Psychologies Magazine

The REAL superfoods

Do not believe the hype – when it comes to our food, the simplest and cheapest ingredients, in their natural state, are all you need. Just go with your gut, argues our Nutrition Editor, Eve Kalinik.

Food is there to be celebrated. We have access to a variety of produce in its most natural state, and with this gift comes a huge and health-giving host of nutritional benefits. The traditional farming calendar, which includes celebrations around the spring equinox and harvest festivals, champions the humble fruit, veg and grain.

We’ve always eaten what the earth gives us – in season, local and fresh. What our ancestors couldn’t eat, they pickled, but it was about cooking from scratch with wholesome ingredients and very little processing. Fast-forward to the modern day and we have created a world that revolves around convenience-based meals and having any food available at any time. Eating a mango in winter, or being able to ‘cook’ a meal in the microwave in five minutes, are the norm.

Ready meals, pre-packaged, pre-chopped and pre-washed fruit and veg have brought us to a point where we barley recognise the food we eat. Rather than thinking about the foods themselves and where they come from, there has been an overwhelming trend towards self-diagnosed food intolerances and sensitivities. Food intolerances are omnipresent these days and, in some cases, legitimate. But, often, it’s a case of misguided blaming, vilifying and eliminating foods haphazardly in an attempt to feel healthier and improve digestion.

The ‘free from’ aisle is bursting at the seams but, with that eschewing of entire food groups, might we be missing out on a whole heap of nutrition by turning our noses up at some of the most basic foods in the neighbouring aisles? Take sourdough bread and unpasteurised cheese, or the humble spud, for example. More to the point, might these ‘free from’ alternatives harbour ingredients that are less healthy than their all-inclusive and usually more affordable originals?

First, we have to get a better understanding of what has happened to our food in the last few decades. The introduction and widespread use of chemicals, such as preservatives, artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers, so often found in food (both processed and seemingly ‘healthy’), as well as the standard use of pasteurisation, homogenisation and removal of fat from milk, mean that many of the foods we eat are unrecognisable from how they’d occur in their truest sense. This means that often our bodies don’t know what to do with them. As a result, many people are eating a specific type of food – bread, for example – and when this causes an issue, the entire food group, such as wheat or gluten, is blamed.

Take sourdough bread – it contains gluten but, because it is made from a traditional fermented process, the gluten has been pre-digested and, as such, makes it more gut-friendly for most people. This is a far cry from commercially available breads (even gluten-free ones) that contain synthetic chemical ingredients that the body simply doesn’t recognise. The same might be said for milk. Heat-treating via pasteurisation not only kills off potential pathogens, but it also destroys the beneficial bacteria and damages enzymes, such as lactase, that we need to break down lactose. After that, the mechanical process of homogenisation breaks fat globules into smaller parts to get a more uniform liquid throughout, which some argue could alter how they act in the body. Further to this, is the removal of fat, in the case of semi-skimmed, which means the fat-soluble vitamins are practically non-existent. Ironically, when taken in its most raw state, milk provides an excellent source of enzymes, probiotics, fatty acids, vitamins such as A, Bs and D, as well as calcium, magnesium and vital immunoglobulin proteins – in a form that our body can efficiently absorb.

But perhaps, it’s about delving even deeper into the gut. It is often the case that bacterial and other imbalances, as well as chronic low-grade inflammation, can drive a lot of the symptoms associated with intolerances and other digestive discomfort. Over time, this type of inflammation can lead to intestinal permeability, where repeated exposure to inflammatory foods, chemical ingredients, overexposure and stress, results in microscopic damage to the gut. This can cause proteins that should normally be kept within the watertight junctions of the gut to escape into the bloodstream and cause an immune response. Symptoms typically include digestives ones, but also headaches, fatigue and skin flare-ups.

So, rather than any kind of food or food group being the issue, it’s more about helping to nourish and support a gut that is angry, inflamed and immune-compromised. This has got little to do with isolating one or more foods as the culprit, but everything to do with looking at our diet at a more basic and fundamental level. Eating a variety of real foods that are organic, local, seasonal and without labels will give you the broadest amount of nutritional value and support overall health. We can tend to overthink and overcomplicate nutrition, and believe we have to buy into the most expensive ingredients, or indulge in the latest faddy craze. But, really, it’s about stripping it back to foods in their most natural state. These are the foods that will support you and give your body everything it needs for the long term. It really is that simple.

5 REAL FOODS THAT PACK A PUNCH

Always go authentic and natural where you can

WHITE POTATOES. The humble spud, when cooked and fully cooled, provides an excellent source of resistant starch that helps to feed the good bacteria in the gut.

APPLES.Β The saying ‘an apple a day’ has its merits. Apples are a great source of soluble and insoluble fibre, which support optimal gut health and contain antioxidants that have been linked to cardiovascular benefits.

CAULIFLOWER. This is one of the best brassicas you can eat, as it helps to support natural detoxification pathways in the liver, which can also aid hormone balance. Add unpasteurised full-fat cheese, and a basic cauliflower cheese dish becomes truly nutritious and nourishing.

ONIONS. These are a natural source of quercetin, the antioxidant that helps to support anti-inflammatory processes, as well as clear histamines, which is useful for hay fever sufferers. A natural anti-microbial, onions also act as a prebiotic food, beneficial in stimulating the growth of good bacteria in the gut.

CARROTS. They are the highest sources of pro-vitamin A, known as beta-carotene, which is important for immunity and skin health. Eating them with some kind of healthy fat, roasted with organic butter, for instance, will help you to absorb this fat soluble nutrient.