A Nutritionist Weighs in on 13 Trendy Superfoods: How Super Are They?
A Nutritionist Weighs in on 13 Trendy Superfoods: How Super Are They?
The term "superfood" gets bandied about a lot, suggesting as it does, something that might prevent diseases or actually make you more youthful. Unfortunately, it's not the case.
The truth is that no single food can make you healthy. Rather, eating a variety of foods and living an active lifestyle do that.
So, is there any truth to the claims that superfood makers and fans make? And more importantly, are any of these worth incorporating into your diet—and how much should you eat? Here's a nutritionist's take on what popular "superfoods" really can and can't do.
The bright yellow spice that gives curry its pungent flavor and color has been used in ancient and homeopathic medicine as an anti-inflammatory for years. Turmeric has risen in mainstream popularity thanks to claims that it can relieve GI issues such as indigestion and ulcers, prevent and treat cancer, ease inflammatory diseases like arthritis, and prevent neurological diseases like Alzheimer's.
Superpower: Phytochemical known as curcumin
Is there proof that it works? Curcumin has an anti-inflammatory effect which preliminary research suggests may help reduce heart disease risk, ease heartburn, and slow progression of neurological diseases. Turmeric's effects on the body are not fully understood, and much more research is needed before choosing turmeric over modern medicine for disease treatment.
Eat it or skip it? If you love curry, then eat it. All effects from consuming turmeric appear positive—not to mention that it adds great flavor and color to dishes. Don't feel guilty about skipping turmeric though if you're not a fan since there's not enough research to support any disease-preventing properties.
RELATED: 25 Ways to Cook With Turmeric
Green Tea and Matcha
Green tea leaves contain not one, but two powerful phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. Some claim that these chemical compounds in green tea can lower heart disease and cancer risk. Typically, whole leaves are steeped to brew tea, but the leaves can also be ground and added to foods. Matcha is a ground version and is thought to be an even more powerful source of antioxidants since you consume the whole leaf.
Superpower: Phytochemicals including flavonoids and polyphenols
Is there proof that it works? Research does suggest that green tea can reduce heart disease risk by lowering total cholesterol and triglyceride levels and raising HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Other research has suggested that green tea may inhibit some cancers, prevent some neurological diseases, and help regulate blood glucose, but more studies are needed.
Eat it or skip it? If you like the flavor of tea, then definitely incorporate green tea or matcha into your diet. Sip a hot cup of green tea, serve it over ice, or experiment incorporating matcha into recipes.
Think back to chemistry class, and you may remember the pH scale that ranged from 0 to 14 (0 being the most acidic and 14 being the most basic or alkaline). Pure water has a pH of 7, but proponents suggest that we need to drink water that is more alkaline (has a slightly higher pH) to counteract the acidic effects that today's diet has on the body. Alkaline water claims range from increasing energy, slowing aging, and preventing diseases like cancer.
Superpower: High pH water (less acidic)
Proof that it works: There's little solid research that alkaline water makes the body any healthier or that it can provide any of the above health claims.
Eat it or skip it? Skip it for now until more is known unless you prefer the slight taste difference in alkaline water. The body's pH level isn't something you want to play around with, so definitely skip it if you have any kidney issues or take medication that may affect kidney function.
Cold-water fish have more fat, a large proportion of which is from Omega-3 fatty acids. These polyunsaturated fats are responsible for claims that eating fatty fish (tuna, herring, mackerel, trout, salmon, halibut, and whitefish) can lower heart disease risk and reduce incidence of cardiovascular episodes. Some have even suggested that Omega-3s may reduce rates of depression and dementia.
Superpower: Omega-3 fats
Is there proof that it works? Numerous studies have documented the beneficial cardiovascular effects (lowering blood pressure, reducing arterial inflammation, and regulating heart beat) of consuming Omega-3 fats in fish. The research is so strong that the American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish twice per week to gain these heart-protective benefits. Omega-3s appear to also be involved in brain chemistry surrounding depression and dementia, but more research is needed to understand the exact role they play.
Eat it or skip it? Definitely eat it! The jury is out on whether Omega-3 supplements have any benefits, so the best way to get the boost is by eating fish. Best sustainable fish sources of Omega-3s are salmon, sardines, striped bass, and rainbow trout. Fresh and canned are both good sources.
Blueberries have long been touted as a "superfood" thanks to their high nutrient density and their combination of phytochemicals. Claims surrounding blueberry consumption include lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and dementia.
Superpower: Phytochemicals including anthocyanins, flavonoids, and resveratrol
Is there proof that it works? Research suggests that the antioxidant qualities in the phytochemicals provide a protective effect to cells, as well as an anti-inflammatory effect. Studies support claims that consuming blueberries (and other deeply colored purple-red produce) can reduce heart disease and cancer risk, as well as possibly slow memory loss.
Eat it or skip it? Definitely eat them—fresh, frozen, or dried—and try to get them in daily. Eat alone or toss into oatmeal, cereal, smoothies, salads, or muffin batter. If you can't find blueberries, most richly colored berries (raspberries, blackberries, etc.) will provide similar health benefits. Check out these blueberry recipes for some of our tastiest ideas.
Wheatgrass is young grass sprouted in water that can be purchased raw or dried in powder, capsule, or liquid forms. Wheatgrass is a good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and several B vitamins. The combination of these vitamins, along with other nutrients and chlorophyll, are why some claim wheatgrass can improve circulation, help regulate blood glucose, reduce inflammation, and detoxify the body.
Superpower: High nutrient and chlorophyll content
Is there proof that it works? There is no research supporting the claims above, and while wheatgrass is a good source of some nutrients, there is no data suggesting that it's healthier than any other fruit or vegetable.
Eat it or skip it? Unless you love the flavor that wheatgrass adds to your juice or smoothie, skip it. There's nothing that wheatgrass provides that you can't get from eating a variety of produce. Also, wheatgrass can have mold or bacteria if the water it's grown in is contaminated or if the wheatgrass is not harvested and stored correctly.
Chia seeds are tiny black and white seeds that come from the Salvia plant. When compared to their size, chia seeds pack a big nutritional punch in the form of antioxidants, Omega-3 fats, and fiber. These characteristics have supported claims that chia seeds can improve heart health and aid in weight loss.
Superpower: Phytochemicals including isoflavones, omega-3 fats, and fiber
Is there proof that it works? There's lots of research documenting the effects that antioxidants, Omega-3 fats, and fiber have on the cardiovascular system. While chia seeds are high in all three of these, there's little research looking specifically at the effects that consuming chia seeds has on the body. There have been no conclusive findings that chia seeds aid in weight loss.
Eat it or skip it? If you like their mild, nutty flavor or like to experiment with new foods, then try sprinkling chia seeds into your oatmeal, smoothie, yogurt, cereal, salad, rice, or baked goods for an added boost of nutrients, texture, and flavor. They add a fun twist to Pistachio-Apple Bars with Chia Seeds. Skip chia seeds though if you're just looking for a weight-loss product.
Pomegranates contain several phytochemicals that appear to have anti-inflammatory properties. Consuming pomegranates have been touted as a way to improve heart health, reduce blood vessel thickening, provide relief to individuals with arthritis, inhibit the growth of some cancers, and possibly reduce cancer risk.
Superpower: Phytochemicals including polyphenols, flavonoids, and phenolic acids
Is there proof that it works? Research examining the effects of consuming pomegranate or pomegranate juice regularly have supported heart health and decreased cancer risk claims. It's impossible to identify though if pomegranate is the direct cause for the research findings or if they're due to another dietary factor.
Eat it or skip It? Pomegranates are worth including in your diet if you like the taste. You can eat the juicy seeds (called arils) in fresh pomegranates, but these are usually only available September through December. You can also incorporate pomegranate juice (sold in major grocery stores all year round) into smoothies, sauces, and cocktails. Try our favorite Blueberry-Pomegranate Smoothie for a double-dose of superfoods.
Who wouldn't choose chocolate over exercise to get healthy? It's not surprising that chocolate became an instant "superfood" following studies suggesting that eating it could improve heart health and lower blood pressure. The potential benefits are attributed to phytochemicals called flavonoids found in the cocoa used to make chocolate.
Superpower: Phytochemicals known as flavonoids
Is there proof that it works? Studies suggest that consuming small amounts of chocolate may reduce risk of blood clots and lower blood pressure.
Eat it or skip it? If calories and weight are not an issue, enjoy a small piece (1 to 2 ounces) of high-quality chocolate a few times a week. Choose a dark chocolate that contains 60% cacao or higher, and avoid ones made with alkalized or Dutch-processed cocoa for maximum flavonoid benefit. Skip it (or make it just an occasional treat) if you're watching calorie intake since there's other lower-calorie foods (and activities) that can have the same heart-health benefits.
While the goji berry may seem new, it's been a staple in Asian cultures for year. The bright orange-red berry is a good source of antioxidant compounds including vitamin C, which has led to claims that goji berries can reduce cancer risk. Some have even gone as far as referring to the berry as a "fountain of youth."
Superpower: Phytochemicals like beta-carotene and Vitamin C
Is there proof that it works? Goji berries have antioxidant compounds similar to the antioxidants that are found in blueberries. Numerous studies suggest that antioxidants in berries can help lower heart disease and cancer risk. However,no research suggests that the goji berry is any healthier or better than other berries.
Eat it or skip it? If you're looking for a new berry to try in muffins or oatmeal, then consider giving it a try. We like Coconut, Almond, and Goji Bars for afternoon snacks. Be aware though that dried goji berries can be pricey, and you'll likely get just as much benefit for a lot less from other fresh or dried berries.
Coconut oil has become a trendy fat source thanks to popular paleo diets (though lately that trend seems to be declining). Claims suggest coconut oil can speed up metabolism and decrease appetite making it a superfood for weight loss.
Superpower: Medium-chain triglycerides
Is there proof that it works? The basis of these claims comes from the fact that coconut oil is made up of medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, which are broken down and used differently than other fats. There is some evidence for the benefits of MCTs, but as nutritionist Brierley Horton pointed out recently, the research pool is small, and isn't focused on coconut oil.
Eat it or skip it? We aren't sold on coconut oil. If you like the flavor, feel free to use it—but be sparing. The American Heart Association has noted that it isn't heart-healthy. Remember though that coconut oil is still a fat with about 120 calories and 14g of fat per tablespoon—12g of which are saturated fat. The bottom-line is that if you're taking in more calories than you need—even if they're from coconut oil—you won't lose weight.
Probiotic foods contain active, living bacteria and include yogurt and kefir, as well as fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, and miso. Proponents claim that eating foods containing healthy bacteria strains can keep your GI tract running smoothly, increase immunity, and aid in weight loss.
Superpower: "Good" strains of active, living bacteria
Is there proof that it works? This is a focus of many studies right now, but research suggests that healthy bacteria strains can help regulate your GI tract and may support immune function. Much more research is needed to determine which bacteria strains are best for specific GI issues and autoimmune diseases. There have been no conclusive findings that probiotic foods aid in weight loss.
Eat it or skip it? The research looks promising, so eat them when you can. Many diets are lacking in dairy, so we like yogurt for an easy, portable way to get "good" bacteria. If you don't eat dairy, look for ways to incorporate fermented plant foods, such as sauerkraut and tempeh. Tempeh Coconut Curry is a quick, satisfying dish that also features the superfood turmeric.
Beet juice (also known as beetroot juice) is somewhat new to the superfood scene, but claims suggest the rich purple-red juice can increase energy and stamina and lower blood pressure.
Superpower: Phytochemicals including anthocyanins and carotenoids
Is there proof that it works? There are limited studies on beet juice, but the few that have been done suggest beet juice may lower blood pressure and increase performance during exercise. However, the changes were minimal, and more research is needed.
Eat it or skip it? If you like the taste and flavor of beets, then incorporate them into your salads, side dishes, or juices regularly. Beets with Walnuts, Goat Cheese, and Baby Greens is a favorite around here. Skip them though if you're not a beet fan, and look for other ways to add deep red, purple, green, and orange produce (grapes, red cabbage, blueberries, broccoli, carrots) into your meals. These colors are indicators that the food is rich in the same phytochemicals as beets.