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What You Need to Know about Superfoods

We hear so much about superfoods. But what gives them their super-hero powers? And are superfoods really, truly all that and a bag o' kale? Let's get into it.

Collage of Superfoods

Photos by Meredith

Essentially, superfoods are nutrient dense foods, usually whole foods, that are thought to be beneficial to health. The term "superfood," however, is not scientifically defined. And there's no science-recognized master list of superfoods. They're not cures. They won't swoop down to rescue you from the clutches of illness. They are in some sense a marketing concept. But that's not necessarily bad...not if it encourages people to eat nutrient-rich foods that they might otherwise ignore.

Okay, so what does it mean to be rich in nutrients or "nutrient dense"? Superfoods are loaded up with the good stuff that nutrition science is showing to be beneficial to health in one way or another. Vitamins and minerals, fiber and phytochemicals, superfoods pack 'em in.

And how do superfoods benefit health? Well, a superfood might perform one or more of the following feats:

  • Reduce the risk of artery-clogging atherosclerosis
  • Bite back on bad (LDL) cholesterol
  • Fight cancer-causing inflammation
  • Boost the immune system
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Neutralize damaging free radicals
  • Keep blood sugar levels in check
  • Assist with weight loss

That's a lot of heavy lifting. And, of course, no one food can do it all. The occasional kale salad can't mask an otherwise crummy diet. Blueberries sprinkled over a bowl of SugarDoodle Snax ain't so super. A more winning approach is to combine nutrient density with nutrient diversity and eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, lean proteins (including nuts and seeds), and healthy fats (like olive oil). Eating a variety of whole foods ensures that you get the full range of nutrients your body needs, including fiber, potassium, calcium, essential fatty acids, and so on.


Related: Recipes That Have America Loving The Mediterranean Diet


Let's take a look at some of these superfoods. It's worth noting that the foods we're calling out here aren't necessarily the hot superfoods of the moment. There's nothing too exotic on this list. If you can't find it at the market, it probably didn't make the cut. This incomplete list covers mostly plant-based, whole foods. As whole foods, they're not processed or refined, nothing was removed from them, nothing was added to them -- and there's no list of ingredients to read. Pluck 'em from a tree, pull 'em from the sea, and so on. They're the thing itself.

Fruits and Vegetables

The Harvard School of Public Health says "A diet rich in vegetables and fruits can lower blood pressure, reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, lower risk of eye and digestive problems, and have a positive effect upon blood sugar which can help keep appetite in check."

Berries

Blueberries get the press. Yes, they're loaded up with phytochemicals, vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. But don't forget to explore other berries, including raspberries and strawberries, which have the same good stuff going for them.

Blueberry Grapefruit Salsa

Photo by lutzflcat

Tomatoes

Fiber-rich tomatoes are low in calories and high in vitamin C, vitamin A, and cancer-preventing lycopene. Like olive oil, tomatoes are an important part of the touted Mediterranean Diet. Several studies have found tomatoes are also beneficial in fighting various forms of cancer.

Sweet n Sour Tomato Salad

Photo by lutzflcat

Avocado

The nutrients in this creamy, rich-tasting vegetable read like a list of essentials for healthy eating: cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fat, fiber, copper, potassium, and vitamins C, K, and B6. Add chopped avocado to a salad, or mash avocados to make fresh guacamole.

Guacamole My Way

Photo by lutzflcat

Dark, Leafy Greens

We're looking at you, kale. And you, spinach. Ditto, Swiss chard, mustard greens, and collard greens. Broccoli? Yes, always room for broccoli. Kale is a leafy green that crowds in phytochemicals, plus potassium, and vitamins A and C. And spinach is one of the healthiest vegetables around. Rich in calcium, iron, potassium, vitamins A, K, and C. A study published in 2004 by the Journal of Nutrition found that spinach combats prostate cancer, while other studies have shown spinach may protect vision and bolster cardiovascular health.

Spinach Salad Dressing

Photo by lutzflcat

Sweet Potatoes

Vitamin A and lots of fiber put sweet potatoes on the list. Also try squash with colorful flesh.

Roasted Beets n Sweets

Photo by Jessica

Garlic

Garlic contains powerful anti-bacterial and anti-viral compounds that help fight common colds and flu. Regular consumption of garlic is also believed to protect against cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Vampire problem? Not anymore.

Garlic on cutting board

Photo by Meredith

Beans

Beans and other legumes, which include peas and lentils, combine big health benefits with tiny cost. Beans may be the ultimate healthy food. A USDA report in 2005 said that they may even reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Because beans are a complex carbohydrate, they provide plenty of energy while regulating blood-sugar levels. They're a "resistant starch," which means the starch acts like dietary fiber, resisting digestion as it passes through the gut, unlike refined carbohydrates, which are digested rapidly and raise glucose levels quickly. The fiber, meanwhile, pulls double-duty: it helps keep you full-feeling while also lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol. Legumes are also a good source of protein and potassium.

Middle Eastern Bean Salad

Photo by lutzflcat

Nuts

Grabbing a handful of nuts as a snack is a convenient way to get some quick protein and satiating healthy fats. Like olive oil, nuts are a great source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and phytochemicals, plus bone-strengthening magnesium. Add chopped walnuts to a salad or yogurt and cashews to a stir-fry. Pistachios, almonds, and inexpensive peanuts are also great choices.

Mixed Nuts

Photo by Meredith


Related: Don’t Fear The Fat! Add These Healthy Fats Back Into Your Diet

Whole Grains

Another broad category, whole grains include brown rice, whole wheat, oats, bulgur, and barley. Quinoa, technically not a grain, is usually included alongside grains on superfood lists. Whole grains are "whole" because they've held onto their nutrient-rich bran and germ, which are otherwise stripped out during the refining process. Whole grains help slow spikes in blood sugar and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, triglyceride, and insulin levels. Recent studies, including Harvard's Nurses' Health Study, the Iowa Women’s Health Study, and a large meta-analysis, found health benefits from eating whole grains that include reduced risks of heart disease and of developing type 2 diabetes. In general, people who ate whole grains appeared to have longer lifespans (fewer deaths from non-cardiac, non-cancer causes). Meanwhile, essential minerals (like magnesium, selenium, and copper) in whole grains might protect against certain cancers.

The Nutrition Source at Harvard School of Public Health sums it up: "A growing body of research shows that choosing whole grains and other less-processed, higher-quality sources of carbohydrates, and cutting back on refined grains, improves health in many ways."

Banana Oat Energy Bars

Photo by lutzflcat


Related: Why Whole Grains May Help You Live Longer (With Recipes)


Olive Oil

Ample medical research reveals the benefits of olive oil. A study by Greek scientists at the University of Athens in 2004 found that this monounsaturated oil, which is rich in antioxidants, may be a key to the healthy Mediterranean Diet -- meaning a lower risk of heart attacks, diabetes, and colon cancers.

Garlic Oil

Photo by LilSnoo

Salmon

Salmon is packed with protein, niacin, and Omega-3s, an essential fatty acid that promotes healthy cardiovascular activity. Omega-3 may also protect against a host of health concerns from obesity to sunburns. A 2005 study published by the Archives of Neurology claims that eating fish once a week may even slow the rate of cognitive decline. The American Heart Association, meanwhile, recommmends eating two servings of fish a week. Sardines, herring, and mackerel are also rich in omega-3s, along with flax seeds and walnuts.

Pan Seared Salmon I

Photo by KGora

And this is just the start. A longer list of superfoods might include yogurt, dark chocolate, chia seeds, citrus fruits, chile peppers, apples, cabbage, mushrooms, kiwi, pineapple, and so much more. Here are 12 more Secret Superfoods of Spring that you don't want to miss.

Ultimately, though, it's not so critical that an ingredient appear on one superfood list or another. In fact, the best advice might be as simple as what Mom always said...

Eat Your Veggies

Photo by Meredith

Related: Recipes To Make You A Lean, Mean, Clean-Eating Machine


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Carl Hanson

About Carl Hanson

Carl will eat that. Share with him @CarlNo9 on Twitter.