Fish. Nuts. Kale. Nutritionists often tout the importance of superfoods, but what does that actually mean?
WellTuned talked to Leslie Cornett, registered dietitian and nutritionist for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, to find out what superfoods are and how you can incorporate them into your diet.
What are superfoods?
Superfoods are any food that’s nutritionally dense and thus good for your health. Most are plant-based, but some fish and dairy also qualify. Well-known superfoods include blueberries, kale, beans, sweet potatoes, nuts and avocados.
“I think of a superfood as something that is rich in the primary nutrients our bodies need, but also in disease- and inflammation-fighting phytonutrients,” says Cornett.
Phytonutrients are chemicals produced by plants. They don’t contribute life-sustaining macronutrients (carbs, protein) to our diets, but they do provide other potential health benefits:
- Boosting the immune system
- Helping fight diseases like cancer
- Providing antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties
Why is there controversy surrounding the word “superfood”?
“Some experts think the term is more of a marketing ploy than a scientific classification, and marketers have definitely used it to their advantage,” says Cornett. “But I believe there’s enough science to back up the benefits — as long as you take a balanced approach to eating them.”
Adding superfoods to your diet can’t hurt, says Cornett, but don’t get hyper-focused on consuming only superfoods.
“Alone, superfoods aren’t going to meet all your dietary needs,” says Cornett. “For example, if you eat only avocado and nuts and salmon, your diet is going to be very calorie-dense, which won’t be healthy long-term for most people. Focus on balancing all the food groups.”
What is the best way to add superfoods to a diet?
“In the nutrition world, we encourage an anti-inflammatory eating plan for medical conditions including diabetes and heart disease, and the Mediterranean Diet is that in a nutshell,” says Cornett. “It’s chock full of superfoods, including foods that are high in phytonutrients, which give plant-based foods their pigmentation.”
That’s why “eat the rainbow” is a good rule of thumb when you’re talking about plants.
“If you’re at the salad bar, pack your plate with as many richly colored fruits and vegetables as possible: bell peppers, spinach, tomatoes, radishes,” says Cornett. “If you do that, you’ll know you’re getting an abundance of phytonutrients without even having to think about it.”
Here are Cornett’s 8 favorite superfoods:
“All berries are good for you in moderation, but blueberries are extra-high in antioxidant density.”
“Everyone knows avocados are full of healthy, rich, monounsaturated fat, but they’re also rich in vitamins C and K, as well as potassium and folate. And they’re not a bad source of fiber either.”
Nuts and seeds
“There aren’t really any unhealthy nuts or seeds, and most are good sources of fiber, hearty-healthy fat and protein. Walnuts and almonds, though, are especially rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which have a lot of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.”
“Turnip and collard greens are full of fiber, iron, folate, calcium and magnesium, as are kale and spinach. Leafy greens are also packed with disease-fighting ingredients.”
“People don’t think of green tea as a superfood since we mostly drink it, but it’s full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents that can potentially protect against heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”
“Salmon is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids with all their anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also the most nutrient-dense fish, and probably the fish most of us have access to often. However, swordfish and mackerel are also superfoods, so try those if you can find them.”
Legumes, lentils, beans and peas
“Good protein sources become even more important when moving toward plant-based eating, and beans, peas and legumes are ideal for that. They’re also rich in fiber and vitamins and minerals.”
Ginger and turmeric
“The same way people forget green tea is a superfood, they forget about roots like ginger and turmeric. But both are packed with antioxidants and are easy to add when cooking at home.”