Over the past several years, superfoods have become a hot topic. It seems like every few months, a new one crops up that not only improves your health but also helps to prevent disease. While it’s undoubtedly true that a healthy diet can reduce both present and future health issues, can eating superfoods solve all your nutritional woes? Not exactly, experts say. Like anything else health-related, there’s no single magical thing you can do (or eat) that will change your life. Instead, it’s better to focus on smaller changes to your diet that will improve your health over time. Plus, a lot of people don’t realize that just because superfoods are good for you doesn’t mean you should eat them in unlimited quantities. We’re looking at you, coconut oil and avocados.
Ahead get the rundown on what superfoods are, how they affect your health, and which ones are worth incorporating into your diet.
What Is A Superfood?
You might be wondering which foods qualify for this elusive category. “A superfood is a nutrient-rich food that is considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being,” explains Amy Goodson, RD, CSSD, a sports dietitian. The only catch? There are no set criteria to determine a "superfood" from a regular food, so the line between healthy foods and “super” ones is pretty blurry.
“Foods considered ‘super’ generally have higher levels of nutrients than others in their class,” notes Carrie Dennett, RDN, a Seattle-based RDN and owner of Nutrition By Carrie. “That might mean vitamins and minerals, but superfoods are also likely to be rich in phytonutrients—compounds in plant foods that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and sometimes anti-cancer properties,” she explains. As for why there’s so much buzz around superfoods, Sheri Kasper, RDN, LDN, co-founder of Fresh Communications, has a theory. “The term became so popular, in part, because of our intense desire to find a nutritional magic bullet: one special (super) food that can prevent cancer, make us thinner, ward off heart disease, [insert desired health outcome here].” Of course, no single food can do all these things. “Based on science, the best choice is to eat a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy products. This message, one of moderation, is just not that sexy. Enter: superfoods.”
Is It Important to Eat Them?
Well, it definitely won’t hurt you to eat superfoods. “Foods that are commonly referred to as superfoods are typically very healthy—salmon, quinoa, kale, sweet potatoes, chia, berries, yogurt—all can be part of a healthy diet,” Kasper says. “In that sense, yes, it is important to eat superfoods. If you think of your total calories as a food budget, you want to get the most bang for your buck. Choosing foods that are nutrient-dense, as most superfoods are, will ensure that you get the nutrition you need for optimal health.” That being said, the quality of your diet is determined by how you eat overall. “Eating an unhealthy diet that has the occasional side of kale or handful of nuts is not going to cut it,” she says.
Plus, experts caution that putting too much faith in superfoods can be a slippery slope. For example, “turmeric is trending as a cure-all,” Dennett points out. “While research and tradition support some health benefits, the hype far exceeds the current science.” What else makes her BS radar go off? “I’m wary of any superfood that comes from some exotic location and is credited with giving vibrant, eternal health to an indigenous population. In almost every case, these claims are marketing-based, they’re not science-based.”
Which Ones Are Worth Eating?
Overall, nutrition experts advise that you shouldn’t rely on just one or even a few superfoods to improve your health. “Instead, focus on variety, especially of color,” says Adina Pearson, RD. “Each color group has different beneficial phytochemicals and antioxidants: reds/orange/yellows, greens, blue/purple, and even whites (cauliflower, onions, cabbage). Aim for a rainbow over time or even in one meal—whatever is realistic,” she advises. For an even simpler approach, eat seasonal produce for a natural variety.
If you want to know which superfoods give you the most bang for your buck, though, here are some nutritionist-approved options:
Salmon: This one tops the superfood chart, according to Goodson, because of its omega-3 and vitamin D content. “Omega-3s can help reduce inflammation in the body and raise HDL, which is your good cholesterol,” she says. “Vitamin D is found minimally in food and is a key component to calcium absorption at all ages, making salmon a powerhouse of nutrition in addition to a great source of protein.”
Lentils: “Thanks to protein and a whopping 19 grams of fiber per serving, they keep you feeling full and satisfied,” Kasper says. “Moreover, lentils are rich in many vitamins and minerals, including iron and folate, making them an especially great choice for women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.”
Cruciferous Vegetables: “Broccoli, along with the rest of the cruciferous vegetable family, is rich in an array of phytonutrients, the most important of which is glucosinolates,” says Dennett. “Glucosinolates have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, and may also help reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer. To reap these benefits, load up on not just broccoli, but arugula, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, horseradish, kale, radishes, rutabaga, turnips, watercress, and wasabi.”
Garlic and the Entire Allium Family: This includes onions, leeks, shallots, scallions, and chives. “These are rich in organosulfur compounds, a group of phytonutrients that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” Dennett says. “This makes them protective against heart disease, cancer, and other health conditions that may be related to chronic inflammation.”
Tart Cherries: These contain the highest antioxidant properties of any food, according to Goodson. “Many athletes utilize tart cherry juice to get the benefits of approximately 45 tart cherries in eight ounces of concentrated 100% juice for recovery.”
Algae: “It’s rich in protein, omega-3s, and over 40 vitamins and minerals,” Kasper notes. “Interestingly, it’s a great source of vitamin B12, which makes it an excellent addition to vegan and vegetarian diets, as B12 is otherwise only found in fortified foods, meat, and dairy products.”
Berries: And not just blueberries! “Cranberries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are all rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber,” Kasper says. “The antioxidants in berries reduce inflammation and protect us from diseases like cancer.”
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