How you cook, what you eat and what you eat it with can all make a difference to your health. Dietitian Caitlin Reid reveals how to get the most from your meals.
Smart food swaps
Give your health a boost just by making some super-simple swaps; you’ll barely even notice the difference.
Butter vs table spread
Choose table spread. It’s the clear winner compared to saturated spreads. Table spreads made from polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats have been found to reduce the level of LDL cholesterol by 11–15%, which correlates to a 20–30% reduction in heart-disease risk. So enjoy table spread under your Vegemite.
Flake vs salmon
Choose salmon. Not only is salmon packed full of the heart-friendly omega-3 fats, protein and iodine, it’s also lower in mercury, a potentially dangerous neurotoxin. We’re all advised to limit our intake of fish containing higher levels of mercury, such as flake, as excess mercury may harm our nervous system, particularly in a growing child or an unborn infant. Children and pregnant women and children need to limit their flake intake to one 75g serve a fortnight, while a 150g serving of salmon can be enjoyed two to three times per week.
Iceberg lettuce vs spinach
Choose spinach. Here’s an easy guide: the darker the colour of a fruit or veg, the more antioxidants it contains. That means spinach contains a great deal more health-promoting antioxidants such as phenolics and flavonoids than iceberg lettuce, which is 96% water. When spinach is fresh and vibrant green in colour, it means antioxidant levels are at their peak – this will give you the biggest health boost. Don’t pick spinach that is wilted, yellowing or discoloured.
Walnuts vs peanuts
Choose walnuts. All nuts contain an array of nutrients, but walnuts contain one big nutritional draw card – omega-3 fats. In fact, they contain the highest amount of the omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) of any nut, while peanuts contain little or no omega-3 fats. Eat walnuts tossed through your lunchtime salad, sprinkled over your morning cereal or as a snack on their own.
Swiss vs cheddar
Choose Swiss cheese. Most of us love melted cheddar cheese on toast. And now we can make it healthier. When the craving hits, choose Swiss over cheddar – it contains less kilojoules, less total and saturated fats, and nearly half the sodium.
Red vs green apples
Enjoy them both. It’s not the colour that matters in your apple – it’s the type. A US study looking at the content of procyanidin (an antioxidant flavonoid) across a variety of apples found highest levels in Red Delicious and Granny Smith – they had 208mg and 183mg of procyanidin per serving, respectively. At the other end of the spectrum, Golden Delicious and McIntosh had the least – 93mg and 105mg each. Of course, freshness makes a big difference to antioxidant levels too, so try to buy whichever varieties of apples are in season.
Wholegrain vs sourdough bread
Choose wholegrain bread. Quite simply, you’ll get more per mouthful with wholegrain. As well as containing twice the fibre of sourdough, breads with a high portion of wholegrains help lower blood glucose levels after meals, because they are more slowly digested. Wholegrain bread also contains B vitamins, protein, iron and vitamin E. So go for grains!
Forget superfoods: choose power couples instead. When we focus on a single food or nutrient, we miss a very important point – different components in a single food or two separate foods eaten together in synergy provide us with the best health benefits yet.
Calcium and vitamin D
Both calcium and vitamin D, aka the sunshine vitamin, have benefits when consumed individually, but our bodies are much better at absorbing calcium when we get sufficient vitamin D in our day. So should you drink your milk while sunbaking? Maybe not, but you can optimise your health by getting both nutrients in your day – research has found that when the two are combined, bone strength improves markedly, while the risk of non-skin cancers, such as colon cancer, decreases.
Vitamin C and iron
It has long been known that vitamin C boosts iron absorption: that’s why we’re often told to drink orange juice with our breakfast cereal. It’s worth doing for the results: a 2008 study found that people who consumed vitamin C with their meal boosted iron absorption by a whopping 27%, and 291% in women with iron-deficiency anaemia. Boost your iron absorption by adding tomato to your hamburger or capsicum to stir-fries or by having an orange with your cereal.
Quercetin and catechin
Phytochemicals (found in plant foods) may be important nutrients for reducing cancer risk. Two of them, quercetin (found in apples, onions and berries) and catechin (found mainly in apples, green tea, purple grapes and grape juice), help stop platelet clumping, preventing our bodies from developing the dangerous blood clots that can cause heart attack and stroke. But you need to eat them together – they don’t have the same benefits separately. Sounds like an apple a day really does do the trick!
Fat and carotenoids
Forget sugar and spice – it’s fat that makes vegies twice as nice. Our bodies need fat to better absorb the antioxidant carotenoids from vegies, like lycopene from tomatoes and lutein from dark-green vegetables. One study, published in the Journal of Nutrition found that people who added 2 1/2 tablespoons of avocado to a spinach, carrot and lettuce salad absorbed almost 14 times more cancer-fighting beta-carotene and more than four times more lutein (which helps with eye health) than those who didn’t eat avocadoes. The perfect excuse to spread a little avo on your salad roll!
Prebiotics and probiotics
These non-digestible carbohydrates and healthy bacteria work together to keep your belly happy – but you need both to get the benefits, and they’re quite different. Probiotics, the tiny, live microorganisms (for example, Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli) found in capsules, powders, certain yoghurts and fermented milk products, live in our digestive system and help to keep the right balance of bacteria. They can also give us an immunity boost, help preserve our intestinal integrity, and relieve diarrhoea and constipation.
Prebiotics on the other hand, are ‘food’ for probiotics, and are naturally occurring in many of our foods. To maintain a healthy balance of the two, include prebiotics in your diet – these are found in onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus and artichokes, and in fortified breakfast cereals, drinks and yoghurts.
The three B vitamins
There are lots of B vitamins, but three in particular – folate, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 – work together to reduce cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, which makes them important for all of us. To reach your daily requirements of all three, enjoy fish, green leafy vegies, chickpeas, beef and folate-fortified cereals.
Do you cook your food or eat it raw? Will steaming retain more nutrients than boiling? And should we really stop eating burnt toast?
To cook, or not to cook?
It depends: what sort of food are you eating? Fruit and vegies generally lose nutrients when exposed to heat and light, so it’s often better to eat them raw – but not always. When sweet corn was cooked at 115ºC for 25 minutes, the total antioxidant activity increased by 44%, despite a 25% vitamin C loss. Similarly, the lycopene found in tomatoes is best used by the body when it’s processed or cooked in some way. In summary, cooking tenderises meat, softens plant foods, reduces water content and often makes food molecules more available to the body – so even if you do lose some nutritional value, it’s better to eat lots of cooked vegies than no vegies at all. Verdict: mix it up.
Should I grill or should I roast?
Use the grill: it’s quick, easy, adds flavour to food and requires minimal use of oil. It’s also easy to trim any unwanted fat off the meat prior to grilling. Traditionally, roasting meat or chicken means a high fat content, but it’s okay to roast as long as you sit the meat on a rack for the fat to drain away and don’t add extra fat before cooking. Roasting vegies is also fine if you give them a spray of oil before cooking. Verdict: grill.
Steaming or boiling?
Remember the green-brown broccoli and limp carrots Mum used to dish up when you were little? Boiled vegetables not only lack the flavour, texture and juiciness of steamed foods, they’re not as good for you, either. When you put vegies into a saucepan of boiling water, all the vital nutrients are leached into the water. Steaming, however, preserves the vitamins and minerals in foods – and tastes better, too. Don’t get carried away though – for maximum nutrition, only steam your vegies for a few minutes. They should still be brightly coloured and have a bit of crunch when you serve them. Verdict: steam.
Skin on or skin off?
When we talk about whole food, we mean the whole food – skin or peel included. Potatoes and carrots are usually peeled but are more nutritious if you simply scrub the skin instead of peeling them off. Apples should also be eaten with the peel. A US study published in the journal Nature found that apples with peel had higher levels of phytochemicals and flavonoids than peeled apples. The same researchers also found whole apples (peel inclusive) reduced the growth of colon cancer cells by 43%, compared to only 29% in apples with their skin off. Verdict: keep it on when you can.
Should I stir-fry or slow cook?
They’re both as good! Apart from being quick and easy, stir-frying exposes foods to higher temperatures for less time, which promotes the retention of nutrients. It also preserves the flavour and crunch, and only requires small amounts of oil. Slow cooking – whereby food is exposed to lower heat for longer – brings out complex flavours from simple ingredients such as herbs, vegetables, legumes and meats, so there’s less need to add sugary, salty or fatty ingredients to your meal. Verdict: your choice – do you like crunchy or tender foods.
Bad news – exposing foods like meat, potato and bread to high temperatures can produce chemicals, such as acrylamide, which may be cancerous in large amounts (most studies to date have been in animals, not humans, however). Here are some handy hints for health:
Cooking meat: Cut meat into smaller pieces so they cook quickly and evenly, marinate prior to cooking, and cook at a low to medium temperature.
Toast: The browner your toast, the greater the content of acrylamide. Aim for a nice golden brown, rather than charcoal.
Roasted or fried potatoes: You can reduce acrylamide formation by storing your potatoes in a cool, dry, dark room (as opposed to the fridge). Soaking or rinsing slices in plain water will reduce acrylamide levels in French fries, too, as long as you don’t overcook them.
How to store it
From fridges and freezers, to tins and vacuum-sealed packaging, food can be stored in different ways. Think of fruit: you can enjoy it fresh, frozen, tinned and dried.
For the best way to store certain foods, check the pack for the storage details from the manufacturer. If a food says to be stored in a cool, dry place out of sunlight, as is the case for extra virgin olive oil, place it in the fridge or the back of your pantry. This will help maintain optimal nutritional content, as well as keep it fresh. Products that state they must be refrigerated after opening can be stored in the pantry prior to use.
Most fresh foods lose nutritional value after being picked, which is why you should eat fruit and vegetables as soon as possible. The exception? Sprouts: they continue to grow in nutritional content, even after being harvested.
You shouldn’t eat carbs with protein
Health extremists will tell you that the different digestive enzymes needed to digest protein (like meat and poultry) and starches (like bread and pasta) don’t work together – so you should eat them separately. This is completely untrue! Some of our staples are a perfect blend of protein and carbohydrates – think milk, yoghurt and wholegrain breads and cereals. What’s more, a combination of carbohydrates and protein is vital for recovery after exercise as carbs work to refuel muscle and liver glycogen stores, while protein helps repair and regenerate muscle tissue following the damage caused by exercise. In fact, if we couldn’t eat the two together, we would be in a lot of trouble.
You shouldn’t drink water with food
The supporters of this theory claim drinking with meals dilutes our digestive enzymes, making it harder for our bodies to process food and absorb nutrients – but there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support this. In fact, fluid with a meal can actually help digestion, by aiding in the breakdown of large particles, says gastroenterologist Cliff Tasman-Jones. “It does not dilute the effectiveness of digestive enzymes,” he confirms.
Is organic really better for you?
Organic food may be free of conventional pesticides and herbicides, but there’s no guarantee it’s any higher in nutritional value. While there is some evidence to suggest that the vitamin C content of organic produce is higher than conventionally-grown food, it’s more important to eat two serves of fruit and five serves of veg daily, conventional or otherwise, than to eat only a couple of serves of organic produce. Considering how expensive organic is, that’s something worth remembering!