Not so Exotic Superfoods in Your Kitchen

Go back twenty years and the word was not even used; we knew some foods were better for us than others and tried to eat a balanced diet as best we could. However, fast forward to 2013 and you can’t open a women’s magazine without there being a mention of superfoods. So what are they?

Simply put, they are foods that are particularly rich in nutrients, which as a result could have specific health benefits. They might be a concentrated source of essential fatty acids, a vitamin, mineral or other plant nutrient known to have health-giving properties; the benefit could relate to heart health, reducing cancer risk or improving mental function – it really does vary.

However, a little caution should be taken before you start eating blueberries, carrots and salmon like there’s no tomorrow:

  • While including these foods as part of your diet will provide you with a good helping of nutrients, it’s important to remember that it will do little good if the rest of what you eat isn’t particularly nourishing, as a wide range of foods should be included to maintain a healthy body; as the saying goes, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”.
  • The nutrients aren’t exclusive to these superfoods; they are just found in higher amounts. Your body can still receive everything that it requires for optimum health without a single exotic or expensive superfood passing through your lips.
  • It is also important to bear in mind that some of the benefits are often exaggerated when they are reported, with newspapers and magazines failing to tell us that sometimes they are based on studies in animals using mega-doses.
  • Additionally, you can have too much of a good thing, which is shown very well by oily fish such as salmon. There are guidelines in place that encourage us not to eat more than two or four portions of these a week depending on our circumstances – for young women it is two weekly due to the potential that a high dose of mercury or other chemicals contained within these fish could harm a developing baby. It is also the case that the body is only able to use so much of a nutrient and does not always have the facilities to store excess – as is the case with vitamin C and the B vitamins – and will simply excrete what it doesn’t use; so you could literally be flushing money down the drain.

Interestingly some fairly basic and commonly used food items are classed as superfoods. Read on to find out about which of your weekly staples can give your nutrient intake a boost:Broccoli_Super_Food

  • Broccoli: Packed with vitamin C and folate – both thought to be beneficial for heart health – lutein to help protect your eyes from age-related macular degeneration, as well as sulphoraphane, which studies in the lab have shown to have anti-cancer effects.
  • Olive oil: Rich in mono-unsaturates – the best type of fat for optimum cholesterol lowering – and antioxidants, which are linked with lowering heart disease and cancer risk, this is the main oil used in the Mediterranean diet. However, still watch how much you use, as it’s still as high in calories as butter!
  • Tea: Our favourite drink is rich in catechins, antioxidants that may protect the walls of the arteries against the damage that leads to heart disease. It counts as part of our fluid intake, so drink up; unless you are pregnant, in which case limit it to three cups daily due to its caffeine content.
  • Apples: They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Back when the phrase was coined they didn’t know about their pectin content, a type of soluble fibre that has been linked to lowering cholesterol, or their low glycaemic index (aiding weight and blood sugar control), that make apples a great choice from the fruit bowl.
  • Beans: As with apples, these are rich in soluble fibre, but their insoluble fibre also provides other benefits; in the large intestine this is broken down by bacteria that form acids, which are thought to protect against the development of cancerous cells. Although baked beans do have added salt and sugar, they still aren’t a bad bet; though in their natural state as haricot beans or any other, they make an even better choice.
  • Oats: Your bowl of warming morning porridge has a lot going for it – soluble fibre, low glycaemic index, as well as a useful helping of B vitamins and minerals including iron, magnesium and manganese (the latter might not be well known, but plays a role in bone health and is a component of enzymes involved in metabolism and antioxidant activity).
  • Tomatoes: Lycopene is a word that’s often banded about and while it’s men who seem to gain the most benefit from this antioxidant to maintain prostate health, it is also thought to protect against heart disease.
  • Wholegrains: Whether you eat wholemeal bread, Weetabix or wholewheat pasta, all are sources of wholegrains. Within these you receive all three parts of the grain, so along with fibre, you receive more vitamins and minerals than you do with the processed white versions, packing a greater nutritional punch.
  • Bio-yoghurt: As early as the 1950’s yoghurt with cultures of bacteria in it was sold as a health food; these help to top up those naturally occurring in your intestines. Although it has been suggested that an adequate population of these bacteria in your gut can help to strengthen your immune system, research seems to suggest that regular consumption of probiotic bacteria can help to shorten the course of diarrhoea, may help in IBS and crohn’s disease and in the prevention of water or yeast infections. If you are taking a course of antibiotics, daily bio-yoghurt during and for a fortnight afterwards may help to prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhoea, as these kill of the helpful as well as the disease-causing bacteria.
  • Fish: It’s no surprise that fish is referred to as brain food thanks to the omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish and shellfish, which play a role in brain development and may help to protect against dementia; they are also well known for a role in heart health.

Don’t get bogged down with aiming to eat the latest superfood. Choose a wide variety of foods to ensure a balanced diet and you’re already doing a lot for your health.

Attribution: Photo by Socrates1983 via Wikimedia Commons

Soup or Salad – That Will Be Enough… or Will It?

Soup and salads; they’re a common feature in many “diets”. You think you can’t go wrong if you stick with these for your lunch when you’re trying to lose weight; you might even go a step further and have them for your main meal too. It’s starting to sound a bit like the cabbage soup diet isn’t it? Unappealing and monotonous. It’s not just that though; the idea of relying heavily on these for your meals isn’t necessarily as healthy as you might have thought.

You think that you don’t really need any ham or cheese with your salad and you’ll go without a bread roll with your soup; it seems a good way to save on calories. However, if you don’t include some protein or carbohydrate with your soup or salad, they’re unbalanced. You wouldn’t eat a Mars bar for lunch, would you? Yes you’re getting certain vitamins and minerals from the vegetables, but not the full range that your body needs to remain in optimum health; you’re likely to be missing out on iron, zinc, calcium and certain B vitamins. Carbohydrates provide energy, so excluding these from meals can leave you flagging and more likely to reach for the biscuit tin; excluding protein can be at the detriment to your body’s ability to replace damaged tissues and carry out any repair that it needs to, as well impacting on the immune system. So while these two light meal options can help while you’re keen to watch your waistline, it’s important not to underestimate the importance of ensuring you continue to include all food groups with your meals. Your body won’t thank you if you develop anaemia as a result of a lack of iron or osteoporosis further down the line because you significantly cut your dairy intake.

While you don’t need to eat either soup or salads to lose weight – contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing wrong with sandwiches, you just need to watch your portions and the fillings you choose – if you do want to include these more often, take a look at the following ideas:

These soups all contain carbohydrate, so if you have a good bowlful, there is no need to also have a slice of bread.
Minestrone. There are no set rules for which vegetables you need to include in this hearty Italian soup, but onion, carrot, celery, tomatoes and a green leafy vegetable usually feature. Chuck whichever vegetables you fancy in with a stock, so if you have peppers, courgette or leeks that need using up, add those to the pan. Don’t forget to add pasta of your choice and some beans; cannellini, haricot and kidney beans from a can are popular and will cook in a matter of minutes.
Spiced root vegetable. Sweet potato, carrot and parsnips make a lovely combination in a soup flavoured with chilli, cumin and coriander. Add some lentils for a portion of protein.Sweet_potato_chorizo_soup_(5058084454)
Leak and potato. This is another quick and easy soup to make, which is very cheap into the bargain. As this soup lacks protein, follow with low fat yoghurt to help compensate.
Chicken noodle. As a low fat source of protein, chicken makes a great addition to soups. Although recipes for this soup often don’t include vegetables, consider adding diced carrot, beansprouts and Chinese leaves to make a more balanced meal.

What to add to salads
Thinking beyond the leaves, tomatoes and cucumber, try the following with the green stuff:
Cottage cheese. If you like to add cheese to a salad, be aware of the type you choose. A hard cheese such as Cheddar, Wensleydale or Red Leicester really needs to be limited to an ounce (30g) per serving due to their fat content, so softer cheese are a better choice, as these are lower in fat. If you asked someone to name a “diet food” cottage cheese might be one of the most common answers. However, don’t let this put you off cottage cheese if you haven’t previously tried it; you can easily have half a tub, so it makes a filling option. Although you can buy it with pineapple already added, choose the plain variety to add whichever chopped fruit you wish; consider adding dried fruit and a spice such as cinnamon. Alternatively add diced salad vegetables such as spring onions, peppers and carrot.
Pasta, rice, bulgar wheat or couscous. As a change to a bread roll or boiled mini new potatoes with your salad, try adding one of these grains. Toss whatever salad items you wish in with it, along with some beans, diced chicken or lean meat. These grains can seem a little bland, so spice them up with ground pepper, Balsamic vinegar or another seasoning; though try not to reach for the salt shaker.
Fish. TColourful_bean_saladuna might be a favourite, but what about other tinned fish? You might associate mackerel with being served on toast or salmon in sandwiches, but there’s no reason these can’t be added to a salad too. Serve mackerel canned in a tomato sauce as a filling for a small jacket potato with all the trimmings on the side; while stir salmon through pasta, sweetcorn, chopped cucumber and tomato.
Mixed beans. For quickness you can buy tins of ready to eat bean salad, but you can make your own with two or three different types of canned beans. Add diced pepper and spring onions, add a drizzle of vinaigrette and season with herbs or spices. Serve with some crusty bread.

Salad dressings aren’t necessarily a no-no, but be wary of creamy dressings such as thousand island, Caesar and blue cheese; reduced fat versions of these are available. Salad cream is a lower fat and calorie option than mayonnaise, but if you choose the “lighter” versions of these, still watch the amount you use. One of the best dressings to choose is to simply drizzle or spray a mist of Balsamic vinegar over your salad; a tablespoon contains under 15 calories, but the chances are you’ll use even less than this. If you’re usually one for mayonnaise-based sides such as potato salad, coleslaw or creamy pasta salads, you can make your own replacing the mayonnaise with low fat natural yoghurt or choose a pasta salad with a tomato dressing; still go easy on the amount of the latter if you’re already having another carbohydrate in your salad. Alternatives to add on the side of your plate include pickled onions, beetroot and gherkins.

Enjoy your soup and salads, but remember to strike a balance.


Soup – jeffreyw via Wikimedia Commons

Bean salad – Paul Goyette via Wikimedia Commons

January Baking Blues

Hurrah! It’s a New Year, and for lots of people, a time to make new resolutions. But what about all the lovely kitchen equipment you may have received for Christmas? Who’s going to eat the fabulous creations you want to bake?

My great friend Sam muses on the question of Christmas gifts versus New Year healthy-eating in her latest post.

January Baking Blues

It is 6 January.

Following the excitement, joy and often frantic baking of the Festive period, the home baker is now left feeling redundant.  For weeks, family and friends have enjoyed endless rounds of mince pies, cakes, puddings and sweet treats.  My baking highlights have included chocolate brownies (with the help of Lauren, my eldest daughter), meringues with raspberry cream and millefeuille with lemon and blueberries, although I would recommend serving them with raspberries as it appears that while most people like the idea of a blueberry, they couldn’t eat a whole one.

Less successful was the Quick Chocolate Mousse, which was neither quick, nor mousse like.  I knew I was in trouble when my husband noted that ‘it has a rather unusual texture’.  Chocolate scrambled eggs anyone.

As the sparkle of New Year retreats in to the depths of memory, New Year's resolutions spring to mind

As the sparkle of New Year retreats in to the depths of memory, New Year’s resolutions spring to mind

As the Champagne corks ushered in a New Year, it seems only natural that we turn our focus away from recreating the lift from Dirty Dancing at 2am (don’t ask) to the more sedate activity of a cup of tea and Midsomer Murders.  This seems only natural as we all tighten our financial and dietary belts during the first month of the year.  But let’s face it, unless you have a birthday or a special event to celebrate, there is no escaping that January is a long and boring month.

‘I don’t mind if I do’ turns into, ‘I’m doing a dry January’ (has there ever been a more depressing phrase?) and ‘I know I shouldn’t, but just one more’ turns into ‘Sorry, I’m giving carbs a miss’.  Ditto above.  The kitchen has been the centre of the home baker’s world, but now, as a Nation unites in ‘New Year, New Me’ resolutions, where does that leave the baker?  In short, what happens when no-one wants to eat your food?

My resolution is not to panic.  I do not doubt the resolve of those nearest and dearest to me and I will, of course, respect their desire to rein in the excesses of the last few weeks.  I will not succumb however, to the January Baking Blues.  I do not need to stand in my pinny holding a rolling pin staring longingly at the food mixer or piping bags (my new obsession from Lakeland), as I will always have a welcome audience for basic biscuits and cakes with my two daughters and their friends. Also, please note that my new found obsession with piping has come as much as a surprise to me, as anyone else.

Perhaps the odd cookie will turn into a chocolate brownie

Perhaps the odd cookie will turn into a chocolate brownie

I will look this month to challenge myself and become more adventurous with my baking.  Whilst I don’t think I can ever emulate my host blogger, Ele and her triumphs with macaroons, I would like to experiment more with pastry work and after my recent disaster, cooking with chocolate.  Hopefully by this time, my official ‘taste testers’ will return to ‘I know I shouldn’t, but go on then…’.

In the meantime, it seems that our supermarkets are one step ahead of us in the baking game.  Hot Cross Buns were spotted in a local shop today.  After all, it is 6 January.

Healthy Baking

Thanks Sam!

So, if you still want to play in the kitchen but have your desserts and bakes willingly received, why not give one of my healthier baking recipes a try?

Healthy French Toast

Low-fat Chocolate Muffins

Figgy Treats

Butternut, ginger and chilli soup with nachos

Baked Apples

Healthy Brownies

Carrot and Houmous Wraps

Summer Pudding

Light Little Cheesecake Pots