If you stuff a smoothie with maca powder, quinoa, acai berries, hemp seeds, and cacao, will you fly? Or at least be tremendously healthy? In other words, what’s up with superfoods?
Get back to me on how that smoothie goes. But I don’t think you can walk into a grocery store these days without seeing something labeled as a superfood. The words conjurs up all sorts of imagery, doesn’t it?
I imagine a superfood makes my insides kick ass like Salley O’Malley. You know, glowing and full of energy.
But why do some things get labeled as superfoods? Have you ever wondered if they really deserve such a grandiose title?
I walked into a market this morning and was reminded of some of the misconceptions about how we think about food as it relates to our health. Just check out this snapshot:
And then I peered a little closer. Chocolate covered goji berries. What the hell is a goji berry, anyway? I’ll answer that for you in just a bit. But first, let’s talk about the idea of a “superfood.”
Do superfoods even exist?
The most common benefit associated with most things labeled as superfoods is antioxidant power. Stay with me for a moment so I can science you.
Some foods contain chemicals that seem to counteract the effects of oxidative damage. If the processes in our body create too much oxidative stress, it can damage our cells.
That’s not so super. Too much production of things like free radicals and things like oxygen ions and other chemical reactions may cause disease and other unhealthy conditions within the body.
And so it seems like we’d want to grab onto anything that can prevent oxidative damage. Interestingly, sometimes that damage is a good thing. For example, when we get injured, inflammation helps us heal up.
So a certain degree of oxidative damage is normal in our bodies – if we are healthy.
Magic juices and other tales
photo credit: mr. ginseng
You’ve probably heard of certain fruits being full of antioxidants: acai, goji, pomegranate, in particular. Berries are particularly rich sources of plant chemicals like polyphenols, stilbenoids, and tannins.
And these compounds have an association with combating bad juju like inflammation, cancer, certain neural issues, cardiovascular disease, and other disease states.
Unfortunately, we can’t simply gorge on foods that have high antioxidant ratings and automatically improve our health. That’s because the way that nutrients interact with each other in our body to produce effects is still a bit of a mystery.
We do know that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps prevent disease. But we don’t know if it’s the fact that they have antioxidant properties or rather other compounds that influence a healthier body.
You need to remember two big things when considering choosing food for your health:
All foods are useful to our body.
We need to eat them in proportions that serve our overall health from diverse sources. That means plenty of whole foods rich in nutrients and less of those things that are nutrient poor (especially if they’re very dense in calories.)
But every food can be super. Even a donut before working out. It’s still fuel. Some foods just let us meet our goals more easily than others.
Many items labeled as superfoods are no healthier than other whole foods that we eat.
And they probably won’t do anything remarkable except put a giant dent in your wallet. Some also are basically junk food masquerading as health food, which confuses people. And that stinks.
Check out my chocolate covered goji berries.
As a treat? Sure, if that’s your thing. I’m more of a Raisinets fan, personally. But if you’re looking for a big boost of nutrition, don’t buy candy.
So what foods are super if superfoods are merely make believe?
My personal list of “super” foods includes those foods that do a bang up job of helping you eat for a happy, healthy life. Here are just a few of the many good things to put into your belly.
Whole fruits and vegetables.
You knew I’d say that one, right? Fruits and veggies are full of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, energy-giving carbohydrates, and fiber. They taste amazing. They’re not hard to find. And these keep you feeling full and nourished. Eat lots.
In fact, if you’re currently struggling to eat well, start by adding a fruit or vegetable to your day. Don’t obsess about packing your diet with expensive, exotic bags of “superfoods.” Eat more colorful stuff. Or as my friend and trainer Jenna says, “green shit”. Eat more green shit.
But what about those goji berries? I’ve only found them in dried, powdered, or juice form.
I bought some to test out. They looked a little chewy, like dried fruit. Except harvested by ancient people from somewhere. The bag boasted their innumerable health benefits, including fiber and protein but seemed to convey a sense of specialness that one could only obtain for about $12 a bag. Hmmm.
I had a hankering for some Greek yogurt and needed a topping, because I’m fancy. So I weighed out a half portion of goji berries along with a half cup of fresh raspberries.
Here’s how they stack up nutritionally:
Goji Berries (14g)
Random nutrient perks: high in fiber, vitamin C, like other berries, high in antioxidant compounds. May interact with certain meds, especially blood thinners.
Raspberries (68g, about ½ cup serving)
Random nutrient perks: high in fiber, vitamin C, and manganese, along with other vitamins, minerals, and flavonoids.
Nutritionally speaking, the raspberries have less sugar, a bit more fiber than the goji berries. Neither one is a terrible choice for a snack, but I’d prefer a big bowl of raspberries over the calorie dense dried berries. Plus the goji berries tasted rather blah to me.
Protein is full of amino acids that build up your body – and your muscles. Protein- rich foods help you maintain and build muscle mass. They also help you stay full longer. Choose them from a variety of sources, especially:
- Lean meats and fish
- Dairy (Greek yogurt is my best friend)
- Plant-based proteins from soy, legumes, etc. (Try tempeh, tofu, chickpeas, and beans)
By mixing it up, you’ll get the unique nutrients that each kind provides.
You need fat in your diet. For your overall health, energy, and hormonal function. And because things like salmon and avocado taste pretty freaking fantastic. Foods with fat also may contain a healthy portion of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids – your body can’t make them, so you need to get them from foods.
Plus fat helps you absorb all those powerful nutrients in your veggies. Don’t go fat free: just eat them in small amounts at your meals to get their health benefits while keeping your calories in check.
Whole grains can reduce your risk of getting certain diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancers, and type 2 diabetes. Eat starchy whole grains around workouts to fuel yourself. I set aside packaged cereals and bars most of the time. Instead, try cooking up batches of oatmeal, quinoa, wild rice, brown rice, and other minimally processed foods. My favorite one lately is farro: it’s nutty, chewy, and easy to cook.
Funky fermented foods
Good bacteria in our gut has the power to improve our digestion and boost our immunity. Gut health is a fairly young area of nutrition research. What kinds of fermented foods should you eat?
Think kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, and yogurt, for starters. Fermented foods contain probiotics that can help keep your gut healthy. As a bonus, many of them are relatively low in calories and perk up other food you’re eating. Kimchi in my scrambled eggs is now my thing. Try it, I dare you.
Foods that allow you to maintain your weight more easily.
Sometimes I get the urge to munch on things. Especially if you’re working on fat loss, having low calorie options available can make it way easier to meet your goal. Try celery, strawberries, pickles, and even sugar-free jello. No, the chemicals won’t kill you. Yes, it’ll take the edge off the urge to eat a pint of ice cream.
Foods that bring you life happiness.
This is actually real. And it is a glorious junk food.
No, you probably shouldn’t eat a pint of ice cream on the regular. But leaving room in your life for foods that you love is just as important as eating for your health. Truly. You’ll be less likely to go off the rails if you know that no food is off limits. Who cares if it unlocks the secrets of the Mayans? If it tastes good, have a little bit from time to time. After all, Captain Crunch may have a few secrets of his own.
Seeram N. Berry fruits: compositional elements, biochemical activities, and the impact of their intake on human health, performance, and disease. J. Agric Food Chem. 2008: 56(3): 627-629.
Dragsted LO, Pedersen A, Hermetter A et al.The 6-a-day study: effects of fruit and vegetables on markers of oxidative stress and antioxidative defense in healthy nonsmokers. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004:79(6):1060-72.