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Dr Sally Norton reveals which foods can help tackle various health issues. An avocado a day helps tackle high cholesterol, scientists claim
We all know that we should be eating a bit more healthily, especially if we are watching our weight.
But it always surprises me how little we really know about the importance a nutritious diet has for our health and wellbeing.
Food is the most powerful drug that we have, with many natural foods proving to be as beneficial in tackling certain diseases, conditions and ailments as modern medicine.
Every week, I see new studies showing that what we eat can reduce our risk of developing diseases or help treat existing problems.
Of course, we have to take these studies with a pinch of salt.
The problem is, it’s very difficult to separate out the beneficial effects of a single food that someone may be eating, from the rest of their diet or other behaviour.
So, yes, if you do a survey of 1,000 people and find that those who ate raw cabbage three times a week were more likely to be slim than those who didn’t, are we to assume that raw cabbage is the new superfood for weight loss?
Or could it be that those who ate raw cabbage were more likely to be fitness enthusiasts and it was the running that kept the weight under control?
You see the problem.
However, the underlying theme to many of these studies is the recommendation to increase the proportion of real food in our diet – not heavily processed apologies for food that are high in sugar, bad fats and chemicals.
So, there’s not a whole lot to lose – other than the symptoms of the many diseases that are increasingly recognised as being related to our poor food choices.
Here are a few treatments that you can pick up from your local food store rather than the pharmacy…
Nature’s prescription: Avocado
Use it for: High Cholesterol
According to a recent study, consuming an avocado a day, as part of a moderate fat diet with 34 per cent of calories from fat, could actually help to reduce your cholesterol.
While we know that avocados are high in fat, most of their fat content is mono-unsaturated, or ‘good’ fat, which has been found to help lower cholesterol, reduce risk of stroke and heart attack, and improve heart health in general.
Now, I was just a little bit sceptical when I spotted that this study was funded by the Avocado Council.
But, as it was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, who should know a bit about cholesterol, I feel more confident in passing this prescription on.
Nature’s prescription: A portion of oily fish
Use it for: Reduced risk of arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that causes swelling, inflammation and stiffness in our joints, and is most common among the over 50s.
But the good news is that we can reduce our risk of getting rheumatoid arthritis by eating just one serving of oily fish every week, according to a study for the Annals of Rheumatoid Diseases.
A portion of oily fish, rich in Omega 3, each week can help reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis
The study looked at the health and eating habits of women over more than 15 years.
It found that those who regularly ate at least one portion of oily fish a week had up to 52 per cent lower risk of developing arthritis when compared with those who ate less than one portion a week.
Well worth a try as the omega 3 in oily fish is beneficial in many other ways too.
Nature’s prescription: Beetroot juice
Use it for: High Blood Pressure
Suffering with high blood pressure?
According to a recent trial, just one glass of beetroot juice a day could help reduce blood pressure.
The trial from the University of London, and funded by the British Heart Foundation, found that the high levels of nitrates in a glass of beetroot juice helped to relax and dilate blood vessels, and as a result, lowered the blood pressure in people with hypertension.
And if you need any more reason to up your intake of beetroot, it also contains a whole heap of nutrients and minerals, such as folate, manganese, zinc and vitamin B-6.
A handful of almonds is a good source of 'good' fats, and helps reduce blood pressure
Nature’s prescriptions: Almonds
Use it for: High Blood Pressure and heart disease
Once you have had your beetroot juice, consider a handful of almonds too.
We all know that nuts can be a great source of protein and 'good' fats, but many people steer clear of them because of their high calorie content.
Well, not only do almonds actually have one of the lowest calorie contents of most nuts, but according to one study from Aston University, Birmingham, eating just 50g of almonds a day could help to reduce blood pressure, improve blood flow, and as a result could reduce your risk of heart disease too.
Nature’s prescription: Hot chocolate
Use it for: Preventing memory loss and improving cardiovascular health
If you’re already struggling with a poor memory, then this is one to take note of.
Scientists at Harvard Medical School tested the memory and thinking skills of 60 older people before and after a 30-day period of drinking two cups of hot chocolate per day.
Half of the participants drank cocoa with standard levels of the antioxidant, flavanol, and half had a low flavanol version.
Researchers found that those people with impaired brain blood flow showed improved memory and brain function if they had been drinking the cocoa with higher flavanol content.
And if that’s not enough, a review of 42 trials, and involving 1,200 patients also showed that consuming some of the flavanols found in cocoa could help to reduce insulin levels and levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol.
When combined with the effects of increased blood flow, these benefits could help reduce the risk of diseases such as heart attacks and strokes.
In fact, research over the years has shown there are numerous more benefits to dark chocolate on top of those I’ve mentioned.
And let’s face it, who isn’t happy to have an excuse to indulge in a small amount of high quality dark chocolate every day?
If you're struggling to remember, a cup of hot cocoa could be just what you need, Dr Norton said
Nature’s prescription: Leafy greens
Use it for: Weight loss
I’ve previously talked about the difference between white and brown fat and how brown fat - the ‘good’ fat - can help our bodies to burn fat, rather than store it.
Cold and exercise appear to increase our brown fat levels – but a study on nitrates has shown that these chemicals, found in leafy greens, can also help to convert white fat cells to cells that are very similar in nature to brown fat cells.
So, if the science is right, helping yourself to an extra portion of leafy greens, teamed with a brisk walk in the chilly outdoors could boost your levels of ‘good’ fat and perhaps shed some weight.
Nature’s prescription: A bowl of porridge
Use it for: Reduced risk of diabetes
As a rich source of fibre, those lovely porridge oats have been found to help in stabilising our blood sugar levels, and as a result, help prevent that mid-morning slump that leaves us reaching for the biscuit tin.
They are also a great source of magnesium – a mineral that helps to regulate our insulin and glucose levels.
A bowl of porridge is a great source of magnesium and can help lower a person's risk of diabetes
And according to one study, if you combine your porridge oats with low-fat milk, you could help to lower your risk of diabetes - just don’t add the sugar or syrup.
Of course, new studies are being carried out all the time, but the principal fact remains the same – filling our diets with real food, and avoiding processed foods where possible is always going to be the best way to ensure your diet is as healthy as it can be.
And it also means you’re more likely to be eating foods that will provide you with benefits like the ones I’ve mentioned.