Every other month I see a headline declaring something as the latest and greatest superfood.
But what makes food “super”? Should you even care?
The term “superfood” is often thrown around to describe foods and nutritional supplements that have supposedly incredible – almost unbelievable – health benefits.
And it’s been a popular topic in my inbox. The other day, I received this e-mail from a reader:
There are frequent mentions, book, videos about “superfoods”. Some are individual foods like nuts, seeds etc. Some are in expensive prepared formulas like chlorella powder etc I have researched many and it seems they are marketing gimmicks or just hype. Many of them do indeed have lots of nutrients but mostly in very small amounts that would require you to eat huge bulk quantities and/or a large caloric dose to get a decent amount of the RDA of the nutrients in question. What is your take? What foods really qualify to be considered superfoods and what criteria do you use in making that determination? – C.M.
This is a great question because it hits at the heart of what we support: Eating whole foods instead of wasting time on any of these “formulas” or pills.
There are some foods we consider “superfoods.” Our criteria for them are simple. We look for foods that have scientifically proven benefits for multiple health conditions.
One of the biggest risks to our health is inflammation. Chronic inflammation means your immune system is on high alert for too long, which leads to problems like type 2 diabetes, dementia, and heart disease. So we love foods that naturally fight inflammation. Here are three of our favorite superfoods:
1. Berries. This time of year, I love to stock up on wild blueberries… I call blueberries the “perfect blue food.” They’re packed with antioxidants (like vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, fiber, and manganese), flavonoids, anthocyanins (this gives them the blue color), and other nutrients. They lower cholesterol, improve eyesight, and reduce inflammation.
Blueberries get their power from anthocyanins. These molecules are a type of antioxidant. They’re responsible for the health benefits the blues bring because they fight “free radicals.”
Every day, there’s a battle inside your body between your army of healthy cells and damaging molecules called free radicals. These radicals bounce around your system, trying to pull electrons off healthy pieces of your cells. Too many free radicals can lead to massive damage. They alter your proteins, fats, and even DNA. They can cause inflammation and cancer.
We get free radicals as a byproduct of our everyday lives. But antioxidants – particularly powerful ones like in blueberries – fight these damaging molecules.
We’ve even seen research showing that blueberries help fight cervical cancer.
And blueberries aren’t the only “super” berries. Raspberries (probably my second-favorite after blues) contain flavonoids like ellagic acid. Research shows ellagic acid inhibits tumor growth in certain cancers. And according to the American Cancer Society, it kills cancer cells without harming healthy cells.
2. Turmeric. Researchers are still studying all the health benefits of this delicious spice. Turmeric comes from a root similar to ginger. It appears in food in many cultures, especially those cultures that eat curry.
Turmeric gets its healing reputation from one chemical, curcumin. Curcumin has powerful antioxidant and antibacterial properties. We’ve seen promising studies on how curcumin preserves memory. Researchers believe this boost comes from the strong inflammation-fighting properties of curcumin. This follows other research looking at how curcumin interacts with the body. It appears to interfere with specific molecules that control the inflammation process.
Curcumin also has some cancer-fighting abilities. For example, pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest cancers, is especially resistant to chemotherapy. But researchers found a specific pathway in some pancreatic cancers that keeps the cells resistant to drugs. It turns out that curcumin directly interferes with that pathway. The chemical effectively shuts off the cancer cells’ resistance. Adding curcumin to chemotherapy made the treatments more effective.
If you want to add turmeric to your diet, you don’t just have to stick to curry, though. You can use it as a spice on salads, in soups, and on rice.
3. Coffee. We’ve covered coffee and its benefits for years…everything from fighting erectile dysfunction to reducing your risk of colon, skin, and liver cancers.
Coffee fights inflammation. It has a lot of antioxidants (caffeine is one of them) that soothe inflammation. It also may protect DNA directly. Damaged DNA can start dividing without end, leading to tumors. The exact way it happens still isn’t clear, but some research suggests coffee stimulates an enzyme that fights DNA-damaging toxins.
We also know that caffeine blocks adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter in our brains that sends signals to our body. Its primary role is to signal when we need sleep. This is why coffee keeps us awake (and decaf doesn’t). This is also a possible reason coffee helps alleviate some migraines.
What’s more, we also know a few of the mechanisms of action for coffee. That means we know exactly why the drink provides these benefits. One of them involves a pathway where coffee directly unlocks antioxidants from our cells. That means we can better fight those free radicals and lower inflammation.
Adding these superfoods is a much better way to get all their benefits without overhyped powders and pills. There are plenty of others we can add as well, like olive oil and leafy greens. Thanks for asking us about these, C.M., and let us know if there’s anything else we can answer in a future essay. Shoot us an e-mail at [email protected].
What We’re Reading…
- Real Simple has a list of some unusual superfoods.
- Something different: What it’s like mining in an active volcano.
Here’s to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
August 28, 2018