Featured in Living Without Magazine - February / March 2009
Exciting foods are appearing in local supermarkets. New to many Americans, most of these slightly exotic foods were actually standard fare for the ancients, consumed for centuries in cultures around the world. Today, they are modern-day super-performers. Naturally gluten free and generally well tolerated by people on special diets, they all contain high levels of beneficial antioxidants and are exceptionally nutritious.
Much of what Americans consume today is over-processed, stripped of essential nutrients. It often contains harmful additives, preservatives and pesticides. This is cause for concern for everyone but particularly troublesome for those of us on special diets. Facing limited choices, we are at higher risk than the general population for nutritional defi ciency. It’s time for a change. Let the amazing health benefi ts of these power-packed foods entice you to expand your menu. Upping your nutrient count can make a difference in your energy level and mood. It can also increase your resilience to physical and emotional stressors, improve your immune function and protect you from heart disease. Incorporate one or more of these super foods (listed in alphabetical order) into your diet every week for renewed vitality, healthier living and an adventure in good taste.
1. Acai Berries Grown in the Amazon rainforest on acai palm trees, the acai (pronounced ahsigh- ee) berry contains up to 30 times more anthocyanins (the blue antioxidants found in blueberries and grapes) than red wine. It offers benefi cial omega 3 fatty acids, amino acids, fi ber, iron and a list of vitamins and minerals. This berry’s ORAC value, the measurement of a food’s antioxidant power, is higher than any other edible berry in the world! An excellent source of dietary fi ber, the acai berry also provides plant sterols, including beta-sitosterol used to treat high cholesterol and prostate problems. The acai berry looks like a purple grape and tastes a bit like grape juice. It’s available as refrigerated bottled juice and a powder supplement at natural food stores, some supermarkets or online. A highly nutritious food that is benefi cial for overall health, I specifi cally recommend consumption of the acai berry in juice or powder form to my patients with eye conditions (sties and other eye irritations) with excellent results.
2. Dark Chocolate Dark chocolate is a complex food with over 300 helpful compounds and chemicals, including epicatechin, one of the highly benefi cial molecules found in green tea. Chocolate offers many of the same health benefi ts as dark, leafy vegetables, including almost eight times more antioxidants than strawberries. Certain types of chocolate have been found to lower blood pressure and reduce LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) by up to 10 percent. Besides the fact that it tastes good, one of the reasons people love chocolate is because it stimulates endorphin production and contains tryptophan, which can promote the release of serotonin. Endorphin and serotonin are the primary feelgood chemicals in the brain. Choose dark chocolate that’s at least 70 percent cocoa. (There’s no measurable health benefi t to consuming white or milk chocolate.) The downside to this super food? Chocolate contains some caffeine, as well as theobromine, a mild stimulant. It can be a trigger for migraines in sensitive people. It can also be high in fat and calories, so read the label and partake sparingly. A little goes a long way.
3. Dulse Dulse, a dark red, edible seaweed that grows along the northern shorelines of the Atlantic Ocean, has been harvested for food for thousands of years. It was also used to treat scurvy and constipation. High in iodine, dulse is used as an herbal tonic for hypothyroidism and to sooth fi brocystic tender breasts. Dulse contains calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, manganese, copper, chromium and zinc, as well as vitamins A, B-complex, C and E. Available as fl akes in the health food section of your supermarket or natural food store, dulse has a salty, earthy fl avor. It can be eaten plain or sprinkled on salads, soups, popcorn or baked potatoes. If you have a thyroid condition, consult your doctor before consuming dulse. It may alter your need for thyroid medication.
4. Figs Figs have a long history in the cultures of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Rich in vitamins A and Bcomplex and loaded with antioxidants, calcium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, sodium and potassium, fi gs are also one of nature’s best sources of fi ber, including high levels of mucin and pectin, two soluble fi bers. The fi g is a laxative and diuretic that is easily digested and excellent for the liver. Dark fi gs contain twice the carotene, a powerful antioxidant, as the lighter varieties and usually have a more intense fl avor. I often prescribe fi gs (three daily, taken at bedtime) for my patients with stubborn constipation. It’s a tasty treatment that works. Considered one of nature’s candies, fi gs are delicious eaten plain and make a nutritious sweet snack.
5. Goji Berries Goji berries have been used in traditional medicine in China, Korea, Japan and Tibet for centuries to treat infl ammatory diseases and to enhance eyesight, the immune system, sperm production and liver function. Also known as wolf berries, goji berries are rich in amino acids, many vitamins and minerals, as well as essential fatty acids. They contain antioxidants and phytosterols, which can lower cholesterol and are good for the prostate. Available in dried form, they can be eaten whole like raisins or they can be easily reconstituted by soaking in hot water. They’re good in cereal and sprinkled over yogurt. Goji berries are also available in powder form and can be found in juices and energy bars. A word of caution: Goji plants belong to the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which includes tomatoes, white potatoes, eggplant and peppers (not black pepper). Most people enjoy these healthy foods without negative consequences but those who are nightshade sensitive may fi nd that goji berries exacerbate joint pain.
6. Muscadine Grapes The muscadine grape, native to the southern United States, contains more antioxidants than red wine grapes, pomegranates, cranberries or blueberries. Its seeds offer seven times more anti-cancer polyphenol and resveratrol than any other type of grape seed, helping protect the body against oxidative stress and free radical damage. The benefi cial substances in muscadines promote healthy vision, joints and the circulatory system while supporting the cardiovascular system. These grapes are also high in ellagic acid, another cancerfi ghting substance. Available seasonally in many supermarkets, muscadines have a juicy, earthy flavor. They are also found in juice, wines and jellies and can be taken as a supplement.
7. Nutritional Yeast Yellow and fl aky with a pleasant salty, cheese-like fl avor, nutritional yeast is a complete protein with 18 amino acids, along with 15 different minerals. Grown on mineral-enriched molasses, nutritional yeast is one of nature’s best sources of vitamin B-complex, important for improving mood and energy, balancing hormones and eliminating brain fog. (It is one of the only vegan sources of vitamin B12.) The earliest recorded use of nutritional yeast is 1550 BC in Egypt. Available in natural food stores or in the supplement section of many supermarkets, nutritional yeast is delicious sprinkled on hot popcorn or over gluten-free garlic bread. Brewer’s yeast, a by-product of beer production, offers similar nutrients but has a bitter hops fl avor and often contains gluten. Note: Nutritional yeast is generally well tolerated but may not be suitable for those on a yeast-free diet.
8. Rice Bran High in protein, fi ber and antioxidants, rice bran (the bran removed from brown rice) is one of nature’s most hypoallergenic foods. It contains balanced protein with all essential amino acids, is rich in natural vitamin E compounds, and is the highest natural source of tocopherols and tocotrienols, a defi ciency of which can cause anemia, irritability and edema. High in B-complex vitamins, as well as potassium, magnesium, manganese and other trace minerals, rice bran is also packed with polyphenols, phytosterols and sterolins, substances that work to lower cholesterol. In addition, it contains carotenoids, including lutein and zeaxanthin, which are benefi cial phytochemicals. Research has shown these molecules help our cardiovascular and immune systems. Rice bran is the only natural source of gamma-oryzanol, a substance that stimulates the release of endorphins, activating pleasure centers in the brain. In addition, rice bran has the ability to chelate heavy metals and other environmental toxins, helping remove them from the body. Available in natural food stores and most supermarkets, rice bran adds a mild nutty fl avor when used in baking or when sprinkled on cereal, yogurt and casseroles.
9. Salba Seeds Salba is a light-colored version of chia (yes, the seeds sprouted for chia pets). Harvested from a plant native to South America, these seeds were consumed in pre-Columbian times by the Aztecs and Mayans. Salba truly is a super food, offering abundant nutrients. It is very rich in omega 3 fatty acids, dietary fi ber, antioxidants, magnesium, folate, calcium and iron, as well as vitamins A and C. In addition, the protein in salba seeds contains all essential amino acids. Available as a whole grain or in a ground powder at natural food stores and online, salba is now also part of some snack products. Unlike fl ax seed, it is digestible in whole seed form. Salba becomes gelatinous when hydrated, absorbing 8 to 12 times its weight in water, which means it is slowly digested, reducing spikes in blood sugar levels. It has a mild, pleasant taste and whole salba seeds add crunch when sprinkled in smoothies, cereal, yogurt or casseroles.
10. Teff Teff is the smallest grain in the world. Grown for centuries primarily as a cereal crop in its native Ethiopia, teff is often ground into fl our, fermented for several days and made into injera, a sourdough-type of fl at bread served in Ethiopian homes and restaurants. (Caution: Wheat-fl our is often added to injera in Ethiopian restaurants.) Teff is very high in protein, carbohydrates and fi ber, as well as calcium, phosphorous, iron, copper and thiamin. It has an excellent amino acid composition, with lysine levels higher than wheat or barley. (Lysine is an amino acid that helps keep the immune system strong. It's used as treatment to prevent herpes outbreaks). Available at natural food stores and online, teff fl our adds extra nutrients to gluten-free fl our blends. (See Living Without's recipe for gluten-free High-Fiber Flour Blend on page 62.) Its mild, nutty fl avor makes it a good thickener in soups, stews, gravies and puddings. Whole grain teff is a tasty dish. To prepare, place 2 cups water, ½ cup whole grain teff and ¼ teaspoon sea salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer covered for 15 to 20 minutes or until water is absorbed. Remove from heat and let stand covered for 5 minutes. LW
Reprinted with permission from Living Without Magazine