Some foods are just heroic in nutritional terms... and they don’t have to be upmarket to pack a health punch. If you haven’t already got the following 10 foodstuffs in your diet, you’re missing a trick.
1) Maize meal (preferably yellow or unsifted)
This staple food of Africa powers South Africa, because it's so rich in energy. Energy deficiency is still one of the most crucial unmet needs for the bulk of our citizens.
Nowadays, by government decree, all maize meal has to be fortified with eight vital nutrients. The vitamins A, B1 and B2, niacin, folic acid and pyridoxine, plus the minerals iron and zinc, are added to maize meal to ensure that deficiencies of these nutrients can be prevented.
Go for yellow or unsifted maize meal, because they respectively have a higher vitamin A and dietary fibre content. "Pap", as it's affectionately known, can be served ‘slap’ (with a thin consistency), medium or “stywepap”, and is delicious with the tomato, onion and chilli sauce we all love, or with the addition of vegetables and cooked or canned legumes.
2) Legumes (dry cooked beans, peas, lentils and soya)
Legumes are rich in plant protein, dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals and other phytonutrients that protect against degenerative diseases. They don't contain fat or cholesterol, and they have a low glycaemic index (GI).
In addition, legumes can be used to make highly nutritious, filling soups and stews at a low cost, and they can be successfully used to ‘stretch’ meat and fish dishes. This makes legumes a boon to anyone watching their budget, to slimmers, and to people with raised cholesterol levels, insulin resistance or diabetes.
3) Low-fat milk and yoghurt
Low-fat milk and yoghurt are our best sources of high-quality protein, B vitamins and calcium. Considering that the recommended intake for calcium is 2000mg per day, especially for teenagers, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and adults who want to avoid osteoporosis, milk and yoghurt are ideal calcium providers at about 1mg or more per millilitre.
If you can’t afford fresh milk, buy low-fat milk powder and make your own yoghurt or sour milk. Slimmers should keep in mind that low-fat or fat-free milk, yoghurt and cottage cheese have a much lower energy content than full-cream products, so don’t cut out these foods when you want to lose weight. In fact, research indicates that a diet rich in calcium derived from milk and dairy products actually promotes weight loss.
4) Pumpkin and sweet potatoes
These two relatively inexpensive vegetables are rich sources of beta-carotene that's transformed into vitamin A in our bodies. The humble sweet potato has the added advantage of a low GI and high dietary fibre content, and has been called ‘the queen of vegetables’.
Whole slices of pumpkin or whole unpeeled sweet potatoes baked in the oven or over the fire are delicious.
5) Cabbage and broccoli
Cabbage and broccoli are rich sources of antioxidants such as vitamin C and beta-carotene. These members of the so-called brassica family are also known to contain anti-cancer compounds such as sulforaphane (NY Times, 2008).
If broccoli is out of season, you can usually find fresh cabbage. Boil, steam or stir-fry very briefly to retain as many nutrients as possible, or eat them raw. Especially when they’re young, they can be surprisingly sweet, and add a lovely crunch to salads.
6) Fatty fish
Fish with a high fat content is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which protect us against most degenerative diseases, from arthritis to heart disease. Eat canned sardines or pilchards, snoek or bokkems whenever possible to boost your omega-3 intake.
7) Citrus fruit
Citrus fruit (grapefruit, oranges, naartjies and lemons) is an excellent source of vitamin C, which boosts immunity and protects us against infections. Nature has ensured that these cold and flu fighters are in season in winter – just when we need them most.
In addition, a serving of citrus fruit a day will help you absorb iron from other foods – for example, eating half a grapefruit or drinking a glass of orange juice in the morning with your breakfast cereal will ensure that you absorb the iron that has been added to the cereal more efficiently.
Grapefruit is your best choice when slimming, because it’s lowest in energy, and the high fibre content helps to keep you satisfied for longer.
Beetroot is rich in folic acid, and the pigments that give these vegetables their red colour have been identified as potential anti-cancer agents (NY Times, 2008).
Don’t just eat the bulbs: also lightly cook the leaves to get maximum nutrient and economic value from your beets. Beetroot can also be grated and eaten raw in salads to preserve as many antioxidants as possible.
9) Dates and dried fruit
All dried fruits are rich in energy, antioxidants, iron and dietary fibre, and most have a low (dried apricots and prunes) or intermediate (dates, raisins and sultanas) GI.
A little goes a long way, so even if they're relatively expensive, you can eat small portions to boost your fibre intake. Serve boiled dried fruit, such as prunes and apricots, to promote bowel regularity, especially in young children suffering from constipation.
10) Peanuts and peanut butter
Rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, B vitamins and plant protein, peanut butter and peanuts have been a staple food in Africa for many years.
Eat a handful of peanuts with dried fruit or add them to cooked dishes, and use peanut butter on bread to give you mega energy.
- (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc)
(updated by Health24, October 2012)
(Pic of man eating mealie from Shutterstock)
(New York Times, 2008. Best foods you aren’t eating. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/ 06/30/the-11-best-foods-you-arent-eating)
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