From kiwis and nuts to oily fish and pulses, dietitian Orla Walsh explains the nutritional powers of her top superfoods — and why we should eat more of them
There are lots of wonderful foods that can do remarkable things. A ‘superfood’ is a term often used to describe a food that does something special or unique. It’s fair to say that most foods are superfoods, it’s just their superpowers haven’t been discovered yet. Knowing why a food is important nutritionally can help set guidelines on how often you may consider eating it. Here are some examples.
Pulses may help protect against certain types of cancer, such as bowel cancer. It can be a challenging connection to try to understand as so few people eat pulses on a regular basis. Therefore, comparing people who eat lots of pulses to people who eat very little is tricky. Additionally, they just contain so many wonderful nutrients that their protection is likely to be multifactorial and hard to pin down. Nevertheless, our understanding is that a big chunk of their protective benefits come from the fibre they offer as well as their ability to feed the bacteria within the gut.
Eating nuts daily may help control your weight as well as offer up other health benefits. Nut consumption was assessed by food frequency questionnaires every four years in three different study groups, consisting of up to 53,000 people. They found that eating nuts daily was associated with less risk of weight gain.
In other studies, nuts were shown to reduce cholesterol, improve sperm quality, make people feel fuller for longer and even stabilise blood sugar levels. Their benefits go beyond simply replacing a less healthy food for a healthy one.
Nuts provide healthy fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals. You could tailor the nut choice for what they have been shown to do. However, they’re all great for you and eating a variety trumps sticking to your favourite.
We often hear about the impressive levels of calcium that dairy provides and how it’s good for our bones. If you’re of a certain era, a catchy jingle may start playing in your head. However, dairy is much more than just a fantastic calcium source.
For one, the benefit to our bones extends beyond calcium and that’s why when dairy is compared against a calcium supplement, the impact on bone health is significantly better when consumed through dairy. This is in part due to the nutrient matrix within dairy offering up an array of bone-supporting nutrients including other things like protein and phosphorus. However, it’s the iodine that dairy contains which deserves more time in the limelight.
There are studies coming out that show iodine intake through food isn’t good enough. Iodine has many roles in the body including a central role in how our thyroid works, as well as cognitive function. Seaweed, fish and dairy provide meaningful amounts of iodine that will fill nutritional gaps. If you don’t eat seaweed or fish very often, perhaps striving for three portions of dairy a day may be something you could do.
Oily fish provides us with an important fat called omega-3. The omega-3 found in oily fish is different to the omega-3 found in plants. You can get it from algae if you don’t eat oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines. Unfortunately, our body cannot make this fat, so relies on us eating it. This fat is considered essential to life.
Eating oily fish once or twice a week will help provide your body with this important oil that has so many crucial roles within the body. It’s probably famous for its role in heart health which is further supported by a recent study published this year.
An analysis of several large studies incorporating people from more than 60 countries has found that eating oily fish regularly can help prevent heart disease in high-risk individuals. However, the benefits go on for days. Another recent study even suggested regular fish consumption may help migraine sufferers. It’s worth noting that oily fish also provides vitamin D, a nutrient we are shown to be lacking in.
The interesting thing about kiwi fruit is that they’re low in fermentable carbohydrates. Fermentable carbohydrates called FODMAPs can worsen symptoms of bloating and diarrhoea in some people. Therefore, kiwis can be a great choice for people that struggle to eat certain fruit due to these issues. Interestingly, studies have also shown that kiwis when eaten daily can help people who suffer from constipation. It appears that regardless of a person’s gut symptoms, kiwis may be a good choice.
Interestingly, this delicious fruit may also help with sleep when eaten before bed. Kiwis before bed have been shown to help people go to sleep quicker and stay asleep for longer. So, if you have gut issues, or sleep challenges, perhaps kiwi fruit is something you may benefit from if you consumed them daily.