Superfoods have become extremely popular, partly because of all the hype and marketing surrounding them. Basically, the concept is that a superfood is a type of food that is rich in nutrients, while offering potential benefits.
In many ways, superfoods do make a lot of sense. After all, we know that diet and lifestyle can have large impacts on overall health, which includes the potential to alter disease risk.
At the same time, some foods offer important nutrients that may have direct impacts on health overall.
So, what are some of the best superfoods?
Well, we’re going to take a look at five key options, although some of these are categories rather than individual foods. In all cases, there is significant scientific support for their benefits and advantages.
As a result, these are all valuable types of food to include in your diet and are well worth considering.
In general, berries act as a key source of antioxidants, including a specific type of compound called anthocyanins (1). Of these, blueberries act as a particularly strong source of antioxidants (2,3,4) but other berries can still be a viable option.
Now, antioxidants are commonly talked about but many people don’t completely understand what they are or how they work.
Basically, they are a set of compounds that help to fight a specific process in the body – called oxidation.
Oxidation itself is a critical process but too much of it may harm health. Indeed, some theories suggest that excessive oxidation could contribute to various diseases and even some of the symptoms of aging (5,6). Additionally, getting enough antioxidants could help to prevent some types of damaging oxidation and reduce both disease risk and DNA damage (7,8,9).
There is still much we don’t know about antioxidants, including how many we should be consuming, in what amounts and even whether they truly offer benefits.
Certainly, there are indications that antioxidant supplements may do little and could even harm health in some cases (10,11,12).
But, the same isn’t true for antioxidants in the diet.
Instead, getting antioxidants through natural foods, including the various dark berries, can potentially offer a range of health benefits. For that matter, many of the health benefits connected to eating a plant-rich diet are associated with antioxidant intake (13).
At the same time, the compounds in berries may offer a range of other benefits that go beyond simple antioxidants.
The advantages of dark berries do also apply to other similar types of fruit. For example, there are significant health benefits associated with tart cherries and pomegranate, both of which are often considered superfoods.
Thankfully, these are all easy to get in the diet. For example, many people turn to superfood smoothies to get many healthy ingredients all at once. The site With Food + Love is a good place to start and offers a list of 25 Superfood Smoothies to Power + Fuel.
Spirulina is a fairly new entry in the superfoods discussion and it is also a little unusual. In particular, spirulina is actually a supplement and it comes in either pill or powder form. Nevertheless, it is a natural supplement and is sourced from a specific species of algae.
Like other superfoods, spirulina is a key source of a range of nutrients, including all of the essential amino acids (14).
It is also incredibly nutrient dense and you get a significant amount of nutrients for a very small serving. In particular, a 7-gram serving of spirulina contains 4 grams of protein and only around 20 calories (15).
Spirulina can also help to fight oxidation and inflammation in the body. This mostly happens because of the compound phycocyanin (16,17,18).
However, there is a catch. As amazing as spirulina is, it tastes incredibly bad, especially if you’re using the powder.
Some people get around the taste by including spirulina in healthy smoothies, often with some of the other superfoods on this list. Alternatively, using the supplement form rather than the powder can help as well. Thankfully, there are many options for both types.
There are many different foods that fall under the category of leafy greens but they are all important to health. One key reason is simply that these are high in nitrate, which is thought to help lower blood pressure, although the outcomes of research are mixed (19,20).
Nitrate aside, leafy greens tend to be especially dense in nutrients. For example, they are a key dietary source of iron and can be especially relevant for vegans (21).
They are also associated with some health benefits, including lowering cholesterol levels (22,23,24) and helping to protect the eyes (25,26).
However, the main advantage is simply the nutrients, many of which will have their own benefits for health.
Key examples of leafy greens that you should be eating regularly include kale, spinach and Swiss chard.
Of these, kale is most commonly viewed as a superfood but they do all offer similar benefits.
Realistically, the best way to get the benefits of leafy greens is to vary which ones you consume – rather than just focusing on a single type. For that matter, doing so is the best approach for superfoods in general.
Like spirulina, garlic is a superfood that you would typically consume in relatively small quantities, although supplements do exist.
The significance of garlic mostly comes from the compound allicin, which has been linked to medicinal properties (27). Additionally, garlic does also contain some key nutrients, which makes it a good part of a balanced diet (28).
Research suggests that garlic may be particularly relevant for reducing blood pressure and may even act as an alternative to some blood pressure medication (29,30,31,32). However, that outcome is associated with fairly high levels of intake (around 4 cloves per day).
A similar effect is true for cholesterol levels, although again, this mostly applies to supplementation rather than dietary intake (33,34,35).
Collectively, these outcomes suggest that dietary garlic intake may not be as beneficial as some of the other superfoods on this list.
Nevertheless, it does remain a source of important nutrients and a valuable addition to the diet overall.
Indeed, significant health benefits can also be seen with spices, such as cinnamon, turmeric and ginger.
Dark chocolate may seem like an odd inclusion on this list but it is a particularly important one. Unlike the other superfoods discussed, dark chocolate is man-made and it is relatively high in calories.
Nevertheless, many people are labeling dark chocolate as a superfood because of the compounds that it contains.
In particular, cocoa beans contain a number of important compounds, which are also found in chocolate. These include a selection of flavonoids and polyphenols (36).
Dark chocolate has also been connected to a number of specific health benefits, including relieving stress, lowering blood pressure (37) and improving cognition (38).
At the same time, dark chocolate is a key source of antioxidants, so it has similar advantages to dark berries in that respect (39).
Indeed, the potential of dark chocolate is so strong that there is interest in creating supplements that contain the active components, potentially offering the benefits, without the sugar and fat (40).
Likewise, brands like Cocoa Via already produce products that take advantage of the compounds in chocolate.
As with the other superfoods in this list, there is still much more research needed to understand the benefits that dark chocolate offers.
It’s also important to be careful about how much dark chocolate you consume. After all, the superfood is relatively high in calories and eating too much of it could be detrimental.
To get the most benefits, picking the right chocolate brand is critical, as companies tend to use different processes and ingredients. Many of those can affect the potential health benefits that you would get from the chocolate.
Be Careful About Hype
The term superfoods means that these food options sound amazing. And, in many ways, they truly are. Certainly, all of these foods are key sources of nutrients and may offer a considerable range of health benefits as a result.
At the same time, superfoods do tend to be more nutrient dense than many other foods, or they contain a different balance of nutrients. Those factors are important but they don’t mean that superfoods will dramatically improve your health.
Instead, these various foods should act as key components of your diet, along with other fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices.
For that matter, the term superfood is misleading anyway. There is no single definition of the word and it isn’t scientifically recognized either (41). For that matter, many non-superfoods may offer similar health benefits to some superfoods.
Likewise, there are many different so-called superfoods out there, as people have different ideas about what should, and should not, be included in the list.
As such, it’s important to be wary about the hype.
Many websites and even newspapers make bold claims about various foods, including coffee, chocolate and countless others. While these particular options do often provide health benefits, headlines will often exaggerate findings, making it sound like the food is simply amazing.
As an example, there have been headlines claiming that champagne helps to improve memory. Yet, the study behind the claims didn’t prove that outcome at all.
This means that it’s worth paying close attention to recent research and what the studies actually say, rather than the hype that surrounds them.
After all, superfoods may well offer benefits but they are just one component of a healthy diet. Include them by all means but do so along with other healthy food choices and sufficient physical activity (42).
In fact, the site Science Alert talks about how superfoods could even harm health by helping people justify unhealthy decisions. The Conversation talks about superfoods as well, focusing on how and why they are often misleading.
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Did I cover your favorite superfoods on this list? If not, what did I miss?
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