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11 August, 2007

Secret Superfoods: Who Knew?

If I had a dollar for every time the conventional wisdom on nutrition has shifted gears, I'd be a rich woman. Remember butter? And how about eggs? First they're evil, now they're our best friends. I've watched the experts flip recommendations on so many foods I've lost count. Some of these foods suffered from bad reputations for years, but are now back on our buddy lists... others were unsung heroes, always good for us but never getting proper credit. I think it is a good idea to periodically revisit some of our cherished beliefs about foods and health, so I spoke with Jonny Bowden, whose recent book, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth (Fair Winds Press) has some surprising entries -- and some surprising omissions.


"Many foods suffered from bad reputations in the past because of the deeply held belief that all saturated fat is bad for you," Bowden said. "Saturated fat is the general name for a collection of fatty acids -- and some of these fatty acids are really good for you." For example, he says, "two of the healthiest foods on earth are whole eggs and coconut. Yet to this day people eat 'Egg Beaters' and shun coconut oil because of the saturated fat."


Bowden believes whole eggs are among the finest sources of protein on the planet. "On three of the four methods used by scientists for rating protein quality, eggs score better than milk, beef, whey and soy," he told me. (All four -- milk, beef, whey and soy -- are tied on the other commonly used rating system.) "Whole eggs contain all nine essential amino acids, plus they're loaded with vitamins and nutrients that are excellent for your eyes, brain and heart." Bowden explained that the fear of saturated fat causes people to shun one of the healthiest parts of the egg -- the yolk. "The yolk contains lutein and zeaxanthin, two members of the carotenoid family that are emerging as superstars of eye nutrition. And the yolk is also one of the best sources of choline."

Choline, says Bowden, is a building block for important compounds in the body that help support the heart, brain and liver. "Choline creates betaine, which helps lower homocysteine, a risk factor for heart disease. It's part of a compound called phosphatidylcholine that helps prevent the accumulation of fat and cholesterol in the liver. It's also needed to make acetyl-choline, which is critical for memory and thought." Incidentally, he didn't perceive the amount of cholesterol in whole eggs as a problem. "Virtually every study has shown absolutely no link between eating eggs and heart disease," he told me.


Another surprising powerhouse is coconut, which Bowden believes is headed to the top of the food charts among knowledgeable nutrition gurus. "In my view, coconut and coconut oil are superfoods," he told me. A half-cup of shredded coconut has almost 4 grams of fiber, 142 mg of potassium and almost no sugar. As for the saturated fat, he explained that in coconut, 50% of it comes from a fatty acid called lauric acid, which is anti-viral and anti-microbial, and enhances the immune system. As for those saturated tropical fats that give coconuts a bad reputation... the saturated fat in coconut oil comes mostly from a family called MCTs or medium-chain triglycerides, making it particularly easy to metabolize. "The body likes to use it as a source of energy, rather than as a source of padding," said Bowden. "Long-term studies of people from the Pacific Islands who eat coconut and coconut oil regularly show that they have extremely low levels of heart disease."


Bowden even has kind words to say about butter. "It's a rich source of vitamin A, needed both for maintaining good vision and the optimal functioning of the immune system. Butter also contains other fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamin K and vitamin D. And when it is made from the milk of healthy, grass-fed cows, butter contains CLA (conjugated linolenic acid), a kind of fat that has proven anti-cancer properties."


Long thought to be a health faux pas, Bowden told me that coffee is actually a major source of antioxidants in the American diet. "Caffeine is good for the brain," he explained, "and new studies show that it may be protective against diabetes and Parkinson's too. As long as you're not sensitive to the caffeine and you don't overdo it, coffee is fine for you." He also reminded me that black tea is nearly as good for you as its more popular cousin, green tea, because it, too, is loaded with flavonoids and catechins and antioxidants. But be aware that adding milk to your tea disables the antioxidants, so best to take it straight, with lemon or with your favorite sweetener.


Then there are the foods that are the unrecognized multitaskers in the health tool chest -- like pumpkin. It has more potassium than a medium banana, is loaded with vitamin A, and has two carotenoids that are beneficial for the eyes -- lutein and zeaxanthin. "Plus, pumpkin has less than 50 calories per cup, and you can season it with all kinds of great spices like cinnamon and nutmeg," adds Bowden. Another favorite is guava. "Guava has a whopping 9 grams of fiber per cup. It's another potassium heavyweight, and it contains the cancer-fighting compound called lycopene," he said.

Another unappreciated fruit -- cherries. These are loaded with quercetin and ellegic acid, two cancer-fighters. In addition, cherries have lots of natural anti-inflammatories, which is why they've traditionally been used to fight the pain of gout. While cherries are generally a summer treat, frozen cherries contain the same nutritional value as fresh, ripe fruit.

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