There is a lot of hype about special foods that have ‘super’ powers. These rarer foods can often be more difficult to find and expensive. In reality, all whole foods, i.e. those provided by Mother Nature in their original form, are super. They all provide their unique blend of natural compounds that serve human health superbly (excuse the pun).
Here is my personal favourite list of ordinary health-giving foods that you can find in most shops (this is not in order of importance, as they are offer different benefits from each other). I aim to include as many of these foods in my diet as often as possible:
A handful of mixed berries a day helps protect against free radical damage, especially in the brain. As a group, berries are only second to herbs and spices in terms of their antioxidant content. As a fruit, they are ten times more powerful in antioxidant power than other fruits and vegetables. They are also the most efficient in blunting the insulin spikes that follow eating high GI (glycaemic index) meals. So, if you are going to have a biscuit or a cracker for instance, add some berries with that.
My favourite vegetable is broccoli. It’s so multi-talented according to how it is prepared. The stem provides fuel for the good bacteria in your gut, for example. The super compound in crucifers is sulphoraphane, which is almost exclusively found in this group of veggies and is a powerful liver enzyme detox compound.
The more variety we can add in the better, as the synergy of nutrients between each type will be compounded (the same goes for other foods too). Two brazil nuts a day will provide enough selenium needed for healthy thyroid function. Hazelnuts are great for helping to lower cholesterol, whilst cashew nuts help the body produce serotonin- the feel-good hormone. Chestnuts are a great source of calcium, pistachios are great for prostate health, whilst walnuts and almonds contain the crucial omega-3 fatty acids that are a key component of our cells. It goes without saying that the whole, unroasted and unsalted nuts are the ones to go for.
These are powerhouses of micronutrients, which are essential for the optimal function of the body. My personal favourites are sesame, chia and pumpkin. The one I aim to have as often as possible is flaxseed/linseed due to the powerful anti-cancer lignans. It’s also great for helping to lower cholesterol and keep the bowels happy. I personally add flax to most meals, from porridge to bakes to curries and salads. Ground is better, as it gets absorbed more easily.
Herbs and spices
The bigger the variety, the better. The antioxidant capacity of herbs and spices is reflected by how aromatic they are- the aroma is actually the antioxidant compounds. My favourite herbs are oregano, basil, parsley and coriander, and my favourite spices are turmeric (this talented spice deserves a chapter dedicated to itself only), ginger, cinnamon, cumin, chilli, cloves and cardamon. Both groups both are so versatile and can be used in main meals, salads or desserts. If you use ready mixed spices, ensure there is no salt in that.
Do you suffer from seasonal allergies, wheezing, runny nose etc? Try adding some mushrooms to your diet every day for six weeks and notice the difference. Mushrooms are strongly anti-inflammatory and very low in calories. They contain a magical compound called ergothionine, which is a very unusual anti-oxidant: it tends to concentrate in areas of the body that undergo the most oxidative stress, e.g. the liver, lenses of the eyes and bone marrow. Ergothionine is one of the very few compounds that can penetrate the mitochondrial membrane and reverse free radical damage within the mitochondrial DNA. Isn’t this astounding? Because of its dietary origin and toxicity associated with its depletion in the body, John Hopkins university researchers have concluded that it should be classified as a vitamin.
The darker the better. Examples are chard, spinach, kale, rocket, cavolo nero. Greens are your one-stop shop for folate, magnesium, vitamin K, vitamin C, vitamin A, fibre, plus lots of other micronutrients. The chlorophyll in them is one super-talented substance. It helps with:
- cancer prevention
- wound healing
- skin care and acne treatment
- weight loss
- easing constipation and flatulence
- boosting energy
Prepare them in such a way that makes you want to eat more of them. I personally steam or roast them with various herbs and spices. I also add them to meals towards the end of cooking in order to bulk them up healthfully. A little bit of lemon on top helps the iron get absorbed better.
Beans and lentils
I feel sorry for beans, as they are a little bit unloved in this country. Most people know of beans in their tinned or heavily-processed form (e.g. baked beans). I grew up with the raw beans that you have to soak the night before cooking. They are much more nutritious and tasty, as well as cheaper. They are amazing as a source of protein, fibre, iron etc. They are incredibly versatile too. I use them in curries, stews, bakes, salads- even in porridge. Let me know if you want to know how! My personal favourites are butter beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, black beans, chickpeas and mung beans. Cannellini and pinto beans are so ‘neutral-tasting’ that they can even be used in desserts. Did you know that 130g of cooked pinto beans per day for 2 months may help lower your cholesterol much more effectively and safely than certain medications?
Ginger, garlic, turmeric. These three foods are your polypharmacy in the cupboard and I cannot choose one over the other- hence the bundle. Anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-arthritic, anti-bacterial, anti-allergy, etc etc etc. I cannot say enough about these 3 culinary phenomena. For example, it has been said about turmeric that if there was ever such a thing as a magic single-ingredient pill, ground turmeric would probably come closest. It’s tricky for the body to absorb it though, so combine with a little oil and black pepper.
Other vegetables and fruits
The more plant-based colour you have on your plate each time, the more you are helping your body’s amazing innate detox systems. Yellow, orange, blue, purple, red, green and white produce is uniquely protective against disease. That’s why you will have heard of the advice to ‘eat the rainbow’ every day. Raw is best for a lot of the produce, with some of the exceptions being tomatoes, carrots, celery, aubergine, asparagus, kale and mushrooms. The healing properties of these veggies are enhanced by using different cooking methods.
I love coffee and I am happy to say that there is a vast body of evidence to show its multiple benefits on health. However, coffee is not for everyone, as there are people sensitive to caffeine. Even better than coffee is green tea, or white tea with lemon. Herbal tea is great as well. What I have started doing recently is flavouring my water by steeping some tea bags in a bottle filled with water and letting it sit in the fridge for a few hours. Then you can just enjoy sipping it throughout the day and topping up as you go along. One way of making your water go further! The antioxidant compounds in these beverages have incredible healing properties, so choose the one that you enjoy the most and make it work for you.