Healthy foods

Mighty meals and superfoods

There is no doubt that a diet high in fresh produce and wholegrains can reduce the risk of many diseases. In fact, research trends show that “supplementing” your diet with plant compounds rather than using actual supplements provides better health benefits. But if you were to ask ten nutritionists what they consider to be the top ten superfoods you are very likely to get ten very different answers.

Superfood groups

What we do know for sure is that some foods pack more of a punch than others in terms of nutrient profile and beneficial compounds including antioxidants. When you pool the findings there are some very definite superfood contenders.

  • Fish – especially those high in omega-3 oils.
  • Many veggies – particularly those that are strongly coloured such as dark green or orange vegetables, and those that are aromatic such as garlic.
  • Fruit – particularly berries, and those rich in vitamin C such as acerola and red peppers.
  • Nuts and seeds and foods rich in oils such as almonds, chia seeds and flaxseeds and avocado.
  • Herbs are finally beginning to be credited as superfoods, something many cultures have known for a very long time.
  • Yoghurt for healthy bacteria important for immunity.

Most commonly mentioned superfoods

Cruciferous vegetables, otherwise know as foods such as broccoli are notably listed in many anti-cancer diets and papers. Exactly, how such vegetables exert their effect is not clear, however we do know they often contain high levels of antioxidant nutrients such as vitamin C and carotenoids, plus vitamin A all of which can reduce oxidation and aging of cells by free radicals. Free radicals such as toxins can cause our cells to go on a rampage and mutate, proliferate and do all sorts of harm, including cancerous growth. Broccoli is thought to reduce the risk of lung, colon, rectum and stomach cancers, even just half a cup a day is said to exert a beneficial effect.

Healthy oils, from fish (particularly oily fish such as salmon and mackerel) and from certain plant based foods such as chia seeds or linseeds have been shown to reduce inflammation (which is thought to be a precursor to a myriad of diseases including allergies, arthritis and more), assist in normal cell growth and aid immunity. In particular omega-3 oils (DHA and EPA), largely found if fish, appear to exert the most effect. Amongst their impressive line up of benefits and activities are:

  • The prevention of heart disease, arthritis, hypertension and cancer
  • Assisting in normal growth and development
  • Aiding optimal brain function and development as they make up much of the communicating membranes of the brain
  • Visual development
  • The production of many of our anti-inflammatory substances
  • Potential assistance with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and teenagers.

Healthy oils from seeds generally must be converted to useable oils in the body (EPA and DHA), however this rate of conversion tends to be quite low. So while it can sound very impressive that a seed has a high percentage of omega-3’s it is worth keeping in mind that the total amount the body is able to use at this stage appears to be much less.

Fish that provide a minimum of 500mg of EPA and DHA per 150g serve include:

  • Atlantic salmon
  • Bonnito (also recently shown to be useful in high blood pressure)
  • Gemfish
  • Mackerel
  • Mullet
  • Oreo dory
  • Sardines
  • Swordfish*

Even tinned fish such as mackerel, pink and red salmon and sardines (although not tuna) can be good options, all providing reasonable amounts of omega-3s. One thing to keep in mind regarding fish is to source fish that are sustainable and not threatened to disappear from our seas*. There is no point in nourishing ourselves with great food if we don’t have a healthy environment to harvest from. Bonnito and Mackerel are most plentiful from the above list.

Yoghurt, long known for its intestinal support action due to the healthy bacteria it is made from (probiotics) is now enjoying a very strong presence in the marketing limelight. It’s important to remind you that not all things that appear to be “yoghurt” are. Many “yoghurt-like” products are in fact simply sweetened and thickened milk. In addition many of these products have probiotics thrown in, making the ingredients panel less helpful in determining the imposters.

Real yoghurts not only contain probiotics (such as lactobacillus acidophilus), but they are created from them (rather than having them added). They are considered to have a great many health benefits, just a few include:

  • Improved immunity by improving our cells that ward off illness
  • Reduced risks of tummy upsets as well as reducing infant diarrhoea
  • Aiding lactose digestion
  • Replenishing healthy intestinal bacteria after antibiotic use
  • Reducing allergy and allergic symptoms
  • At least in animals studies there has been some promising anticancer actions

Herbs in particular ones like onion and even more so garlic (which is a member of the onion family), have long languished on the herbalists “very healthy to eat” list. Aside from the many nutrients housed in garlic, it also contains numerous plant compounds including bioflavonoids and sulphur-containing compounds that are believed to be responsible for garlic’s unique health benefits.

Possibly the two most well-documented health benefits of garlic are its anti-microbial action and its cardiovascular benefits. Garlic is reputed to be strongly antibacterial, antifungal, anti-viral and anti-parasitic. Garlic is said to assist in normalizing high blood pressure and cholesterol. Now these are just two of the most commonly discussed benefits, there are far more.

Tumeric used commonly in Indian meals, has some great information coming out about its benefits in food (over supplementation) in relation to cancer prevention. Just three grams a day of cinnamon is reputed to lower blood glucose in those with diabetes. Sage is said to not only treat flushing in menopause but it has strong antibacterial properties. Ginger stimulates peripheral circulation (great for those with cold fingers and toes) as well as having anti-inflammatory actions. The list is long and it appears almost all herbs have some health benefits.

Nutrient-dense foods

So by-and-large the foods we have looked at this far have been highlighted due to their health benefits and if there is one thing that we should all take away when it comes to food, is that variety of whole foods is the key!

At the end of the day what we are after is a diet rich in nutrients that will at the very least meet our changing daily needs. Nutrient-dense foods are great to get acquainted with, though this is easier said than done, given the fast growing list of such foods. This illustrious group might include:

  • Camu Camu (a cherry-like fruit dense in many nutrients including vitamin C)
  • Quinoa (gluten-free seed from the spinach family)
  • Black rice
  • Wild rice
  • Acerola (tropical fruit rich in vitamin C)
  • Agave (a sweet plant nectar)
  • Gubinge (Kakadu Plum)
  • Goji berries

Many indigenous societies have consumed “exotic” fruit and plant foods that, while known to them for thousands of years as having health benefits, are just making their way into Western diets.

Other foods that top the nutrient density list for selected nutrients might be:

  • Red capsicum for vitamin C
  • Seaweed for most nutrients
  • Ginger root for zinc
  • Brazil nuts for selenium
  • Egg (yolk) for chromium
  • Dried apricots for potassium

Still the real message is eat largely unprocessed food and eat a wide variety of it and try a little something new when you can! This method of eating will ensure a wide range of nutrients and less build up of unwanted compounds.

Other sources of information and references

  • Food Standards Australia New Zealand
  • Australasian Nutrition Advisory Council’s (ANAC)
  • Codex Alimentarius, a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations relating to foods, food production and food safety. Donaldson M. Nutrition and cancer: A review of the evidence for an anti-cancer diet Nutr J, 2004.
  • Nutrition and Physical Activity During and After Cancer Treatment: An American Cancer Society Guide for Informed Choices, 2009.
  • Read more

Check out our Kids Recipes Finder for more mighty meal ideas.

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This article was written by Leanne Cooper, nutritionist and director of Cadence Health and Nutrition Courses and Sneakys Baby and Child Nutrition