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Have you ever heard someone say that vegans don’t look healthy? Hogwash! While it’s true that you can be vegan and live on dairy-free pizza and processed foods and not be a picture of health, many vegans are, in fact, the picture of health because of the time and effort we put into creating well-balanced meals. Perhaps it’s because our minds are open to new ideas that we often have a healthy curiosity for unfamiliar ingredients or creative ideas about how to use familiar foods. Maybe it’s just that we want to prove to the world that you can not only live, but thrive on a plant-based diet, despite the criticism that we’ll all shrivel up and die from a lack of protein.
In a recent Compassionate Cuisine cooking class, we explored ways to get a bigger bang from the foods we eat. In our “Cooking with Superfoods” class, we looked into why certain foods are super-beneficial for all of us and how to use them on a regular basis. While there is this group of foods we label “superfoods” that are exceptionally nutritious, the foods on the list are only “super” if you make them a part of your every day diet. Eating a bucket of pomegranate seeds will not turn you into a superhuman specimen of health and vitality. It will probably just give you a stomach ache.
Below is a list, with descriptions, of foods that have been ranked among the most beneficial in helping to boost energy, control cravings, and fight off disease. In our class, we cooked with many of these ingredients, so check out our recipes and start to create your own.
Amaranth is generally grown in Central American. It is high in protein, folate and B6 content. It also boasts an impressive fiber content, and is one of the few grains to contain the amino acid lysine, which helps us absorb calcium and prevent osteoporosis, and plays an important role in the formation of collagen. Amaranth is second only to quinoa in terms of iron content (for grains), is gluten-free, and it has been shown to reduce cholesterol. It’s the only grain that contains vitamin C.
The avocado’s dense nutrient composition includes vitamin K, Vitamin E, B vitamins especially vitamin B6 and folic acid, vitamin C, calcium, copper, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and dietary fiber. Avocados have 60% more potassium than bananas. Many people think that because avocado has more fat than most other fruits and vegetables, it somehow contains cholesterol or bad fats that can raise cholesterol levels. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Avocados are high in beta-sitosterol, a compound that has been shown to lower cholesterol levels. Avocados do not contain any cholesterol. No plant foods contain cholesterol. As for the fat in avocado, it’s heart-friendly and can actually improve the cholesterol profile. The monounsaturated fatty acids of avocado have recently been shown to offer significant protection against breast cancer and have been shown to inhibit the growth of prostate cancer. Avocados have more of ‘carotenoid lutein’ than any other commonly consumed fruit. Lutein protects against macular degeneration and cataracts. A few slices of avocado in salad will not only add a rich, creamy flavor, but will greatly increase your body’s ability to absorb the health-promoting carotenoids that vegetables provide.
Although beets have the highest sugar content of all vegetables, most people can safely eat beet roots a few times a week, enjoying not only their sweet, earthy flavor but also their powerhouse nutrients that may improve health in many ways. Studies show beets can lower blood pressure and drinking beet juice may help to lower blood pressure in a matter of hours. One study found that drinking one glass of beet juice lowered systolic blood pressure by an average of 4-5 points. The benefit likely comes from the naturally occurring nitrates in beets, which are converted into nitric oxide in your body. Nitric oxide, in turn, helps to relax and dilate your blood vessels, improving blood flow and lowering blood pressure. Beets can help fight inflammation because they are a source of betaine, a nutrient that helps protects cells, proteins, and enzymes from environmental stress. It’s also known to help fight inflammation, protect internal organs, improve vascular risk factors, enhance performance, and likely help prevent numerous chronic diseases. They are also rich in valuable nutrients and fiber, contain high levels of immune-boosting vitamin C, fiber, and essential minerals like potassium (essential for healthy nerve and muscle function) and manganese (which is good for your bones, liver, kidneys, and pancreas). Beets also contain the B vitamin folate, which helps reduce the risk of birth defects. Finally, beets support detoxification and help to purify your blood and your liver.
The antioxidants in berries can help your body fight oxidative stress caused by free radicals that can lead to illness. Eating a diet rich in antioxidants can help improve your health, protect your skin and hair, and prevent certain diseases. All fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, but nutrient-rich berries are some of the absolute best sources. There are several powerful antioxidants that appear in berries, including anthocyanins, quercetin, and vitamin C. Anthocyanins give berries their vibrant color, reduce inflammation, and may help prevent and manage arthritis. Anthocyanins work together with quercetin to help slow age-related memory-loss. Quercetin can also decrease the inflammatory effects of chemicals in the synovial fluid of the joints for people with inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. Vitamin C is another strong antioxidant found in berries. It is largely responsible for the health of collagen, which helps maintain cartilage stores and aids in joint flexibility. Eating vitamin C–rich berries will contribute to radiant skin and healthy hair, and may reduce the risk of arthritis, cataracts, and macular degeneration.
Brccoli is a superfood from the Brassica family. It contains a high amount of potassium, as well as magnesium and calcium. The calcium and Vitamin K found in broccoli support bone health and osteoporosis prevention. Broccoli contains glucoraphanin which helps the skin to repair itself from sun damage. The body processes the glucoraphanin into an anti-cancer compound. The American Cancer Society recommends eating broccoli because it contains phytochemicals with their anti-cancer properties. One cup of broccoli bolsters the immune system with a large dose of beta-carotene. And the trace minerals such as zinc and selenium in the broccoli further help to strengthen the immune system. It’s a powerhouse of iron, protein, calcium, chromium, carbohydrates, Vitamin A and Vitamin C. Also found in this nutrient-dense food is Vitamin B6 and folate. Broccoli contains carotenoid lutein which helps fight against heart disease, hardening of the arteries, and stroke. The chromium is known to help regulate insulin and control diabetes.
Chia seeds are what made the little chia head and pets grow sprouts, but we have far more important uses for them today. Chia is rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 is the acid found in fish, and the reason that fish oil is so popular. If you abstain from meat, then chia is a great source of this healthy acid, which enhances immunity and synaptic activity in the brain. Chia seeds are also rich in protein, vitamin B complex, calcium, potassium and fiber. They contain substances to help to regulate blood sugar levels, thus curbing the desire to overeat. Chia seeds are immensely popular in vegan puddings and oatmeal dishes. Because they can absorb up to seven times their weight in water, soaked chias create a gelatinous base to which you can add nuts, dried fruit, oats, honey and even chocolate to create inventive and healthy breakfast dishes.
Dark Chocolate and Cacao
Cacao is the fruit and bean from which chocolate is made. Cacao is super high in antioxidants, dietary fiber, iron and magnesium, and is typically unsweetened, which means you won’t get a dose of sugar with your antioxidants. Cacao is processed at very low temperatures to protect its nutrients and taste, unlike cocoa which is used in hot chocolates and for baking. Researchers found the antioxidant activity of dark chocolate and cacao was equivalent to or higher than that found in some other ‘super fruit’ powders or juices, including acai berry, blueberry, cranberry, and pomegranate.
Dark, Leafy Greens
There are many varieties of dark leafy greens, which are low in calories, high in fiber, and provide a plethora of vitamins and minerals, as well as a surprising amount of protein. Dr. Joel Fuhrman points out that a cup of cooked spinach is 51% protein, as compared to a Burger King cheeseburger, which clocks in at only 21%. Dark green leafy vegetables are perhaps the most concentrated source of nutrition of any food. They are a rich source of minerals; including iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. They also contain vitamins K1, C, E, and many of the B vitamins, especially folate. They also provide a variety of phytonutrients including beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which protect our cells from damage. Dark green leaves even contain small amounts of Omega-3 fats. Studies show that vegans are at more risk of fractures because of less calcium intake, but if they consume 525 mg of calcium per day, by eating high-calcium greens, they are are not at risk. Collards contain the most calcium. Vegan nutritionists recommend a daily dose of leafy dark greens. Adding oil such as hemp oil, olive oil, or flax oil, helps to better absorb the nutrients. Certain greens (chard, spinach and beet greens) contain higher levels of oxalates which bind with calcium reducing absorption. Use a variety of greens to ensure optimal balance.
Flax seeds are another important component in your superfood arsenal. Available in both whole and ground forms, flax is high in fiber, omega-3s, and lignans which have both plant estrogen and antioxidant qualities. Flaxseed contains 75-800 times more lignans than other plant foods. Studies suggest that flax seeds can help fight cancer, both by inhibiting tumor growth and by reducing hormone metabolism. They may also help prevent and reduce inflammation in the body, thereby reducing the risk of developing conditions such as asthma, heart disease, ADD/ADHD, thyroid issues, migraines, cancer and arthritis.
Garlic strengthens the immune system as well as helps to fight chest infections, coughs and congestion. In the winter months garlic is a great food to boost your immune system and ward off colds and flu. Garlic contains high levels of iodine which makes it a very effective treatment for hyperthyroid conditions and cardiovascular disease can be reduced by ingesting garlic. LDL cholesterol is no friend of garlic and the aortic plaque deposits that gather on the walls of your body’s veins can be reduced with the use of garlic. Garlic can aid in the prevention of multiple types of cancer; Bladder cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer and stomach cancer have all been shown to have their tumors reduced when treated with garlic. Garlic regulates blood sugar as it enhances the level of insulin in the blood. This may assist in the control of diabetes.
Goji berries have been used for centuries in Chinese herbalism. Goji berries are said to restore energy and strength, increase stamina and longevity, enhance fertility, strengthen the immune system, treat insomnia, improve eyesight, and improve digestion. Gogi berries contain all essential amino acids (making it a complete protein which is great for vegans), and are the richest known plant-based source of carotenoids (colorful plant pigments which the body turns into vitamin A, a powerful antioxidant that can help prevent some forms of cancer and heart disease). Gogi berries have a mildly sweet, tart, and bitter taste, and are commonly used in granolas, desserts, and smoothies. And, per ounce, the little red powerhouses also contain more vitamin C than oranges, more beta carotene than carrots, and more iron than soybeans or spinach. In the U.S., goji berries are typically available in dried form, and are readily available in health food stores.
Hemp has been used for food and fiber in China for thousands of years. Hemp seeds have recently gaining popularity as a superfood. Hemp seeds are a great source of vegan protein, because they contain all amino acids. It also has high amounts of fatty acids and fiber as well as containing vitamin E and trace minerals. It has a balanced ratio of omega 3 to 6 fats at around a three to one ratio. This won’t help correct your omega balance if it’s off, but it gives you the right balance to start with. The protein content of the hemp seed is supposed to be very digestible. Many people find that hemp seed protein did not cause bloating or gas, like some other protein shakes did. Unlike soy which has super high amounts of phytic acid (that anti-nutrient that prevents us from absorbing minerals), hemp seed doesn’t contain phytic acid. At the very least, this makes hemp seed a step up from soy. Mildly sweet and nutty, hemp seeds can be added to salads or smoothies.
Lentils are included because they are an unprocessed, whole food, and a great source of protein that cooks in just 10-20 minutes. Lentils are one of the first foods to have ever been cultivated. Lentils come in many varieties and do not have to be soaked before cooking. They contain high levels of dietary fiber which helps in lowering cholesterol, managing blood sugar disorders, and preventing digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulitis. International studies have shown that legumes are associated with a significant lower risk of heart disease. Lentils have a considerable amount of folate, which helps to lower levels of homocysteine. Magnesium, readily found in lentils, is also beneficial to cardiovascular health. Lentils are a good vegan source of iron and an excellent source of phosphorus, copper, potassium, and molybdenum. Lentils are rich in many additional vitamins and minerals. A one cup serving meets 40% of your daily recommended value of protein with only 230 calories. Lentils are one of the highest sources of antioxidants found in winter growing legumes.
Lucuma is a subtropical fruit common to Chile and Peru. Lucuma is a round fruit with bright yellow flesh, which has the somewhat dry texture of a hard-boiled egg yolk. The dried fruit is made into a powder, which is gaining popularity as a superfood due to its high nutrients. Lucuma is rich in beta-carotene, some B-vitamins, niacin and iron, and has high amounts of calcium and phosphorus. Lucuma has a unique, rich, sweet flavor and aftertaste. Its taste has been described as a mix of maple and sweet potato. Lucuma powder can be added to ice creams, deserts, and smoothies for richness and flavor.
Mushrooms are one of the few vegan sources of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been shown to block aromatase, a protein that causes estrogen development in women. By helping to block this protein, CLA, and therefore mushrooms, may help prevent the development of breast cancer. As if that weren’t enough, mushrooms offer many other benefits. They are low in carbohydrates, calories, and sodium and are cholesterol and fat free. High in fiber and protein, mushrooms are also rich in B vitamins to help maintain a healthy metabolism. Mushrooms are an excellent source of potassium, a mineral that helps lower elevated blood pressure and reduces the risk of stroke. Mushrooms are a rich source of riboflavin, niacin, and selenium. Selenium is an antioxidant that works with vitamin E to protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals. Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms with an odd (unpaired) number of electrons and can be formed when oxygen interacts with certain molecules. Once formed these highly reactive radicals can start a chain reaction, like dominoes. Their chief danger comes from the damage they can do when they react with important cellular components such as DNA, or the cell membrane. Cells may function poorly or die if this occurs. To prevent free radical damage the body has a defense system of antioxidants. Antioxidants are intimately involved in the prevention of cellular damage — the common pathway for cancer, aging, and a variety of diseases. Antioxidants are molecules which can safely interact with free radicals and terminate the chain reaction before vital molecules are damaged. Although there are several enzyme systems within the body that scavenge free radicals, the principle micronutrient (vitamin) antioxidants are vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. Additionally, selenium, a trace metal that is required for proper function of one of the body’s antioxidant enzyme systems, is sometimes included in this category. The body cannot manufacture these micronutrients so they must be supplied in the diet.
Nutritional Yeast is a good-tasting nutty and cheesy flavored deactivated yeast, but not to be confused with the bitter tasting Brewer’s yeast. It a delicious and healthful condiment. Because a vegan diet may be deficient in Vitamin B12, many vegans like to add nutritional yeast to the diet to help ensure getting B12. But it’s very important to remember that not all nutritional yeast contains B12. It has to be added in. The vitamin B12 is produced separately (by bacteria) and then added to the yeast. Aside from being a great source of the B-Vitamin complex, nutritional yeast is a complete protein. It is low in fat and sodium, free of sugar, dairy and gluten.
This autumn fruit has been around for centuries. The juice in pomegranate seeds contain ellagic acid and punic alagin which fight damage from free radicals and preserves the collagen in your skin. It’s also a powerful source of phytonutrients (plant nutrients) that promote healthy skin. Pomegranates are high in vitamins C and B5 and phytochemicals (chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants that are related to color and smell). In 2000, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published details on an experiment that found that men who consumed pomegranate juice raised their antioxidant levels and concurrently lowered their levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol by 90%. Quinoa Quinoa was first cultivated in the Andes mountains more than 5,000 years ago, by the Incas. Although it’s commonly referred to as a grain, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is actually a seed that’s related to spinach and beets. Quinoa is a complete protein, which means that it contains all the essential amino acids to form a complete protein. It’s also high in iron and calcium, and is a good source of manganese, magnesium and copper, as well as fiber. Quinoa is readily available in grocery stores, is gluten-free, and is easy and quick-cooking, making it a nice alternative to rice. It’s also a great way to boost the nutritional value, taste and texture of simple salads.
These brightly colored tubers are chock full of vitamins and minerals. They’re high in B6, which reduces homocysteine (a common amino acid found in the blood and is strongly influenced by diet – meat in particular – and heredity. High levels of homocysteine are related to the early development of heart disease and blood vessel disease. In fact, an elevated level is considered an independent risk factor for heart disease.) They also contain vitamins C and D, potassium and are a vegan source of iron. Sweet potatoes are also high in magnesium, which is necessary for healthy artery, blood, bone, heart, muscle, and nerve function. Sweet potatoes, like many other yellow foods, are also an excellent source of beta carotene. Not only can beta carotene help improve eyesight and boost immunity, but it can also help fight cancer. Studies at Harvard University of more than 124,000 people showed a 32 percent reduction in risk of lung cancer in people who consumed a variety of carotenoid-rich foods as part of their regular diet. Another study of women who had completed treatment for early stage breast cancer conducted by researchers at Women’s Healthy Eating and Living (WHEL) found that women with the highest blood concentrations of carotenoids had the least likelihood of cancer recurrence.
Tahini is a ground sesame seed butter and a key ingredient in hummus. Tahini is a nutritional powerhouse, being high in vitamins E, F and T, as well as B-complex vitamins, biotin, and choline. It is also a source of vitamin A. Tahini is also 20 percent complete protein. A serving of tahini contains at least one third of your necessary daily dose of calcium, and it is easy for the body to digest. Tahini is one of the highest sources of methionine, an essential amino acid, and also contains lecithin, which reduces the levels of fat in the blood and also protects against environmental toxins. Tahini is also high in minerals such as magnesium, potassium, iron, and phosphorus. Tahini may be made from hulled or unhulled sesame seeds. The tahini made with unhulled seeds is richer in vitamins and minerals but it is darker and has a stronger flavor, so it may not compliment some recipes. Raw food vegans use raw tahini. The reason tahini keeps very well and does not go rancid, even when unrefrigerated, is because sesame seeds contain natural preservatives, which stabilize it. Many vegans include tahini salad dressing as a staple in the diet. Simply blend tahini, water, and salty flavor such as tamari.
This yellow spice, commonly found in Indian cooking, contains a wealth of beneficial qualities. Curcumin, which the compound that gives turmeric its distinct color, is considered to be both antibiotic and anti-inflammatory, and studies have shown that it can help fight cancer. In Ayurveda (the traditional medicine of India), this herb has been used for thousands of years to treat arthritis and other ailments. Some research suggests that turmeric may help relieve some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Dr. Oz suggests getting your daily does of curcumin via turmeric tea. You can also purchase turmeric in supplement form.
There are just a few good sources of essential omega 3 fatty acids in the vegan diet. The walnut is one of the most appealing and healthy of the choices. Their high concentration of omega-3 essential fat keeps brain cells functioning properly. The brain consists of more than 60% structural fat, and for the brain cells to function properly, omega-3 fats need to be a primary component. The American diet is almost devoid of all omega-3s, with researchers finding that about two-thirds of Americans are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids. It is commonly known now that lack of omega-3 fats has conclusively been linked to depression. Studies also show that a lack of omega-3 fats is linked to learning disorders, behavioral problems, and sleep disorders. Walnuts have been found to contain a bio-available form of ‘melatonin’ which induces and regulates sleep. They also have had a very favorable impact on vascular reactivity, which is the ability of our blood vessels to respond to stimuli in a healthy way. Walnuts contain high amounts of alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, which is a major contributor to heart health by thinning the blood; reducing risks of clots or heart attacks. They also contain an antioxidant compound called ‘ellagic acid’, which helps in cancer protection.
Yacon is a root indigenous to the Andes, also known as the Peruvian ground apple. It has a similar texture and flavor to jicama, but with floral undertones. Yacon is made into syrup, teas, or powders, all of which are taken as super foods. Yacon stores carbohydrates as fructooligosacharides (FOS), and is said to be helpful in controlling diabetes. Yacon contains inulin, an indigestible sugar, which means that although it has a sweet flavor, it contains fewer calories than would be expected. Yacon is also beneficial in colon-related problems and also acts as a prebiotic that balances the flora and flow in the intestines. Prebiotic is a specialized plant fiber that beneficially nourishes the good bacteria already in the large bowel or colon. The body itself does not digest these plant fibers; instead, the fibers act as a fertilizer to promote the growth of many of the good bacteria in the gut. These, in turn, provide many digestive and general health benefits. Unlike probiotics, prebiotics are not sensitive to light, heat, acid or time. Yacon has also proved effective against parasites and fungus. Yacon syrups can be used in raw breakfasts or desserts, and powder can be added to baked goods.