Jul
10
2010

What foods are definitely (probably) good for you?

A healthy salad, even better with olive oil (photo by "Just a Temporary Measure" - CC-BY)

Some foods go in and out of fashion as “health foods”, others have their status change as new research becomes available.

Here are some foods that are almost certainly healthy.

Frozen peas

Peas are rich in vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese, folate and vitamin B1. They are also good sources of dietary fiber and protein.

Perhaps surprisingly, frozen peas are better nutritionally than commercial fresh peas, simply because frozen peas are frozen soon after picking (within two hours according to one UK supplier). It takes much longer for fresh peas to reach the store, by which time some of the vitamins and much of the flavor has been lost. Freshly picked peas from the pod are even better and are in my opinion the most delicious vegetable of all.

My daughter munches frozen peas straight from the pack as a snack, but if that doesn’t appeal it’s trivial to steam them or heat them in the microwave. Forget about boiling them with sugar and salt as people did decades ago; modern pea varieties are more tender and more sweet. They don’t need—and don’t tolerate—boiling.

Oily fish

Oily fish is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, and there is evidence that these help the development of the nervious system of babies before and after birth. The omega-3 fatty acids probably help our brain development, improve eye health, and reduce the risk of certain cancers and heart disease.

Oily fish include trout, salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, kipper and eel, and also fresh tuna—but not tinned tuna as the omega-3 content is reduced by canning.

A word of caution: when fish live in polluted waters, they concentrate mercury and dioxins (poisonous byproducts of industrial processes). Although dioxin pollution is decreasing, you may wish to limit your intake to two servings of oily fish per week.

A good dietary guideline is to have one portion of oily fish and one portion of white fish every week.

Garlic

There is a long tradition of eating garlic to cure the common cold. There is some evidence that garlic helps to ward off infections and improves heart health by thinning the blood. Some people find garlic keeps away mosquitoes (and tax collectors).

If you don’t like the idea of having garlic on your breath, the bad news is that the smell comes from allicin, which is probably the active ingredient. Therefore, “odorless garlic capsules” may not be a useful substitute for real garlic.

Some people react badly to garlic and it can harbor botulism, particularly when raw garlic is stored in oil at room temperature, so take care.

Dark chocolate

Many healthy foods are staple foods, but dark chocolate is a treat that seems to be good for your heart, probably due to the flavonoids that it contains. A couple of squares a day is enough: more than that and you may consume too many calories.

There are two caveats: you negate the health benefits if you eat the chocolate together with milk or any dairy product, and to get the health benefits you need to eat “real” dark chocolate: dairy-free and at least 70% cocoa solids.

Walnuts

Many nuts are healthy, including walnuts. They are high in B vitamins, magnesium and antioxidants. They also have plenty of fiber. Walnuts have high levels of omega 3 fatty acids (the “good” fats).

The FDA recognises the heart disease protection of seven kinds of nuts: walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, some pine nuts, and pistacios.

Walnuts, and nuts in general, are high in calories, so an average of two walnut kernels per day is plenty. Also, don’t eat bitter walnuts, which can be harmful.

Wholemeal pasta

Whole grain carbs are good carbs. They make you feel full, so they help with weight loss. Wholemeal pasta is likely to reduce the risk of diabetes, and to help fight cancer and heart disease. It’s also much higher in fiber and protein than refined white pasta.

There’s just one problem: many people don’t find wholegrain pasta particularly easy to eat. You consume a few mouthfuls of it, then you don’t feel like eating any more. That’s why it’s so good for appetite control, but if you’re eating it for its nutritional benefits you could also experiment with 50/50 pasta, which is effectively “wholemeal lite”. You can also get other 50/50 wheat products, including bread.

Turmeric

Turmeric is traditionally used to help digestion, regulate menstruation and relieve arthritis pain. Few clinical studies have been conducted, although studies with animals suggest that curcumin (found in turmeric) has anti-inflammatory properties and may fight cancer.

Even if you don’t add turmeric to your own cooking, you can get it from curry powders and mustards, and it is also used to color some cheeses.

Olives

Green and black olives have been part of the healthy Mediterranean diet for thousands of years. Their fat is monounsaturated (the healthy kind). Olives also have lots of vitamin E (an antioxidant) along with flavonoids and polyphenols (anti-inflammatories).

Olives are thought to reduce problems associated with asthma, osteoarthritis and theumatoid arthritis. They also help prevent heart disease and colon cancer, and reduce the symptoms of hot flushes during menopause.

Don’t buy lye-processed olives, as the lye removes some of the flavor and goodness. You can also get similar benefits from extra-virgin (unrefined, cold-pressed) olive oil.

Berries

It’s hard to go wrong with berries. Humans evolved to thrive on a hunter-gatherer diet which was high in nuts, seeds and berries, plus fish or the occasional wild pig. For modern humans, that’s still a good diet.

Most berries are naturally sweet (cranberries are the obvious exception here, and I like my cranberries coated in dark chocolate), and berries are generally high in vitamin C and potassium. Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries and strawberries are high in antioxidants. Raspberries and blueberries contain lutein, which is good for your eyes. Cranberries and blueberries seem to help with bladder function.

“Posh” berries such as goji and acai are also fine, but you can probably get other berries more cheaply.

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