Superfoods–Super Confusing?

Is it my imagination or do we hear about a new ‘Superfood’ what seems like every single day?

They are everywhere. Goji berries. Chia seeds. Blueberries. Pomegranates. The label of superfood is marketed as a magical panacea, which will cure disease, improve vitality, ensure better skin and a younger look.

The word “superfood” hit the nutritional scene somewhere around the 1990s. The term was a catchall term used to describe foods heavy in nutrients: antioxidants (thought to fight off cancer), healthy fats (thought to prevent heart disease) and fiber (thought to prevent diabetes and various digestive ailments).

iStock_000014557480_Small_modAnd while the definition of a superfood remains rather vague, the list of famous superfoods is very long. It includes blueberries, kiwifruit, pomegranates, acai-berries, beans and whole grains, nuts and seeds, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, sweet potatoes, squash, salmon, sardines and mackerel.

Frankly, it’s confusing. All this talk about Superfoods (and the never ending addition to the list of ‘must have’ Superfoods) leaves us all scratching our heads, wondering if we are ‘missing out’. Even many of us who are devotees to a whole food plant-based diet worry that we aren’t getting ‘enough’ antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that the Superfood is so famous for.

Marketing Hype Versus Scientific Truth

Truth be told, a “superfood” is more of a marketing device than a real scientific term.

Superfoods sell.

The Superfood marketing tradition arguably began all the way back in the 1950s when the world’s first superfood—spinach—was made famous by Popeye the Sailor Man who inhaled great quantities of the green stuff for strength.Closeup of assorted fresh berries isolated on white background

Another example was the blueberry bubble; sales went through the roof when claims for the berries’ ‘super’ ability to protect your heart and improve your skin went public.

Powders, oils, vitamins and supplements have been endlessly peddled to a public eager to get super nutrients and their super healthy, super sexy benefits.

What People Have Got Wrong About Superfoods

There are several misconceptions about Superfoods:

Misconception #1

If ‘some’ superfood is good, then more must be better. This is simply not true. The reality is that eating more of any nutrient doesn’t guarantee our bodies will absorb or use it. Nutrients eaten and nutrients utilized are two totally different measures. The body uses what it needs at any given time. So if you’re loading up on vitamin C-rich berries, but your body doesn’t need more vitamin C, the body won’t uptake the excess – it will simply be excreted.

Furthermore, just because a food is packed with nutrients that might protect you from certain diseases, that doesn’t mean that it is always good to have more. Let’s look at the example of nuts. Nuts are considered ‘heart healthy’. However they are also super high in fat and being overweight is definitely not heart healthy.

Misconception #2Photo of a wire shopping basket full of fresh fruit and vegetables, isolated on a white background.

The Superfood craze is based on the idea that one food can ‘fix’ everything. However, your overall health (or longevity) shouldn’t be based on one food but on the totality of what you eat (and how you live). In other words, one super food will not magically transform a bad diet and lifestyle into a healthy one.

One of the biggest issues with Superfoods is it focuses only on the strengths of specific individual nutrients in specific individual foods. Our goal should always be on eating a variety of food. For example, we shouldn’t just be eating kale; we should be eating a variety of green leafy veggies. Equally, we shouldn’t just be eating green leafy veggies, but a variety of vegetables.

Misconception #3

Superfoods are ‘good’ because they have one single benefit. The truth is we must consider all foods in their nutritional entirety– from fat content and calorie density to the presence of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants. Even if some evidence shows that some nutrients have beneficial effects, it can’t be viewed in isolation. So if you have a superfood that has been processed into an oil or powder and robbed of many of its other qualities that it enjoys in its whole food original state, you are losing out big time.

All Whole, Plant-Based Foods Are Super

Bottom line? All you really need to do to get your superfood satiation is to eat a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds and mix in lots of color. You’ll supercharge your nutrition without having to chase the latest hyped-up “superfood.”

In keeping with that idea, I’d like to close with Jeff Novick’s brilliant list of The Top 10 Super Foods: