There is a better way to look at and select our foods. It is called super foods. The word “super” implies a degree exceeding the norm, or in addition, more than ample. Within the world of our food supply, there are certainly foods that deserve this amplified status. These powerhouse foods can be divided into two super foods groups: those that inhibit disease and those that improve or inspire health. Super foods that inhibit disease could be categorized as anti- cancer, anti- inflammatory, anti- bacterial or anti-aging. Super foods that inspire health can improve immunity, improve stamina, and improve energy. This article will explore the top foods that appear on almost every list.
By Pamela Cannoy Kelle RD, CDE
If we knew that eating oats, blueberries, or spinach every day could improve the quality of life in surprising ways, you would think that we would be inspired to eat them every day. Sadly, that is not the case, and unfortunately a great number of people in this country eat fast food or processed food every day without giving a thought to the long-term impact such foods have on a number of levels of human existence. This disturbing fact should and needs to change. Because we are responsible for our own health, taking a new approach to selecting foods makes sense. Super foods offer a way to improve life by reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease, slowing the aging process, and providing more energy for the journey of life. There are some things that everyone should know or do to improve the chances of enjoying good long-term health.
Foods that fit into the super foods category are typically high in antioxidants. Oxidative stress (think rust) and the resulting free radicals are thought to contribute to the development of a wide range of diseases associated with aging, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and some of the pathologies caused by diabetes. It is unclear if oxidants trigger the disease, or if they are produced because of the disease.
Cardiovascular health is one area in particular in which antioxidants are clearly linked. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation appears to result in atherosclerosis and heart disease. Therefore, a diet high in antioxidants may help slow or reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Antioxidants can cancel out the cell-damaging effects of free radicals. Generally, people who eat fruits and vegetables rich in polyphenols and anthocyanins have a lower risk of cancer, heart disease and some neurological diseases. However, studies have not been able to prove that supplementation alone can reduce the risk of disease. This implies that other substances in fruit and vegetables (possibly anthocyanins or flavonoids) may explain the better cardiovascular health enjoyed by those who consume more fruit and vegetables.
Super foods also contain health-promoting phytochemicals. Phytochemicals may be part of the skin, may be found under the lining, or may be in the pigments of fruits and vegetables. Phytochemicals are more than vitamins. They are naturally occurring plant compounds. Some are currently under clinical trials for the treatment of the Human Papilloma Virus and cervical cancer. Phytochemicals found in vegetables have potent anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-cancer properties.
Some phytochemicals are actually minerals, like selenium, which is abundant in vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and kale. In human clinical trials, selenium has been used in HIV treatment and to reduce mortality among prostate cancer patients. Currently, other phytochemicals with potent medicinal properties are in clinical trials for a variety of diseases.
Lycopene from tomatoes is in clinical trials for cardiovascular diseases and prostate cancer. Lutein, found in spinach, has been shown in clinical trials to help prevent the onset of cataracts. Many phytochemicals help to reduce inflammations. Tumeric and cinnamon spices, green and black teas, and Alliums, such as garlic, leeks and onions, have anti-inflammatory properties.
The best way to remember which foods are most likely to be super foods is to look at the color first. The brighter the color: the better the choice. By nature, we are attracted by bright colors, so look first for red, orange, purple, blue, bright and dark green, and yellow fruits and vegetables. Be sure to include alternatives and don’t limit your choices to one particular type of fruit or vegetable. For instance, we know blueberries are a super food, but watermelon and strawberries are excellent choices as well. Look for foods that are unprocessed and preferably local.
Remember, there is a synergistic effect from food combining as well. The nutrients from one food may enhance the absorption of the other. For instance, to get the most benefit from fat soluble antioxidants like Vitamins A, D and E, pair brightly colored produce with some fat. For example, use olive oil dressing on a spinach salad. Calcium in milk is best absorbed with Vitamin D, so either add a source of fat with Skim milk or choose 1% milk. It may sound complicated but a mixed diet will provide the combinations needed to enhance the nutrition for your body.
Some people feel discouraged or overwhelmed about the task of including these foods in a busy lifestyle. Fortunately, there are a few alternatives to consider. There is an increased popularity for condensing super foods into juices such as Acai Berry or Pomegranate, to name a few, and vegetables condensed into a “superfood” capsule form are growing in popularity Some manufacturers make unsubstantiated claims about the nutrition benefits associated with these products, but anecdotal evidence does support nutritional benefits. These products may bridge the nutritional gap between using real and whole foods and having a poor diet. You can find a variety of super food supplements and juices at Greenlife Grocery, Nutrition World or other health food stores in the area.
Super foods are beneficial to life, providing a lifestyle choice rather than a diet approach to healthy eating. Consider creative ways to add super foods to your diet. You may want to begin one meal at a time. Even the poorest or weakest diet can be improved by the addition of a few super foods each day. There is no formal government definition of super foods, nor does the FDA recognize the category. It is not a miracle approach to avoiding disease. Not all the spinach in the world will make up for other poor lifestyle habits such as smoking cigarettes or consuming large amounts of alcohol. Nevertheless, super foods can be an extremely beneficial step in achieving good, long-term health and the quality of life that goes with it.
Pamela Kelle, RD, CDE, is a nutrition therapist and registered dietitian. She is in private practice in Chattanooga. Pam works with individuals and groups with weight related issues and diabetes. Her office is located in the historic, Southern Saddlery Building on South Broad Street. She can be reached at 423-752-5207 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.