First of all, I’d like to wish you all a happy, healthy New Year! Today we bring you the last instalment in our Superfoods Series – an A-Z guide to some of the most nutrient-dense foods in existence!
To finish off, we have the letters V, W, X, Y and Z (yes, we really went for it!).
The subject of nutrition can be nothing short of a minefield with many grey areas. For starters, research is constantly evolving. Secondly, it’s common for snippets of evidence here and there to be exaggerated (and topped up with lots of hearsay), which results in confusion. However, there is one rule that’s pretty steadfast when it comes to improving your eating habits: eat more vegetables.
Regardless of what you go for, goodness is pretty much guaranteed. Veggies supply a range of nutrients such as vitamin C, potassium and fibre; the leafy greens also contain useful levels of iron, calcium, magnesium and folate. The orangey-yellow sort are rich in a pigment known as beta-carotine, or the plant-form of vitamin A. Phytonutrients – naturally occurring plant compounds – offer numerous, health-supportive properties, and veggies are a superior source. The best and simplest way to maximise their benefits is to eat as much colour and variety as possible!
With the exception of tomatoes (read part eight to recap on why) and certain varieties that shouldn’t be eaten raw, e.g. sweet potatoes, it’s best to lightly steam or stir-fry veggies. Heat tends to impact their nutritional value; plus, water-soluble vitamins (especially vitamin C) can leach into the cooking water, so boiling your broccoli is not something we advise. Opt for al dente, whereby your veggies have a slight firmness to them – or eat raw in salads etc.
Watermelons have a high water content – funny that, isn’t it? I bet you’d never have guessed! Because of this, they can help you to stay hydrated during the warmer months (when they come around). They also supply vitamin C, beta-carotene and lycopene – the same substance that gives tomatoes their red hue. This has been shown to exhibit antioxidant properties, help to protect the cardiovascular system and even prevent certain cancers.
Watermelons also contain the amino acid citrulline, which is required to make arginine; the latter is a precursor to nitric oxide which acts as a vasodilator. This encourages the flow of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the muscles and organs of the body, helping to enhance athletic performance.
Oh, and if you’re concerned about eating the seeds, you needn’t be (I’ll assume you know this won’t cause a watermelon tree to grow inside of you); they’re packed with nutrients like zinc, manganese and vitamin B1, to name but a few.
I’m a big fan of xylitol; consequently, so are the residents of Finland. Why, exactly... and what does that have to do with anything? Well, it turns out that native researchers have discovered that xylitol can offer benefits to dental health. It sounds like a sort of Marvel character or sidekick that never quite got its name in lights, but it is in fact a sort of second cousin twice removed of sugar.
Known as a sugar alcohol, xylitol looks and tastes pretty much exactly the same as its relative, but with only a fraction of the calories, and a far less aggressive effect on blood glucose levels. It’s roughly equally as sweet, and what’s more, it’s been shown to reduce the likelihood of tooth decay. In Finland, you’ll find an array of Finnish sweets, gum and other products that contain xylitol – because scientists suggest that it can inhibit the growth of cavity-causing bacteria in the mouth.
Xylitol is produced from a natural, fibrous substance found in birch tree bark and corn known as xylan. This syrup-like derivative undergoes a simple process to form granulated crystals that you can find on your supermarket shelf.
Consuming more than a moderate amount of xylitol (≤ 50g daily) could lead to some, err... intestinal issues, shall we say? This is a possible drawback to be aware. Otherwise, it may have qualities that can improve for your smile... and your waistline.
Yacón syrup is a natural sweetener extracted from the yacón plant, grown in the Andes Mountains, which has tuberous roots similar to the sweet potato. The thick, rich syrup produced is dark in colour and has a taste that’s similar to raisins or figs, with a touch of caramel.
Whilst it’s still a form of sugar, yacón syrup is mostly comprised of soluble fibre, which is thought to have a beneficial effect on gut bacteria. This also helps to slow the release of available sugars, leading to a reported glycaemic index (GI) of just one.
The downside is that it’s pretty expensive, and unlike most other superfoods in this list (usually) it can only be obtained from specialist stores online and some health food shops.
Okay, this is blatant cheating if ever we did see it! Since I really couldn’t think of any food in the free world beginning with the letter ‘Z’, I decided to take advantage of the fact that my name begins with such. Of course, I could have gone with zucchini, but since we reside in Britain, I decided to stick with tradition. :)
So, to round up, what would I say is one of the most important superfoods, not already covered? Well, technically, it’s not really a food; it’s something many of us overlook, despite being an important part of our nutrition.
What am I talking about? Water; it’s easy to ‘forget’ to drink until we’re thirsty. Most of us glug water during exercise, but don’t take steps to stay properly hydrated during the day. The best way to do this is sip H20 (bottled spring or mineral water is best, where possible) throughout the day – sort of like a ‘drip’ effect. This can offer an array of benefits: you’re apt to feel less tired, have more energy, and achieve more from your training sessions (as well as daily life).
Around 60% of our bodies are comprised of water, so it’s worth getting this step right. We need it for everything from digestion and nutrient transportation through to controlling body temperature. Pure water is best, but fruit and herbal teas count, too. Coffee and regular tea can act as diuretics owing to their caffeine content, thus the word is still out on them.
That concludes our Superfoods Series! I hope you’ve found it enlightening, and that it serves as a useful guide during your grocery shop.
Look out for up-and-coming articles to commence 2017!