You’ve ditched chocolate for chia seeds and Whole Foods is your new haunt, but could you be overdoing it on health foods? Two top nutritional therapists tell it like it is
Health food buzz can have a very positive effect - no one can deny that switching cake for quinoa is a step in the right direction, diet wise. But when does cleaning up your act cross the line? Overconsuming supposedly saintly foods can pose a few problems, whether to your waistline, bank balance or digestive system.
Scaremongering isn’t the aim of the game here - the following foods are bursting with health benefits, but bear in mind that gorging on virtuous fodder can have its drawbacks. Nutritional therapist Emma Olliff takes 10 healthy foods to task, with additional wisdom from former model and nutritional therapist, Gabriela Peacock .
Not all saturated fats are created equal, and coconut oil is now considered to be the ‘super’ oil, but is it really all it's cracked up to be?
It is indeed rich with lauric acid, which is a fatty acid that contains anti-bacterial, anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties.
Additionally, the saturated fats in coconut oil are medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which in layman’s terms means that they are converted by the body into immediate energy rather than stored as fat. Other fats, such as butter, contain long-chain fatty acids, which are deposited in fat cells and burn off more slowly.
Even though coconut oil is calorie-dense, coconut enthusiasts maintain that because of the MCTs, the body is able to burn off these calories far more quickly than it would calories from other fat sources. One 2003 study published in Obesity Research seemed to confirm this when it found that coconut oil could help overweight men to burn more calories and lose weight.
Coconut oil has a number of benefits being touted for example that it may be able to help you lose weight, it may help to manage and reduce diabetes type 2, it can help you to avoid illness by boosting your immune system, it can help improve heart health and it’s thought even to have a role in preventing Alzheimer’s. It’s also fabulous for your skin and hair, so what’s not to love?
While there is credible evidence suggesting that the link between saturated fats and heart disease may not be as strong as we had previously thought. UK dietary guidelines continue to suggest avoiding saturated fats, including tropical oils like coconut. There are 39 calories in 1 tsp of coconut oil and 117 calories in 1 tbsp of it, so how much is too much? No recommended dosage for coconut oil actually exists, and it all depends on your own personal uses, as well as your diet and fitness levels. The general guide is one to three tablespoons of coconut oil a day. I would suggest starting with one tablespoon – or even just a teaspoon – then working your way up if you’re fit and active. Gabriela agrees that consuming coconut oil by the bucket load isn’t a great idea:
“It is still a fat so should be used sparingly and within daily calorie and fat requirements.”
Half an avocado contains a whopping 160 calories
The high fat content of the avocado might make you think twice about filling up on them, however, I’m going to tell you to forget about the fat and think about the essential minerals, protein and good fats that they contain.
Avocados are packed with potassium and deliver lutein and zeaxanthin, two phytochemicals that guard against cataracts and macular degeneration. They are an excellent source of folate, a B vitamin that keeps the DNA of your cells in good repair, and great if you are pregnant too. Half of an avocado provides one-quarter of a day’s worth of folate. They also provide vitamin E which is great for your skin health.
Another recently discovered benefit is that avocados help the body to absorb phytochemicals from other foods. Researchers from Ohio State University reported that pairing avocados, for example with tomatoes, would allow the lycopene to be better absorbed if eaten with a slice or two of tomato. The scientists suspect that the fat content of avocados helps the body to absorb these antioxidants.
If you are following the 5:2 diet you wouldn’t be able to consume avocado on a fasting day because ½ an avocado contains a whopping 160 calories and if you eat a whole one you are looking at around 322 calories, so that is something worth bearing in mind if you’re watching your waistline. If fasting doesn’t apply, I think that ½ an avocado per day is about right. Slice it into your morning smoothie to help to keep you fuller for longer, or as Gabriela recommends, "use it as a healthy alternative to butter, margerine or mayonnaise to spread on toast."
Chia seeds pack a mean nutritional punch and are made up of protein, fat (the good kind) and dietary fibre. The fibre will help to keep you regular. Approximately 20% of their fibre is soluble, meaning that they will help to keep your digestive system healthy.
If you are a fan of the Paleo diet or just like to keep your carb levels down, the chia seed makes a delicious low carb breakfast. Instead of making a bircher muesli with oats, substitute for chia seeds for a healthy breakfast that will keep you fuller longer and your blood sugar levels stable.
Chia seeds are also high in Omega-3s so if you don’t like oily fish or are vegan, these would be a great addition to your diet. Like the omega-3s in flax seeds, the chia omega-3s are a bit more difficult for our bodies to digest than fish omega-3s, so I would suggest using ground chia seeds to make it easier on your body to absorb what it needs.
There are some negatives… as you may have discovered, chia seeds are fairly pricey. If you like to buy your produce locally, these little seeds originate from Australia so that’s quite a distance that they need to travel to make it to your local supermarket.
Another downside is that although they are full of soluble fibre which is good for the gut, some people suffer with gut problems after eating them, probably because they swell up to a gelatinous mass in the stomach. While this may help curb the appetite, they are also high in phytates - antioxidant compounds that have the potential to inhibit the absorption of certain minerals.
A tablespoon of chia seeds, which weighs about 14 grams, contains approximately 70 calories, and that’s probably all you need per day. Sprinkle over your breakfast, add to your smoothie or salad - they are quite easy to add to your diet.
Quinoa is a complete protein and a fantastic wheat-free alternative to grains.
Quinoa is so nutritious that the UN named 2013 ‘International Quinoa Year’ in recognition of the crop’s high nutrient content. With twice the protein content of rice or barley, quinoa is also a very good source of calcium, magnesium and manganese. It also possesses good levels of several B vitamins, vitamin E and dietary fibre.
Like buckwheat, quinoa has an excellent amino acid profile, as it contains all nine essential amino acids making it a complete-protein source. Quinoa is therefore an excellent choice for vegans who may struggle to get enough protein in their diets. While no single food can supply all the essential life sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom.
The not-so-good news about quinoa is that the seeds have a protective coat that contains compounds called saponins. Saponins are soapy like molecules that literally “punch holes” in the gastric mucosal lining, which can then cause “leaky gut” (where the contents of your gut literally leak into the bloodstream) and this may cause an autoimmune response and systemic inflammation. Systemic inflammation manifests in numerous ways, for example headaches, skin rashes, achy joints, stomach pain, weight gain and fatigue.
Quinoa is also in very high demand, which is negatively affecting the countries that farm it and export it. Unfortunately the people of Peru and Bolivia can’t even afford to buy this indigenous crop anymore because demand has driven up the price. They can, however, afford to buy junk food which is cheaper than a food that is native to their culture.
100g of cooked quinoa contains around 120 calories.
Kale is the queen of greens and a nutritional dynamo. It is low in calories, high in fibre and has zero fat. 67g of kale has only 36 calories. It is great for aiding digestion and good for the bowels thanks to its high fibre content. It’s also packed with nutrients, vitamins, folate and magnesium.
Here’s an outline of why kale reigns supreme:
It’s high in iron. Per calorie, kale has more iron than beef. Iron is essential for good health, such as the formation of haemoglobin and enzymes, transporting oxygen to various parts of the body, cell growth, proper liver function and more.
It’s rich in vitamin K, which can help to protect against various cancers. It’s also necessary for a wide variety of bodily functions including normal bone health and blood clotting. Also increased levels of vitamin K can help people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s high in calcium. Per calorie, kale has more calcium than milk, which aids in preventing bone loss, preventing osteoporosis.
There are a few drawbacks to consider too. If you have hypothyroidism, go easy on raw kale as it can interfere with thyroid function – to get around this, make sure that your kale is properly cooked. Gabriela also recommends counteracting the potential blocking of thyroid function by "including iodine-rich foods in the diet too (iodized sea salt, seaweed and saltwater fish."
In addition, too much kale can lead to a slightly sluggish bowel leaving you a little ‘backed up’ and uncomfortable. Just make sure that you are drinking plenty of water and eating a varied diet.
Suddenly everyone seems to be going nuts about nut butter! From almond to walnut to tahini, not forgetting the original peanut butter, we can’t get enough of them, and for good reason too.
Unlike most other spreads, they contain healthy fats which are beneficial for your heart, reduce the risk of diabetes type 2 and even lower the risk of obesity despite their high fat content.
Each of the nuts offer something slightly different, for example cashew nuts are high in magnesium. Studies have shown that magnesium may diminish the frequency of migraines, improve cognitive ability and lower blood pressure. Hazelnuts are high in proanthocyanidins (flavonoids) which may support brain health, improve circulation and reduce symptoms associated with allergies.
The key to gleaning the health benefits from nut and seed butters is to eat them in moderation and choose the ones that are natural without added sugar and salt. There are a lot of varieties available now and, like everything, some of them are healthy and others less so – read the labels. Gabriela recommends taking things into your own hands:
“Making your own nut butter is a way of ensuring that you don’t get the added sugar and salt of commercial nut butters.”
They are high in calories - 1 almond contains 7 calories, 1 walnut contains around 3 calories, 1 hazelnut contains around 8 calories and 1 brazil nut contains a whopping 33 calories! I would suggest that a very small handful of nuts and seeds per day is adequate.
Buy fruits in season, as those grown out of season are less nutrient dense.
One minute we are told that we need to stock up on fruit as it’s super healthy and the next we are being told it is full of sugar and to steer clear. This makes life incredibly confusing. Some might contain more sugar than others, like mangoes and bananas, but mangoes are also a great source of vitamin C and fibre and bananas are loaded with potassium.
What to do? The truth is that too much sugar is not a good thing and fruit does contain sugar. I’m not for one minute suggesting that you run from the fresh produce aisles screaming, however, it may be a good idea to keep an eye on how your fruit-based sugar consumption weighs up.
To get the most out of your fruit, I would suggest buying fruits in season, as those grown out of season are less nutrient dense.
The recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are that only 5% of your daily calorie intake should consist of added, or 'free' sugars. This equates to approximately five to six teaspoons (25g) for women and seven to eight teaspoons (35g) for men.
According to the Diabetics UK, the natural sugar in fruit does not pose a danger to diabetics. With the exception of pineapple and some types of melon, most raw fruits have a low glycemic index. If you are worried about eating lots of fructose, choose berries over grapes or choose a Granny Smith apple over a Pink Lady. Gabriela also has some advice regarding fruity consumption, especially with regards to juicing:
“Fruit is a source of carbohydrate so watch portion size - try to keep to a handful (e.g. one orange or apple) or just two or three dried fruits such as dates or figs which are higher in sugar. As a liquid, fruit sugar bypasses digestion and can lead to blood sugar spikes, so dilute it or mix the juice to include non-starchy carbohydrates such as green vegetables.”
Popcorn has more antioxidant polyphenols than fruits and vegetables. These polyphenols are more concentrated in popcorn because it is only about 4% water, while fruits and vegetables are generally 90% water, thus diluting the polyphenols. Polyphenols help to fight free radicals. You may have noticed them in anti-ageing creams or heard them talked about in relation to the health benefits of wine. There is also emerging information about polyphenols and disease prevention however, I’d quickly like to point out that this doesn’t mean that popcorn can replace vegetables and fruit - they contain important minerals and vitamins that popcorn doesn’t!
To get the best out of popcorn, it does matter how that popcorn was made; not all popcorn is created equal. The healthiest way to make popcorn would be to air-pop it, my next suggestion would be oil-popped – coconut oil of course!
In terms of microwaveable popcorn, you need consider all the chemicals in that microwaveable bag, not to mention the artificial flavourings, artificial colourings, hydrogenated fat, additives and preservatives. As with most convenience foods, this option isn’t such a healthy one after all! Gabriela advises to "keep portion size in check and avoid any extra add-ons such as sugar, salt, butter or toffee."
Despite the fact that they are sweet enough to use in cakes, they are a highly nutritious vegetable. Sweet potatoes are high in vitamin A, vitamin B5, B6, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and, due to their orange colour, are high in carotenoids. Plus, they're fat-free, relatively low in sodium and have fewer calories than white potatoes, although they do contain more sugar.
Sweet potatoes are one of the best sources of vitamin A; a large one contains more than 100% of the daily recommended intake. Vitamin A is an antioxidant powerhouse, and is linked to anti-ageing benefits, cancer prevention and the maintenance of good eyesight, according to the National Institute of Health.
Sweet potatoes are a great source of B6 vitamins too, which are brilliant at breaking down homocysteine, a substance that contributes to the hardening of blood vessels and arteries, according to the Harvard University School of Public Health.
As sweet as they are, sweet potatoes have a low glycemic index, which means they release sugar slowly into the bloodstream. Sweet potatoes, unlike other starchy foods that elevate blood sugar rapidly after [they're consumed] due to their metabolism into sugar, will help to steady the levels of blood sugar.
Sweet potatoes also boast anti-inflammatory benefits. One sweet potato contains about half of the daily recommended intake of vitamin C. The vitamin A and E content also supports a healthy immune system, as these vitamins in particular are powerful disease-fighting antioxidants.
If you eat too many sweet potatoes, you may find that your skin and nails start taking on a slightly orange hue!
A medium sweet potato, approximately 130g contains 100 calories. Negatives are minimal, but Gabriela has a few tips:
“Sweet potatoes are high in carbohydrates in comparison to a green vegetable, for example. Eat in moderation and prepare in a healthy way - don’t fry them!”
Eggs have long been maligned by well-meaning doctors and scientists due to their high cholesterol content. Now they are making a bit of a comeback.
It is true that the yolk contains lots of cholesterol which may (or may not) affect your blood cholesterol, but on a more positive note they are also packed full of nutrients that may actually reduce the risk of heart disease including protein, B12, vitamin D, folate and B2.
There is a solid body of research which shows that for most people, cholesterol in food has a much smaller effect on blood levels of total cholesterol and harmful LDL cholesterol than does a mix of fats in the diet.
Recent research has also shown that moderate egg consumption - up to one a day - does not increase heart disease risk in healthy individuals and can be consumed as part of a healthy diet.
Eggs are packed full of disease-fighting nutrients such as lutein and zeaxanthin. These carotenoids may reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults. Brain development and memory may also be enhanced by the choline content of eggs.
They make a great breakfast as, thanks to a high protein content, they will help to keep you fuller for longer in comparison to other breakfast options. Gabriela has a final word on the egg issue:
“They’re filling so it’s better to consume no more than two per day. Choose organic and free range where possible for optimum nutritional benefits and ethical reasons. Ideally buy eggs from hens raised on pasture.”
Read more about Emma Olliff or book a consultation here .
For more tips or to book an appointment with Gabriela Peacock, see her website here .