Superfoods aren’t just the trendy ones you’re hearing about. If you’re eating plenty of plant foods, you’re eating superfoods.
Keeping track of the latest “superfood” is a lot like trying to stay up on fashion trends. One minute it’s in, and the next it’s out. The superfoods of last year, like kale and quinoa, are gradually being nudged aside by trendy maqui berries or fonio grain. But what makes a food a superfood? And why do we keep coming up with new ones? Are this year’s superfoods more super than last year’s?
When I hear the word superfoods, I can’t help but think of superheroes. The term implies that these foods have nutritional powers beyond those of more ordinary foods. But there’s no true definition for a superfood. It’s simply a word that’s used to tout the health-promoting properties of foods that are nutrient-packed.
For the most part, the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat are plant foods. These offer up an abundance of vitamins, minerals and fiber as well as phytonutrients—many of which act as antioxidants. If you eat a plant-rich diet, you’re probably already eating plenty of foods that could be considered superfoods—even if they’re not as exotic as mangosteen fruit or cacao nibs.
Most lists of the top superfoods look very similar. Plant foods in the form of berries, leafy greens and nuts top nearly every list. Fatty fish is often included, too. It’s just that a specific cast of characters changes from year to year. Collard greens are reportedly the new kale, and teff may be next year’s quinoa.
Food trends are no different than any other trend. We seem to be always on the lookout for something new and unusual. And perhaps in the case of superfoods, for a food that might even be more super than the one before it.
Many superfoods are plant foods that are touted for their abundance of phytonutrients, many of which act as antioxidants and are thought to promote health. It seems as if we’re constantly on the lookout for the latest superfood—one that packs a bigger antioxidant wallop than the previous one.
I think it might be a mistake to focus on a specific property of a food, such as its antioxidant properties. Most plant foods are super in their own right: they’re incredibly complex with unique blends of vitamins, minerals and, yes, phytonutrients.
While it’s true that many of these phytonutrients do act as antioxidants in the body, there’s a good possibility that phytonutrients support health in other ways, too. But there are just too many phytonutrients in foods and not enough time to study them all.
With literally thousands of potentially beneficial compounds in plant foods, we may never know how each and every one might promote health.
So, when a food has been subject to clinical research and shown to have potential health benefit (like blueberries or pomegranate), it might be dubbed a superfood. That’s often at the exclusion of others that may be equally good for us. In other words, if we favor specific foods because they’re “super,” we might be ignoring other foods that are equally “super”—just in a different way.
I had a patient many years ago who ate like this. He embraced every new superfood trend. He made sure that his diet included each and every one every day, in the precise amounts that were reported in the research to give the most benefit.
At that time, oatmeal, blueberries, spinach and almonds were some of the super foods of the moment. He believed so strongly in the power of these foods that he wouldn’t make any substitutions. But the truth is he could have substituted other whole grains, fruits, leafy greens and nuts and had an equally “super” diet.
Sure, blueberries are good for you. But other berries are, too. Each variety has its own unique set of phytonutrients that may benefit your body in ways that blueberries might not. There’s no question that kale is nutrient-packed, but so are turnip greens, mustard greens, Swiss chard and plain old spinach. Sweet potatoes are great. But other orange veggies like carrots, pumpkin or winter squash have their own virtues, too.
One thing that food trends can do is to introduce you to new foods you might not have tried before. So, if you do get caught up in the latest superfood trend, add it to the foods you’re already eating, rather than excluding all others.