Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, no! It’s a superfood. Just kidding…
Chances are, if you have ever attempted a diet or healthy eating, you have read or heard all about superfoods and why they should be a fixture in your plan.
The developed world has had a growing interest in food and health in recent years, and superfoods are at the crux of the movement. It seems like almost weekly a new superfood emerges that is the remedy to everything that ails you. You can find items labeled “superfood” in every aisle of the grocery store on anything from foods to beverages and supplements.
Since there is no clear definition on what a superfood actually is, there is also no legal standard for what counts as a true superfood.
The term “superfood” itself is under heavy fire from scientists who debate whether or not it is anything more than a popular buzzword in the food and health industry. However, with this being said, it is generally agreed upon that items considered “superfoods” are healthy and should be included in our diet.
But what makes a superfood… super?
Merriam-Webster defines a superfood as “a super nutrient-dense food, loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and/or phytonutrients”. For our purposes, we can think of superfoods as foods that have a higher nutrient content and offer greater health benefits than other foods.
Superfoods are mainly plant-based but also include some fish and dairy. Some foods commonly thought of as “super” include blueberries, leafy greens, salmon, kefir, kelp, flaxseed, and açaí, among others. Packed with antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and other nutrients, these superfoods help to make us healthier and live longer. And they’re not just for people, our pets can enjoy the benefits of superfoods as well.
According to the American Heart Association, there are no set criteria for determining what is and what is not a superfood, but there are certain foods and characteristics that are commonly associated with superfoods.
Antioxidants, for one, are a common trait of foods considered “super.” Antioxidants are found in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, coffee, tea, wine, and chocolate. Antioxidant compounds found in these foods include flavonols (found in chocolate), resveratrol (found in wine), and lycopene (found in tomatoes). Other popular antioxidants include vitamins A, C, E, and catechins.
Antioxidants help prevent or stop cell damage caused by oxidants. Thus the name, anti-oxidants. Free radicals (oxidants) are created naturally by your body and also come from outside sources like air pollution, cigarette smoke and alcohol. Too many oxidants in your body can cause certain cancers and heart disease, or diabetes. Here is a short list of superfoods that are high in antioxidants and other disease-fighting nutrients.
- Blueberries are one of the more popular and well-known superfoods, are mainly praised for their high antioxidant properties. Studies have shown that they can inhibit the growth of cancerous human colon cells, and can also prevent and reverse age-related memory decline in rats. They also are good foods for anyone with arthritis, as the antioxidants help with inflammation.
- The fruit pulp that comes from açaí berries has been shown to have potent antioxidant properties and studies on pomegranate juice have suggested that they can lower blood pressure in the short-term, as well as reduce oxidative stress, in healthy people. These are both significant risk factors for heart disease.
- Kiwifruit has recently risen to the top of many superfood lists and has similar benefits to other fruits rich in vitamin C and antioxidants. Kiwifruit is becoming more prominent because it contains a wider range of nutrients compared to some of its counterparts. Notably, kiwifruit contains serotonin, a hormone that helps induce and maintain sleep.
- Like kiwifruits, whole grains are rising in recent superfood lists. Whole grains, called “whole” because are not stripped of their nutrient-containing bran and germ during processing, have similar health benefits to beans, minus the high level of protein.
- Beetroot is another heart healthy superfood. The high levels of nitrate in beetroot are converted by the body into nitric oxide which, among other functions, has been shown to lower blood pressure and the tendency for blood clotting in humans.
- The high content of flavonoids in cocoa has similarly been claimed to cut the risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and increasing the elasticity of blood vessels.
- Salmon and other oily fish high in omega-3 fatty acids may prevent heart problems and also helps to alleviate joint pain experienced by those dealing with arthritis.
- Beans are a great source of low-fat protein and contain insoluble fiber, which helps to lower cholesterol and also soluble fiber, which helps you feel full, longer. They also give you a high dosage of nutrients which are often absent in the typical American diet, such as manganese.
- Though commonly mistaken as a grain because it cooks like one, quinoa is a great source of protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.
- Nuts and seeds contain high levels of minerals and healthy fats. The common demerit for nuts and seeds is that they are also high in calories, so portion control is key. A handful of some nuts could contain more than 100 calories, but will provide good energy and nutrients.
- Leafy greens like Kale live up to their hype as a superfood. These greens include Swiss chard, collards, mustards, spinach and cabbage. One could add broccoli to the list as well though the modern version is grown for its florets instead of leaves. These green veggies are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins A, C and K, as well as fiber, calcium and other minerals.
- Sweet potato and squash have similar benefits to leafy greens. Surprisingly, sweet potatoes actually contain 150 percent more antioxidants than blueberries. They are both also excellent sources of fiber, vitamin A and much more.
Arguments could be made for green tea, coffee, yogurt, olives and others to be added to the list as well.
It’s important to note that superfoods aren’t a cure-all on their own. They are beneficial when incorporated into a healthy balanced diet with lean protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat milk and dairy products. This diet should also include nuts, seeds and legumes, fish and liquid vegetable oils.
Myths about the foods can lead to unhealthy eating habits. People develop unrealistic expectations of superfoods, and will add one or two pieces of nutrient-dense food on top of a poor diet and expect results. They will not protect you from chronic diseases and health problems if you have an otherwise unhealthy diet.
Superfoods for your pets
Superfoods are great for your pets for many of the same reasons listed above. Some foods are better for some species than others, so be sure to consult with your veterinarian before introducing anything to your pet’s diet.
For your pets, superfoods high in antioxidants are thought to ward off cancer and arthritis. Healthy fats may prevent heart disease. Fiber is a useful against against diabetes and digestive problems.
Certain superfoods have anti-inflammatory properties that can help alleviate symptoms for dogs and cats. Superfoods like blueberries, spinach, kale, broccoli and sweet potatoes are bursting with antioxidants and can help reduce swelling. Not to mention they promote a healthy coat as well. Other fruits like apples, strawberries, and bananas are great for providing additional nutrients and can serve as healthy treats.
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are also great for dogs with joint issues. Omega-3’s are found mainly in fish, like salmon, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, halibut and herring, and also have proven anti-inflammatory effects. Many of these superfoods are included in leading dog and cat food varieties, but they are safe to be consumed on their own as well, if you prefer to prepare them yourself.
Since there is no legal definition for superfood, companies have to explain what it means to them for their products and ingredients. Otherwise, it can lead to false advertising claims. The explanation should communicate clearly the company’s definition to consumers and be found on the packaging or other marketing materials.
With the FDA cracking down on consumer education and people wanting to be more aware of what’s going into our bodies, brands with thorough information on their foods are becoming more trusted.
Superfoods for humans and pets
There are also several superfoods that are great for you to share with your pets! From blueberries and leafy greens to fish and sweet potatoes, check out our blog on Superfoods You and Your Pet Can Both Enjoy and start implementing them into your pet’s diet.
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What to look for at the store
Much of the controversy with superfoods stems from disease claims. A disease claim is a statement that claims to diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat or prevent a disease and requires prior approval by FDA. Brands that push superfood products and make these claims need to have conducted studies to back the claims up. Educate yourself on foods before you go trusting anything that has “super” on the label. A little research before you get to the store can go along way for your health, not to mention your wallet. This goes just as much for the foods you choose for your pets.
Importance of a balanced diet
Research shows that the ideal diet is one that is largely plant-based with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy animal products. Superfoods are a great addition to or part of a healthy diet, but there are plenty of healthy foods that aren’t considered “super.” A balanced diet comes from adding superfoods into our existing, healthy diet.
While superfoods provide massive health benefits, too much focus on any individual foods can actually encourage unhealthy eating. Focusing on these handful of foods labeled “super” can cause us to lose sight of creating a balanced diet for ourselves and our pets. Rather than cut things out and switch to superfoods, add superfoods into your diet plan. Sure, some replacements can be made, but a complete overhaul to superfood-only isn’t sensible.
Introducing superfoods as a subtraction can also be harmful to you or your pet. For instance, feeding your pet some blueberries after they gorge on your leftover Thanksgiving feast does not reverse the unhealthy effects of their turkey dinner. You can’t “undo” the damage of an unhealthy food by giving them a superfood. This kind of thinking can lead to long-term health issues. The occasional treat is fine, but an overall balanced diet is always the healthiest choice for your pet. This goes the same for a human scenario.
Once last thing to note, is that as with anything, superfoods are most beneficial when consumed in moderation. It’s true--too much of a good thing can be a bad thing!