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Chocolate can be good for you

Chocolate can be good for you

Chocolate can be good for you

This week is Chocolate Week!!!!

The History of chocolate 

The history of chocolate dates back over 3000 years to the Olmec civilization.  Cocoa powder is made from cocoa beans that are harvested from a tree called Theobroma Cacao, meaning ‘food of the Gods’.  Aztecs are thought to have enjoyed cacao beans by making a ‘drink’ called Chicolati, which was believed to increase wisdom, boost energy and act as an aphrodisiac. This brew was seasoned with vanilla, chilli, honey or fruit and whipped into a froth using little sticks.  I love their choice of flavours, which have now become commonplace amongst chocolate bars and puddings.

Since its discovery by Europeans and the vast time through to modern day, millions of people have helped to drive the popularity of this ultimate sweet treat.  The reputation of chocolate has evolved over time from a luxury food synonymous with wealth, to an easily affordable comfort food whilst the association with romantic gesture (food of love) and mood has remained since first discovered.

Global retail sales of chocolate are staggering with estimates of over £75 billion per year and in the UK alone, we spend over £3 billion annually.

Types of chocolate

Chocolate comes in many forms nowadays and is defined by the percentage of cocoa it contains.  Milk chocolate contains a low percentage of cocoa (23% cocoa solids) and is high in sugar and saturated fat.  Darker varieties have a greater percentage of cocoa (anything from 70-90% cocoa solids) and slightly less sugar and saturated fat (although still high).  Cocoa powder contains hardly any sugar, low amounts of saturated fat and is rich in minerals and other compounds that may benefit health.

Nutritional content of cocoa

Cocoa in its raw form is a good source of minerals including iron (helps to maintain healthy red blood cell production), magnesium (helps to maintain healthy bones, promotes muscle relaxation and converts food into energy), phosphorus (healthy bones and converts food into energy), potassium (helps maintain fluid balance and helps the heart to work properly),  zinc (helps to make new cells and enzymes in the body and wound healing) and copper (helps to produce red and white blood cells and with iron usage in the body).

Nutritional breakdown of unsweetened cocoa powder per 2 heaped tsp

Calories         44

Fat                  1.9g

Sat fat             1.8g

Carb                 1.6g

Sugar              0g

Fibre               2.3g

Protein           2.6g

Also contains….

Iron                 1.57mg (11% RDA)

Magnesium    73mg   (19% RDA)

Phosphorus    92mg (13% RDA)

Potassium       210mg (10.5% RDA)

Zinc                 0.97mg (9.7% RDA)

Copper           0.55mg (55% RDA)

Other compounds found in cocoa

Cocoa is richer in antioxidants that almost any other food on the planet.  These antioxidant compounds are called flavanol polyphenols and have been shown to help reduce the risk of disease. Cocoa also contains a compound called theobromine, which acts as a stimulant similar to caffeine but without the jittery side-effects. You will also find phenethylamine (PEA) in cocoa, which is a compound that stimulates the central nervous system to amplify the action of brain chemicals including the ‘feel’ good hormones serotonin and dopamine.  Phenethylamine is also thought to mimic the brain chemistry of someone in love, which is why it’s often thought of as an aphrodisiac.

What are the potential health benefits of cocoa?

In moderation there’s nothing wrong with eating chocolate within the context of a healthy diet, but too much of anything can have its downsides and our reliance on high sugar snacks has been instrumental in the rise of diet related diseases including obesity.

Whilst overindulging on chocolate snack bars and puddings is clearly not great for your health, research has shown that there may be health benefits associated with cocoa, which is the raw ingredient.

Just to be clear, there are no benefits associated with tucking into a few packets of Minstrels and any positive impact on health is linked to cocoa in its raw form of cocoa powder or raw cacao.  The closest chocolate comes to having any health benefits is the dark variety with a high percentage of cocoa solids (70% and above), but this still needs to be eaten in moderation given its high sugar and sat fat content.

Heart disease

The polyphenols in cocoa are thought to dilate the arteries, which improves elasticity and may reduce the risk of heart attack. The effect of these antioxidants is also thought to be similar to aspirin in that they help to thin the blood and prevent unwanted clots with research showing that the effect after drinking a cup of cocoa lasting more than 6 hours (1).  Findings from a large analysis of seven studies carried out by researchers at Cambridge University found that both men and women with the highest intake of cocao were 37% less likely to suffer with coronary heart disease and 29% less likely to experience a stroke compared to those with the lowest intakes (2).

Cholesterol

Studies have shown that cocoa may have a positive impact on cholesterol, raised levels of which are considered to be a risk factor for heart disease.  Findings from a clinical trial published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that the polyphenols found in cocoa powder contributed to a reduction in LDL (bad) cholesterol, elevation in HDL (good) cholesterol and suppressed the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which is thought to be particularly damaging to tissues such as those lining the arteries of the heart (3).   The effect on oxidation may be explained by the antioxidant effect of polyphenols as they help to protect the body from free radical damage (4).

Blood pressure

Research around blood pressure stems from islanders of Kuna that don’t appear to develop high blood pressure as they get older, which is in part attributed to the high amounts of cocoa they consume on a daily basis. It was noticed that once they left the island and consumed less cocoa they lost the protective effect on blood pressure.  The link between cocoa and blood pressure is that the flavanols it contains increase the availability of nitric oxide in the blood, which dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure.  Researchers from Adelaide University found that drinking cocoa (rich in flavanols) significantly lowered blood pressure when compared to a flavanol-free placebo drink (5).  Similar findings have also been shown in several other studies although the effect is not that strong (6, 7).

Brain health

Studies have shown that drinking cocoa at least 5 days of the week boosts the flow of blood to the parts of the brain that help with cognition and may improve performance and alertness (8).  The antioxidants in cocoa also help to neutralise the low-grade inflammation associated with ‘foggy’ thoughts. Studies of older people that are mentally impaired have found that those who regularly drank cocoa had greater improvements in memory and verbal reasoning than those who did not (9). It’s for this reason that cocoa has been of interest to researchers investigating dementia.

Chocolate as a functional food?

Advances in innovation have seen a rise in chocolate products with added health benefits.  Companies such as Ombar produce a dark chocolate bar fortified with probiotic cultures.

How to add more cocoa into your diet

Whilst many people enjoy eating chocolate and may understand the potential benefit of choosing dark over milk varieties, less people know how to use cocoa powder beyond a drink.

If you’re not familiar with using cocoa powder, then try these ideas below for a little inspiration:

  • Add 1 tbsp to your protein shake.
  • Add 1 tbsp to porridge.
  • Make homemade energy balls by blending cocoa or raw cacao powder, dates and chopped hazelnuts to a food processor.
  • Combine 1 tbsp with hot milk of choice for a warming evening drink rich in magnesium that helps to promote muscle relaxation and has been shown by research to induce sleep. Try adding cinnamon, ground cardamom or chilli for extra flavour.
  • Add cocoa or raw cacao powder to chilli con carne for richness and intense flavour.

The reality of chocolate and health

The truth still remains that chocolate, even dark chocolate, is never going to be considered a healthy food as it contains high amounts of sugar and saturated fat, which if eaten in excess will counteract any potential health benefits of cocoa.  However, you can reap the health benefits of cocoa by incorporating it into your diet in ways that allow you to control the amount of sugar and saturated fat.  It’s also worth pointing out that the true benefit of nutrition lies in the overall diet and not single foods so whilst the health potential of cocoa is interesting, you still need to focus on eating a well balanced and varied diet.

Try this recipe from my book The Detox Kitchen Bible.  These brownies are still a sweet treat but contain much less sugar than usual recipes and harness the benefits of cocoa.

Beetroot Brownies

Makes 9

Ingredients

150g raw beetroot, peeled and cut into small cubes

50g hazelnuts

100g gluten and wheat-free flour

1 tsp baking powder

60g raw cacao powder

120g runny honey

½ tsp salt

3 eggs

75ml rapeseed oil

Method

  1. Preheat your oven to 200°C. Line the bottom and sides of a 20cm square cake tin with greaseproof paper.
  2. Put the beetroot in a microwave-safe bowl with 50ml water, cover with clingfilm and cook on a high heat for 7 minutes until soft. If you don’t have a microwave, wrap the beetroot in foil and bake in the heated oven for about 40 minutes until soft.
  3. Put the hazelnuts in a blender and blitz until they are roughly chopped. Transfer them to a large mixing bowl. Sift in the flour, baking powder and cacao powder.
  4. Now blitz the cooked beetroot in the blender for 1–2 minutes until smooth. Add to the dry ingredients in the bowl but do not mix just yet.
  5. Using the blender for the third time, put the honey, salt and eggs in it and blitz for 3 minutes. Pour into the bowl and mix with the rest of the ingredients using a wooden spoon. Be gentle, as you want to keep air in the mixture whilst combining it thoroughly.
  6. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and bake in the heated oven for about 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Allow to cool completely before cutting into squares.

You can find more delicious recipes from Lilly and the gang at the Detox Kitchen website.

 

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10871557
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21875885
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17513403
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11684527
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19910929
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17609490
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22301923
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16794461
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25733639

 

Ten prebiotic foods you need to know about

Ten prebiotic foods you need to know about

Ten prebiotic foods you need to know about

Gut health has become a hot topic in the world of nutrition and as research evolves it’s becoming very clear that the beneficial role of microbes found in the gut goes way beyond digestion.  The collection of microbes in your gut are referred to as your microbiome and advice about how to protect it has become commonplace.

Your gut microbiome is sensitive to your lifestyle and dietary habits; both  can either promote a good diversity of microbes in the gut or tip the balance in the opposite direction, which may have a negative impact on your health.

The foods that can have the biggest positive effect on your microbiome are those containing beneficial bacteria (probiotics) and those containing indigestible fibres referred to as prebiotics.

Your microbiome is unique like a fingerprint

The term ‘microbiome’ refers to the collection of microbes that live in and on the body, of which there are around 100 trillion, the majority of which are found in the gut.  These bugs form a protective barrier defending the body from foreign invaders, which can be harmful to health.

The microbes in your gut include bacteria, which are essential for efficient digestion.  These bacteria also help to digest antioxidant polyphenols, synthesise vitamins such as B12, D, folic acid and thiamine, and produce short chain fatty acids that provide energy to the cells of your colon helping to maintain a strong gut barrier.  Gut bacteria have also been shown to play a role in immunity and new research is starting to explore the effect on the brain with early findings linking the diversity of bacteria in your gut to mental health and obesity (via the effect on hormones that control appetite).

Like a fingerprint, your microbiome is unique, and its composition is dictated by the world around you and within you.

Cultivation is key to a healthy microbiome

It’s yet unclear what constitutes a ‘healthy’ microbiome but one thing for sure is that it takes a bit of cultivation.  If your gut becomes overrun with bad bacteria then this can upset the balance of your microbiome, which may lead to symptoms such as bloating, excessive gas, abnormal bowels, bad breath and fatigue.

A poor diet is characterised by an over-consumption of sugar and bad fats, whilst lacking in nutritious foods such as vegetables and other wholefoods including beans, pulses and wholegrains.  This type of diet has been shown to promote the overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut  (1, 2, 3).

Medication can also impact on gut bacteria as the overuse of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and antibiotics have the potential to destroy them, which can leave your gut vulnerable and increase the risk of infection.

What are prebiotics?

No doubt you will have heard about probiotics, which are friendly bacteria found in foods such as live yoghurt and supplements.  Other foods such as kimchi, kefir and miso also contain bacteria, which are beneficial to health.

The role of prebiotics is less well understood but they’re equally, if not more important than probiotics as these indigestible fibres help the bacteria in your gut to thrive.  Probiotic supplements have the potential to be very beneficial, especially if you need to re-balance the diversity of bacteria in your gut but the same is not necessarily true of prebiotics.

There are many food sources of prebiotics, which include inulin, lignin, oligosaccharides, mucilage gums, non-starch polysaccharides (pectin and beta glucans) and resistant starches.  Foods containing these prebiotics can easily be incorporated into your daily diet and many of which you may already be eating on a regular basis. You’re more likely to be eating prebiotic foods if your diet is healthy and contains plenty of plant-based foods.

Ten top prebiotic foods to include in your diet

There are quite a few prebiotic foods, but I have chosen the ones that are more commonly eaten and easily accessed from your local supermarket.

1.Jerusalem artichoke

This vegetable is now available in larger supermarkets and is in season between October and February.  Jerusalem artichokes contain 2g of fibre per 100g and 76% comes from inulin. You can also glean a good source of thiamine (healthy nervous system and releases energy from food) and iron (healthy immune system, red blood cell production and wards of tiredness) from Jerusalem artichokes.

These are not a commonly eaten vegetable as many people are unsure how to use them.  Jerusalem artichokes have a nutty flavour and can be used in the same way as potatoes in that they can be roasted and mashed, and also work well in soups.

2.Garlic

This vegetable is closely related to onions and leeks. Garlic can form the base of many home-cooked dishes alongside onions, which means it’s easy to add to your daily diet.  Around 11% of the fibre found in garlic comes from inulin and 6% from fructooligosaccharides, which add a slight sweetness to its flavour.

3.Onions

Onions are another food that can easily be included into your daily diet as it acts as a base for many home-cooked dishes.  Around 10% of the fibre found in onions comes from inulin and 6% from fructooligosaccharides.  Onions also contain a good source of vitamin C (protects cells, maintains healthy skin and helps with wound healing) and the flavonoid quercetin, which acts as an antioxidant in the body.

4.Leeks

This vegetable is similar to garlic and onions but less commonly used.  Around 16% of the fibre found in leeks is from inulin.  Leeks are also high in flavonoids, which support the body to respond to oxidative stress.  You can also glean a good source of vitamin A (healthy immune system, eyes, skin and mucosal linings such as the nose), vitamin C (protects cells, maintains healthy skin and helps with wound healing) and vitamin K (blood clotting and healthy bones) from leeks.

You can serve leeks as a side dish, incorporate into soups or a topping for pies.

5.Apples

There’s a lot of truth in the saying about an apple a day keeping the doctor away, and this includes the health of your gut.  Around 50% of the fibre found in apples is from pectin.  This prebiotic not only benefits the health of your microbiota but has been shown to help reduce cholesterol.  Apples are also high in polyphenol antioxidants.

As well as snacking on apples you can use them to make fruit puddings, add to savoury dishes and grate as a topping for yoghurt or soaked oats.

6.Asparagus

This vegetable is now available all year round with supermarkets importing it from countries such as Peru.  To savour the best tasting Asparagus and save on food miles, you’re better to wait until the British asparagus season, which occurs between April and May.   Asparagus is not as rich in prebiotics as other vegetables with only around 5% of the fibre coming from inulin. This vegetable also contains a good source of vitamin A (healthy immune system, eyes, skin and mucosal linings such as the nose), vitamin K (blood clotting and healthy bones) and folate (healthy red blood cells and protection against neural tube defects in unborn babies).

Asparagus is delicious served on its own with a big drizzle of olive oil or topped with a poached egg for breakfast.  You can also add asparagus to pasta dishes, risottos and soups.

7.Bananas

These fruits are one of the most commonly eaten in the UK and contain small amounts of inulin.  Unripe (green) bananas are high in resistant starch and feature as an ingredient in many Caribbean dishes. Bananas are also a good source of vitamin B6 (converts food into energy and helps to form haemoglobin in red blood cells).

Bananas can be eaten as a snack, baked and used in smoothies and fruit puddings.  For something different, try adding to curries.

8.Barley

This grain is not as commonly used as others such as rice but is actually hugely versatile once you know how to use it.  Barley contains around 8g of beta glucan per 100g, which is not only good for your gut but has been shown to help reduce cholesterol. Barley also contains the minerals magnesium (converts food into energy, promotes muscle relaxation and healthy bones) and selenium (protects cells and promotes a healthy immune system).

Barley can be used in place of rice to make risotto, added to soups or salads (cooked).

9.Potatoes

Potatoes are a starchy carbohydrate as are other foods such as grains.  Starches are long chains of glucose, which the body uses for energy.  When potatoes are cooked and then cooled, they develop resistant starches, which the body is unable to break down and as such behave as prebiotics.

10.Flaxseeds

These seeds are hugely healthy and a good source of prebiotics with 20-40% of their fibre coming from mucilage gums and 60-80% from cellulose and lignin.  Flaxseeds also contain phenolic antioxidants and are a useful source of protein. You can also glean a good source of minerals from flaxseed including magnesium (converts food into energy, promotes muscle relaxation and healthy bones), iron (healthy immune system, red blood cell production and wards of tiredness), calcium (healthy bones and teeth) and zinc (converts food into energy, involved in making new cells and enzymes and helps with wound healing).  Flaxseed are also rich in omega 3 and although the conversion to more usable forms of this fatty acid in the body is poor, it’s still a useful source, especially for people following a plant-based diet.

You can add seeds to any dish and also smoothies.

If you’re eating a healthy diet, then many of the foods included will naturally take care of your gut and including the foods listed above will be especially useful to promote the health of your microbiome.

 

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3493718/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4005082/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4083503/
The blokes guide to going vegan

The blokes guide to going vegan

The blokes guide to going vegan

Veganism is on the rise and research commissioned by the vegan society in 2016 showed that the number of vegans in the UK has increased by 360% over the last 10 years as a record number of people are choosing to avoid food derived from animals. Over 500,000 people aged 15 or over (more than one per cent of the population) have adopted this plant-based way of eating, making this one of the fasted growing lifestyle movements according to the Vegan Society.  Most vegans live in urban areas, with a quarter residing in London. A Mintel survey carried out in 2017 found that 11% of Britons had tried to follow a vegan diet at some point (1), whilst a previous report found that 33% of Brits had tried eating less meat to be healthier (2).

Vegan men

It wasn’t that long ago that Formula One superhero Lewis Hamilton said he was planning to go vegan full-time in an attempt to function at his healthiest and avoid damaging the planet.  “I stopped eating red meat two years ago”, he told the BBC.  Continuing, he said, “I think it’s the right direction and by letting people who are following me know, maybe that will encourage a couple of people to do the same thing”.  Other male vegan sports people include the footballers, Jermain Defoe and Dean Howell, and even heavyweights such as the British boxer David Hayes have made the switch to this plant-based way of eating. Hollywood celebrities have also followed suit with actors and musicians such as Jared Leto, Chris Martin, Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck all reported to follow a vegan way of eating.

It still stands that more women are vegan but 37% are still made up of men (3) and the increase awareness of health and body weight amongst men may equally be driven these days by celebrity influence as it has always been amongst women. Recent research has suggested that even men who don’t like meat, find it upsets their digestion, or have been asked by a doctor to reduce consumption, still find it difficult to choose the vegetarian or vegan option when in public with other men.

Vegans in the UK

The growing trend towards veganism is reflected in the demand for meat-free food, which has increased by over 900% with this way of eating predicted by some sources to be one of the biggest food trends in 2018 (4,5).  Food industry insight provided by Foodable Labs reported that in 2018, fifty one percent of chefs in the US added vegan items to their menus.  The same report suggests that this rise is in part due to the influence of social media food and health bloggers as it showed a 79% increase in photos tagged as being vegan (6).

High street food outlets have recognised the increase and responded by offering more vegan options and certain branches of Pret are now solely offering vegetarian and vegan food. Dietary food labelling (including dairy and eggs) has also made it easier for vegans to choose their food when looking for something to eat on the High Street, although some restaurant options are still limited.

Benefits of veganism

Whilst some people choose to go vegan for ethical reasons (environmental damage from methane gases and deforestation, water scarcity and land degradation), others see this is a great way to improve their health and rightly so.  Research shows that non-meat eaters have healthier lifestyles compared to a typical omnivore diet. Plus, a well-balanced vegan diet is more likely to contain a greater quantity of fibre-rich wholegrain foods and pulses. It’s also been shown that vegans are more likely to exceed the daily recommended fruit and vegetable intake, which means gleaning a greater quantity of certain key vitamins and phytonutrients that help to protect the body from disease (7).

Studies also show associations between meat-free eating and a lower incidence of obesity (8), heart disease (9), high blood pressure (10), type 2 diabetes (11) and digestive disorders such as constipation (12).  Lifestyle habits do play a key role here and this doesn’t mean that following a vegan diet will definitely prevent you from developing these conditions.

Anecdotally, people who have gone vegan report better energy levels and overall wellness, but this could in part be to do with the fact that vegans have been shown to be healthier in general, more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke (13).

Men going vegan

Going vegan may pose challenges to certain men especially those programmed towards a ‘meat and two veg’ way of eating.  The vegan diet can be quite calorie restrictive, which means careful planning for men trying to maintain their body weight.  Men following a demanding fitness regime will also need to adjust their thinking towards how they source their increased requirement for protein. Certain nutrients are also more important for men’s health such as zinc, which is typically found in meat and seafood but easy to source from plant foods once you know which ones to include in your diet.

There’s absolutely no reason why anyone can’t glean everything they need on a vegan diet. The issue of nutrient sufficiency has nothing to do with the food and is more a case of people understanding what foods they should be including in their diet and how to incorporate them. Following a vegan diet does take a little more thought and planning, especially when you first start out, but once you begin to understand what this diet looks like in terms of food, then it’s no different to any other way of eating and the same basic principles of healthy eating apply.

What to expect and how to start

Firstly, you may find yourself feeling hungrier once you switch to a vegan diet, so you may need to be prepared to include a couple of snacks during the day and think about including certain more nutrient dense foods.  Switching to eating solely plants means you may be eating a larger volume of food but fewer calories so choosing the right foods to supply you with enough energy is key.

It’s essential to include foods such as nut butters, avocados, oils, nuts and seeds to your diet to maintain adequate energy levels. Try and make your meals up of a protein (see below), grain, and healthy fats (nut, seed, oil, tahini, avocado, nut or seed). Explore dressings and sauces to accompany your meals. If you do get hungry then fill the gap with dips (bean or veggie based), nuts, seeds, soya yoghurt with toppings, smoothies (try adding oats for extra protein) or breads (topped with nut butter, avocado or banana).

Secondly, there’s likely to be a greater burden on cooking and preparing meals so work out your go-to meals to make things a little easier.  This might be a tofu or vegan Quorn stir-fry or one pot dishes such as a bean-based chilli that can be batch cooked and frozen for future meals.

Thirdly, you may experience bloating and gas when you make the switch to eating more beans, pulses and other high fibre foods. This will pass as your body adapts to this way of eating.

You may want to ease yourself in gently to veganism by starting with eliminating animal flesh then after a few weeks cutting out eggs and dairy.

Nutrients you may want to focus on as you begin vegan eating

A balanced diet is bedrock to good nutrition but if you’re used to eating animal foods as the main component of your diet then you may want to consider how you source certain nutrients in your diet.

Protein

There’s a current obsession with protein and whilst the richest sources are found in animal foods, there’s no reason you can’t get everything you need from plants. The trick is to include a source of vegan protein with every meal.  The richest sources are tofu, beans, lentils, pulses and vegan Quorn but other sources include quinoa, nuts, nut butters and seeds.  You will also glean a little protein from foods such as breads, pasta and rice.  The idea of pairing proteins is outdated so just mix and match them across the day to get a good intake of all the amino acids that make up this macronutrient.

Zinc

Zinc is an important part of many enzymes and has a role to play in immunity, processing carbohydrates, fats and proteins from foods and wound healing. The recommended daily intake for zinc is set higher for men as it plays a key role in maintaining prostate health, testosterone levels and overall reproductive health.

There’s a suggestion that vegans may fall short of this mineral in their diet but there are plenty of plant foods containing zinc. There’s also the issue of absorption, which is thought to be less from plant sources so just being mindful to include plenty of zinc-rich foods in your diet such as spinach, nuts, seeds, cocoa powder, mushrooms, beans, breads and cereal products will do the trick.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is mostly found in foods of animal origin so vegans should try to include fortified products such as plant milks and breakfast cereals in the diet. Yeast extract is one of the few vegan-friendly natural sources of vitamin B12. Contrary to popular belief, spirulina and other algae products are not reliable sources of this vitamin

Iron

Low intakes of iron can lead to tiredness, fatigue and low mood as this mineral is required to make red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body. The type of iron found in meat is more easily absorbed by the body than plant-based sources, but you can increase the uptake by partnering them with a source of vitamin C such as serving fruit juice with your breakfast cereals or combining red peppers with pulses, beans and lentils. Avoiding tea with meals can also help maximise the absorption of iron from your food. Good sources include pulses, nuts, seeds, fortified breakfast cereals, tofu, tempeh, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, molasses and dried spices.

Calcium

Calcium is essential for the good health of your bones and is also required for proper muscle and nerve function. Although dairy is often (falsely) thought to be one of the only sources of this mineral, you can glean more than enough from foods such as tofu, almonds, dark green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds, tahini and fortified plant-milks. Try eating two or three servings of calcium-rich foods on a daily basis.

Omega 3

Omega 3 fatty acids cannot be made in the body. The two most important are called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexeanoic acid (DHA), which are predominantly found in oily fish.  Another type of Omega 3 called alphalinolenic acid (ALA) can be found in foods such as dark green leafy vegetables, quinoa, walnuts and chia seed oil.  This Omega 3 fatty acid is converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but the conversion rate is poor, so you may want to consider supplementing your diet with a vegan Omega 3 supplement (sourced from algae).

Store cupboard essentials for all vegans

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Nut butters
  • Oils (extra virgin olive, rapeseed, sesame, chia)
  • Soy (tofu, miso, tempeh)
  • Fortified plant milks
  • Yeast extract
  • Dried spices
  • Cocoa powder
  • Quinoa
  • Canned beans, pulses and lentils
  • Tahini
  • Avocado
  • Hummus
  • Dried fruit
  • Wholegrains (oats, barley, brown rice, spelt)
  • Wholemeal pasta and breads
  • Vegan Quorn
  • Yeast extract
  • Fortified cereals

There’s no reason why anyone can’t get everything they need from a vegan diet.  Certain nutrients such as zinc are particularly important for men and they may also need to consider their overall energy and protein intake if they are trying to gain or maintain body weight alongside a heavy training regime.  They key is planning and understanding how to create quick and easy vegan meals to reduce the burden of cooking.  Supplements such as a multivitamin and mineral or omega 3 may be worth investing in as you begin the transition to vegan eating to insure you are getting everything your body needs.

 

  1. https://store.mintel.com/uk-meat-free-foods-market-report
  2. https://store.mintel.com/healthy-lifestyles-uk-october-2016
  3. https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/migrations/en-uk/files/Assets/Docs/Polls/vegan-society-poll-2016-topline.pdf
  4. https://www.just-eat.ie/blog/plant-based-diet-2018/
  5. https://foodrevolution.org/blog/vegan-statistics-global/
  6. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/vegan-dishes-chefs-restaurant-menus-added-2018-veganism-trend-us-a8511526.html
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26707634
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26138004
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24636393
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466938/
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21983060
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10466166
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23583444

 

Can the food you eat really ‘boost’ your immune system?

Can the food you eat really ‘boost’ your immune system?

Can you really ‘boost’ your immune system?

As much as I love basking in the sun, I actually love the Winter.  Cosy nights in, wrapping up in Winter woollies and the celebrations of Halloween, bonfire night, Christmas and New Year are all something to enjoy.  What I don’t relish is the prospect of Winter bugs and no matter how healthy you are, they always manage to creep their way in.

As the colder months approach, it becomes more important to eat and live well to support a healthy immune system, which helps to protect us against infections.  Even the best of us are up against it during the Winter and the challenges these months present can hamper good diet and lifestyle practices.  Comfort eating, and the influence of dark mornings and early evenings offer the perfect excuse to lapse on our healthy diet and exercise regimes.

The immunity ‘boost’ conundrum 

As Winter approaches, so comes the advice on how we can ‘boost’ our immune system to ward off infectious bugs.  The idea that you can ‘boost’ your immune system is a little misleading.  This concept conjures up a false expectation of ‘supercharging’ your immune system and in some way making it invincible to anything that attempts to challenge it. The reality is that immunity involves a system and not a single entity. There are many cells of the immune system that have to respond to many different types of microbes. Pinpointing the specific cells and defining to what degree they should be increased is hugely complex and a question that’s yet unanswered by science.

Given the intricacies of the immune response, the science behind the impact of diet and lifestyle on immunity is not definitive, but research is continuing to evolve and it’s clear that maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a key part of keeping your immune system strong and healthy.

Why do we need our immune system?

You couldn’t survive without an efficient immune system, which is made up of special cells, proteins, tissues and organs that defend the body against infectious organisms and other foreign invaders through a series of processes referred to as the immune response.

Foreign invaders in the body are referred to as antigens. These are toxins or other foreign substances that induce an immune response in the body, especially the production of antibodies. One example of an antigen is the common cold virus. What makes the immune system truly remarkable is that once it has encountered an antigen, antibodies are hard coded to fight this invader should it try to attack the body again.

Can the quality of your diet help to maintain a healthy immune system?

The simple answer is yes. Exactly how diet is linked to immunity is not fully understood but is an area of research that continues to evolve.  Scientists acknowledge that malnourished people are more vulnerable to infectious diseases, which helps to illustrate the importance of diet on immunity.

Maintaining a healthy balanced diet is key and there are many micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) required to maintain the normal functioning of the immune system.  If your diet is compromised in any way through dieting or illness for example, then you may not be eating enough food or the right quality of food that allows you to glean the nutrients required to support your immune system.

Findings from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) have shown that amongst certain groups of the population, intakes of certain vitamins and minerals that support immunity are lacking in the diet (1).  Vitamin D plays a key role in immunity and during the Winter months a significant percentage of people have been shown to have low levels of this nutrient, given the lack of sunshine, which is the main supplier.  Minerals such as selenium, iron and zinc also play an important role in immunity and have been shown to be lacking the diet of some people as have intakes of vitamin A.  This doesn’t necessarily mean your immune system will be compromised but that attention should be paid to eating the right foods to support healthy immunity.

Foods that can support your immune system

Diet is defined by food and not nutrients.  Eating a balanced diet consisting of whole foods such as vegetables, wholegrains, lean proteins and healthy fats, will support your immune system. However, for the purposes of this blog I’m going to lay out some of the foods that contain specific nutrients that support good immunity.

Vitamin A

Orange and green fruits and vegetables contain a pigment called beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A plays an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system (2).  This nutrient helps to maintain the integrity of the mucosal cells of the gastrointestinal tract, eye and respiratory system that function as a first line of defence to infection, forming a barrier between from the environment outside the body.  Vitamin A is also important for the normal function of immune cells and the production of antibodies that respond to infections.

Iron, selenium and zinc

All of these minerals are required for the production of antibodies, which are cells of the immune system that fight infection (3, 4, 5). Findings from the NDNS survey have shown that 27% of adult women and 54% of teenage girls do not get enough iron from their diet and partnered with menstrual blood loss, this puts them at particular risk of deficiency.  Selenium intakes are also low with 38% of adults being shown to have inadequate intakes. Zinc is also lacking the diet, with 8% of adults and 17% of teenagers shown to have inadequate intakes of this mineral (1).

You can maintain good intakes of iron by eating foods such as meat, poultry, oily fish and eggs.  Plant foods such as beans, pulses, dark green vegetables and dried spices are also a good source and you can increase the uptake of iron from these foods by partnering with foods rich in vitamin C.   Selenium is found in Brazil nuts, oily fish and wholegrain foods such as brown pasta, rice and bread. Levels of selenium do vary depending on where the food has been grown and the quality of the soil. Zinc is found in meat, shellfish, eggs, beans, pulses, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and cheese.

Vitamin C

This vitamin is the one people most associate with immunity and the common cold, which is backed up by some research suggesting its effectiveness at reducing the risk and length of infection (6).  Research has shown how several cells of the immune system accumulate vitamin C and requires this vitamin to perform their task, especially T cells and phagocytes.

Most people get more than enough vitamin C in their diet, but appetite can lesson if you do get ill, which may impact on your intake. You can keep your levels topped up by eating foods such as red peppers, citrus fruits, berries, broccoli and potatoes. Vitamin C is water soluble and easily destroyed so try not to overcook vegetables and avoid soaking before cooking.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D has been shown to play an important role in the immune system by increasing the antimicrobial effect of white blood cells that fight infection (7). Low levels of vitamin D can suppress the immune system, putting you at a greater risk of viral infections. Research involving more than 19,000 people found that those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 36% more likely to develop a common cold than those with higher levels (8).

Findings from the NDNS have shown that 30-40% of all age groups are classed as being deficient in vitamin D due to the lack of sunshine (1). Public Health England recommends everyone takes a supplement providing 10mcg of vitamin D during the Autumn and Winter.

Gut bacteria also play a role

Over 70% of immune cells are located in the gut so it makes that a relationship exists between the two. We’re beginning to understand that it’s quality and not quantity that’s key to gut health and the diversity of microbes in your gut is referred to as your microbiome.

Probiotics are bacteria that have been shown to have a positive health benefit.  Well researched strains include those from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium family.  Live yoghurt is the most well-known probiotic food and contains strains such as Lactobacillus Acidophilus and Lactobacillus Casei. Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir and miso also contain strains of bacteria that can support good gut health.

Probiotic supplements offer a way of delivering large doses of specific bacteria to the gut and may be beneficial in the prevention of upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) such as the common cold (9). The effect of probiotics on the immune system has been widely researched and certain strains have been shown to promote the production of antibodies. The same strains have also been shown to stimulate the activity of immune cells such as natural killer cells and T-lymphocytes, which help regulate immune responses.   A Cochrane Review showed that probiotics were better than a placebo in reducing the incidence and duration of a URTI (10).

Choose a supplement that contains both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria per serving.

Mushrooms are interesting too

The overall quality of your diet is more beneficial than focusing on any single food or nutrient, but mushrooms do appear to be interesting when it comes to immunity.  Not only are they one of the few foods to contain a natural source of vitamin D, but they also contain beta-glucan polysaccharides that have been shown by some studies to modulate the immune system (11).  Chinese medicine has long considered mushrooms to be medicinal and especially varieties such as shiitake.

Immunity is a hugely complex system that involves many different cells that work together to fight foreign invaders in the body.  Your diet is known to have a role to play although exactly how is yet fully understood.  Eating a balanced diet is no doubt helpful and there are certain nutrients that play a key role in maintaining the proper function of your immune system. Diet shouldn’t be defined by nutrients as food is what matters but understanding the nutrients that support your immune system help to support the importance of a balanced diet made up of a wide variety of foods.

 

References 

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11375434
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3173740/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3723386/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3724376/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23440782
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3166406/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19237723
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3560336/
  10. https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD006895.pub3/abstract
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4684115/

 

Quorn, cauliflower and sultana curry

Quorn, cauliflower and sultana curry

Cauliflower, Sultana and Quorn Curry

Serves 4

535 calories per serving

Rich in: potassium, iron, zinc, B6 and vitamin C

This curry is a brilliant example of how you can replace meat for Quorn.  Using Quorn offers a rich source of protein as well as a source of zinc, which has been shown to help maintain a heathy immune system.  Cauliflower is also one of the most humble superfoods.  Although it may not be the most colorful of foods it is packed with vitamin C and sulphur compounds that hep to protect the body against diseases such as cancer. 

 

Ingredients

300g brown rice

1 tbsp Extra virgin olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped

1 tbsp curry powder

1 tsp ground cardamom

1 red chilli, finely chopped

1 pinch sea salt

1 pinch black pepper

200g can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

350g Quorn pieces

3 tbsp sultanas

1 medium cauliflower, trimmed and cut into small florets

½ can of coconut milk (reduced fat)

1 lime, juiced

1 small bunch of mint

1 small bunch of coriander

 

Method  

  1. Set a medium saucepan of water to boil. Once the water is boiling add the rice.  Turn the heat down and simmer for 20 minutes until tender.
  2. Heat a large deep-sided non-stick pan over a medium heat and add the oil. Add the onion, garlic and ginger to the pan and cook gently for 5 minute until softened.
  3. Add the spices to the pan and cook for 1 minute until they become fragrant.
  4. Add 200ml of water to the pan and simmer for 2 minutes. Now add the chilli, salt, pepper, chickpeas, Quorn and sultanas then simmer for a further 10 minutes.
  5. Add the cauliflower florets and a further 150ml of water then simmer for another 5-8 minutes until the cauliflower is tender (keep the cauliflower tender to add texture)
  6. Pour in the coconut milk and add the lime juice, mint and coriander then cook for a further 2 minutes. Check for seasoning and then take off the heat.
  7. Drain the rice and serve in bows with the curry.

 

 Download PDF here Cauliflower curry

 

 

 

Can we eat our way to good health? Most definitely yes!

Can we eat our way to good health? Most definitely yes!

Current state of health and nutrient intake in the UK (Download as PDF Current state of health in the UK)

Two thirds of the UK population are now classed as being overweight or obese.  It’s well established from research that eating the right foods that lower your BMI can help reduce your risk of developing a whole raft of diseases from heart disease to cancer.   UK Food surveys also show that a significant number of people have low intakes of certain nutrients, which may impact on areas of your health including tiredness and fatigue, poor skin and digestion. 

Fibre intake in the UK is low as is intake of omega 3-rich foods such as oily fish, both of which help protect against heart disease and certain cancers.  Women in particular are shown to have low intakes of certain minerals in their diets including magnesium and iron (nearly quarter of women have inadequate intakes of iron) both of which can impact on energy levels and fatigue. One in five Brits are also at risk of profound vitamin D deficiency according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey that can impact on bone health which is especially important for the young and older people (research has also linked this vitamin to helping with symptoms of depression).

 Research shows that in some cases, including or removing certain foods from your diet may help to reduce the symptoms and management of certain conditions including high cholesterol, depression, PMS or menopause.

 

Can you heal yourself with food?

 So, it is possible to heal yourself with food?  Yes, absolutely.  Food has the ability to heal and nurture your health and getting your diet at a place of balance is the way to start, from there you can begin to add or remove certain foods according to your health concerns.  Don’t get me wrong, there is no magic food to suddenly cure you of disease and many conditions require medical intervention but diet may certainly help to compliment a treatment or provide a more holistic approach, it’s also just food so why not give it a go.

 

Restrictive diets

There is a growing trend to follow alternative ways of eating that restrict certain foods groups such as paleo and Pegan but do these ways of eating really improve our health and is the approach of cutting out wheat, dairy and sugar make a difference? I don’t believe that cutting out large swathes of foods is the best approach to take unless you are aware of what foods you have to replace them with to still get a balance of nutrients in the diet.  

Too many people embark on highly restrictive, complicated diets and end up suffering nutritionally, whilst diagnosed food intolerances and allergies are relatively rare for some people replacing dairy with calcium-rich alternatives and cutting down on the amount of refined carbs they eat simply makes them feel better and often helps improve digestion which is why we took this approach with the Detox Kitchen Bible cookbook.  Be realistic and be sensible about removing foods from your diet as they have to be replaced with similar foods to maintain a balanced diet. There’s little benefit removing it if it doesn’t cause a problem!”

 

Top tips for taking a food approach to some of the UK’s top health concerns.

 Weight loss

  • Include a mix of healthy fats, protein and  a little wholegrain carb for a balance of nutrients guaranteed to keep you feeling full between meals
  • Mindfulness and intuitive eating can play a key part in maintaining weight so think before you eat!
  • If you are reducing calories then choose high nutrient dense foods
  • Setting realistic goals and avoiding extreme diets are the best approach for lasting results
  • Fill up on veggies at each meal (fresh or frozen)
  • Choose foods with a high water content such as soups, stews and casseroles to increase fullness

Healing foods: aubergine, quinoa, eggs, brown rice, seeds, broccoli, kale

Recipe: Roasted aubergine and pomegranate

 

 

Heart health

  • High fibre diets (especially oats) are effective for reducing cholesterol, weight loss and risk of T2 diabetes
  • Soy foods are shown to be effective at reducing cholesterol
  • Omega 3 fatty acids help to thin the blood, reduce inflammation and increase levels of ‘good’ cholesterol
  • Food high in potassium can help to maintain health blood pressure
  • Plant compounds such as beta-sitosterol found in avocados and olive oil effective at reducing cholesterol
  • High sugar and refined carbs just as damaging if not more so than saturated fat in the diet
  • Antioxidants such as flavanoids and polyphenols affective at reducing free radical damage and reducing inflammation

Healing foods:  Avocados, extra virgin olive oil, almonds, berries, beetroot, edamame, brown rice, salmon

 Recipe:  Salmon, green beans, orange and hazelnut salad

 

 

Women’s health – PMS, Menopause

  • High intake of non-meat iron (pulses, dried fruit) may be effective at reducing symptoms of PMS
  • Limit spicy foods, caffeine and alcohol to help with flushes and night sweats
  • Maintaining steady blood sugar levels is an effective strategy for PMS, PCOS and menopause
  • Ganestien, a compound found in soy foods (especially fermented varieties such as miso) may help reduce hot flushes during the menopause as may other phytoestrogen rich foods such as lentils sprouts.
  • Women suffering with PMS are often seen to have low levels of calcium and affective to treat with calcium and vitamin D supplements 
  • Boost intake of the amino acid, tryptophan to increase serotonin production (along with eating Low GI carbs) – low levels are a result of sensitivity to progesterone during ovulation – affect mood and responsible for PMS cravings

Healing foods:  Edamame beans, miso, pumpkin seeds, lentil sprouts, dried fruit, eggs, turkey, quinoa

RecipeAvocado smash with toasted nuts and seeds

 

 

Skin health  

  • Sufficient intake of zinc may help to regulate the production of sebum
  • Omega 3 fatty acids can help to reduce inflammation and may help with conditions such as psoriasis
  • In the case of eczema and psoriasis, try avoiding foods such as eggs and dairy that are rich in arachidonic acid (a type of omega 6), which promotes inflammation.
  • Eat plenty of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants to help fight free radical damage from environmental factors.
  • Eat plenty of foods rich in beta-carotene (orange and green vegetables) as this is converted to vitamin A in the body which is essential for the repair and maintenance of healthy skin.

Healing foods:  Kale, butternut squash, mango, salmon, dried figs, berries, prawns, seeds

Recipe: Cajun chicken with avocado salad and mango salsa

 

 

Tiredness and fatigue

  • Low intake of iron responsible for fatigue (23% of women have low intakes in the UK)
  • Low levels of magnesium and B vitamins may also result in tiredness and fatigue
  • Migraine sufferers faced with fatigue – reducing intake of tyramine foods (red wine, pickled foods, chocolate) and increasing vitamin B2 (mackerel, eggs, mushrooms) can help
  • Low levels of magnesium may lead to insomnia, which can impact on tiredness.
  • Combine foods high in vitamin C with iron-rich foods to boost absorption.

Healing foods: Brown rice, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, cashew nuts, mushrooms, almonds, mackerel, egg

Recipe: Beetroot falafel

 

You can find more information on health and recipes to help health the body in the new edition of the Detox Kitchen Bible.

Download as PDF (Current state of health in the UK)

Linguini with crab and chilli

Linguini with crab and chilli

A quick supper idea that reaps the benefits of shellfish

 

Although I regularly preach about the benefits of choosing unprocessed carbohydrates, sometimes nothing quite beats a large bowl of white pasta, especially when teamed with one of my favourite ingredients, crab.  I’ve never been against including carbohydrates in the diet and as an active person I find them invaluable.  I also love food and enjoy eating a wide variety of different foods in my diet, which is a way of eating I fully endorse and a good strategy for gleaning everything your body requires.

White flour in the UK is actually fortified with nutrients such as iron, calcium and B vitamins so whilst they lack the fibre, which is the main benefit of choosing unprocessed varieties, they still offer something nutritious to the diet. White carbohydrates do effect blood sugar levels more aggressively than their high-fibre counterparts, but this effect is counteracted by teaming them up with a source of fat, protein and other high-fibre foods such as vegetables.

This dish is one of my favorites as I love crab.  Shellfish such as crab are a lean source of protein and rich in vitamin B12 and zinc, which makes them a great food choice for men as zinc plays a key role in the male reproductive system.  This dish is also a very good source of iron, which is required to maintain healthy red blood cell production and also a rich source of magnesium and potassium that are both associated with good heart health.

Crab is not an ingredient that makes a regular appearance in most peoples weekly shop but is readily available in most supermarkets as well as your local fishmonger.  If you can’t find crab then this dish also works really well with prawns.

 

Linguini with crab and chilli

Serves 2

Nutrition per serving

485 calories, 16.8g fat, 2.3g sat fat, 55.4g carbs, 4g sugar, 25.9g protein, 2g salt, 4.5g fibre

 

Ingredients

 

150g dried linguini

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2  lemon, juiced

1 lime, juiced

150g white crab meat

1 tbsp coriander, finely chopped

1 red chilli, finely chopped

2 spring onions, finely chopped

Sea salt

Black pepper

 

Method

 

  1. Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil.  Add the linguini and simmer gently for about 12 minutes until tender then drain.
  2. Heat the oil in a large, deep-sided frying pan over a medium heat.  Add the garlic and cook gently for about 1-2 minutes, carful not to burn.  If the garlic starts to colour then turn the heat down.
  3. Remove the pan from the hob and stir in the pasta.  Add the citrus juices and stir to combine.
  4. Add the crab,  coriander, chilli and spring onions then combine well.
  5. Season well and serve.

 

Download recipe as a PDF linguini-with-crab-and-chilli

 

Are you and your daughters lacking iron in your diet?

Are you and your daughters lacking iron in your diet?

Are you and your daughters lacking iron in your diet (download as a PDF are-you-lacking-iron-in-your-diet)

 23% of Uk women have very low intakes of iron in their diet (1)

46% of UK teenage girls have very low intakes of iron in their diet (1)

Iron intake in the UK

Food surveys show that most healthy adults get enough of the vitamins and minerals that are essential for good health but there are still gaps, most of which appear to affect women, especially teenage girls.  A lack of iron appears to be common in a significant number of females in the UK with 23% of adult women and 46% of teenage girls having been shown to have very low intakes. 

 

What is the role of iron?

Iron is a vital component of haemoglobin, which is a protein found in red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body.  This mineral is essential for healthy red blood cell production.  Iron is also involved in the immunes system, energy production, DNA synthesis and muscle function.

 

Iron deficiency

 Diagnosed nutrient deficiencies are not that common in our well nourished population and whilst low intakes may not result in deficiency they may still impact on your health and increase the risk of deficiency if not addressed.  Globally, low iron is the most common nutrient insufficiency and has a huge impact on the health of children as it has a key role to play in normal growth and development.  In this same groups of women, around 5% of women have iron intakes low enough to be classified as being deficient, which is a condition called anaemia.

 

Symptoms of iron deficiency

The symptoms of iron deficiency are listed below and if you think you may be at risk then the first course of action is to visit your GP who can run a blood test to assess your status.  If your results show a low level of iron, then you will be advised to take iron supplements such as Healthspan Iron Care (£6.95 for 120 tablets) as well as being given advise about the foods you should be including more of in your diet (listed below).

  • Unusual weakness and fatigue
  • Poor concentration
  • Pale complexion
  • Brittle nails
  • Muscle soreness
  • Reccurent infections
  • Always feeling cold
  • Breathlessness

 

Iron requirements for women

 Women have a higher requirement for iron, with a daily recommended intake of 14.8mg per day.  This is mostly down to the effects of their monthly cycle.  Pregnant women have a higher requirement for iron across their pregnancy and more so during the third trimester due to the baby’s growth demands.

 

Factors affecting iron status

Like any other nutrient, low intakes of iron can be the result of many different factors including dieting, illness (resulting in a lack of food intake) or following diets that exclude food groups such as vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free.  Other factors can impact on the body’s requirement for iron such as regular intensive exercise and can be a particular concern for elite or recreational female athletes.

 

Effect of medication and supplements

The prolonged use of certain medications, especially non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) that are used to treat inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, can also lead to iron loss through bleeding in the gut.  Whilst supplements such as a basic multivitamin and mineral can be a good way to ‘top-up’, they should be used sensibly as there are no added benefits to taking more than your body needs.  Excessive supplement use, especially individual nutrients and high strength products can impact on the absorption of iron, particularly calcium and zinc, which reduces the uptake of copper that is required for iron absorption.

 

Good food sources of iron

Maintaining a diet that is made up of nourishing foods as opposed to those that are highly processed is the best approach.  Red meat is the first food that people associate with iron and other animal sources include eggs, liver and mussels.  People that follow plant-based diets can glean iron from foods such as beans, pulses, dark green vegetables, oats, quinoa, tofu and nuts (meat eaters should also include plenty of these foods in their diet).  Other surprisingly good sources of iron that can be added to many dishes are dried herbs and spices that are highly concentrated in this mineral.  Fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and plant-milks are also another useful way to boost the amount of iron in your diet.  White flour is also fortified with iron in the UK, which is useful for fussy teenagers that refuse to eat wholegrain foods such as bread and pasta.

 

Foods high in iron (content given in grams per serving taken from McCance and Widdowson)

  • Grilled fillet steak — (2.3mg)
  • Fried calf liver (12.2mg)
  • Black strap molasses (4.7mg)
  • Mussels (6.8mg)
  • Kale (1.7mg)
  • Dried figs (4.2mg)
  • Soya beans (2.3mg)
  • Cooked red lentils (2.4mg)
  • Oats (4.72mg)
  • Cooked Qunioa (1.5mg)
  • Tofu (1.1mg)
  • Eggs (1.9mg)
  • Brazil nuts (2.5mg)
  • Canned Chick peas (1.0mg)
  • Canned Red kidney beans (1.5mg)
  • Curry powder (two tsp = 6g) (58.3mg)
  • Dried oregano (two tsp = 2g) (44.0mg)
  • Fortified breakfast cereals (bran flakes) (24.3mg)

 

 Increasing your absorption of iron

You can give your body a helping hand to absorb iron by combining your intake of non-meat iron-rich foods with a good source of vitamin C.  You can do this by drinking a small glass of fruit juice with your meal or including plenty of vegetables rich in vitamin C such as red peppers, cauliflower and dark green vegetables. You could also finish your meal with a small bowl of fruit, most of which are high in vitamin C.

Some food and drinks can negatively impact on iron absorption.  You should avoid drinking tea with your meals and leave a little time after you have eaten before you reach for the kettle as the tanins can lessen uptake.  Compounds called phytates found in wholegrain foods (such as bread) and beans (especially soya beans) can also impact on iron absorption, although this is really only a concern for people with particularly low iron stores.

 

How to include iron in your weekly diet

Given their increased risk of deficiency, women should try and include plenty of iron-rich foods in their diet to help boost their intake.  Below are examples of how you can introduce more iron into your diet (iron content given in grams per serving taken from McCance and Widdowson).

 

Breakfast

Scrambled egg (add turmeric) on wholegrain toast (4.6g)

Porridge oats (with soya milk) with chopped apricots and hazelnuts (4.3g)

Bran flakes (with skimmed milk) with sultanas and chopped apple (6.1g)

Oat and berry smoothie (3g)

 

Lunch

Chicken and avocado quinoa salad (9g)

Red lentil and tomato soup with wholegrain bread (7.5g)

Mexican tuna mayo (kidney beans, red peppers and chilli powder) wrap (3.5g)

Smoked salmon and cream cheese on rye bread (3.2g)

 

Dinner

 Beef and green vegetable stir-fry with noodles (9g)

Chicken and squash curry with brown rice (7g)

Black bean chilli with sliced avocado and quinoa (5.5g)

Roasted red peppers stuffed with lentils and feta cheese (7.2g)

 

Snacks

Homemade oat and date bars (2.3g)

Dried fruit and nuts (1.8g)

Yoghurt with nut and oat granola (1.5g)

 

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/national-diet-and-nutrition-survey-results-from-years-1-to-4-combined-of-the-rolling-programme-for-2008-and-2009-to-2011-and-2012

 

Check out my blog on iron at Healthista 

Download as a PDF are-you-lacking-iron-in-your-diet

Iron boosting beef and super greens stir-fry

Iron boosting beef and super greens stir-fry

Worldwide, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder affecting large numbers of people (mostly women and children) in developing countries and one of the only nutrient deficiencies to be significantly prevalent in more economically developed countries.

In the UK, a significant number of women of all ages appear to have low intakes of iron with nearly a quarter shown to have low stores of the mineral putting them at risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia (compounded by monthly blood loss). Other groups at risk include older people, those who regularly take aspirin or ibuprofen, those with certain chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and pregnant women (particularly during the third trimester of pregnancy).

Iron deficiency can leave you feeling tired and lethargic as the there is not enough of the mineral to make healthy red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body. If left untreated this can lead to more serious symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness, heart palpitations and hair loss. The human body is programmed to establish balance and when iron stores are depleted it absorbs more but if intake is low or losses are high then this is of little effect.

Red meat supplies one of the most efficient sources of iron in the diet but it’s not confined to this single food and other great providers include green veggies, tofu, quinoa, beans, nuts, lentils, fortified breakfast cereals and dried fruit. However, the amount of iron gleaned from plant-based foods is not as good as that of meat with some studies showing less than 25% absorption. The absorption of iron from such foods can be increased by teaming with those rich in vitamin C such as orange juice (some studies showing up to three times the amount of iron absorbed).

There are some foods that may inhibit iron absorption such as those rich in phytates (raw bran, beans), oxalates (spinach, kale, rhubarb, beetroot) and calcium. However, trying to consider all these foods on a daily basis is a lot to think about and if your diet is varied and balanced then your iron absorption is likely to not be significantly affected. In the presence of iron deficiency they may have some impact but my advice would be to focus on eating a wide variety of foods and especially those rich in iron. Polyphenols in tea and coffee are also thought to affect iron absorption so best to try and drink these between meals.

If you are worried about iron deficiency then go visit your GP who can run a blood test. If your stores are very low you may be advised to take an iron supplement and referred to a dietitian who can provide advise about your diet.

This stir-fry provides a mega-dose of high quality iron (9g per serving), which is 60% of the RDA for an adult female (set at 14.8mg). The veggies in this dish also provide nearly 300% of the RDA for vitamin C, which will help to maximise iron absorption.

I have indulgently opted for fillet steak in this recipe as it’s nice and lean, and remains beautifully tender when cooked. I also eat very little red meat so like to use the best quality on the occasions that I do (most supermarkets do a good value fillet steak). I have also used coconut oil which is great for stir-frying as it reaches a high cooking temperature as well as spring onions, green peppers, mushrooms and dark soy as these ingredients really complement the flavour of beef.

 

Beef and super greens stir-fry

Serves 2

400 calories (with quinoa)

Ingredients

100g quinoa
2 tsp extra virgin coconut oil
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
Thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and cut into thin strips
175g fillet steak, cut into thin strips
½ lime, juiced
200g tenderstem broccoli, stalks trimmed
4 chestnut mushrooms, sliced
2 spring onions, sliced into 1cm pieces (bulbs and tops)
1 medium courgette, diagonally sliced
1 small green pepper, sliced
½ green chilli, finely diced
Small handful of coriander
1 tbsp dark soy or tamari (reduced sodium)

Method

1. Cook the quinoa by placing in a medium-sized saucepan with three times the amount of cold water (300ml). Bring to the boil and cook for 6-8 minutes until tender (the seeds will start to sprout when cooked). Drain using a sieve and set aside.
2. Heat the coconut oil in a wok over a high heat. Once the oil starts to glimmer add the garlic and ginger, cooking for 1 minute.
3. Add the beef strips and cook for a further 3-5 minutes depending on how cooked you prefer your steak then squeeze in the lime juice and stir.
4. Add the veggies to the pan (not the coriander) and stir continuously for 3-5 minutes (I prefer my veggies really crunchy but don’t like the taste of raw broccoli so once that is tender enough I take off the heat).
5. Turn off the heat and stir through the coriander and soy.
6. Serve in small bowls with the quinoa (you can stir the quinoa through the stir fry before serving)