Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Do you pride yourself on how consistent you are with what you put on your plate each day? Do you go for the same top-notch nutrition choices all the time? Well, it may be time to rethink your menu. Variety is more than the spice of life. When it comes to making food choices, it’s one of the keys to healthy eating. By consuming a wide assortment of foods, it’s a way to ensure that you hit all the bases in terms of the required nutrients like vitamins and minerals along with a range of phytochemicals—the disease-fighting compounds from plant foods. Eating a diverse selection also helps to take in smaller amounts of an assortment of substances from food you might want to avoid.
Mixing it up when it comes to fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, spices, herbs and even various combos of foods offers a range of perks. Assorted fruits and vegetables are perfect examples. For instance, when you munch on an apple, you’re getting a certain type of antioxidant known as flavonoids—the same compounds responsible for red wine’s reputation as a heart-healthy choice. But when you have orange sections, you’re getting a separate mix of phytochemicals. Even eating a variety of apples provides different antioxidants. Opt for the citrus and along with the vitamin C and fibre, you’ll get the bonus of limonoids, substances which have been linked to protection against certain cancers. And like apples, varying your citrus delivers a mix of phytochemicals as well.
Even different berries offer diverse benefits. Raspberries are stellar when it comes to their fibre content plus they’re packed with anti-cancer substances. Have some cranberries and you’ll reap their anti-adhesive bacterial effects. Research shows that they may help to decrease the risk of certain types of infections by not allowing the bacteria to take hold. Or go for blueberries and their potential effects against cognitive decline.
Veggies also supply a cornucopia of nutritional goodies. The assorted hues and colours are sometimes a guide to an array of perks. The pigment of red tomatoes, lycopene, is linked to artery friendly action and a defence against prostate cancer while the purple ones found in some heirloom varieties are similar to the pigment that blueberries offer. Dark leafy green vegetables hail from an range of botanical families, each with different disease-fighting potential. Broccoli, arugula and watercress belong to the brassica family, one that’s the centre of study by cancer researchers.
Mushrooms, while considered to be a dieter’s best friend due to their low calorie counts, were once thought to be low on the nutritional scale because they didn’t stand out in terms of their vitamin and mineral content. But research is showing that they may possess some surprising attributes. Have some of the common button mushrooms and if you’re a woman, they may help to defend against breast cancer. But go more exotic with shiitakes and they’ve been shown offer advantages for immune system function.
Garlic, onions, leeks and shallots—all members of the allium family—while containing some similar nutrients have been shown to be like other typical families—no two relatives are exactly alike. Red onions with their pigments differ from their white cousins.
Season your dishes with herbs and spices from the Mediterranean or the Far East—basil, rosemary, parsley and sage or cumin, tumeric and coriander—and research shows that their taste and effects may range from antioxidant action to anti-inflammatory effects.
And when you fill your cereal bowl, always opting for 100% whole wheat means that you’ll miss out on the soluble fibre of oats. While whole wheat is a super source of insoluble fibre, the type that used to be called roughage, oats contain mainly the kind of fibre associated with blood-cholesterol lowering and better blood sugar regulation. So mix it up when you go with the grain by selecting an assortment from the wide range found these days.
The concept of variety also holds when it comes to the meat and alternatives group. Go for a piece of iron-rich beef every night and you could miss out on what legumes like kidney beans or lentils or fish may offer—low saturated fat counts along with either fibre or unsaturated fat. On the other hand, while it may seem like a healthy choice to go for some sort of soy food like tofu or a meat substitute on a daily basis for dinner, if you’re a post-menopausal woman, the verdict’s not in yet as to whether it’s wise to do so. Estrogen-like compounds in soy may boost the risk of breast cancer in some women of this age group. On the other hand, it may offer protection for others. If it sounds confusing, it’s simply that science doesn’t yet have the answers, so having a variety allows you to hedge your bets.
The perks of having a variety of foods also extends to opting for an assortment of preparations. Have your tomatoes raw and along with the vitamin C contained, you’ll likely consume the gel around the seeds which research shows have anti-blood clotting action. But have them cooked or canned and the amount of lycopene absorbed increases substantially. The same goes for the orange pigment in carrots, beta carotene. Just cooking these veggies a little boosts your beta carotene counts. And onions, when caramelized, retain their flavonoids, the same compounds found in apples. But garlic, if chopped and cooked straight away, loses some of its anti-cancer benefit. Research shows that if you chop it and allow it to sit for 10 minutes first, more of the cancer-fighting effects are maintained.
Varying cooking methods also allows for reducing levels of unwanted substances. For example, barbecuing meats at high temperatures can yield higher amounts of potential cancer causing substances like HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). Living in a northern climate, though, provides incentive for staying indoors and preparing stews and braised dishes rather than firing up the grill all year long.
As you ponder the concept of variety, there are a few basics to keep in mind. The foundation of a healthy eating pattern is best kept constant—choices from at least three out of four food groups at each meal. Another is that eating a variety of foods doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy your favourites on a regular basis. It’s variety over time — not in a meal or over a day—that counts.
This article is part of the Lupus Canada “Ask The Expert” section with the permission of Rosie Schwartz.
Visit the National Post Website for more articles written by Rosie Schwartz.
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and is author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide: Harvest the Power of Phyto Foods(Viking Canada).
© National Post 2006