What is a superfood?

A healthy, balanced diet is achieved by consuming nutrient-dense foods, including superfoods. But eating superfoods alone will not complete your healthy diet. A Baylor College of Medicine dietitian explains superfoods and how to incorporate those foods into a well-balanced diet.

“Superfood” is not a scientifically recognized classification of food but rather a marketing term that describes foods that are rich in nutrients, antioxidants, probiotics, fiber and other health-promoting compounds. They tend to contain good fats like mono and polyunsaturated fats.

A spread of colorful fruits and vegetables, such as peppers, berries, avocado, nuts and kiwi.“What characterizes a superfood is that these foods contain nutrients in a form that is more bioavailable to the body. The body absorbs and utilizes them better. This ensures that you get the maximum benefit from the nutrients they provide,” said Dr. Luis Rustveld, registered dietitian and assistant professor of family and community medicine at Baylor. “Superfoods in and of themselves are not miraculous. They are very rich in nutrients, but you need a variety of nutrients for your body to be healthy.”

Popular superfoods often promote gut health and are rich in antioxidants, fiber, calcium, vitamins and minerals. Some examples of superfoods include:

  • Berries: high in fiber and rich in vitamins and minerals
  • Quinoa: a gluten-free grain rich in protein that contains all nine essential amino acids
  • Yogurt and kefir: high in protein and rich in probiotics, which supports gut health
  • Fatty, oily fish like salmon, tuna, halibut or cod: high concentration of omega-3s
  • Plant-based proteins like spirulina, quinoa, beans and lentils
  • Bananas: rich in soluble fiber, vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, vitamin B6 and potassium
  • Green, leafy vegetables like kale and spinach: rich in fiber, calcium and vitamin K
  • Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric: rich in antioxidants. Incorporating turmeric into your cooking can provide these potential benefits
  • Avocado, nuts and seeds: rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fats

You also need to consider how the food is prepared. “You can get a very good superfood and prepare it in such a way that the nutrients get depleted, like boiling vegetables and adding saturated fats,” Rustveld said.

He recommends consuming nutrient-dense foods in addition to superfoods to form a balanced diet. Other nutrient-dense foods that are not classified as superfoods include whole grains (with the exception of quinoa) such as oatmeal, brown rice and whole-grain bread. Whole grains should be part of a healthy diet. Other lean proteins such as chicken and other fish are heart-healthy protein options. Non-superfood fish with other health benefits include red snapper, haddock and tilapia. He notes that a variety of lean proteins are often overlooked as superfoods due to the emphasis on plant-based proteins in research.

“Plant-based proteins are great, but we also have to recognize that a healthy balanced diet also includes high biologic value proteins that come from animal proteins,” he said.

The body is designed to get nutrition from food. Supplements might provide additional benefits, but they are not a replacement for superfoods or other nutritious foods. Superfoods and nutrient-dense foods provide health benefits on their own as they are not overly processed and provide vitamins, minerals and fiber. Not all supplements will provide that same benefit since they only contain that active ingredient that might or might not balance your diet.

“Think about how the body derives nutrition. It doesn’t derive nutrition from one component only – it’s very complex,” Rustveld said. “You can take loads of B vitamins, but if your plate doesn’t have the vegetables, protein and starches you need, then you’re going to be deficient.”

The exaggerated term “superfood” might lead people to believe that this property cures disease. Rustveld recommends continuing to listen to your doctor’s recommendations as relying on superfoods is not a replacement for taking medication or following a medical treatment for a medical condition. A balanced diet is extremely important, but consuming superfoods alone will not mitigate disease.

Superfoods tend to be pricy and people often buy costly foods solely because they are coined as superfoods. He emphasizes that locally grown, seasonal foods are just as healthy and might be more eco-friendly options.

“It’s important to think about promoting our local farmers and the food that we grow ourselves instead of buying something that has been classified as a superfood and shipped from distant locations,” Rustveld said. “It’s important to not feel that if you don’t get superfoods, you’re not going to be healthy. It’s about variety and balance.”

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By Homa Shalchi

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