magnesium

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!

 

Plugged up?

It’s not something that is discussed much in circles of friends and colleagues – for obvious reasons – but constipation is common. In the UK, approx.12% of the general population suffer from chronic constipation. Twice as many women than men struggle with it, and the over 65s are most affected: 25% of free living older people experience constipation, but a shocking 80% of the elderly living in nursing homes. Because bowel habits are not a popular topic of conversation, it is hard to know what is normal and what isn’t. If you can answer ‘yes’ to two or more of the following, you are probably constipated:

  • Do you ‘go’ less than three times per week?
  • Do you often strain (at least 25% of the time)?
  • Are your stools often hard or lumpy (at least 25% of the time)?
  • Do you often feel that you haven’t been able to excrete everything (at least 25% of the time)

A comparison with the Bristol Stool Chart may also help you see where you are.

Man sitting on toilet bowl
Man sitting on toilet bowl

Why does it matter?

Not being able to ‘go’ can be extremely uncomfortable, but not everybody feels that way. Some people have infrequent bowel movements and feel fine. In fact, according to the (official) diagnostic criteria just emptying the bowel three times a week is ok. However, the ideal transit time for food is 12 to 24 hours. Defecating three times a week constitutes an average transit time of 56 hours, which really is too slow. A bowel movement at least once a day is what we should all strive for.

If you are not sure, you can test your transit time: Eat three or four whole beetroots and make a note of when you ate them. Wait and see when the beetroot comes out the other end. It should dye your faeces crimson. If you don’t like beetroot, try it with a generous amount of corn on the cob.

Having faecal matter sit in the colon for too long is undesirable for several reasons. Bile acids contained in it can irritate the gut wall, if faeces aren’t excreted swiftly, causing damage. The colon’s main function is to recycle nutrients and water back into the system and to eliminate waste products. In order to do this job properly it needs a healthy gut microflora. Chronic constipation can upset the balance of good and bad bacteria, and an imbalanced gut flora can lead to constipation – a vicious circle. If waste remains in the colon for too long, putrefying bacteria start working on it, releasing toxins, which then cause damage to the intestinal lining with potentially serious long-term consequences.

Old oestrogen, which was meant to be excreted, gets attached to a protein called sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG) in the liver. SHGB is the vehicle to see the oestrogen out. However, some strains of bad bacteria have the ability to uncouple hormones from SHBG, thus enabling those hormones to get reabsorbed. This can contribute to oestrogen dominance and related disturbances and diseases (e. g. PMS, fibroids, breast cancer). The slower your transit time, the more time bacteria have to send old hormones back into circulation.

Straining to excrete hard stools is the most common underlying cause for haemorrhoids (piles): enlarged, swollen blood vessels around the anus. Once formed, they can make defecation even harder and very painful, and they often cause rectal bleeding.

Other health issues linked to constipation are bad breath, body odour, depression, fatigue, flatulence, food sensitivities, headaches, indigestion, joint pain and dark circles under the eyes.

What causes constipation?

The most common causes by far are a sedentary lifestyle, dehydration and a low-fibre diet. The vast majority of sufferers get rid of the problem by increasing exercise, increase fluid intake and change to a diet high in fibre, eg from vegetables, beans and pulses, as well as wholegrains.

You can add extra soluble fibre by taking linseeds (flaxseeds) or chia seeds. These seeds soak up water and form a gel, which makes stools soft and easy to pass, but make sure to always have them with lots of water otherwise they can make the problem worse. Prunes, too, are excellent helpers. Not only does the fibre they contain help bulk up the stool and move things along, but they are also food for the good bacteria. Bacteria convert the fibre from prunes into short-chain fatty acids, which become fuel for the cells of the gut wall.

Another common contributor to constipation is magnesium deficiency. (Remember last week’s post on vegetables?) Magnesium is involved in the proper function of muscles. The entire digestive system is surrounded by smooth muscle, which contracts in stages (like a Mexican Wave) to move intestinal contents along, a process called peristalsis. For peristalsis to work, magnesium is required. Food processing causes the loss of 75% of the magnesium contained in food, and deficiency is very common. Yet another good reason to move away from junk food – which is also low in fibre! - and start cooking your own.

Putting off going to the toilet can also lead to constipation. If you continuously postpone a bowel movement, the nerves of the rectum become less sensitive to the rectum being stretched and stop sending the message to the brain. If you think that you may already have lost that sensitivity, you can retrain your nerves: Sit on the toilet for 20 minutes every morning and relax. Your colon will soon learn to relax again, too. And stop putting off your trip to the loo: You may not like to go and empty your bowels when you’re not at home, but at work or travelling, but you need to get used to that. It’s what people do.

Other reasons

There are many more reasons why someone would develop chronic constipation. It is, for example, a very common side effect of medication. If you suspect your prescription drugs, take out the leaflet and have a look. If constipation is listed, speak to your doctor. Maybe there is a similar drug that you can tolerate better.

Constipation is also part of a number of diseases, such as stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, illnesses that affect the nervous or muscular systems (eg multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries), over- or underactive thyroid. Stress or depression, pregnancy, high calcium levels, iron supplements and the long-term use of laxatives can be behind the problem. Constipation is very common in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diverticulosis and colon cancer. If your bowel habits change for no apparent reason, you must tell your doctor.

For more on constipation and bowel habits and more tips on what to do, read tomorrow’s Nutrilicious News. It is not too late to sign up.

If you are experiencing digestive issues, why not come and see me in clinic at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex? Contact me and we'll have a chat on the phone first to decide whether you would benefit from a personalised Health & Nutrition Programme with me.