calcium

A Noble Family of Vegetables

cabbage, brassica, cauliflower, cruciferous, heart health, cardiovascular, anthocyanin

At this time of year, it is a little trickier than in the summer to get your fill of fresh fruit and veg to cover your needs for vitamins, especially vitamin C, and minerals, such as magnesium. But only a little. Even in the winter and even in Northern Europe, there are fresh local crops that provide the nutrition we need.

Now in season are Brussels sprouts, white and red cabbage, kale and cauliflower, with purple sprouting broccoli joining them soon (in January). All of the above are members of the Brassica family and have similar properties, which I have written about last year in a blog post about the lovely little Brussels sprouts.

Cabbage and its relatives are not getting very much credit as a delicacy, because it reminds many of school dinners with overcooked, smelly and soggy cabbage. It doesn’t have to be that way. Cooked right, cabbage can be delicious.

So, how do you cook it right? To avoid the pungent smell and sogginess, cabbage is best cooked very briefly and with as little water as possible. Slice it into ribbons or shred in a food processor and then either stir-fry or steam. If you don’t have a steamer, use your widest lidded pan, pour just a little water in the bottom (it doesn’t have to, in fact shouldn’t cover the cabbage) and cook very quickly, just so that it is just soft.

Red cabbage – a pretty type of cabbage that is rich in anthocyanin – is lovely when cooked long and slowly. In my native Germany, it is popular to go with the traditional Christmas dinner of goose and potato dumplings. Traditionally, it is cooked with cloves, cinnamon and chopped apples. But sliced raw red cabbage also makes a beautiful addition to a winter salad, where it goes well with winter leaves such as lambs lettuce and sliced orange. Anthocyanin is a phytonutrient with antioxidant properties. It is the pigment that gives the cabbage its vibrant colour, the same as is found in blueberries, red grapes and beetroot. Anthocyanin fights free radicals and has anti-inflammatory effects, so red cabbage (and similar coloured fruit and veg) help protect us from heart disease. Apart from anthocyanin though red cabbage is also a good source of the vitamins and minerals we need, including vitamin C and K, calcium, magnesium, potassium. It also contains beta-carotenes, the precursor to vitamin A, including eye- and skin-healthy lutein and zeaxanthin.

Cabbage won’t break the bank, and white and red cabbage even keep really well for quite some time – unlike cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts, which should be eaten as soon as possible after purchase. You’ll find the best deals at your local farmers’ market or the green grocers, who also thankfully sell kale still on its stems. Supermarkets usually sell bagged, chopped kale, but it gets chopped with the stem on, which means that there will always be that hard bit in each bite.

Here some ideas on what to do with it:

  • Cut a white (or red) cabbage in half and then slice thinly. Steam the strips and then smother in (homemade) pesto for a super low-carb meal.
  • Strip kale leaves off the stem and then use either in a salad – massage the dressing in and then let it sit for a little while, the leaves will become much softer – or to make kale chips. Chop and add to pasta with some roasted squash and goat’s cheese; or add it to a hearty white bean soup.
  • Steam chopped kale or stir-fry, seasoned with a teaspoon of toasted sesame oil and tamari, sprinkle with toasted sesame. This works well with sliced white or red cabbage, too.
  • Sauerkraut is excellent food for gut health, but make sure that it is raw, not cooked. The kind you find in supermarkets – whether in jars or plastic bags – is usually cooked. Some health food shops sell raw sauerkraut, but if you want raw sauerkraut, i. e. with live bacteria, you’ll most likely have to make your own.

Note: Avoid raw cabbage, incl. coleslaw, if you have thyroid problems, particularly when iodine levels are low. Most members of the cabbage family contain goitrogens, naturally occurring compounds that interfere with the function of the thyroid. Cooking deactivates goitrogens, so cooked Brassica are fine. If your dietary iodine levels are low, you can top them up by consuming sea vegetables, seafood and iodised salt. 

Nutrition from the Ocean

It’s not something most of us in the west grew up with, but sea vegetables – or ‘seaweed’ – is something we should all consider incorporating into our diets. It enhances our diet from a culinary as well as a health perspective. In Japan, sea vegetables have been eaten for thousands of years, but even here in the UK – where we are surrounded by water after all – seaweed is part of a traditional dish: Welsh laverbread.

 

nutritionist Southend-on-Sea Leigh-on-Sea

Sea vegetables contain virtually all the minerals found in the ocean, and there are no other plants that carry more nutrients, trace minerals and minerals. As a group, sea vegetables are known for their ability to detoxify environmental toxins and heavy metals, such as cadmium, from the body. Not only are sea vegetables rich sources of iodine – a mineral required for proper thyroid function – but also calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. They also supply some B vitamins, such as folic acid, riboflavin (B2) and pantothenic acid (B5). Moreover, they contain lignans – a chemical compound from plants – that is thought to provide protection from cancer and helps alleviate menopausal symptoms – as well as fucans, which can help reduce inflammation. Lignans (another great source are flaxseeds) block the hormonal signalling of oestrogen-related cancers. In addition, seaweed appears to impair angiogenesis, the growth of blood vessels for the nutrient supply to tumours. Fucoids, another component of sea vegetables, a polysaccharide (carbohydrate) that is particularly rich in kombu and wakame, is believed to be cancer-protective, too, but is easily destroyed even by light cooking. To benefit from it, kombu or wakame need to be consumed in their raw or dried form.

The sea vegetables most commonly used for food are from the family of brown seaweeds (arame, hijiki, kelp, kombu, wakame) and red seaweeds (nori, dulse).

Arame

This wiry Japanese sea vegetable has a sweet and mild flavour. It contains 100 – 500 times more iodine than shellfish and is a great source of iron and vitamin A. Arame has ten times more calcium than milk.

Hijiki

Another Japanese sea vegetable, which is the highest in calcium, but also a good source of iron (eight times more than beef) and vitamin A. It has a stronger flavour than arame. Both hijiki and arame are available dried (long strands, similar to pasta) and will expand when rehydrated.

Kelp

Kelp – like arame is a rich source of iodine and has four times more iron than beef. It is often sold as a powder or flakes.

Kombu

Kombu is sold dried in wide strips or sheets. Adding a strip of kombu to dried beans and lentils during cooking helps them cook faster and alleviates digestive problems (flatulence, bloating) some people suffer when eating pulses. It contains potassium, calcium, iodine and vitamins A and C.

Nori

Nori is probably the best known sea vegetable as it is used to wrap sushi. It is usually sold in shiny, black sheets that are made in a similar way to paper, from nori pulp, but is also available as flakes. Nori is rich in calcium, iron, potassium and vitamin A.

Dulse

Dulse has a reddish brown colour and a chewy texture. It is available in pieces (dried) or as flakes. Although all of the above contain protein, dulse and nori are particularly rich sources of it, with 20 – 30 per cent of their dry weight consisting of protein.

Most health food shops sell dried seaweed, either as long, dried strands, sea vegetable salad (dried pieces) or flakes. It is also available as a condiment, mixed with sea salt. Some supermarkets sell seaweed, too, but mainly nori for sushi making. It is also a component in some healthy snack foods such as crackers or savoury biscuits. Note that ‘crispy seaweed’ in Chinese restaurants or the ready meals aisle in the supermarket is not usually made from seaweed, but cabbage. Delicious as it may be, it is also deep-fried and covered in sugar and salt, so it really has nothing in common with the sea vegetables discussed above.

For ideas on how to incorporate sea vegetables into your diet, read tomorrow’s Nutrilicious News. It is not too late to subscribe!

 

Snooze yourself to health

According to a report published by The Sleep Council in March 2013 the number of Britons getting just five to six hours sleep per night has risen dramatically: 40% of us are not getting the six to nine hours recommended by the NHS. Why is that? In the majority of cases health conditions, such as depression and anxiety or chronic pain are keeping us awake at night. Many are unable to sleep due to worry, but a great many of us are just not going to bed on time to get the rest we need. Some see sleep as a waste of time, which would be better spent working. Others don’t like going to bed early, because the only me-time they can get is in the evenings, when at last they get home after a long and stressful day at work or when the kids are finally tucked up and asleep. Understandable. But is it wise?

The fact that sleep is something our body just demands is a strong clue that we need it and that it is in fact good for something. If we are prevented from sleeping – and remember: sleep deprivation is a form of torture! – we will die. But even without this drastic outcome, sleep deprivation seriously affects our health.

Photo: Ambro, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

While we sleep, the body is very busy repairing and maintaining muscles, bones and organs. The brain needs sleep-time for clean-up, not just of “mind clutter”, but also of the chemical waste of brain cell metabolism that accumulated in the course of the day.

In the short term, sleep deprivation affects our memory and creativity, slows reaction time, and leads to micro-sleeps and drowsiness during the day, impatience and moodiness. Tiredness also shows on your face, and you won’t be looking your best. Apart from the fact that most of us really want to look good, research has found that people can easily spot a tired person and we instinctively know not to expect much from them, a fact that can affect your career and business.

Prolonged sleep deprivation, however, has much more serious consequences as it can lead to hormonal and neurological changes and even depression. With 40% of us not getting enough sleep, it is no wonder that symptoms are so common that they are easily mistaken as normal.

Sleep deprivation impairs insulin sensitivity, which promotes weight gain and contributes to diabetes II over time. It also affects weight by messing with the hormones ghrelin and leptin: Ghrelin is the "hunger hormone", which makes you feel peckish and slows down your metabolism, i.e. you'll burn energy more slowly. Leptin is the "satiety hormone", which makes you feel full, tells you when to stop eating and speeds up metabolism. If you are not getting enough sleep, leptin production is suppressed, while ghrelin production goes up. You'll want to eat more and the calories thus consumed will stick.

As if that wasn't bad enough, sleep deprivation is also pro-inflammatory. Continuous low-grade inflammation is known to promote degenerative diseases such as heart disease, diabetes II, Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis.

If you need an alarm, use the snooze button, tend to fall asleep when you’re not in bed – for example on the train, a plane or in a meeting, the theatre or cinema – and feel the need to catch up on sleep on weekends or on holiday, you are not getting enough sleep. When we do, we wake up naturally, without needing an alarm. We should be able to get through the day without copious amounts of caffeine, and remain alert until it is time to go to bed at night. Yet for many of us that is not the case.

If you suffer from insomnia, whether you have trouble falling asleep (sleep-onset insomnia) or staying asleep (sleep-maintenance insomnia), you should go and see your doctor, especially if you suspect that you might suffer from depression and/or anxiety. Insomnia can be a side effect of medication, most commonly thyroid drugs or oral contraceptives. Ask your GP whether there is an alternative drug that you might tolerate better.

If there is no obvious medical reason, you could look at your diet:

Are you eating late and/or having heavy dinners?

If you need to digest during the night, your sleep will almost certainly be disturbed. Eat no later than 3 hours before bedtime if at all possible. Ideally, you should have your main meal at lunchtime and a lighter meal in the evening. If you have a business dinner, ask if it can be arranged a little earlier – perhaps at 18:30. This will get you all home earlier, too (more sleep time – bonus!). Choose light meals for dinner and avoid refined carbohydrates and sugar to balance blood sugar.

Balance Blood Sugar

Keeping blood sugar levels balanced throughout the day is the best way to ensure a steady supply of energy without mid-afternoon slumps and to get a good night’s sleep. If your evening meal is rich in refined carbohydrates, e. g. from white rice, white pasta, or sugar, this can cause a blood sugar spike which is soon followed by a steep drop. If this drop occurs during the night, stress hormones are released to increase blood sugar, and they are likely to wake you up (cortisol is in fact what gets you out of bed in the morning). A blood sugar drop can also happen if you have eaten a very low-carb meal too early in the evening. If that is the case, a small (!) snack of complex carbohydrate paired with protein just before bed can help stabilise blood sugar to get you through the night. Think one oatcake with hummus, cottage cheese or a piece of smoked salmon; a piece of banana with peanut butter, a small tub of plain yoghurt with berries.

Are you having too much caffeine?

Different people detoxify caffeine at different rates. While some can drop off easily after a post-dinner espresso, others are kept awake by caffeine even if they had their last cup at lunchtime. To find out whether you are sensitive to caffeine, cut it out completely for 7 to 10 days and see what happens. Make sure to eliminate all caffeine during that time: tea, coffee (including decaff), green tea, chocolate, caffeine drugs and energy drinks all contain varying amounts of caffeine. If it turns out that you sleep better without it, you may want to stay off it or at least not drink coffee any later than lunchtime.

Are you using alcohol to help you sleep?

Using alcohol to help induce sleep is very common, and it does in fact do that. The problem is, however, that it can disturb sleep further into the night. Alcohol is known to suppress the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, when we would normally dream and when the brain tidies up our memory, discarding what we don’t need and consolidating what we do. Also, carbohydrates in alcohol can lead to blood sugar spikes followed by drops, which then encourage the release of stress hormones (see above). Moreover, alcoholic drinks – especially beer – act as diuretics and may encourage you to get up and use the toilet during the night.

Eat your greens!

The minerals calcium and magnesium are required for relaxation of both the mind and the muscles. You are more likely to be low in magnesium than in calcium: Magnesium-rich foods are nuts and seeds, green vegetables, wholegrains and seafood. Green vegetables, nuts and seeds, seafood, tofu and molasses are also great sources of calcium. Adequate B vitamins, too, are important for good sleep, but if you are taking a multi-vitamin or B-complex supplement make sure to take them earlier in the day as B vitamins are involved in energy production.

Eat lettuce at night: Apart from magnesium lettuce contains the natural sedative lactucarium, which encourages deeper sleep. Lettuce can also be eaten cooked in soups or stir-fries. Try it, you may be surprised. Foods that are high in the amino acid tryptophan, such as chicken, cheese, tuna, tofu, eggs, nuts, bananas, dates, seeds and milk can help improve sleep. For more on tryptophan, have a look at my blog on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Other foods associated with inducing sleep are celery, oats and kiwi fruit.

To learn more:

The Sleep Council’s website is a great resource for everything sleepy. From mattresses to jet lag, there’s great advice here.

Tomorrow’s Nutrilicious News will have more tips on how to get a good night’s sleep, a sleepy recipe and some links. There is still time to subscribe!

Almonds are your friend

picture credit: Victor Hanacek (viktorhanacek.com) Nuts have had a hard time: being high in fat and therefore calories, they were shunned by many. However, they’ve been enjoying a comeback since fat has been exonerated and we now know that “a calorie is not a calorie”. Recent research has shown that – contrary to popular belief – almonds actually help you slim down rather than make you fat, and protect the heart at the same time. A possible reason for the slimming effect of almonds may be that they make you feel satisfied and you are less likely to reach for sugary snacks. Another possibility is that they stimulate the metabolism. Nuts (and seeds) offer excellent nutrition and are a very handy, portable snack.

Although almonds contain mainly oil, they also have a significant amount of protein. They are also a good source of soluble fibre, which aids digestion. Most of the oil in almonds is monounsaturated (omega-9), the key fat in the Mediterranean diet, which has been found to protect against heart disease and high blood pressure. Their combination of fat, protein and fibre also ensure a slow release of energy, which helps stabilising blood sugar levels. As they contain virtually no carbohydrates apart from fibre, they are an excellent food for diabetics, too.

They are great sources of magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc and iron. Magnesium relaxes the mind as well as muscles and, like calcium, it is vital for strong bones. Potassium is an important mineral to support the adrenal glands (think: stress and fatigue) and is thought to prevent hypertension and possibly stroke. Zinc is an antioxidant, an essential co-factor in energy production and, among many other things, good for the skin. Almonds also contain copper, another mineral that promotes healthy skin and brain function. Moreover, they contain vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin that protects from tissue damage, not least the lining of the arteries. The brown skin of almonds contains the phytochemical resveratrol, a chemical that enhances blood flow to the brain. Another phytochemical in almond skin – laetrile – is thought to protect from cancer, particularly cancer of the colon.

A word of caution: Don’t go crazy on them either. One reason is that that are still quite calorific, and if you do eat a ton of them, you may put on weight after all. Studies that found that almonds reduce abdominal adiposity used 1.5 oz per day (40 g). You probably wouldn’t want to eat much more anyway, but consider this if using almond butter.

Almonds contain a compound called phytic acid, which impairs the absorption of iron, zinc and to a lesser extent calcium, if only in that particular meal, not any later meals. One way of reducing phytic acid is by soaking – which is what you would do before making almond milk. If you have a dehydrator, consider soaking, then dehydrating the almonds.

Have you ever seen “activated” nuts in the health food shop and wondered what that means? These nuts have first been soaked, then dehydrated. However, they are even more expensive than ‘normal’ almonds. Apart from reducing the phytic acid content, soaking deactivates an enzyme inhibitor contained in the almond, thus activating the enzymes they contain and making almonds even more nutritious.

Almonds need a warmer climate than Northern Europe can provide, so they are generally imported. If you buy almonds from a less affluent country, make sure to buy Fairtrade. Despite the fact that they are imported, almonds – like other nuts – are still a green choice. The trees absorb and store carbon from the environment, which makes them an environmentally friendly crop. Moreover, they do not require a lot of pesticides, so if you can’t afford organic, regular almonds are fine, especially since they are relatively expensive anyway. But remember how good they are for you. Also, they are quite filling, so you are likely to use them sparingly anyway.

If you end up with a bag of nuts that tastes stale or very bitter, they are rancid. Don’t be too shy to take them back to the shop and ask for a refund or exchange, as they are too expensive to write off. At home, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Light, heat and air destroy the unsaturated fatty acids, ie make them go rancid.

What to do with almonds?

  • Coarsely chop toasted or untoasted almonds and sprinkle over salads or stir-fries or stir into yoghurt, muesli or porridge.
  • Have a handful of almonds as a quick power snack.
  • If you like to snack on fruit, combine with almonds to provide the protein you need to balance blood sugar levels.
  • Make an open sandwich with almond butter, topped with banana slices.
  • Snack on celery sticks or thin apple slices spread with almond butter.
  • Use almond butter instead of cream in cooking – it’s great to thicken sauces, very creamy and very yummy.
  • Make milk shakes using almond milk.
  • Use ground almonds to replace all or some of the flour in baking. As ground almonds are heavier than flour, make sure to increase your raising agent (baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, yeast).

A blog on how to make your own almond butter is coming up soon.

Make sure to get tomorrow's Nutrilicious News for another quick almond snack recipe and a divine gluten-free and easy to bake Almond and Orange Cake!