You’ve all heard of the term ‘superfoods’. Some of you may even have bought some superfoods to improve your health. But what are superfoods really? And how do we quantify foods to determine whether they are indeed super? One thing we do know is that superfoods tend to be expensive. However, whole, unprocessed foods all have hundreds of active compounds, including phenolics, flavonoids, pigments, antioxidants, fatty acids, proteins, vitamins, minerals, fibre etc. etc., and these more common foods are generally more affordable and accessible. So should we get the superfoods into our cupboards? Do we need to eat them to be truly healthy?
What are superfoods?
The Oxford English dictionary defines a superfood as ‘a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being’. There are, however, no standard criteria or approved lists of superfoods. In general, when a food is described as a superfood it means that its nutrient content will result in health benefits above those of other foods. Fruit and vegetables can generally be considered to be superfoods as they have loads of antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamins, minerals, fiber etc.
Some points to consider
The truth is that many superfoods are good for your overall health. Many studies have been performed to test the health benefits of superfoods, and they often show that these foods do indeed have health-promoting properties. The problem is applying these results to our real diets. Often very high amounts of the superfoods are used, which is not realistic in a normal diet. Many of the studies are not done on humans but rather on animals such as rats, or in vitro (which means isolated human cells were experimented on in a lab). Although these studies are useful, it does not mean that the results will be the same in human studies. And many of the superfoods are studied in isolation, which is not how they would be eaten in our day to day lives. When we look at the evidence from superfood studies, we need to be realistic about we translate this into our diets.
Labelling some foods as ‘super’ can give the impression that other foods are not that healthy and that consuming these superfoods is what will protect us from health issues. However, many common foods provide nutrients that are just as valuable. Foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, fruit and vegetables all have health-promoting nutrients and consuming them as part of your daily diet would go a long way in promoting health. It is also important to remember that eating too much of any one type of food may not be beneficial.
Foods that really are super
Avocados are extremely nutritious. Half of an avocado (about 100g) contains 7g of fibre, 26% of your vitamin K needs, 20% of your folic acid requirements, 17% of your vitamin C needs, 10% of your vitamin E needs as well as 14% of your potassium requirements. Avocados are also full of monounsaturated fat and have been shown in studies to help to control cholesterol and diabetes.
There is good evidence that almonds can help control cholesterol, blood sugar and reduce inflammation. In studies, patients who added a handful of raw almonds to their diet, without changing anything else in their diets, tended to lose weight. A handful of raw almonds (about 30g) will also give you almost 40% of your daily vitamin E needs.
Blueberries are one of the most popular superfoods around. They contain a high concentrations of antioxidants, most notably anthocyanins. They are also a good source of fibre (3.6g per cup), vitamin C (24% of your needs for 1 cup), vitamin K (36% of your needs for 1 cup) and have some good studies showing that including blueberries in your diet regularly (about 3 portions per week) can lower your risk of a heart attack.
Kale is a seriously nutrient dense food, and eating just ½ cup of cooked kale will give you 177% of your vitamin A requirements, 45% of your vitamin C and 664% of your vitamin K needs. It is important to remember that raw kale is a goitrogenic vegetable. What this means is that it can inhibit the uptake of iodine by the thyroid, leading to thyroid issues. Eating small amounts of kale raw won’t harm you, but if you eat it regularly, rather lightly steam the kale to get rid of the goitrogens.
Including some superfoods within a healthy balanced diet will definitely add to your health. But remember that there are many other foods that are just as healthy. We need to focus on diet quality, reducing sugar, salt, unhealthy fats and processed foods and eating more vegetables and fruits as well as legumes, fatty fish, nuts and seeds. Healthy eating is about ensuring that you eat a balance of nutrients from a variety of nutritious foods in the diet, some of which can absolutely come from superfoods.