The surprising truth about superfoods

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During this extended lockdown situation, I have been paying a lot more attention to what I eat. I skipped the baking craze, but I did go through the inevitable gourmet chef phase, the all-I-eat-are-Cheez-its phase, and now I seem to be in a moment of dietary reckoning. I want to eat well, but there has to be a way to do it without designing a labor-intensive farm-to-table homestead. I started looking into superfoods as a way to maximize nutrition with a minimum of effort. As I googled, though, I began to wonder about who branded these fruits, vegetables, and nuts as saviors. Are superfoods even real or just more hype from the wellness industrial complex?

The term, “superfood,” as you might have guessed, isn’t a scientific one. It’s branding. “Superfood is a marketing term used as a label for foods which presumably deliver an exceptional nutrient density,” says Shadi Vahdat, an LA-based internal medicine physician and assistant clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. But, Vahdat adds, “Claims that a particular food is a superfood are not always backed by scientific evidence.” Sigh. Why is capitalism always slapping such hopeful, but misleading, labels on things? Why can’t we just have nice things?

We can, Vahdat contends. Even though the “superfood” moniker is a bit specious, there are foods that pack more of a nutritional punch than others. “Despite the fact that the unregulated use of the word superfood can be misleading to consumers, there are definitely foods that have higher nutrient density than others.” Phew. Nutrient density, by the way, is the ratio of nutrients to calories. For context, when a food is low in nutrient density, like white bread, we say that it has “empty calories.” In other words, it has calories, which do give you energy, but is very low in minerals and vitamins. White bread may be toasty and delicious, but it’s pretty low on nutritional value.

The foods we call superfoods, then, are basically the opposite of food with empty calories. That doesn’t mean they are low calorie — some of them are not — it just means that they have more nutrients per calorie than average. Doctors and dieticians are definitely dubious about the superfoods phenom, but not about the importance of eating nutrient dense foods. “I think any food that contains ample essential nutrients should really be considered a superfood,” says Whitney English, a Los Angeles-based registered dietician. “In my book, that includes pretty much all fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes.”

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There’s nothing really mysterious about integrating nutrient dense superfoods into your diet. And figuring out how to do it is actually kind of beautiful. Vahdat recommends taking a rainbow approach to planning your palate. “I always advise my patients to optimize their diet by getting a rainbow of different colored fruits and vegetables to give them a variety of essential vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals,” she says. The color of foods is functional, and as long as it hasn’t been artificially tampered with, the outside of foods can show us the kind of nutrients it has inside. Orange and yellow foods, for example, get their color from alpha- and beta-carotene, which help the body produce Vitamin A.

So, then, yes, there are some foods that are more super (or nutrient-dense) than others. But they are in no way substitutes for either medication — as some labels may claim — or for having a comprehensive preventative health care plan for yourself. Nutrient-dense foods can help you get more nutrition in less calories, but they are not your saviors. The experts I spoke with specifically mentioned blueberries and salmon as superfoods they recommend, but others told me that it doesn’t have to be exactly those species — fish and berries in general are great. Touting ultra-specific “superfoods” again, is a branding technique, not generally doctor’s recommendation.

“My favorite superfoods include wild caught salmon or sardines,” Vahdat says. “These fatty fish deliver important fatty acids, which are important for optimal brain function, cognitive health, mood, heart disease and control of inflammation.” And even though I wish I could make a PSA for blueberries because I love them so much, English says that all berries are pretty super. “Berries — any type you like — are packed with disease-fighting antioxidants, vitamin C, and belly-filling fiber,” English says.

Experts also agreed that we should stick to whole foods and stay away from packaged or powdered superfood supplements. “They are not regulated by the FDA, and some have been shown to have dangerous side effects or be contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins,” English warns. Blue-green algae is a popular example, she says. “It is often considered a superfood, but research does not support the claims made about it, and studies have shown that the bacteria produces a toxin linked to neurodegenerative disease.”

Michael Pollan's famous dictum, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” holds true in the realm of nutrition. A healthy plate should be half fruits and vegetables, a quarter whole grains, and a quarter protein, per Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health guidelines. “Aim to consume a wide variety of plants on a daily basis and you're good to go,” English says. So, if you stay away from packaged crap and empty calories, you don’t actually need any special powers to figure out how to keep your diet supercharged.