Go back twenty years and the word was not even used; we knew some foods were better for us than others and tried to eat a balanced diet as best we could. However, fast forward to 2013 and you can’t open a women’s magazine without there being a mention of superfoods. So what are they?
Simply put, they are foods that are particularly rich in nutrients, which as a result could have specific health benefits. They might be a concentrated source of essential fatty acids, a vitamin, mineral or other plant nutrient known to have health-giving properties; the benefit could relate to heart health, reducing cancer risk or improving mental function – it really does vary.
However, a little caution should be taken before you start eating blueberries, carrots and salmon like there’s no tomorrow:
- While including these foods as part of your diet will provide you with a good helping of nutrients, it’s important to remember that it will do little good if the rest of what you eat isn’t particularly nourishing, as a wide range of foods should be included to maintain a healthy body; as the saying goes, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”.
- The nutrients aren’t exclusive to these superfoods; they are just found in higher amounts. Your body can still receive everything that it requires for optimum health without a single exotic or expensive superfood passing through your lips.
- It is also important to bear in mind that some of the benefits are often exaggerated when they are reported, with newspapers and magazines failing to tell us that sometimes they are based on studies in animals using mega-doses.
- Additionally, you can have too much of a good thing, which is shown very well by oily fish such as salmon. There are guidelines in place that encourage us not to eat more than two or four portions of these a week depending on our circumstances – for young women it is two weekly due to the potential that a high dose of mercury or other chemicals contained within these fish could harm a developing baby. It is also the case that the body is only able to use so much of a nutrient and does not always have the facilities to store excess – as is the case with vitamin C and the B vitamins – and will simply excrete what it doesn’t use; so you could literally be flushing money down the drain.
- Broccoli: Packed with vitamin C and folate – both thought to be beneficial for heart health – lutein to help protect your eyes from age-related macular degeneration, as well as sulphoraphane, which studies in the lab have shown to have anti-cancer effects.
- Olive oil: Rich in mono-unsaturates – the best type of fat for optimum cholesterol lowering – and antioxidants, which are linked with lowering heart disease and cancer risk, this is the main oil used in the Mediterranean diet. However, still watch how much you use, as it’s still as high in calories as butter!
- Tea: Our favourite drink is rich in catechins, antioxidants that may protect the walls of the arteries against the damage that leads to heart disease. It counts as part of our fluid intake, so drink up; unless you are pregnant, in which case limit it to three cups daily due to its caffeine content.
- Apples: They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Back when the phrase was coined they didn’t know about their pectin content, a type of soluble fibre that has been linked to lowering cholesterol, or their low glycaemic index (aiding weight and blood sugar control), that make apples a great choice from the fruit bowl.
- Beans: As with apples, these are rich in soluble fibre, but their insoluble fibre also provides other benefits; in the large intestine this is broken down by bacteria that form acids, which are thought to protect against the development of cancerous cells. Although baked beans do have added salt and sugar, they still aren’t a bad bet; though in their natural state as haricot beans or any other, they make an even better choice.
- Oats: Your bowl of warming morning porridge has a lot going for it – soluble fibre, low glycaemic index, as well as a useful helping of B vitamins and minerals including iron, magnesium and manganese (the latter might not be well known, but plays a role in bone health and is a component of enzymes involved in metabolism and antioxidant activity).
- Tomatoes: Lycopene is a word that’s often banded about and while it’s men who seem to gain the most benefit from this antioxidant to maintain prostate health, it is also thought to protect against heart disease.
- Wholegrains: Whether you eat wholemeal bread, Weetabix or wholewheat pasta, all are sources of wholegrains. Within these you receive all three parts of the grain, so along with fibre, you receive more vitamins and minerals than you do with the processed white versions, packing a greater nutritional punch.
- Bio-yoghurt: As early as the 1950’s yoghurt with cultures of bacteria in it was sold as a health food; these help to top up those naturally occurring in your intestines. Although it has been suggested that an adequate population of these bacteria in your gut can help to strengthen your immune system, research seems to suggest that regular consumption of probiotic bacteria can help to shorten the course of diarrhoea, may help in IBS and crohn’s disease and in the prevention of water or yeast infections. If you are taking a course of antibiotics, daily bio-yoghurt during and for a fortnight afterwards may help to prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhoea, as these kill of the helpful as well as the disease-causing bacteria.
- Fish: It’s no surprise that fish is referred to as brain food thanks to the omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish and shellfish, which play a role in brain development and may help to protect against dementia; they are also well known for a role in heart health.
Don’t get bogged down with aiming to eat the latest superfood. Choose a wide variety of foods to ensure a balanced diet and you’re already doing a lot for your health.
Attribution: Photo by Socrates1983 via Wikimedia Commons