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The superfood spectrum

Superfoods are foods that are highly beneficial to our health. But which are the best, what do they offer and how can you eat them without breaking the bank?

What is a superfood?

“Superfoods are foods considered especially nutritious or beneficial to health and well-being,” says nutritional therapist Louise Loughman for the College of Naturopathic Medicine (CNM). “They are classified by their dense concentration of vital vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and healthy enzymes.”

“A superfood can be particularly high in specific nutrients needed for optimal health,” says Sinéad Dundon, nutritional therapist at Adare Health Foods, in Adare, Co Limerick. “Certain foods will have more benefits than others and be more beneficial in particular conditions.”

“Superfoods can be defined as any whole natural food source that is nutrient dense and contains superior sources of anti-oxidants and essential nutrients which we need and cannot make ourselves,” says Maggie Lynch of the Irish Institute of Nutrition and Health.

Are all superfoods expensive?

“No not at all!,” says Louise Loughman. “Ireland is abundant with amazing superfoods all locally grown which can be sourced at your local supermarket or farmers market. Unfortunately, in recent years there has been huge hype with health claims for superfoods which can be super expensive and leave a high carbon footprint as they come from places like Peru and China. We don’t need to look that far to reap the health benefits of nutritious food, we have a huge number of superfoods right here on our doorstep for a fraction of the cost.”

“No – this is a myth,” says Maggie Lynch. “First, I suggest looking at what is locally grown, on this amazing island blessed with fantastic farmers’ markets, and good soil – especially if organically farmed – and still GMO-free.”

What everyday foods are super?

“Oats are high in a soluble fibre called beta glucan, which can have a cholesterol-lowering effect that may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and reduce blood pressure,” says Louise Loughman. “Oats are also packed with important vitamins including B vitamins, iron, manganese and antioxidant plant compounds.

“Beetroots are loaded with vitamins and minerals – vitamins C, B6, folate, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, manganese and iron to name a few! They contain a high concentration of nitrates which have been shown to help lower blood pressure. This in turn may lead to, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Several studies have shown that the nitrates found in beetroot appear to affect physical performance by improving the efficacy of mitochondria, which are responsible for producing energy in your cells.

“Cruciferous vegetables – broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, rocket, kale and cabbage – have high levels of phytochemicals called glucosinolates which have a protective health effect. Research suggests that many illnesses may be prevented by eating high levels of these vegetables.

“Extra virgin olive oil is a natural anti-inflammatory. Adding olive oil to your diet can promote heart health.

“Blueberries remain one of the most nutritious antioxidant-rich fruits. Studies have shown that antioxidants can boost brain and heart health and alleviate inflammation. The anthocyanin content in blueberries can also enhance learning and memory.”

“Broccoli, olive oil and cod are all beneficial superfoods,” says Sinéad Dundon. “Oats are beneficial too.”

Your favourite superfoods?

“My favourite superfood is walnuts which I use with pecans, dried mulberries and ginger to make a grain-free high protein breakfast cereal,” says Sinéad Dundon. “Walnuts and ginger are also good.”

“I eat oats, blueberries, olive oil, colourful vegetables like carrots and beetroot and cruciferous vegetables every day,” says Louise Loughman. “I start the day with either porridge topped with Greek yogurt, blueberries and cinnamon or a quick smoothie made of oats, blueberries, almond milk, Greek yogurt, topped with some nuts and seeds. I try to incorporate green leafy vegetables into both lunch and dinner.”

“If I have to narrow it down then it has to be something dark green and leafy,” says Maggie Lynch. “My latest find is from the farmers’ market in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin - ‘flower sprouts’, a cross between a Brussel sprout and kale. They have dark leaves with a purple hue and are about the size of a walnut. I simmer them for three to four minutes, refresh them in chilled water, then dry in the salad spinner. In the past I’ve combined them with sautéed lamb’s kidneys, chorizo and kalamata olives, or smoked kippers and a poached egg. Last night I crumbled blue cheese with caramelised walnuts through them, tossed in a few French beans and drizzled with garlic oil. Delicious!”

Ireland’s super seaweed

There are over 500 different types of seaweed growing around the shores of Ireland. The most common are dillisk/dulse, kelp, sea spaghetti, alaria, carraigin and bladder wrack. Seaweeds are a rich source of iodine which is essential for a healthy metabolism and thyroid function. Seaweeds are also high in iron, protein, calcium, magnesium, zinc, folic acid and vitamin B12. They are full of antioxidants as well as having anti-inflamatory and anti-bacterial properties. Most Irish seaweed is sold in dried form. It can be soaked in water and added to pies, soups, salads and stir fries, or baked in breads and muffins. Seaweed is great added to soups, stews and casseroles, in a smoothie or juice or on salads. Certain seaweeds such as kelp are great in breads and cakes.

A-Z superfood spectrum

Bee pollen – contains 40% protein and everything the human body needs. Sprinkle over cereal.

Camu camu – packed with vitamin C and good on porridge or in juice.

Chia seeds – a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Chia seeds soak up liquid to make a delicious jelly-like dessert, or sprinkle over cereal.

Chlorella – a green algae that is good for immunity and detoxing. Add the powder to smoothies. Choose an organically-certified chlorella – it is known to draw in compounds from its environment.

Coconut oil – good for brain function and has antiviral properties. You can fry food with it, eat it with a spoon or add to numerous recipes.

Goji berries – good for eye health in the over 55s because they contain beta-carotene and zeaxanthin. Thought to boost immune function. Eat as a snack or add to salads and smoothies.

Maca – good for fertility and menopause support. A powerful rejuvenating tonic for a stressed system. Add the powder to smoothies, or take in capsule form.

Medicinal mushrooms – include chaga, reishi, cordyceps, shiitake and maitake. Have antibacterial and antiviral properties, are good for hormone balancing, increasing immunity and can help with lowering blood sugar. High in vitamin D and antioxidants. Take as a liquid or powdered supplement or drink mushroom tea.

Seaweed – good for detoxing plus full of vitamin B12, iron, magnesium and calcium.

Spirulina – packed with protein and amino acids, anti-inflammatory. Sprinkle over cereal and into smoothies.

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