It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superfood!
And it’s flying off your grocer’s shelf like never before!
The word “superfood” has been around from as far back as 1915 when it was referred to in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a food considered especially nutritious or beneficial to health and well-being.” Though there’s still no firm consensus on the exact definition of a superfood, nutritionists generally agree that foods with higher than usual antioxidant, fiber, or essential fatty acid content can be called superfoods.
To fully understand what makes a food super, let’s look at each of these components separately.
“Antioxidant” literally means against oxidation.
Oxidation is a result of chemical reactions with oxygen, which, in most cases, produce free radicals. Free radicals are responsible for creating biological deterioration, much like metal rusting on a car or an apple turning brown after being cut. In our bodies, oxidation can make certain compounds, like LDL cholesterol, more likely to stick to the walls of our arteries, creating long-term heart disease. Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, E, the trace mineral selenium, and numerous plant pigments stop oxidation by neutralizing free radical oxygen electrons before they react with other molecules, thus stopping processes of aging and degeneration. Fruits and vegetables are exceptionally high in antioxidants, which is why they are often called superfoods.
Superfoods are often ranked by their Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) value, which is determined in a test tube and represents the potential for a specific compound to neutralize a free oxygen radical, making it unavailable for more harmful reactions. Foods that rank high on this list include most culinary spices, berries, cocoa, rosehips, dark green vegetables, and stone fruit (e.g. plums).
One of my favorite superfoods is the pretty yellow weeds that are found in your backyard. Throughout history, dandelions have been used as cures for countless conditions, including acne, anemia, high blood pressure, diarrhea, and diabetes. Dandelion leaves have more beta-carotene than carrots and more calcium and iron than spinach. Dandelion flowers are a rich source of the nutrient lecithin. Steam them, sauté them with garlic, onions, and olive oil, or infuse them with boiling water to make a tea.
High fiber content is another criterion that qualifies a food as super.
Fiber adds bulk to our diets without adding extra calories because it passes through the body undigested. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. In our intestinal tract, soluble fibers, such as prebiotic inulin, form a viscous gel that probiotic gut bacteria can ferment and feed on. In addition to supporting healthy digestive flora, soluble fiber also binds to excess cholesterol so that it can be removed as waste. Insoluble fiber, termed roughage, promotes regularity, or what I like to call “waist management.” Superfoods in this category include beans (with their combination of fiber and iron content) and raspberries, which sport eight grams per cup and only sixty-four calories.
Our final class of nutrients in this article is essential fatty acids (i.e. omega-3 linolenic acid).
These fats become incorporated into all of our cell membranes affecting their permeability and rigidity. They also combat inflammation by encouraging the synthesis of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins (hormone type messengers). The best source is sustainable fish (i.e. sardines, anchovies, and mackerel), which provide the bioavailable forms of the omega-3 fats EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). If you are vegan, then look for easily converted sources of omega-3, such as Algal oil 9 (a type of algae), Echium seed, and hemp seed.
Omega-3 fatty acids perform vital functions in the body:
- Promote cardiovascular health
- Reduce inflammation and pain
- Support mental focus and cognitive function
- Support positive mood and emotional well-being
- Promote brain, eye, and nervous system health
- Support healthy immune system function
- Enhance appearance of skin and hair
- Promote optimal fat metabolism and weight balance
If you are not a fan of sardines, then molecularly distilled fish oil that has the fishy taste removed is the best solution. I like to use the lemon flavor in my smoothies and salad dressings.
Equipped with this knowledge, you can navigate the grocery aisle in search of your own list of superfoods to create positive energy.
Remember this Arab proverb: “He who has health has hope, and he who has hope, has everything.”
Nutritionist Julie Daniluk hosts The Healthy Gourmet on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), a reality cooking show that looks at the ongoing battle between taste and nutrition. Her first book, Meals That Heal Inflammation, advises on allergy-free foods that both taste great and assist the body in the healing process. Check out more amazing recipes, nutrition tips, and her Anti-Inflammatory Quick Start Program at www.juliedaniluk.com and follow her on Facebook at Julie Daniluk Nutrition and on Twitter @juliedaniluk.