Nutritional information seems awash with conflicting and contradictory messages, so it can be comforting to cling to advice that appears constant. One concept on which the nutritional cognoscenti are united is the value of eating a diet rich in fibre. With this in mind, we are encouraged to eat wholegrains such as wholemeal bread and brown rice in preference to their refined counterparts. Most of us are only too aware that opting for wholegrain foods helps promote regular action in the bowel department. However, what is less well known is that these roughage-packed foods appear to protect against conditions such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, too. The evidence suggests that the benefits bestowed by fibre don't simply end up going down the toilet.
Grains such as wheat and rice are made up of three basic components: a soft inner part known as the endosperm and two fibrous outer parts termed the germ and bran. During refining, the germ and the bran, and hence a good proportion of the grain's fibre content, is lost. But that is not the only nutritional downside associated with the refining process. The removal of fibre speeds the rate at which a grain releases sugar into the bloodstream, and this may have important implications for long-term health, too.
Generally speaking, the more rapidly sugar is liberated into the bloodstream from food, the more insulin the body secretes to compensate. While we need insulin to keep us alive, too much can be a bad thing. Insulin tends to stimulate the production of potentially harmful blood fats such as cholesterol. A tendency to over-secrete insulin is an important contributory factor in the development of heart disease. Plus, the more insulin we secrete, the more likely we are to become numb to its effects in time. This is believed to be the main driving force behind the development of the most common form of diabetes.
Another unwanted effect of the refining process is that it may leave the grain somewhat bereft of several key nutrients including folic acid, vitamins E, B1, B5 and B6, and the minerals iron, zinc, magnesium, selenium and copper. Some of these nutrients, notably folic acid, vitamin B6 and magnesium, are thought to offer some protection from heart disease. Others, such as selenium and vitamin E, appear to help ward off cancer. Any loss of these nutrients during processing can only detract from a grain's disease-protective effects.
Wholegrains offer significant nutritional advantages over their refined versions, and these translate into good, hard benefits in terms of disease protection. Just last month, research showed that men eating plenty of wholegrains were half as likely to develop diabetes than those opting for refined fare. Several studies show that eating more wholegrains may reduce the risk of heart disease by a third. Other research suggests that eating four servings of wholegrain foods a week may reduce cancer risk by 40 per cent.
The science shows that wholegrain foods have the potential to keep us going, in every sense of the word.
Products made from soya are believed to help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. One beneficial effect of soya-based foods is that they help reduce cholesterol levels. However, new research suggests that they might help affect another risk factor for these conditions - high blood pressure - too.
In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition , researchers gave men and women a litre of either soya or cow's milk each day over a three-month period. Those on cow's milk saw a modest average reduction in blood pressure of 3 standard units (mmHg). In contrast, individuals drinking soya milk saw a reduction in blood pressure of almost 17 mmHg. This research suggests that opting for soya milk instead of the animal-derived variety might be a simple way to help control high blood pressure.
I suffer from dry skin. I moisturise twice a day, but still my skin seems to want more. I'm wondering whether I might be lacking something in my diet. Any ideas?
Siobhan Peskin, Bristol
The health of the skin is to a degree affected by the supply of certain nutrients. Skin moisture seems to be especially dependent on the presence in the diet of healthy fats known as essentially fatty acids (EFAs). EFA-rich foods include extra-virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, oily fish and nuts. Including plenty of these in your diet may help to keep your skin moist from within, and is likely to reduce your need to resort to lotions.
For speedier results, flaxseed (linseed) oil (rich in omega-3 fats similar to those found in oily fish) is useful for helping to return moisture to the skin. Taking 1tbsp per day, you can expect to see results within a few weeks. In the body, EFAs can be subject to oxidation, thought to reduce their health- giving potential. Taking vitamin E is known to help protect EFAs from oxidation, so take 250 to 500mg of this nutrient a day as well. As an added bonus, vitamin E is also thought to contribute to the health of the skin.