Lately, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about “superfoods”. A quick Google search of the term will lead you to a range of websites and topics. You can learn about Dr. Perricone’s Superfoods from Oprah.com. You’ll be enticed by advertisements to buy chlorella, a blue-green algae referred to as “Nature’s Perfect Superfood”. You’ll find information on superfoods from reputable and not-so-reputable sources.
Folks such as WebMD and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which are reputable, are tapping into the superfoods craze. They offer information on “‘Superfoods’ Everyone Needs” and “10 Superfoods for Better Health!” On the not-so-reputable side are the multiple (and questionable) potions and elixirs making unrealistic promises. They offer to deliver the benefits of superfoods quickly and easily…without actually having to eat food.
But what is this superfoods craze all about? And what can you take away from all of the superfoods hype?
From Superfoods to Superdiet
The idea of “superfoods” often begins with interest in certain foods that only are found in a few specific cultures or regions of the world. Soy foods are an example of one of the first so-called “superfoods”. Traditional soy foods, such as tofu, tempeh, and miso, originally were consumed in far east Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea. In these areas, soy has been eaten for thousands of years.
These regions and countries also happen to enjoy some of the lowest levels of chronic disease in the world. Rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, and more are a fraction of what they are in the United States and other western countries.
Soy foods are one obvious dietary difference between Asia and many western countries. This led people to suspect that soy foods were “special” or “super” in their ability to prevent disease. This might seem like a logical conclusion. Many Asian cultures consume soy foods. Many Asian cultures enjoy very low disease rates. Therefore, soy foods must prevent disease.
Traditional Asian soy foods can be part of a healthy diet. It is true that these foods contain an abundance of phytonutrients (plant nutrients) too. And medical research does support the disease-preventive properties of whole soy foods.
However, it is not true that soy and soy alone is responsible for the superior health and longevity found in several Asian countries. There are so many differences, dietary and otherwise, between Asian and western cultures. To chalk up low disease rates to soy alone would be a mistake.
Asians tend to be thinner. They often get more exercise, more sleep, and less fat in the diet than Americans. They may have better social and extended family networks and less stress in their lives. They eat less processed food and more vegetables. They consume plants that are never or rarely eaten in western cultures, such as seaweed. All of these things (and more) likely contribute to the low disease rates seen in many parts of Asia.
All of this points to something obvious that we often forget in our excitement over superfoods: no one food is the answer to good health. The truth is that many other dietary factors contribute to good health. The bottom line is that there really are no such things as superfoods. Instead, we should be trying to figure out what makes up a superdiet.
Putting the “Super” in Your Diet
The example of soy as a superfood is one of many. The foods that top the “superfoods” lists you may have seen likely have similar stories. From acai (ah-sigh-ee) and goji berries to maca root and green tea, everyone has an example of their favorite superfood. They can point to the food, and the superior health enjoyed by the culture that consumes it. This is given as proof that this food is “super” or truly special.
However, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that the entire diet of these cultures is key to the positive health benefits observed. Olive oil, consumed as part of the Mediterranean diet, often is touted as a path to good health. But beyond olive oil you’ll find fish, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruit, moderate amounts of red wine, lower body weights, less red meat, and other factors that are part of the good health picture.
To sum it all up, we need to focus on eating a super diet, rather than the superfood of the moment. What does a super diet look like? Think plants. Above all else, science supports that a plant-based diet is the key to good health and lower rates of disease. Plant-based doesn’t have to mean vegetarian, although that’s fine if you prefer it. Plant-based simply means that the bulk of your calories come from unrefined and minimally processed, whole foods.
Planning Your Plate
If you’ve read any of my previous writings on diet and health, what comes next will sound familiar. The best way to use nutrition to lower your own risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease, is to start with your plate.
In your mind, divide a typical round plate into four pie-shaped wedges. Three of those four wedges should be filled with vegetables (the biggest portions), fruit (a bit less than the veggies), and whole grains (no more than one serving per meal or snack). The last wedge should be devoted to lean protein, such as beans, fish, chicken, or lean beef.
In addition to these steps, you’ll want to focus on variety. Again, remember that no one food is “super enough” to provide the complete mix of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients necessary for good health. Instead, you want to tap into the healing power of as many whole plant foods as you can.
Eat green, yellow, red, purple, blue, and orange foods. Try kale, chard, and kiwi (green); pineapples, bananas, and corn (yellow); apples, strawberries, raspberries, red beans, beets, and tomatoes (red); plums, blackberries, blueberries, raisins, and eggplant (purple); and carrots, oranges, sweet potatoes, and melon (orange). These are just a few of the dozens of brightly colored foods that you’ll need if you want to eat a super diet.
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