Bikini diets? They’re so last year. If you want to look and feel your glowing best this summer, perhaps it’s time to stop cutting calories and start loading up on body-loving superfoods.
Scientifically proven to do everything from enhancing your beauty and boosting your energy to protecting your skin in the sun, a plant-based diet is the perfect summer prep. Can’t afford to splash out on the latest ingredients? Well, here’s a secret: with a few tricks up your sleeve, you can transform humble store cupboard ingredients into power-packed superfoods. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? But, following two years of research, botanist and food writer James Wong has unlocked the secrets of how to send the nutrient value of plant-based ingredients sky high.
‘With a little kitchen science you can dramatically boost the nutrition in the healthy, everyday ingredients you love, simply by how you choose to select, store and cook them,’ says Wong, author of new book How to Eat Better (Mitchell Beazley, £20). ‘We’re talking measurably more vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants and a whole host of other benefits. For example, pop your punnet of mushrooms on a sunny windowsill for an hour or two and you get 100 times more vitamin D2.’
So there you have it, a summer body diet that tastes delicious and saves you money. You can thank us later.
One of the best beauty foods around, berries are famous for their high levels of vitamins and antioxidants, particularly anthocyanins which give the fruit their red and purple colour. Berries are proven to help weight management, calm inflammation, boost your brain and protect your skin from ageing. Top of the charts are blackcurrants with more than twice the anthocyanins and 37 times the vitamin C of blueberries, which come in second. Blackberries are in third place, followed by raspberries and strawberries, which, while lower in anthocyanins, are still high in total antioxidant activity and vitamin C.
Be a cheapskate: Those smaller ‘value’ brand blueberries you pass over in the supermarket? They’re actually higher in phytonutrients as well as half the price. ‘Smaller blueberries are richer in anthocyanins as the purple pigments are found almost exclusively in the skin and smaller berries have more skin, gram for gram,’ says Wong.
Create a compote: Not only are the phytonutrients in berries heat stable, cooking them briefly may even help increase their antioxidant powers. ‘Simmer up blueberries into a tasty three-minute compote and you get 100 per cent more antioxidants than scoffing them raw,’ says Wong. The short cooking time is key here, but it’s only after 30 minutes that antioxidant levels start to fall.
Don’t add milk: Do you add berries to your cereal or yoghurt? It may be worth alternating dairy milk and yoghurt with non-dairy alternatives. New research suggests milk protein reduces the absorption of vitamin C. ‘In one study, combining strawberries with yoghurt led to a 23 per cent decrease in total antioxidant activity,’ says Wong. Try making smoothies or porridge with almond milk or soy. ‘Fruit smoothies made with soya milk exhibited significantly more antioxidant capacity than those made with water,’ says Wong.
Often passed over for more exotic superfoods, citrus fruits are still one of the most nutrient-dense options in the fruit bowl, says Wong. More than just a great source of vitamin C, the juicy fruits offer a bounty of flavonol antioxidants shown to help protect you from cancer, heart disease and brain ageing, as well as boosting your skin. Here’s how to reap even more benefits.
See red: Picking the deepest colour citrus fruits can significantly boost your nutrition benefits. Blood oranges, pink grapefruits, mandarins and clementines are all richer in healthy antioxidant pigments than regular oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes. ‘While regular oranges are higher in vitamin C and heart-healthy flavones, when it comes to carotenes, mandarins and clementines are higher and have three times the vitamin A of other citrus,’ says Wong. Blood oranges – which produce their distinctive red anthocyanins when exposed to low temperatures – contain up to 80 per cent more polyphenols and five times the antioxidant activity of a regular navel orange.’ Amazing!
Eat them whole: Do you always peel the pith? You’re binning all the benefits! Citrus fruits store most of their nutrients at the surface. ‘The bright-coloured zest and the pith contain significantly higher levels of key antioxidants than the juice within,’ says Wong. Bin the membranes between each segment and you could lose 50 per cent of the good stuff. ‘Eating the whole fruit gives you far more benefits,’ says Wong. Don’t like the bitterness? Throw a whole orange into a sweet smoothie or soup. And if you’re buying juice, always choose varieties that include the pulp.
Make crisps: It’s not just root veg that makes great crisps. Research shows oven-drying your citrus fruits can enhance their antioxidant powers. Wong recommends making orange crisps by placing thin slices onto a baking tray and cooking for three hours at 100oC, turning halfway through. ‘Not only do they look great, they have between 60 and 70 per cent more polyphenols than fresh slices,’ he says. Hooray!
When it comes to salad leaves, more colourful varieties contain higher vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients than their paler relatives. And there are other surprising ways to boost your bowl, too.
Go dark: Make sure your salad packs a nutritional punch by opting for dark green leaves. ‘Pick darker green Romaine over pallid Iceberg and you get up to 20 times the vitamin A and betacarotene,’ says Wong. ‘You’d have to eat five servings of Iceberg to get the same amount of folic acid and vitamin K as a single serving of Romaine.’ Other great choices include spinach, baby kale and rocket.
Loosen up: Do you always pick tightly closed heads of lettuce? You’re missing out – exposure to sunlight triggers leafy greens to produce their health-giving (often bitter) phytochemical pigments as a form of UV protection. ‘Loose-leafed varieties whose leaves are exposed to the sun will contain far more phytonutrients than tightly closed ones,’ says Wong. One study found external leaves can contain three times as many polyphenols as those in the centre.
Make the cut: Do you avoid bags of prepared salad, thinking they’ll have less nutrients? Not so. First up, research shows commercial storage has little effect on the nutrient levels of leaves. Second, slicing or tearing a leaf – effectively wounding it – can send its levels of phytochemicals soaring, as the leaf rushes to defend itself. ‘Pop cut lettuce in a sealed container in the fridge overnight and the polyphenols can increase by 50 per cent,’ says Wong.
Affordable and packed with health benefits – from controlling your appetite and cleansing your body to lowering cholesterol and reducing diabetes risk – an apple a day can do far more than keep the doctor away if you employ the following tricks.
Shop smart: Always stick to Golden Delicious? It’s time to get more adventurous in your apple selection. ‘Trials show that some varieties can contain up to five times the antioxidants as others,’ says Wong. Braeburn apples come top in antioxidant league table, followed by Red Delicious and Pink Lady, according to research by The University of Leeds. Generally, the redder the better – the rosy colour, produced in response to sunlight, is the pigment that gives the fruit many of its health benefits.
No chilling: Even once they’re harvested, apples continue to react to sunlight producing more of their health- giving pigment. ‘Store them on the sill,’ says Wong.
Cook them: There’s nothing like a fresh, crunchy apple. But raw isn’t always best when it comes to nutrition benefits. Cooking this fruit breaks down the cell walls to release nutrients and destroys the enzyme that turns apples brown and degrades antioxidant levels. ‘Research at the University of Warsaw found that lightly cooking apples in the microwave or pan could double or triple the levels of polyphenols,’ says Wong.
TURBO-CHARGE YOUR TOMATOES
The perfect summer ingredient, tomatoes aren’t just bursting with vitality vitamins, they’re also one of the richest sources of phytonutrient, lycopene. That’s the carotene that gives tomatoes their red colour and is proven to protect your skin from UV damage and premature ageing, as well as lowering your risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke. Here’s how to get even more benefits.
Eat the skin: The anti-ageing phytonutrients in tomatoes are not distributed uniformly across the fruit, but concentrated largely in their skin. ‘There’s as much as five times more lycopene in the skin than in the juicy pulp,’ says Wong. ‘And a study at the University of Glasgow discovered that 98 per cent of the flavonols (anti-inflammatory compounds) are found in this thin coating.’
Tiny treats: Love a cherry tomato? You’re in luck. Their smaller size means they have more skin gram for gram than their bigger cousins, making them denser in phytonutrients. ‘The Glasgow study found simply picking cherry tomatoes over regular round types could give you twice as many flavonols,’ says Wong. Tests show cherry tomatoes also have, about twice the amount of lycopene too. Reap even more nutrients by choosing baby plum tomatoes, which can boast a 30 per cent more lycopene than spherical cherry tomatoes.
Forget the fridge: Tomatoes continue to ripen after they’ve been harvested, becoming sweeter, redder and higher in lycopene. But this process can’t occur below 10 degrees C so keep them away from the fridge. ‘Tomatoes can almost double their lycopene levels if kept at room temperature for a week or two,’ says Wong. ‘So store them on the worktop.’