- Beetroot is known to be good for muscle endurance, the heart and brain; broccoli aids memory and mood, and blueberries help reduce stroke risk and blood pressure
- There are lots of health benefits in eating everyday superfoods, from brown rice to mushrooms, that you may already have around your home. Here are some of them
Beetroot, blueberries, broccoli, brown rice and button mushrooms – five common foods beginning with B are often touted as good for us. But why? And what’s the science behind their reputations?
We speak with experts to learn what makes these seemingly ordinary foods extraordinary – and why we should eat them more often.
Andrew Jones, a professor of applied physiology at the University of Exeter, in the UK, is a champion of the humble beetroot; he even has @AndyBeetroot as his Twitter handle. He’s gaining quite the following in the world of sports science.
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During his career he has focused on muscle energetics – the study of how muscles are fuelled – fatigue and respiratory physiology, and through these his interest in beetroot grew.
He discovered that eating, or drinking the juice of, these usually bright red root vegetables can improve exercise endurance and can provide significant benefits for the heart, muscles and brain.
His recently published study finds that consuming dietary nitrate, found in beetroot, significantly increases muscle strength during exercise; it makes muscles work better, harder and faster.
Nitrate is converted in the body to nitric oxide (NO) which helps with vasodilation, the process of blood vessels widening to allow more blood to flow through them to lower blood pressure.
Nitric oxide also plays a role in preventing blood clots; neurotransmission, the transfer of information between neurons; mitochondrial respiration, the generation of energy from nutrients; and muscle contraction.
Other foods like kale, spinach and rocket have high natural nitrate levels. “But beetroot juice gets all the attention because it’s easier to consume an effective nitrate dose swiftly that way,” Jones says.
So just how much is “effective”? Jones’ team performed a “dose-response” study that showed beetroot juice containing 8 mmol of nitrate – the amount in two concentrated 70ml beetroot shots – for example, was effective in improving performance. Drinking twice that amount did not further boost performance.
There are both cumulative and short-term advantages to beetroot consumption: an athlete could take it for a few days before competition as well as having a nitrate “hit” a couple of hours before.
Choose brown rice over white, health experts say, and that’s not just because it’s high in fibre; brown rice provides plenty of health benefits.
A recent study from Okayama University, in Japan, has identified cycloartenyl ferulate (CAF) as the main “cytoprotective”, or cell-protecting compound, in brown rice, with five times as much of it as other antioxidant compounds in brown rice.
CAF can protect cells from stress both directly, through its antioxidant effects, and indirectly, by boosting the production of antioxidants within the cells themselves.
Brown rice also has a blood-fat-lowering effect. This means that, as a regular addition to a diet, it may help to reduce body weight, and lower cholesterol levels. It can also suppress inflammation, which is known to be behind many chronic conditions.
In addition, brown rice is only partly hulled, which means you have to chew your way through all the bran, so it helps keep you regular.
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Button mushrooms (or any mushrooms)
Tonia Reinhard, a fellow of the Chicago, United States-based Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and author of Superfoods: The Healthiest Foods on the Planet, advocates eating button mushrooms – or mushrooms of any kind.
Many people have yet to try enoki mushrooms, she says. They grow in clumps on the stump of Chinese hackberry trees, and are sometimes called winter mushrooms, and belong to the same group of mushrooms as maitake, portobello, and button mushrooms.
Mushrooms contain sesquiterpenes and norsesquiterpenes. These are compounds that, in some studies, have been found to slow cancer cell growth and promote cardio health. Mushrooms also contain substances linked to immune system regulation, and have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Edible mushrooms are also a valuable source of lovastatin, which belongs to a group of compounds called statins. Statins are commonly used in cholesterol-lowering drugs. So eating mushrooms can be helpful in preventing hypercholesterolaemia, which occurs when your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad cholesterol” is too high.
Mushrooms are also rich in gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which has a calming effect and may help lower blood pressure. They’re also high in essential vitamins and antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, and selenium.
A study published in January by Arizona State University, in the US, found that 90 per cent of Americans eat an insufficient amount of food containing choline, an essential nutrient produced in small amounts in the liver, and found in foods such as broccoli.
Choline is needed to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in memory, muscle control and mood.
This is just the latest in a long line of studies that has found eating broccoli to be very beneficial for the human body. It contains fibre, vitamins C and K, iron, and potassium, and more protein than most vegetables.
A study in November 2022 found that eating more vitamin K might help prevent fractures in the elderly, which is a major cause of hospital admissions. Eating about half a cup of broccoli delivers 110 micrograms of vitamin K, or 92 per cent of the recommended daily value.
Another study published the same month by the American Academy of Neurology found that people who consumed more antioxidant flavonols may have a slower rate of memory decline as they age. Broccoli was cited as a rich source of one flavonol: kaempferol.
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Broccoli also contains high levels of iron, which makes it a wonder food for those with anaemia.
It’s the vegetable of choice for diabetics as it has a high protein content and is low in sugar. It contains isothiocyanates – which play a role in detoxification – and sulforaphane, which has been shown to stop Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that causes peptic ulcers. Studies suggest it could also have anticancer properties.
Any superfood book worth its salt features blueberries; they feature on the cover of Reinhard’s book.
Eating a cup of blueberries every day improves heart health, according to researchers at the University of East Anglia, in the UK. This is possibly because they are rich in anthocyanins, the flavonoids that give red and blue fruits their colour, and have a high anti-inflammatory action.
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Research has suggested that flavonoids are good for us, but a study published late last year concluded they might be even better for us than we thought.
A habit of eating dietary flavonoids – like those found in blueberries – is associated with a lower incidence of atherosclerosis, a build-up of fats inside arteries and which could lead to a stroke or heart attack.
High blood pressure may also lead to strokes, and blueberries may play a role here too. Researchers from King’s College London, in the UK, found that consuming 200g of blueberries a day – or the equivalent in juice – was linked to a drop in blood pressure. Effects on blood pressure could be seen as soon as two hours after eating them.
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