Healthy Eating: Health food underdogs

From disease prevention to health enhancing properties, find out why these five surprising foods should not be so easily dismissed.

Coffee  (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some foods such as green tea, olive oil, walnuts and dark leafy greens consistently fall into the “good” for you pile, while others such as cake, fatty meats and other fried or high sugary treats always top the “bad” for you list; but what about those foods that fall in between? The ones that are easily passed over in lieu of their more famous, and supposedly healthier, cousins? However, just because these foods do not lie at the forefront of the healthy food world does not mean that they do not offer some impressive health benefits.
So here is a rundown of five easily dismissed foods, and what they can do for you:
Compared to tea (green, herbal and even black) coffee seems like the unhealthy route to take in the morning. However, new studies now suggest that coffee is not bad for us – refuting its link to cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure - but that daily consumption may actually help prevent certain diseases. According to the American Medical Association, regular coffee drinkers are less likely to develop type II diabetes as coffee may contain ingredients that help to lower blood sugar. Moreover, daily consumption of coffee may also increase the resting metabolism rate, which also helps to prevent type II diabetes. Recent research has shown that regular coffee drinkers were less likely to develop liver cancer, while other studies have suggested a correlation between this caffeinated beverage and a lower rate of colon, breast, and rectal cancers. However, that’s not all. A caffeine habit has also been shown to be good for the brain. On a daily basis, coffee has been linked with enhancing short-term memory performance and the ability to complete complex tasks; while in the long run studies have found that drinking three to five cups of coffee a day decreases the risk of dementia. 
Iceberg lettuce
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, we are told over and over again that the deeper the color the better with darker fruits and vegetables containing more nutrients. While this is technically true, it is no reason to dismiss light green iceberg lettuce. Considered the nutritional weakling of the salad “clan”, iceberg lettuce is by no means the weakest link. It is considered a good source of vitamin A, C, K and B6, while half a head contains more of the powerful antioxidant beta-carotene than either spinach or romaine lettuce. Nonetheless, this pale green vegetable is still lower in most vitamins and minerals than other forms of lettuce so make sure to mix it with other greens when you toss a salad.
Pine nuts
Typically overshadowed by other nuts and seeds such as almonds, walnuts and flax seeds, pine nuts deserve a rightful place under the health food spotlight. While they may be tiny, these seeds are by no means feeble as they pack 31 grams of protein per 100 grams. Moreover, while pine nuts are considered high in calories and fat, with 160 calories and 14 grams of fat per ounce, they contain only 2 grams of saturated fat per ounce - the rest is healthy unsaturated fat, which provides an array of health benefits including lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. Now while it is important to watch your intake of these tiny seeds, as they are on the higher end of the calorie scale, pine nuts are nature’s only source of pinolenic acid, a specific fatty acid that acts as a natural appetite suppressant, and therefore sprinkling them onto your meal may actually help to consume less calories and fat overall.
Next to bright orange carrots and vibrant slices of red, orange, green and yellow bell pepper, a stick of celery doesn’t stand out all that much. However, just because its paler demeanor does not catch one’s eye, doesn’t mean that its nutritional content isn't deserved of a second glance. Packed with vitamin K, a serving of celery provides nearly 45% of one’s daily recommended intake of this important vitamin. While it is often overshadowed by other vitamins such as A, C and E, Vitamin K is an extremely important nutrient required for proper blood clotting and is needed to protect bones from fractures. Moreover, this light green vegetable contains coumarin, a polyphenol recognized for its anti-tumor properties as well as acetylenics, compounds that have been shown to stop the growth of tumor cells. Moreover, apart from being rich in health beneficial nutrients, celery contains compounds that help the muscles around arteries to relax, allowing those vessels to dilate and thus reducing bloods pressure.
Olive oil and vinegar are often found together – side by side – whether it be for the base of a salad dressing, or mixed together to dip (Italian) bread. Now while olive oil’s numerous health benefits have been widely publicized for many years now, vinegar’s are, sadly, not as well know. However, before diving into what this acidic liquid can do for you, it is important to distinguish between the various types of vinegar. There are many different types including, red wine vinegar, rice vinegar, malt vinegar and apple cider vinegar; and while each possess its own unique virtues, some such as apple cider, are better for health than others and therefore should be more heavily used. So what can vinegar do for you? For starters numerous studies have suggested that adding two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar to a (carbohydrate rich) meal may reduce the impact of the carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. Research has shown that the vinegar deactivates certain digestive enzymes that are needed to break down carbohydrates into sugar. By inhibiting these enzymes, the vinegar slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. Other studies have found that red wine vinegar is effective at fighting off certain strains of salmonella; while all types of vinegar can help to reduce LDL “bad” cholesterol, triglycerides levels and blood pressure, as well as boost the body’s absorption of many minerals, including calcium.