There's a good chance you've read the term "superfood" on packaging or heard the word used to describe menu items and diet supplements. But what does superfood really mean? There are no official guidelines in place for classifying superfoods, but there are a number of foods that are generally agreed to be super (highly nutritious).
What Are Superfoods?
Superfoods are nutritionally dense whole foods (they provide as much nutrition as possible in the least amount of calories possible) that are high in beneficial antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. The term superfood is a buzzword, often avoided by nutritionists since it implies that the food in question has superpowers that will cure whatever ails you. However, nutritionists agree that the foods typically included in the superfood category have many health benefits and are part of a healthy diet.
While superfoods aren't a cure-all, they do contain more nutrition than your average food. Eating a diet full of healthy foods is linked to many health benefits and a decreased risk of chronic disease.
A wide range of foods are heralded as superfoods, with some more readily available than others. This list includes items that are easy to find and generally agreed upon to be worthy of the title superfood.
Naturally sweet, colorful berries are high in fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals called flavonoids, which may help in immune response and fighting cancer. Blueberries are popularly cited as a superfood since they are high in manganese and vitamin K, but other berries like açaí, cranberries, raspberries, and goji berries are also worthy of superfood status. Enjoy them fresh or, when out of season, frozen.
Dark greens like collard greens, kale, Swiss chard, and spinach are rich in vitamins A, C, and K, and are a good source of fiber, magnesium, calcium, and iron. They're low in calories and, pound for pound, hard to beat for their nutrition. Include them in your diet raw in salads and smoothies or cooked in a variety of dishes.
Salmon, sardines, and mackerel are a good source of protein and are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. While these fish are a healthy addition to your diet, be mindful that they can contain high levels of mercury. Fish further down the food chain, such as sardines, tend to contain less mercury than fish higher up, like mackerel.
Nuts, especially walnuts and almonds, are a good source of plant protein and are high in monosaturated fats, which may help reduce the risk of heart disease. However, they are high in calories, so moderation is key. A handful for a snack will provide more nutrition and curb your appetite better than a handful of chips.
Broccoli and Cabbage
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage are a great source of heart-healthy fiber as well as vitamins A, C, and K. They also contain phytochemicals that may help prevent certain types of cancer. Enjoy the crunchy veggies raw or gently cooked.
A healthy source of protein and calcium, yogurt also boosts probiotics that are thought to improve gut health. Avoid the sweetened, flavored varieties, and opt for plain, organic yogurt or kefir that contains live and active cultures. Yogurt can be used as a healthy swap for mayonnaise and sour cream as well as enjoyed in smoothies, with granola, and more.
From chickpeas to kidney to soybeans, legumes are an excellent source of low-fat plant protein, fiber, iron, and folate. They also contain manganese, a trace mineral that is essential for brain health. Beans keep you feeling full for longer, making them especially good at standing in for meat.
Whole grains are so named because they are left "whole" instead of being stripped of their fiber-rich bran, making them much healthier than their refined counterparts. They're a good source of B vitamins and have been shown to lower bad cholesterol. Whole wheat flour, brown rice, oats, buckwheat, rye, spelt, and whole barley are examples. Quinoa is often lumped into this category for its health properties even though it is a seed and not a grain.
Flaxseed and chia seeds are often included in health food products and recipes. Flaxseed is one of the best vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids and is also a good source of fiber and antioxidants. You can best absorb the nutrients from flax when it is ground; try adding it to baked goods and smoothies. Chia seeds contain all nine amino acids and can be sprinkled on a variety of dishes or used to make vegan pudding.
Tomatoes are high in vitamin C and beta carotene as well as lycopene, a powerful antioxidant. Cooking and processing tomatoes increases the body's ability to absorb its lycopene but decreases the effectiveness of other vitamins and minerals, so enjoy a mixture of raw and cooked tomatoes in your diet.
Other foods that are often associated with the word superfood include red wine, dark chocolate, green tea, and more. Red wine (when consumed in moderation) and green tea are loaded with antioxidants that may have health benefits. Dark chocolate and cocoa are also high in antioxidants, but stick to the high cocoa percentage since too much sugar can counteract chocolate's benefits.
Incorporating Superfoods Into Your Diet
Superfoods provide a range of benefits, but focusing on one or two foods is never a healthy decision. The key to capturing the benefits of these foods is to eat a range of whole foods, creating a well-balanced and healthy diet. Focusing on plant-based foods and consuming a proper mixture of protein, fat, fiber, and vitamins is incredibly beneficial to your health.
Try replacing some foods known to be harmful to your diet with superfoods, like processed foods and red meat. Beans and small portions of fatty fish are a satisfying replacement for red meat, while a handful of nuts or roasted kale chips make a much healthier snack than processed foods. Swap white rice, refined pasta, and white flour for whole grains.
Since superfoods are items you're likely already familiar with and eating in some form, it's not hard to imagine adding more to your diet. Use these healthy recipes as a starting point when super-charging your meals:
- Roasted Salmon Fillets
- Mix and Match Granola
- Red Lentil and Tomato Soup
- Vegetable Chili
- Gluten-Free Flax and Almond Flour Muffins
- Vegan Broccoli and Tofu in Garlic Sauce
- Blueberry and Spinach Superfood Green Smoothie
- Kale and Cabbage Slaw With Mustard Vinaigrette
Wen, L., Jiang, Y., Yang, J., Zhao, Y., Tian, M., & Yang, B. (2017). Structure, bioactivity, and synthesis of methylated flavonoids. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1398(1), 120–129. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13350
Shahidi, F., & Ambigaipalan, P. (2018). Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Their Health Benefits. Annual review of food science and technology, 9, 345–381. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-food-111317-095850
Del Gobbo, L. C., Falk, M. C., Feldman, R., Lewis, K., & Mozaffarian, D. (2015). Effects of tree nuts on blood lipids, apolipoproteins, and blood pressure: systematic review, meta-analysis, and dose-response of 61 controlled intervention trials. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 102(6), 1347–1356. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.110965
Al-Ishaq, R. K., Overy, A. J., & Büsselberg, D. (2020). Phytochemicals and Gastrointestinal Cancer: Cellular Mechanisms and Effects to Change Cancer Progression. Biomolecules, 10(1), 105. https://doi.org/10.3390/biom10010105
Horning, K. J., Caito, S. W., Tipps, K. G., Bowman, A. B., & Aschner, M. (2015). Manganese Is Essential for Neuronal Health. Annual review of nutrition, 35, 71–108. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-nutr-071714-034419
Aune, D., Keum, N., Giovannucci, E., Fadnes, L. T., Boffetta, P., Greenwood, D. C., Tonstad, S., Vatten, L. J., Riboli, E., & Norat, T. (2016). Whole grain consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all cause and cause specific mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 353, i2716. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i2716