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‘Superfood’ or Superhype?

By Monique Richard MS, RDN, LDN

‘Superfood’ or SuperhypeHippocrates said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Whole, natural food has incredibly powerful properties and contributions that scientists have yet to discover. Vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and types of fiber are just the tip of the iceberg of benefits in whole foods that aid in our development and growth as children and then in our performance, function, and quality of life as we go through the lifecycle. But labels like ‘superfood’ have landed on products from chocolate covered berries to juices, from trail mix to descriptions on a restaurant menu. There is not technically a medical or scientific definition for the word ‘superfood,’ and it actually has a lot more to do with marketing strategies than nutritional benefit. Appealing to the consumer to drop some green by using memorable assuaging verbiage is the name of the game.

Across the nation, food made from or with acai berries, noni juice, dark chocolate, walnuts, chia seeds, avocados, tart cherry juice, or kale, just to name a few, are given the ‘superfood’ status. However, unbeknownst to the consumer, what that item may be mixed with or how it was processed may decrease the ‘super’ component of this item. Nutrient-dense foods high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals in a more whole form (close to how nature made them) are certainly powerful and beneficial and can have profound results on health, but calling them ‘super’ when they come from a package may be a little misleading.

Biting into all the hype can sometimes leave you waiting and wondering why you’re not able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, especially when eaten in isolation from a varied, balanced diet. The key to remember is that a combination and variety of all of these is what humans need to thrive. It is simply not one item or ingredient that reigns supreme above the rest; they each have a gift to offer in a different way. Let’s take a look at some foods that have been deemed “magic bullets” and get to the quick and dirty on each, how they can help, why, and what the evidence says.

Overall Superior Goodness Indeed
Research on walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pistachios, cashews, and pecans has blown up in the last five to ten years and the findings are consistent and encouraging. A handful (1-2 ounces, not a mound over your entire palm) of any variety of these nuts on a regular basis has been linked to lower cholesterol, promoting heart health, better blood glucose control in people with diabetes, and many other feats equivalent to that of a regular sized superhero. The good fat, (mostly unsaturated fat, namely mono- and polyunsaturated fat) protein, and vitamins and minerals (like magnesium and zinc) do make these tiny powerhouses in a nutshell (pun intended).

Yes, noni, acai, and goji berries are traditional, indigenous powerful sources of nutrients in certain regions throughout the world, such as the Amazon Rainforest. But do they surpass the benefits of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, and the other numerous varieties of berries we are familiar with? The jury is still out. The antioxidants, like vitamin C, and phytochemicals in blueberries themselves are hailed as superior. Just a ½ cup a day can reap rewards, but don’t forget a variety of fruit is key. A lot of products try to mask the bitter qualities of some of these with a lot of processed ingredients or added sugar. Therefore, it may negate the benefit of the original ingredient altogether. Try a variety and pick your favorites. One thing is for sure, if you don’t eat any of them, they can’t help your nutritional status.

Chili Peppers
An antioxidant called capsaicin minimally increases the amount of calories we burn as well as slightly increases the amount of fat used for fuel after a meal. Research has also found it may reduce appetite leading to reduced consumption. Try adding some jalapenos to your salad, spice up your salsa, or put some real chili peppers in your chili—and enjoy the burn.

Herbs and Spices
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition touts spices’ ability to slow the digestion of fat. In turn, reduction of circulating triglycerides (type of fat that can lead to cardiovascular disease) in the body was noted. Herbs and spices like black pepper, garlic powder, oregano, cinnamon, and rosemary can add flavor to recipes and dishes without adding calories, the need for salt, and may help the body produce less triglycerides from a fatty dish. Experiment with herbs and spices in soups, sauces, or marinades and taste, smell, and feel the benefits.

Dark Chocolate
You’ve probably heard about flavonoids in cocoa; the higher the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate the more it will have. These support strong blood flow, our immune system, and can have anti-aging benefits to boot. Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, a compound linked to the release of endorphins. We all know endorphins (picture minions dancing around)—they’re the feel good chemicals released when we work out or eat comfort foods (usually high in fat and sugar). Again, only a small amount is needed. Steer clear of the regular milk chocolate variety (loaded with sugar and saturated fat), and go for ½ – 1 ounce of dark chocolate for a feel-good-all-over fix.

Muscle and Joint Health Helpers
The “good bacteria,” or live cultures found in yogurt and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi and kombucha may not only help with digestion and the balance of our gut microbiome, it may also decrease cell damage after exercise.

Probiotics may be helpful for those with GI conditions or distress as well as those who are on antibiotics, especially those who have had several rounds.

Tart-cherry juice
Recent research has touted the power of as little as an ounce of tart cherry juice before a run or workout to ease muscle soreness, reduce muscle tissue damage, and ease joint pain. The research seems consistent and promising. The power of supplement consumption versus actual juice is up for question, but stay tuned for more information. Ask your registered dietitian nutritionist and physician if this may be appropriate for you.

The best sources of energy and power can be from food but not by isolating a certain kind and eating just that; it’s much more complex than that. You can harvest your own powers from eating a well-balanced diet including a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats.

If you want to know more, schedule a visit with me, your integrative registered dietitian nutritionist, I can help individualize a meal plan to meet your nutrient needs further. Here’s to good, fresh food and a super you!

– Slim Calm Sexy Diet: 365 Proven Food Strategies for Mind/Body Bliss, Keri Glassman, RD. (Rodale, January 2012).

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