Following on from our recent study into fast food outlets, which concentrated on the long- and short-term pitfalls of relying on less-than-healthy eateries when out at work or enjoying some leisure time, we thought it only right to even the balance with some advice on foods you should be eating, and which of these can actually help to improve your physical and mental health.
However, at Treated.com we can appreciate that with so many conflicting theories and practices already out there on blogs, video channels and health websites, it can be difficult to know who to believe. And it would be easy for me as a doctor to simply add my opinions to the fray, but we thought this was a subject which deserved input from a specialist.
So, in the interests of legitimacy, we got together with Sarah Coe, Nutrition Scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, to get her take on the concept of ‘superfood’, and whether or not there are any particular items which can boost your physical and mental function. What she had to say on the subject was very enlightening.
Q. Is there such a thing as ‘superfood’?
First of all, we hear about superfoods on TV and in magazines all the time. But what are they? What credentials does a food need to qualify as a superfood?
‘It is important to note that there is no scientific, technical or legal definition of the term ‘superfood’; rather it’s a marketing term that has become increasingly popular.’ says Sarah.
‘Whilst some of these foods contain nutrients with health benefits, it is better to aim for a healthy, balanced diet as a whole, containing a wide range of foods including fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, sources of protein and dairy products, rather than focusing on individual foods in the hope that adding them to our diet will ‘make us healthy’.’
It stands to reason that fruit and vegetables are not all identical, and to glean the range of nutritional benefits you’re looking for, it’s vital not to be too narrow in your consumption:
‘For fruit and vegetables there are a large number of phytonutrients that are present in different quantities in different fruit and vegetables, as well as a range of vitamins and minerals, so it’s important to get a variety.’
Q. What’s the big deal with kale?
As an oft-proclaimed ‘superfood’, we thought kale was worth singling out, because seldom has a vegetable been so fashionable. Recently, it seems like every diet expert out there is falling over themselves to promote it. But is it really that special, or different to other leafy greens like spinach?
‘Kale is a nutrient-rich vegetable – an 80g (1 of your 5 A DAY) cooked portion will give you 66% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin A and 89% of vitamin C.’ explains Sarah. ‘It is also a source of potassium and high in folate.’
And, as many experts will attest, potassium plays a vital role in heart function, and can help to keep blood pressure at healthy levels; while folate is important for the formation of red and white blood cells.
But one area where many undo their good intentions with kale is the way they cook it. As Sarah points out, several of the vegetable’s benefits of lie in its preparation:
‘To make sure you get as much of the nutrients from kale as possible, it’s better to steam the kale briefly or eat it raw. Avoid adding salt during cooking as well.’
Your choice of green shouldn’t, however, be limited just to kale. As Sarah explains, other vitamin-rich greens are available:
‘All varieties of leafy green vegetables, like spinach, rocket, green cabbage and watercress are good choices to include in your diet. Eating a variety of green leafy vegetables will help get the maximum benefit of the nutrients these vegetables can provide to your diet.’
Q. Can seeds be a healthy alternative to snacking?
The short answer? Yes.
As noted in earlier posts, the biggest appeal of fast food lies in its convenience, and snacking is no different. When you’re working later than scheduled or feeling the mid-afternoon hunger, it can be easy to opt for the vending machine in the canteen; particularly if you’ve got a heavy workload, and don’t want to be distracted by what’s going on in your stomach.
The downside of vending machines is that, although they do now generally offer more in terms of fruit and healthier choices, they’re still often abundant in chocolate bars and crisps, and are thereby a hotbed for temptation.
Snacking is considered a dirty word in many circles for this reason; but it needn’t be.
By swapping a packet of crisps for a handful of seeds, you can eliminate those hunger pangs at short notice, without taking on too much saturated fat, salt or sugar.
‘Seeds are a great choice for a snack as they contain healthier polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which can help to keep our cholesterol levels healthy and reduce the risk of heart disease.’ explains Sarah.
‘Just remember to control your portion sizes, as seeds can be high in energy – a tablespoon is about right.’
Furthermore (and you may start to notice a pattern here) the benefits of seeds do not lie in one particular choice. Incorporating a good, varied selection into your diet is crucial:
‘In general seeds provide fibre, protein, vitamin E (especially sunflower seeds), potassium and magnesium. So it is up to personal preference as to which you choose if you are making your own seed mix as a snack.’
Q. Is there such a thing as brain food?
We’ve all been there. On the eve of an important exam, or a high-pressure presentation at work, you might feel like you need all the assistance you can get. So you do a quick google search to see if there are any foods you can rustle up which can give you a mental boost, or make you that little bit sharper.
However, in reality, are there any specific foods which can significantly enhance mental performance? Not according to Sarah:
‘Despite media claims of foods that can boost our mental capability, there is no one particular miracle food that will improve your mental performance.’
Moreover, the answer again lies in variety, and being consistent with energy and nutrients:
‘In order to function normally, the brain needs a steady supply of energy from glucose - which you can get by eating a healthy, balanced diet based on starchy foods (choosing wholegrains such as brown rice and pasta, and eating potatoes with skins where possible), plenty of fruit and veg, some low-fat dairy foods and moderate amounts of protein-providing foods, including oily fish - to keep your brain fuelled and help you focus and concentrate.’
Due to this requirement for a consistent supply of energy, how you eat is also an important factor to consider. Skipping meals is not an avenue you want to head down when mentally preparing for a big event, as Sarah explains:
‘Eating regular meals can also help keep your concentration levels up – some research has shown that people who regularly eat breakfast are more alert and have better mental performance than those who skip this meal, so start your day with a healthy breakfast such as a wholegrain cereal with semi-skimmed milk and a banana, or wholemeal toast with scrambled egg and grilled tomatoes.’
But what about fish? We know it’s a good source of protein and a favourite among those looking to increase their muscle mass.
However, often referred to as ‘brain food’, is there any evidence to suggest that fish can increase brain function and improve intellectual performance too?
‘Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, are a rich source of omega-3 fats, very similar to those found in the brain.’ explains Sarah.
‘A low level of one of these type of fats, DHA, has been associated with learning and memory problems in animals, but the effect of supplementation in humans is inconsistent.'
'That said, as fish contain other important nutrients such as vitamin D and some B vitamins, we should try and include at least two portions (140g cooked) a week in our diets, one of which should be an oily fish.’
Q. Are there any foods which can improve sexual well-being?
This is another question which, along with the previous one, I hear asked with staggering regularity. A lot of couples strive to have the best possible sex life that they can, and certain foods or ‘aphrodisiacs’ are a popular method people like to try. Oysters, red wine and chocolate have all been heralded by lifestyle gurus and glossy magazines as the foods of choice for those looking to spice things up in the bedroom.
But can they really do this?
‘Claims for the aphrodisiac effects of certain foods, such as oysters, are not supported by scientific studies.’ illustrates Sarah.
‘A healthy, balanced diet based on wholegrain starchy carbohydrates, with plenty of fruit and vegetables and moderate amounts of low-fat dairy products and protein-containing foods (e.g. fish, lean meat, beans, nuts and pulses), is important for good nerve function, hormone production and blood flow – all of which may help improve sexual well-being.’
So for a healthy libido, it’s important, once again, to have a healthy all-round diet. When it comes to male sexual health in particular, though, some specific food types can help to limit the likelihood of erectile problems, through the maintenance of regular and consistent blood flow:
‘Some nutrients in particular may be beneficial, such as the antioxidants vitamin C (found in citrus fruit) and vitamin E (found in oils, nuts, seeds, green vegetables and wholegrain cereals), which will help to strengthen blood vessel walls.’
For both sexes, however, as Sarah points out, ‘tiredness and fatigue can be common culprits in sexual problems, which can be linked to nutritional deficiencies such as iron-deficiency anaemia. Meat, fish, fortified breakfast cereals, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables and dried fruit can help to replenish your body’s iron stores.’
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that, as a doctor, I also often get approached by couples trying to conceive, looking for advice on how to increase their fertility levels, and whether food choices can make a difference.
The answer again doesn’t lie in any one specific type of food, as Sarah illustrates, but for men, zinc levels are crucial:
‘Low levels of zinc have been linked to a low sperm count and reduced testosterone levels. Men can help keep their zinc levels topped up by including lean meat, dairy products, shellfish (such as oysters), wholegrain cereals and nuts in their diet.’
Boosting Your Body: How Nutrition Can Help
The most significant recurring theme here is that when it comes to boosting your body through nutrition, there aren’t any shortcuts. Despite claims to the contrary, no one food holds the answer to enhancing your well-being performance, be it at work, at the gym, or with your partner. Rather, it’s down to keeping a healthy, but just as importantly, varied diet.
Many people think that eating healthily has to be boring and predictable, but as evidenced here, getting a wide variety is crucial too. So the next time you’re shopping for groceries and perusing the fruit and veg stand, the nuts and seeds section or even the meat and fish counter, try taking a chance on something new.
This post was written in collaboration with Sarah Coe, BSc ANutr, of the British Nutrition Foundation.
The British Nutrition Foundation is a registered charity, which delivers impartial, authoritative and evidence-based information on food and nutrition. To find out more about the work they do, access a range of helpful resources, or support them by making a donation, visit their website.