Top superfoods for healthy eating
These eight vital foods are amongst the healthiest you can eat. And guess what - they're all vegan.
By Janey Macleod
Superfoods are everyday food products that punch well above their weight in terms of health benefits. These foods contain an abundance of nutrients - vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and more - that will boost your health in a myriad of ways. Between them, they can fight disease, increase your energy levels, and even counter the effects of aging.
The eight superfoods listed here are all easy to find - and easy to use. In most cases, you can enjoy them just as they, without any cooking. Alternatively, you can incorporate them into your favorite recipes. Of course, they're all suitable for both vegetarians and vegans.
So if you want the healthiest possible diet, these are the items to focus on.
Photo © Sanjay Acharya
When it comes to nutritional benefits, almonds are the champions of the nut family. For a start, they're a superb source of Vitamin E. Eating just a handful of the nuts each day will give you most or all of your recommended daily allowance of this vital antioxidant. They're also a valuable source of calcium, iron, zinc and B vitamins. And because they tend to ward off hunger, they have a useful part to play in weight-loss diets.
Whole almonds are great for snacking, while flaked almonds can be added to cereals and desserts. They also go well in curries and stir fries. Ground almonds are a useful ingredient in a variety of recipes - see our croustade recipe for a good example. And don't forget almond milk, which is a useful alternative to dairy for vegans and people with lactose intolerance (but commercial varieties of almond milk sometimes have undesirable additives and sweeteners).
Avocados are rich in monounsaturated fats, which help maintain a healthy level of "good" HDL cholesterol. They contain alpha-carotenes which guard against atherosclerosis, and their high Vitamin E content has important anti-aging properties. They're also a valuable source of potassium, folate and fiber. It's true that avocados are also high in calories, but that disadvantage is far outweighed by their undoubted health benefits.
Avocados are usually eaten raw, as part of a salad or in a sandwich. They can also be made into dips and sauces, of which the best known in guacamole (but beware of ready-made guacamole: some brands contain only small amounts of avocado.)
Photo © Scott Schopieray
Blueberries are probably the healthiest fruit you can eat. They are replete with powerful antioxidants, especially Vitamin C. They can help strengthen the blood vessels and improve circulation, and may help prevent chilblains and varicose veins. Anthocyanin - the pigment that gives the berries their distinctive color - can help fight cancer and heart disease. Blueberries are also a traditional cure for diarrhea.
Eat fresh blueberries raw, either on their own or in a fruit salad. Or add them to pancakes, muffins or other baked goods. If you decide to cook them, be sure to stew them gently for just a few minutes. That way, you won't rob them of their benefits.
All cruciferous vegetables are valuable in combating cancer, but broccoli excels in that department. Its antioxidants have been shown to be an effective defense against bowel, stomach, breast and lung cancers. It's an exceptionally good source of folate, B vitamins, calcium, iron and zinc. And studies have shown it to be effective in fighting heart disease and strokes.
Fresh broccoli florets can be eaten raw in salads. It can also be gently boiled or steamed, or added to a stew, curry or stir fry.
Oatmeal has more health benefits than almost any other grain. It provides very high levels of Vitamin B, Vitamin E (an antioxidant that can prevent heart disease), protein and soluble fiber. And, unlike other grains, it is never refined, so you always get the full nutritional benefits.
The fiber in oatmeal is especially effective in controlling blood sugar levels and reducing cholesterol. If you're trying to lose weight, oatmeal can reduce your appetite without increasing your calorie intake. Oatmeal is also believed to have a sedative effect, and is traditionally used to calm the nerves.
Fresh oatmeal is better for you than instant cereals that contain oats. Try adding extra oatmeal to your normal breakfast cereal, or use it to make porridge. You can also use it as a thickener for soups or stews, or add it to pastry, muffins, crumble topping or home-made bread. Of course, you can also use it to make flapjacks and cookies, but you'll need to watch the fat and sugar levels.
Pumpkin seeds are the only readily-available natural vegan sources of omega-3, which is vital for healthy blood vessels, brain functions and general immunity. The seeds are also rich in iron, selenium and zinc, and are a useful protein source. Several studies have shown they can reduce the symptoms of an enlarged prostate in men, and might even guard against prostate cancer. It's also thought that they are good for the teeth and gums, can relieve constipation, and can even fight depression - a true powerhouse of goodness.
Raw pumpkin seeds are good for snacking, or for adding to breakfast cereals, salads, soups, desserts and baked goods such as muffins. The seeds are also nice when lightly roasted (but be cautious about buying ready-roasted seeds, as some brands have added fats).
Spinach is a fantastic source of vitamins A and C. It's also rich in lutein, which can prevent problems of the eyes, such as cataracts and macular degeneration. Lutein also promotes a healthy skin and can guard against cardiovascular disease. Studies have shown that spinach can substantially reduce the risk of many cancers. And because of its high potassium content, it can help prevent high blood pressure. Another benefit is its folate content, which is recommended for pregnant women.
However, spinach is also high in oxalates, which can cause problems for people who suffer from gout or from kidney or bladder stones. If you're in that category, you should avoid spinach if possible.
Fresh spinach can be eaten raw or gently cooked in just a little water. Spinach goes well with pasta and similar dishes, and is often used in Indian cuisine (see our palek paneer recipe for an example). Frozen spinach retains much of its nutrients, as does canned spinach except for its folate content.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Tomatoes are unusual in that their health benefits actually increase with cooking. Tomato soup, tomato purée, sauces such as passata, and even dried tomatoes are all packed with nutrients. But that doesn't mean you should ignore the uncooked version: a single fresh tomato provides around a quarter of your daily Vitamin C requirement.
As well, tomatoes are a good source of Vitamin A, potassium and iron. But it's lycopene that provides the most important reason to eat them. Lycopene is the pigment that gives the tomato its distinctive color. More importantly, it's a powerful antioxidant which, according to many studies, can help guard against a variety of cancers. One such study found it particularly effective in reducing the risk of prostate cancer in men. Other researchers say that lycopene can boost energy levels and has anti-aging properties.
Between them, these eight superfoods can give an enormous boost to your health - provided they're eaten as part of a balanced diet, of course. The fact that they're all suitable for vegetarians and vegans is a bonus.
But even ignoring their health benefits, there's another excellent reason for favoring these foods: they're all delicious. I know that's subjective, but it's safe to say that the majority of people who read this article will enjoy eating most or all of the items listed here.
So there you have it: eight great foods that are easy to find and easy to cook with, that taste great, and that will deliver health benefits out of all proportion to their numbers.
Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.