The word “superfood” gets thrown around more than a frisbee in a park full of hippies. This is a superfood, that is a superfood, you’re a superfood, I’m superfood. But what does it actually mean?
The term superfood has no standard or legal definition. In other words, you can technically call anything a superfood. Those week-old rotisserie hot dogs you walk by in the gas station could be considered a superfood (although the only thing they’re super at is giving you food poisoning). Actual superfood labels are most commonly seen on exotic fruits with hard to pronounce names, like acai, goji, pitaya, or soursop. This label is often accompanied by claims that suggest these foods confer unique or extraordinary health benefits. Are these claims legit?
Acai, goji berries, or any other exotic “superfood” fruits are, like any fruit, good for us. In fact, not consuming enough fruit is the largest dietary risk factor for disease on a global scale (1). So keep eating those acai bowls! The question is not whether these foods are healthy or not—they are. The question is whether these foods are healthier than the fruit you commonly see at the grocery store. And the answer to that is, not really. I would encourage you to try these exotic fruits if you want to, but know that you can be just as healthy eating less exotic fruit, such as apples, pears, and oranges, which are often much cheaper.
Calling something a superfood is more of a marketing strategy than a nutritional statement. But if there was an actual, evidence-based superfood label, there are some foods out there that would totally qualify. These evidence-based superfoods have been shown to be extremely health-promoting and should be consumed on a regular basis. Here are my top three evidence-based superfoods.
Berries: All edible berries are health promoting, including: blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, bilberries, and elderberries. Berries are rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, vitamin K, folate, fiber, and other phytochemicals (health-promoting nutrients found in plants). Consuming them is associated with a healthier body weight and lower risk of developing type-2 diabetes (2-4). Adding them to one’s diet has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve platelet function, reduce oxidative stress, lower triglycerides, and increase HDL (good) cholesterol while lowering LDL (bad) and total cholesterol, making them an extremely heart-healthy food (5-6). They contain nutrients that appear to protect our brain from cognitive decline (7-8). Books have (literally) been written on the role berries play in cancer prevention (9). But what’s really impressive, is that berries are capable of reversing precancerous lesions. Studies have shown that precancerous oral lesions can be reversed by using a topical gel containing black raspberries (10-11). Another study showed that ingesting a beverage containing freeze-dried strawberries for six months could reverse precancerous esophageal lesions (12). These results are extremely impressive and are a literal example of Hippocrates’ famous saying, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Dark Leafy Greens: Dark leafy green vegetables include: arugula, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, turnip greens, bok choy, dandelion greens, and watercress. These are some of the healthiest foods we can consume. They are jam-packed with beneficial nutrients that improve our health. These include: calcium, iron, vitamins A, C, and K, folate, potassium, fiber, and phytochemicals that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Frequent consumption of dark, leafy greens is associated with a lower risk of numerous cancers, including: breast, pancreatic, prostate, lung, skin, oral, and pharyngeal (13-19). They are rich in two carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, that appear to protect us from cognitive decline, and reduce our risk of glaucoma (20-23). Consuming greens may help prevent type-2 diabetes in overweight people, and, as with most vegetables, their consumption is associated with a lower cardiovascular risk (24-25). Popeye was right all along, spinach does make you healthier and stronger!
Legumes: Legumes include all beans (including soy), peas, and lentils (peanuts are technically a legume, but are nutritionally considered a nut). If you want to live longer and healthier, eat more legumes. They are a staple food in the diets of all the healthiest, longest-living populations in the world. In fact, a 2004 study found that legume consumption was the most important dietary predictor of survival in older people (26). There is strong and consistent evidence that legume consumption can help people lose weight and/or maintain a healthy weight (27-28). Their consumption is associated with a lower risk of type-2 diabetes, as well as a lower risk of developing numerous cancers, including: endometrial, breast, and colorectal (29-34). A diet rich in legumes can lower total and LDL cholesterol, and is associated with a significantly lower risk of heart attacks and heart disease (35-38). Adding legumes to your diet (especially in place of red meat), can drastically lower C-reactive protein (CRP) levels, which is a marker of inflammation (39-40).
Well there you have it, my top three evidence-based superfoods that should be consumed on a daily basis. Berries, greens, and legumes are true superfoods in disguise. You don’t have to venture through some exotic rainforest to find them; they are hiding in plain sight at your local grocery store or farmer’s market. They are the Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, and Peter Parker of the grocery store!
I chose these three foods because I feel they have the strongest/most evidence supporting their benefits. There are, however, numerous other foods that could have easily made this list and should get some recognition. My honorable mention superfood list, includes: mushrooms, turmeric, all spices and herbs, allium vegetables (onions, garlic, shallots, leeks), nuts, seeds, green tea, whole grains, orange-colored produce, and citrus fruit.
To help you start including more of these foods into your diet, check out the recipe section of this blog.
Live long and prosper!
- A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990-2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010.
- Current evidence on the health-beneficial effects of berry fruits in the prevention and treatment of metabolic syndrome
- Associations of dietary intakes of anthocyanins and berry fruits with risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies
- Changes in Intake of Fruits and Vegetables and Weight Change in United States Men and Women Followed for Up to 24 Years: Analysis from Three Prospective Cohort Studies
- One-month strawberry-rich anthocyanin supplementation ameliorates cardiovascular risk, oxidative stress markers and platelet activation in humans.
- Favorable effects of berry consumption on platelet function, blood pressure, and HDL cholesterol
- Dietary intake of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline
- Blueberries and Neuronal Aging
- Berries and Cancer Prevention
- Topical Application of a Bioadhesive Black Raspberry Gel Modulates Gene Expression and Reduces Cyclooxygenase 2 Protein in Human Premalignant Oral Lesions
- Effects of a Topically Applied Bioadhesive Berry Gel on Loss of Heterozygosity Indices in Premalignant Oral Lesions
- Randomized Phase II Trial of Lyophilized Strawberries in Patients with Dysplastic Precancerous Lesions of the Esophagus
- Fruit and Vegetable Intake in Relation to Risk of Breast Cancer in the Black Women’s Health Study
- Vegetable and Fruit Intake and Pancreatic Cancer in a Population-Based Case-Control Study in the San Francisco Bay Area
- Greater vegetable and fruit intake is associated with a lower risk of breast cancer among Chinese women
- Impact of Consumption of Vegetable, Fruit, Grain, and High Glycemic Index Foods on Aggressive Prostate Cancer Risk
- Vegetables, Fruit, and Lung Cancer in the Iowa Women’s Health Study
- Food intake and risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the skin in a community: the Nambour skin cancer cohort study.
- Dietary factors and second primary cancers: A follow‐up of oral and pharyngeal cancer patients
- A possible role for lutein and zeaxanthin in cognitive function in the elderly
- Relations to Cognitive Change with Age of Micronutrients Found in Green Leafy Vegetables
- The Association of Consumption of Fruits/Vegetables with Decreased Risk of Glaucoma among Older African American Women in the Study of Osteoporotic Fractures
- Glaucoma risk and the consumption of fruits and vegetables among older women in the study of osteoporotic fractures.
- A Prospective Study of Fruit and Vegetable Intake and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in Women
- Intake of vegetables rich in carotenoids and risk of coronary heart disease in men: The Physicians’ Health Study
- Legumes: the most important dietary predictor of survival in older people of different ethnicities
- Effects of dietary pulse consumption on body weight: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
- Effectiveness of legume consumption for facilitating weight loss: a randomized trial
- Legume and soy food intake and the incidence of type 2 diabetes in the Shanghai Women’s Health Study
- Legume consumption is inversely associated with type 2 diabetes incidence in adults: A prospective assessment from the PREDIMED study
- Association between Dietary Isoflavones in Soy and Legumes and Endometrial Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
- Dietary protein sources in early adulthood and breast cancer incidence: prospective cohort study
- Dietary legume consumption reduces risk of colorectal cancer: evidence from a meta-analysis of cohort studies
- Legume Consumption and Colorectal Adenoma Risk: A Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies
- Effect of Non-Soy Legume Consumption on Cholesterol Levels: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials
- Effects of legume consumption on serum cholesterol, biliary lipids, and sterol metabolism in humans.
- Legume Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in US Men and Women
- Consumption of nuts and legumes and risk of incident ischemic heart disease, stroke, and diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis
- Legume Consumption Is Inversely Associated with Serum Concentrations of Adhesion Molecules and Inflammatory Biomarkers among Iranian Women
- Non-soya legume-based therapeutic lifestyle change diet reduces inflammatory status in diabetic patients: a randomised cross-over clinical trial