Over the years, the term “healthy eating” has turned into a quagmire of messages that could confuse even the most nutrition-savvy person. What used to be a simple concept revolving around consuming less fat and more fresh fruits and vegetables is now a complex mechanism involving omega-3 fats, trans fats, antioxidants, probiotics, fiber and the glycemic index. Having these attributes (or even better, a combination of them) heightens some foods into the superhero status of foods accurately deemed “superfoods.” But what is a superfood and what exactly makes them “super”?
First, a “superfood” or “superfruit” are not official terms by any means; they are marketing terms that are not recognized by the Food and Drug Administration. Nonetheless, they can be defined as being natural foods that are low in calories but very rich in phytochemicals and essential nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Many fruits, vegetables and spices fall into this category such as blueberries, pomegranates, acai berries, spinach, cacao, salmon, walnuts, green tea and cinnamon, to name a few. The superiority of these foods is a product of their health benefits which range from antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antithrombotic and neuroprotective properties, among others.
Berries in particular have been studied extensively for their cancer-preventative effects on tumor growth. Flavanol-rich cocoa has been shown to benefit cardiovascular and cognitive health, and nitrate-rich spinach has also been shown to improve cardiovascular health. Omega-3 rich fish and nuts (ie. walnuts) also claim their stake in the superfoods realm due to their ability to combat chronic inflammation and their cardio-protective benefits.
Although it may seem that these foods alone will throw you into new nutritional heights, superfoods are not stand alone products. The concept of balance applies just as much to this superior realm of foods – as part of a well-balanced diet, they have the potential to greatly enhance your health and vitality, but they are by no means a “quick fix” or a ”one-stop shop” to better health.
Certain diets such as the Paleo diet (also known as the caveman diet) and the Mediterranean diet emphasize consuming a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal. In addition to fresh produce, the Paleo diet typically emphasizes the consumption of lean animal proteins, eggs, nuts, fungi and roots and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, sugar and processed oils. In contrast, Mediterranean diets include a variety of dairy, whole grains, legumes and olive oil. Both of these diets have been associated with positive health benefits, and now we know that the reason is for their emphasis on “superfoods”.
Not surprisingly, the average modern diet, rich in processed foods, grains and fatty meats, pales in comparison to the prehistoric framework of the paleo diet. A study from the University of California found significant benefits in blood pressure, glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles in healthy sedentary subjects fed a hunter-gatherer (paleo) diet; and these benefits were seen even in the short term without weight loss being a factor. On the same note, the Mediterranean diet has been studied extensively for its significant reductions in disease-specific mortality.
Superfoods make up a versatile category that encompasses a wide range of foods, and how you choose to integrate them into your diet is up to you. But, you can be sure that your natural disease protection factor will skyrocket by eating this more of this stratosphere variety of protective foods. When in doubt, always choose a wide and colorful variety of fruits and veggies, nuts and lean meats as the main components of your diet and you are sure to be on the right track.
Allen, G. Does “Super Fruit” Live up to the super claims? Available at: dfw.cbslocal.com
Bondonno, C.P., Yang, X., Croft, K.D., Considine, M.J., Ward, N.C., Rich, L., Puddey, I.B., Swinny, E., Mubarak, A., Hodgson, J.M. Flavanoid-rich apples and nitrate-rich spinach augment nitric oxide status and improve endothelial function in healthy men and women: a randomized controlled trial. Free Radical Biology & Medicine. 2011; 52:95-102.
Francis, S.T., Head, K. Morris, P.G., MacDonald, I.A. The effect of flavanol-rich cocoa on the fMRI response to a cognitive task in healthy young people. Cardiovascular Pharmacology. 2006; 47(2): S215-S220.
Frassetto, L.A., Schloetter, M., Synder, M., Morris, R.C., Sebastian, A. Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009; 63: 947-955.
Heiss, C., Finis, D., Kleinbongard, P., Hoffmann, A., Rassaf, T., Kelm, M., Sies, H. Sustained increase in flow-mediated dilation after daily intake of high-flavanol cocoa drink over 1 week. Cardiovascular Pharmacology. 2007; 49(2): 74-80.
Knoops, K., Lisette, C., DeGroot, M., Kromhout, D., Perrin, A., Moreiras-Varela, O., Menotti, A., VanStaveren, W. Mediterranean diet, lifestyle factors, and 10-year mortality in elderly European men and women. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2004; 292 (12):1433-1439.
Selmi, C., Mao, T.K., Keen, C.L., Schmitz, H.H., Harold, H., Gershwin, E. The Anti-inflammatory properties of cocoa flavanols. Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology. 2006; 47:S163-S171.
Seeram, N.O., Adams, L.S., Zhang, Y., Lee, R., Sand, D., Scheuller, H.S., Heber, D. Blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, cranberry, red raspberry and strawberry extracts inhibit growth and stimulate apoptosis of human cancer cells in vitro. Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry. 2006; 54(25):9329-9339.
Parasramka, M.A., Dashwood, M., Wang, R., Abdelli, A., Bailey, G.S., Williams, D.E., Ho, E., Dashwood, R.H. MicroRNA profiling of carcinogen-induced rat colon tumors and the influence of dietary spinach. Molecular Nutrition Food Research. 2012; 56(8):1259-1269.
Zelman, K.M. Diet Review: The Caveman (Paleo) Diet. Available at: www.webmd.com.