Kale, chia seeds, berries… Most of us have heard these and other foods called “Superfoods,” making them sound pretty sexy, and also making us more likely to spend the cash on them. But what exactly are superfoods? What makes some foods super but not others? Are the boasted benefits of these superfoods actually legit?
First things first, superfoods are as defined by Merriam-Webster is, “a food (such as salmon, broccoli, or blueberries) that is rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fiber, or fatty acids) considered beneficial to a person’s health.”
According to this definition, any food containing “high amounts” of “benefit X” that can aid human health can be called a superfood. This definition leaves quite a bit open to interpretation.
The term “superfood” has been popularized by many blogs, cookbooks, and other media outlets, and has likely made food/beverage/supplement companies quite a bit of money.
So are any superfoods truly worthy of their title? In an attempt to debunk some of the superfood claims, I’ve researched several popular so-called superfoods to try and find clear evidence as to whether or not we should be spending our time and money to consume more of them. (For Further Free Nutritional Reading on How To Optimize Your Nutritional Plan and Eating – Click Here)
I think nearly 100% of scientists would agree that vegetables are good for your overall health, but what sets kale apart as a notorious superfood? One reason is the nutrient density of kale. Just one cup (about 67g of chopped kale) contains over 100% of the recommended daily amount of Vitamin C and Vitamin A, not to mention a variety of other vitamins and minerals including B6, calcium, and iron. Kale is low in fat and carbs, while containing protein and fiber to keep you satiated.
Kale also contains various phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are chemicals produced by plants to help them survive and thrive. Many phytochemicals are said to have positive effects on human health, but are currently being researched to absolutely determine their role in the human body. One type of phytochemical found in kale is glucosinolate, which is broken down into sulforaphane and has the potential to help treat cancers and other diseases.1 Another phytochemical in kale is isothiocyanate, which may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.2 Until more research is done, the only thing we can be positive of is that kale is a rare protein-containing vegetable that is also rich in micronutrients.
Blueberries were one of the first foods to earn the title of a superfood.3 One reason blueberries are considered a superfood is because of their color. The anthocyanin that give these berries their blue-red color has been linked to less wrinkles, better cognitive function, and increased levels of dopamine. That’s quite the resume!
The anthocyanin is also the main reason why blueberries (and other dark berries like acai) are high in antioxidants.4 Antioxidants, like Vitamin C, help prevent oxidation in the body and fight the presence free radicals, lessening the chance for damage to our cells. Studies have found anthocyanin to be highest in fresh blueberries so be sure to load up on this candy from Mother Nature from April through September, when North America is harvesting and the berries are freshest (for those living in the US). Thanks to conclusive research on the antioxidant profile of blueberries, we can safely say they are a berry worth tossing into your smoothies or topping your bowls of oatmeal!
I have recently started seeing bee pollen pop up as a superfood marketed as an energy booster, allergy treatment, and even as a complete protein! Bee pollen can be found as small pellets in jars, collected by the beekeepers with sticky pollen traps that knock some of the pellets from the bees’ legs as they enter their hive. The pollen is a mix of flower pollens, honey, and nectar.
Bee pollen is almost 25% protein and is an extremely bioavailable complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids. It also has been proven to act as an anti-allergenic. If you take too much bee pollen it’s possible you could have an allergic reaction, but if you start small with a low dose of a few granules each day and work your way up, the pollen may help alleviate some of your allergy symptoms.5
There are claims that bee pollen can improve athletic performance and boost energy, but don’t swap out your pre-workout with a jar of pollen just yet. Although being a great source of vitamins, minerals, and proteins, there is no evidence supporting the claim that bee pollen helps boost strength, endurance, or energy levels. Studies are inconclusive whether or not bee pollen can aid your immune system or act as an anti-inflammatory in humans, but it might be worth adding a few granules to your tea next time you’ve got the sniffles!
I once heard a health guru on the radio say that if you’re going to eat any one food for the rest of your life it should be salmon. I like wild Alaskan salmon as much as the next girl, but that would be a whole lot of fish. Since eating salmon has been linked to heart and brain health, two pretty important organs, it’s easy to see why you might want to add this superfood to your diet.
Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and wild caught sockeye salmon (one of many varieties of salmon) contains over 16g protein per 3 oz serving. The same serving also contains over twice the recommended daily intake of DHA, a type of omega-3 found in salmon. DHA has been linked to maintaining healthy brain function and reductions in heart disease.6 Furthermore, a study by Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences reported wild and farmed salmon to have levels of mercury well below the “safe” standard, meaning heavy metal contaminants should not be a concern with this type of fish.7
Based on the nutrition data and recent studies on wild and farmed salmon, this fish might be one of the most “super” animal products and worthy a spot on your weekly menu.
The ‘food of ancient civilizations,’ chia has been consumed by humans since as early as the Aztecs but only in the past decade re-emerged as a “superfood.” Chia seeds can be consumed raw, ground, or soaked. When soaked, they create a gelatinous substance that has become very popular in overnight oats/pudding recipes. But what makes chia more super than, say, flax or or other seeds?
One ounce of chia contains 11g fiber, 4g protein, a variety of vitamins and minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. One omega-3 fatty acid found in chia seeds is alpha linolenic acid (ALA).8 ALA is an essential fatty acid, meaning our body can’t synthesize it and we must consume it in our diet. ALA is not the same as EPA and DHA, which we get from fish oil, but is instead a plant source of omega-3s and has been shown to benefit our cardiovascular system.9 The Western diet is very high in omega-6 oils (pro-inflammatory i.e. soybean and sunflower oils) and typically lacking in omega-3s (anti-inflammatory). With chronic inflammation being a leading cause of disease today, consuming foods like chia seeds may help to balance out that ratio and decrease inflammation. It’s clear chia seeds have excellent nutritional quality and would be an easy way to add some fiber to your diet as well as helping to balance your ratio of omega 6s to omega 3s.
After analysis of these various proclaimed superfoods, it’s safe to say that although we all would love for certain foods to be a magical cure-all, no such food exists today. However, science has proven to us that many berries, dark leafy greens, and some animal products have a variety of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients that help our body function at its best.
Giving foods the title of being “super” has allowed the food and beverage industry to make a variety of products with a sexy label and only partially substantiated claims. If you don’t want to spend the cash on the newest & trendiest superfood bar/smoothie/serum, stick to consistently eating whole foods, a mix of veggies, fruits, and animal products, all of which come from an ethical source. I urge you to try and maintain a relationship with where your food is coming from and what exactly is in it, super or not.
At Boom Boom Performance, we suggest keeping a checklist of the “must-have” nutrients so that you can check items off as you plan out your nutrition and set yourself up for a nutrient-packed day.
Here’s a breakdown of what we suggest:
⊗ Source of Omega-3
⊗ 2-4 Servings of Greens
⊗ 1-2 Servings of Fruit
⊗ Protein Variety (more than one source each day)
⊗ Water Intake
⊗ Sodium (preferably Himalayan or iodized)
If you focus on checking off the items on this list, rather than solely focusing on your macros, you can be sure that you’re covering your bases when it comes to health and any alleged benefits that “superfoods” may provide.
This is a guest blog written by Caroline Ofenstein. Caroline is Certified With Precision Nutrition Coach, NCI, CrossFit, and also a Boom-Boom Performance Nutrition Coach. Caroline is our go-to source for CrossFit Nutrition AND bridging the gap between Aesthetics and Performance, which is where she has recently pushed her focus into learning exactly how you can achieve both performance and the lean physique we all strive for.
Sources & Further Reading