Does the word “superfood” sound like hype? Are superfoods yet another food fad, or a beacon of hope for fighting disease and chronic illness?
It’s long been my belief that I can positively (or negatively) affect my health by my food choices, so investigating the best way to eat in the face of any health issue is second nature. This strategy has worked well for me, with the side benefit of moving me solidly onto a plant-based, whole foods diet. The quest for the perfect, healthy diet is never-ending, of course, and must be balanced with the equally important goal of taking pleasure from eating food and sharing it with others. When I periodically abandon my own guidelines for a healthy diet, I notice a difference in my emotional and physical wellbeing.
We truly are what we eat.
Light in calories and dense in nutrients, superfoods provide compounds that our bodies can’t make by themselves. They provide important minerals that may be lacking in vegetables grown in our mineral depleted soils. Superfoods are foods that pack a nutritional punch and are worth including in a healthy diet, especially for those of us facing health concerns like arthritis, high cholesterol or high blood pressure.
Superfoods are known to:
- help to prevent cancer
- prevent inflammation
- lower blood pressure
- help to prevent heart disease
- lower cholesterol
- burn fat
- aid in digestion
In an effort to stay true to my goal of using what I have and sourcing foods locally whenever possible, I came up with a short list of superfoods to be sure to include in my diet. A few on the list, although easily available, come from far away, but I’m putting aside for now the more exotic or tropical superfoods like acai berry, papaya and pineapple.
My Top 20 Superfoods for Super Health
- Alliums, including garlic, onions and leeks, lower blood pressure and cholesterol and prevent certain kinds of cancer, like colon and stomach cancer. They are also natural antibiotics—sucking on a clove of raw garlic when a sore throat is coming on may provide a quick cure, even if it does cause your loved ones to back off for a day or two.
- Beans pack a lot of nutrition into a little package. They are low in fat, high in protein and contain high amounts of phytonutrients, B vitamins, potassium, magnesium and folate. They provide lots of valuable fiber, important for good digestion and carrying toxins out of the body.
- Blueberries, aside from taking up at least half of my freezer right now, are the superstar of antioxidants. Antioxidants combat the damage done in the body by inflammation. Blueberries also may be effective in fighting diabetes and may prevent damage to the heart muscle.
- Beets contain the disease-fighting phytonutrient betacyanin, and are rich in folate, which protects against colon cancer and osteoporosis. They contain high amounts of fiber and beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A.
- Cinnamon is a powerful antioxidant and also has a positive effect on blood glucose levels; sprinkling it liberally on a sliced apple after lunch might just keep you satisfied through the afternoon doldrums.
- Cruciferous vegetables, like cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts (my favorite) are rich in the powerful antioxidant vitamin C, soluble fiber and compounds like sulforophane, which are known to prevent cancer.
- Dark chocolate, high in both antioxidants and flavanoids, is an impressive superfood. In moderation, it’s not a guilty indulgence at all. Dark chocolate has the ability to improve memory, improve blood flow and suppress coughs. Alas, for me, it also triggers migraines; I include this one as my gift to migraine-free readers.
- Flaxseed is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation, speed up metabolism, decrease triglyceride levels and reduce blood pressure. I was lucky to find some freshly harvested flaxseed from Vermont, and I grind it as I need it to include in green smoothies, on oatmeal and sprinkled on salads.
- Ginger boosts the metabolism, aids in digestion and is great for nausea. Try nibbling on the little bits of candied ginger you can find in the health food store the next time you have an upset stomach. Ginger has anti-inflammatory properties and is reported to be effective in treating rheumatoid arthritis. With its natural anti-viral properties, ginger is useful in fighting the common cold. (I’ll soon be mixing up a batch of elderberry syrup with echinacea and ginger to have on hand this winter—more on that later.)
- Green tea is rich in antioxidants and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) that prevents damage to the heart muscle. The comparatively small amount of caffeine in a cup of green tea (32 mg) is a gently stimulating way to start the day. Healthy, too.
- Horseradish, a good source of vitamin C, potassium and calcium, also contains a compound called gluconsinolate, which kills bacteria and fights cancer.
- Miso, fermented soybean paste, is a richly nutritious and low-calorie food, containing two grams of protein in a 25 calorie serving. It is rich in zinc, which strengthens the immune system, as well as vitamin B12, which plays an important role in the functioning of the brain and the nervous system.
- Raw honey contains the natural compound propolis, which bees produce to protect the hive against infection. Bee propolis is a natural antibiotic and antiviral, as well as an immune system booster. Raw honey produced locally, from bees collecting pollen on native, local plants, can strengthen the body’s ability to fight seasonal allergies.
- Oats, best eaten as rolled oats or, even better, slow-cooked steel-cut oats, are rich in protein, essential fatty acids and B vitamins. Oats have a low glycemic index, so they release sugar into the bloodstream very slowly (the thicker and more hearty the oats, the lower the glycemic index) and can help to prevent diabetes. Oats are loaded with soluble fiber and make a healthy, satisfying breakfast.
- Oregano, a big surprise on the superfood list, is an antioxidant that can improve digestion and clear congestion. Just a half a teaspoon has the nutrient value of a spinach salad. Lucky for me, I have an abundant supply just fifteen steps from my door.
- Seaweed combines all the benefits of leafy green vegetables with the bonus of being rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Vegetarians need not worry about missing out on the nutrition of nutrient-rich fish like salmon; we can just eat the plants that provide these nutrients in the first place.
- Sesame seeds contain unique plant lignans like sesamin and sesamolin, which lower cholesterol. They’re a great source of calcium and are rich in copper, phosphorus and zinc (important for the immune system), as well.
- Spinach and other dark, leafy greens like kale and Swiss chard are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and lutein, an antioxidant that’s critical for eye health.
- Walnuts contain alpha-linolenic omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation in the arteries and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. They’re also rich in antioxidants, magnesium and selenium.
- Yogurt (real yogurt, that is) is rich in natural probiotics, important for the health of the digestive tract. So many health problems connect back to poorly functioning digestion; if the digestive tract is healthy, the body will be able to process and absorb the vital nutrients from all the good foods you eat. One of the natural probiotics in yogurt, lactobacillus casei, boosts the body’s immune response.
Of course, there are more. Choosing foods thoughtfully, and considering carefully their nutritional contribution to overall health, is an ongoing process for most of us. I believe in incorporating foods into my diet that I like to eat and know are healthy for me. If loading my diet with the healthiest of those foods—the “superfoods”—will continue to have a positive impact on my health, I’ll continue to do it. In a world where it can often feel like we have little control, eating a healthy diet is one way to feel empowered. I’ll continue to build my personal list of superfoods, looking mostly toward the vegetables, fruits and herbs that grow in my garden and arrive in my CSA share, with a few special choices from further away.
The concept of superfoods continues to evolve. The term itself has no legal definition, so be wary of the processed foods that are popping up in grocery store aisles boasting “superfood” powers on the box. In my opinion, we’re better off eating all foods whole and organic—superfoods included—prepared with care in our own kitchens.
What foods are on your personal superfoods list?