20 foods guaranteed to supercharge your diet
Discover how to harness the power of food to help you feel better, look better and fight disease.
Published 17/09/2013 | 12:39
Superfoods are generally described as those containing exceptionally high levels of certain nutrients that may carry special health benefits or even prevent disease.
As such, I have always been a huge believer in the benefits of broccoli and carrots for dinner, porridge or muesli for breakfast, nuts and seeds for snacks. These most basic components of a balanced diet constitute, in marketing terms used today, "superfoods".
Can it be this easy or do we need to spend lots of money buying chia seeds, goji berries and quinoa instead? What do specific superfoods purport to do? Do I need to add strange-looking foods to my daily menu plan to live for ever in a young skin, with an able body?
In my opinion, it's all a matter of opinion! I've always been an advocate for balanced nutrition. Read here about 20 of the most widely available superfoods and decide for yourself.
1. Superfoods that may help in the fight against heart disease
The most renowned superfood when it comes to protecting the heart might very well be the blueberry. It contains high levels of antioxidants which, as we all know, stop the progress of free radicals in the body.
Free radicals are active agents that cause damage, which can lead to conditions such as heart disease. The strong colour of these berries indicates their rich antioxidant levels. They can be added to breakfast, desserts or to smoothies, but are generally quite expensive.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish flesh have a scientifically proven effect on lowering the risk of developing heart disease when consumed on a regular basis.
These come in the form of supplements but also, of course, in oily fish, such as wild salmon (ideally), mackerel, sardines, trout and herring. The oily part of a tuna is never tinned, so must be eaten from a tuna steak that still has the dark (oil-rich) part attached.
All nuts are superfoods in my book, but some get special mention, such as the almond, the brazil nut and the walnut.
These all have a favourable effect on blood cholesterol and so, too, on risk of developing heart disease.
They are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein and fibre.
This most fibrous of greens is actively good at lowering the risk of developing heart disease.
It is delicious, barely cooked, dipped into a runny egg yoke as part of a very posh, yet nutritionally significant, brunch.
Both green tea and regular black tea contain high levels of antioxidant called catechins. These substances have been shown to protect the artery walls against the damage that causes heart disease, and can also prevent formation of 'sticky' blood cells.
We Irish are considered among the greatest tea drinkers globally, so continue to enjoy a couple of cups of tea per day. Just stay as far away as possible from the biscuit tin while drinking it!
2. Superfoods that may benefit your skin and keep you looking younger
These deliciously bland fruit are phenomenally high in monounsaturated fats, akin to those found in olive oil, also vitamin E and potassium.
They give the skin a supple softness as a result, and the hair a shine as you might wish for your red setter! Great for dry and sensitive skin conditions, but also phenomenally high in calories, so treat as a chunky butter on toasted brown soda, or as a salad ingredient.
High in vitamin E, phosphorous and chlorophyll, wheatgrass can, theoretically, postpone the greying of hair. It can also help to brighten the skin, according to some.
These crunchy delights are high in omega fatty acids and fibre, and are claimed to boost collagen and elastin production in the skin to help keep it plump and young-looking.
A hard sell of a vegetable I find! It makes a good replacement for cabbage, on occasions. This green antioxidant-rich leaf contains high levels of lutein, which can protect the skin from sun damage. Some people like to juice it. I remain unconvinced.
Chantenay carrots (the lovely small, chunky ones) are particularly high in compounds such as B-carotene, retinol (vitamin A), vitamin C, vitamin E and vitamin K. They are thought to protect the skin and fight the effects of sun damage.
3. Superfoods that may help prevent cancer
Tomatoes in the form of tomato sauce, ketchup, passata, tinned (chopped and whole) all contain high amounts of the potent antioxidant lycopene. Not only can lycopene stop the advance of free radicals that cause cancer in the body, they are specifically implicated in the prevention of prostate cancer.
It helps greatly that they are delicious, and even more so because the potency of the lycopene increases as tomatoes are heated and processed.
So do not shirk from the sugary tomato sauce surrounding your baked beans, nor the ketchup that the kids roar for at dinner time.
This 'miracle fruit' has all sorts of health benefits attributed to it, from slowing the ageing process and reducing symptoms of arthritis, to reducing the risk of certain types of cancer.
It is generally consumed as juice, but I find beating the seeds out of the fruit to be great fun for kids, after which they are more likely to be consumed. They can add colour to a fruit salad or other desserts, along with a host of active nutrients.
This well-known spice makes for a great addition to cakes as well as curries in dried form, while the root itself is fabulously tasty in stir-fries and Thai dishes (I keep mine frozen and simply grate it in, skin and all, when cooking, before returning it to the freezer). Again, another great source of antioxidant, ginger can reduce the risk of certain types of cancer while, at the same time, soothing upset stomachs and reducing nausea.
These bitter little berries are renowned for preventing infections of the urinary tract. Not only can they benefit our urinary system, they can also protect against cancer, stomach ulcers, gum disease and, indeed, heart disease.
These Chinese berries are a very expensive addition to any regime. They are understood to prevent cancer, as well as reduce the signs of ageing and increase sex drive. Are they worth the money?
4. Superfoods that may keep your digestive system healthy
Humble as the baked bean might be, its soluble fibre content means that it moves slowly through the colon, where bacteria act on it, producing short-chain fatty acids that may protect the colon from carcinogens (cancer-causing agents).
It also constitutes a low GI (glycaemic) food, thus releasing its sugars slowly into the bloodstream. As such, beans are a great source of high-fibre carbohydrate for diabetics, as well as athletes.
A personal favourite recommendation of mine is to eat two apples a day. Apples are not only high in vitamin C content, but also contain a valuable soluble fibre in the form of pectin that means it, too, is a low GI food.
Long credited with a range of health benefits, yoghurt is cheap and cheerful when it comes to your digestive health. It constitutes an easily absorbed source of calcium for those who either do not like milk or find it hard to digest.
Wholegrain, seeded breads
This might seem too easy; eat bread, stay healthy. Sometimes we overlook the straightforward foods in health terms. By choosing breads that contain seeds and wholemeal brown flour, you are getting low GI alternatives that will help sustain you from hunger for longer and aid in weight loss.
Possibly the best-value superfood available on the market, the understated oat makes for a great breakfast, crumble topping or cookie. Its effects are manifold.
The soluble fibre fills us up far longer than any other cereal can do, as it moves through the digestive system slowly.
It also grabs excess cholesterol out of our system on the way through, excreting it thereafter, and is yet another low GI carbohydrate that helps regulate hunger and so aid in weight management.
Overall, balance is what I have always recommended for health. Of course, of the 20 foods I have chosen, all have health benefits when consumed regularly.
While I might not consume goji berries daily, I find porridge, seeded bread and apples to be a pleasure to eat.