey is still sugar. It is about 17% water, but the rest is a combination of sugars, primarily fructose and glucose. There are a few vitamins and minerals present, but in very small quantities that are really not all that relevant in the quantities of honey you are likely to consume.
In conclusion honey is an all-natural, minimally processed sweetener and has been part of our diets for many thousands of years. But it is still sugar and as with all sugars is best used sparingly to bring a little sweetness to your whole food diet.
Honey has long been considered medicinal by many cultures, including in Ayurvedic medicine. Honey has anti-bacterial qualities, although varieties vary in this regard. Manuka honey contains a particular antibacterial compound, made from the nectar of the manuka bush. These honeys have a particular scale used to indicate the antibacterial power of the honey – this is called the UMF factor (Unique Manuka Factor). These honeys are marketed as being effective for sore throats, gastro upsets and several other conditions, however the evidence for this is pretty weak. The most benefit seems to be when used topically for the treatment of wounds, burns and infections.
Dates are the fruit of the date palm and are native to North Africa and the Middle East. They are sometimes referred to as 'candy that grows on trees' and for good reason. They are sticky, soft, sweet and really are a wonderfully unprocessed, all-natural sweet treat of nature. They have been consumed by humans for many thousands of years, tracing back to 4000-6000BC in Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula.
Dates have almost no fat and only a trace of protein. 98% of the energy in dates comes from carbohydrate, and most of that from the sugars present. This has made them a key ingredient in many whole food or raw bars, so that they can then claim 'no added sugar'. I actually support this in favour of using added refined sugar, but be careful not to think that means you can eat such foods with no restraint. Read the nutrition label to understand the appropriate portion size.
The dates so far tested for their GI have low to moderate values. This is good news, although once part of a processed food product the result may not be the same.
They are fairly energy dense so do watch your portion sizes. 4 dates (about 100g) provides 1160kJ, 75g of carbohydrate and 2g of protein. They are rich in fibre with 7g per 100g. That makes them pretty fabulous to keep you regular.
The high carb content makes them a terrific option for fuelling endurance sporting events. I have used dates as part of my fuel kit for my half Ironman, my 100km Coastrek walk and while climbing Kilimanjaro. I much prefer this strategy over using lollies and jelly snakes as are more common!
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