Way back when we were hunters and gatherers, we got most of our daily calories from nuts and berries, and on those rare occasions when an edible kill was made, we gorged. We also lacked proper preservative techniques like refrigeration, so gorging wasn’t about gluttony as much as it was about trying to get all the fat and protein we could before it went bad.
Now, of course, we’ve got all the meat and lard our ancestors were so hungry for. But many of us haven’t stopped gorging.
So we join Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers and gyms, and we try not to grab an extra cookie or that plate of fries at the burger joint. These efforts are worthwhile, and we should celebrate when our willpower defeats our evolutionary appetite.
But what’s less talked about is what we’re missing: specifically, the vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants that are either absent from our diets or unavailable in sufficient quantities. This is where "superfoods" come in.
What Are Superfoods?
A superfood is a food that is packed with health benefits that typical Western diets are lacking. Well, that’s as close as we can come to a definition because, really, “superfood” is a marketing term. Make no mistake about it. It’s catchy. It sounds like something Superman might eat. It caught the public imagination some years back and has been used as a handy promotional tool ever since. There has, predictably, been a backlash against it. It seems that for every nutritional blog mentioning the term, there is another one attacking it. In the extraordinarily protective halls of European health, the term now has legal status. According to European Union legislation, any mention of superfood must be accompanied by a "specific authorised health claim that explains to consumers why the product is good for their health."1
While it’s always good to understand marketing objectives and proper science, might the backlash be a bit beside the point? The truth is most of us are deficient in our vitamin, mineral and antioxidant intake, and some fruits, vegetables and supplements that have been passed over by our fat-and-protein-happy culture do offer real benefits that help with everything from digestion to heart health to brain function.
So here’s a short but helpful guide on how you can begin to oomph up your diet with some overlooked superfoods.
The Good Stuff
- Cocoa. Let’s start with an easy one that’s all over the news right now. Good old cocoa! New research out of Columbia University that was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience showed remarkable findings when analyzing cocoa's effect on the memory of study subjects. Cocoa seemed to improve the memory of healthy adults aged 50 to 69. But here’s the catch: The good stuff is called “flavanols,” and it’s found in raw cocoa, not your highly processed milk chocolate Hershey bar. Train yourself to enjoy the real thing.2
- Lingonberries. Scandinavian countries regularly top the list for longest lifespans. Maybe their native lingonberries have something to do with it. Lingonberries—they look like bright red blueberries—have about 30 percent more antioxidant power than blueberries, which means they help flush the body of free radicals and act against bad cholesterol. Research also suggests the berries may help prevent heart attacks and stroke. Fresh lingonberries can be difficult to find in the U.S., but they're available frozen, in jams and preserves and in juice form at places like Whole Foods and Ikea. Just be careful: Lingonberry preserves have a lot of sugar, which kind of defeats the "super" part of the superfood.
- Mustard Greens. All greens are good, but some are better than others. Mustard greens, an ancient staple, are rich in sulforaphanes, which help the body get rid of bile acid, which in turn helps lower cholesterol. They are also packed with Vitamin K, which is particularly lacking in the American diet. No catch here: just substitute these tasty, mildly spicy bits for your iceberg lettuce or coleslaw. Mustard greens are good raw or steamed.
- Sweet Potatoes. Did you think potatoes were just starch bombs that peasants used because they had nothing else to eat? They are (sort of). But not sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes really should be called Super Potatoes. They’ve got so much Vitamin C, they’re almost like a citrus, and they have so much beta-carotene (especially good for vision and immunity), they could almost be carrots. But they are potatoes, and they can be used as such: You can mash them, boil them, bake them — just don’t fry them.
- Turmeric. Turmeric is the bright yellow spice you find in Indian curry. Its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects are profound, and it acts as an antiseptic, so it helps the body fight infections. While turmeric is a very well-researched spice, the extent of its benefits may not yet be fully known. Scientists are studying its role in combating Alzheimer’s disease and blood clots. It’s certainly possible that the high amount of turmeric in the Indian diet is the reason Indians suffer the top four American cancers 10 times less than we do.3 Make a curry or sprinkle it on top of those sweet potatoes or mustard greens. Unlike salt, you can use it liberally.
The Starter Kit
The above list is just a starter kit of possible superfoods. You’ve got breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack options and even a dessert (cocoa). These and plenty of other superfoods can go a long way toward promoting your heart health, providing antioxidant support and helping to prevent or manage diabetes.
Health is not an all-or-nothing game. If you must have that juicy hamburger, try some mustard greens or sweet potatoes on the side. If you must have that bowl of ice cream, try sprinkling it with lingonberries or mixing in some cocoa powder.
Call them what you will — superfoods, the good stuff, nature’s bounty — so long as you add them to your diet. We Westerners are correct to place so much emphasis on avoidance in our diets, but we must also think about what we’ve been missing and need to add back in.
- The BBC. Superfood “ban” comes into effect. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/6252390.stm
- Healy M. Chocolate compound restores age-related memory loss. The Los Angeles Times. October 29, 2014.
- Dr. Oz. Dr. Oz’s superfoods. http://www.doctoroz.com/slideshow/dr-ozs-10-favorite-superfoods?gallery=true&page=2