Breaking the Superfood Myth

We are always hearing how we should incorporate more superfoods into our diet. It’s a term that often gets thrown around in the media and everyday life. You may have seen superfoods appear in restaurants, cafes, blogs and on Instagram. You see them on TV being endorsed by a popular celebrity with a great, slim figure, or when you scroll down your Facebook timeline you see headlines about people living 10 years longer thanks to eating this one magical superfood everyday for a year. How did she cure her cancer you ask? Superfoods. How did that guy lose 20 pounds in two weeks? Superfoods. Yet, what exactly qualifies as a superfood, and is it really more beneficial than other healthy options.

“Superfoods are those that are maybe packed with a few more nutrients, and usually get more glitz because of their fiber, protein, antioxidants, and vitamin C content,” according to Karon Felten, a nutrition professor and director of the dietetic internship program at the University of Nevada, Reno.

And that’s exactly it, glitz. According to Felten, people have just picked out some random foods with high nutritional value and glorified them into panaceas. Yes, these foods do contain many good vitamins and minerals, but in essence there isn’t really such thing as a superfood.

Many people have taken this term out of context and are trying to turn man into superman with the popular superfood diet. Fans of the superfood diet often base their research on cultures that have consumed these exotic superfoods for years but often neglect to look at other factors such as exercise that have impacted their longevity. Today, we understand the direct correlation between your body weight and chronic health and disease. There are more factors to living a longer, healthier life than simply eating a certain kind of berry or seed every day.

“They are foods that have been glorified, and it’s not that they’re not good quality foods, it’s just that they’re not going to be your cure all,” said Felten.

A good superfood analogy according to Arezou Saeedi, assistant director at the dietetic internship program at the University of Nevada, Reno is to

“Think of your body as a machine. You can put super unleaded gas into the machine, but at the same time the machine still needs oil, water and a whole bunch of other things in order for it to function and work properly.”

The same concept applies to your body. Your body requires a wide array of nutrients rather than just one seed, nut or other superfood. We need a wide variety of micronutrients in order for our body work properly in the most optional way, not just a small list of cure-all superfoods.

When it comes to the invention of the word superfood Felten and Saeedi both speculated that the term was most likely created by someone in marketing who was inspired by an expertise in nutrition. It’s another trend that has been catching on in society, but isn’t based on any scientific evidence. Felten and Saeedi both believe that students need to recognize what is commercialized and advertised versus what the scientific truth is. In the nutritional world, the only base of their education in the field of nutrition is evidence based. Something that superfood studies certainly lack in.

“We’re working in a socio-economic cultural mess because the processed food industry drives a lot of money and a lot of economics. So it’s in their interest to sell the glitz and market, and it’s in direct coalition with health in many cases,” said Felten.

How exactly did superfoods become so popular? Thanks to many different kinds of trendy blogs trying to look official and celebrity endorsements about superfood miracle cures, it has become one of the most popular food trends of the year.

“Forget about Doctor Oz and his miracle cures. It’s very unfortunate that we have all of these celebrities that are just going for their own profit,” said Saeedi.

Superfoods are absolutely just another catchy trend that has caught on recently. Just take a look back to all of the food trends in 2014. Everything considered healthy was related to clean eating and was gluten-free. Now looking back to 10 years ago, everything trendy to eat was fat free. Unfortunately for food to be fat free you had to add sugar, and now we see a higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes, according to Saeedi. You cannot just stick to one or two staple items. You have to have a full, healthy diet.

Felten describes nutrition as a beautiful and quite simple science. It begins to get complex with exclusions of certain foods and the loss of balance. With many popular trends that come forth, the market will often latch onto it in hopes that the new, popular diet will be different.

The next time you go to the store and think about buying a superfood such as coconut oil for its amazing, magical benefits, think again before you get disappointed.

“Coconut oil is not your cure for all,” said Felten.

Many claims have been made about the advantages of using coconut oil which have not been supported by evidence. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, coconut oil has nothing to do with improving the conditions of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, thyroid function or curing HIV/AIDS.

If losing weight is what your looking to achieve, there are hardly any studies available that prove that consuming coconut oil leads to losing those extra pounds. But what about coconut oil’s antimicrobial and antifungal properties? Lies. According to studies, there has been no proof of antimicrobial benefits in refined or even virgin coconut oil. Instead, it’s actually the human body producing a natural substance, monolaurin, that creates antimicrobial and antifungal properties.

The bottom line is that coconut oil is no more of a superfood than any other type of oil such as canola oil or olive oil. Felten doesn’t see coconut oil as either really good or really bad. She just sees it as just something to mix in. There’s no reason to purge everything in your pantry, and only use coconut oil. It is still a saturated fat, which is why you shouldn’t allow coconut oil or other saturated fats to consume more than 10% of your calorie intake, according to the American Heart Association.

Quinoa is a nice source of fiber and protein, but for the sake of cost effectiveness you can substitute this superfood for whole grain pasta with pretty much the same benefits that quinoa would provide.

Another popular superfood that gets tossed around a lot are acai berries. Yes, they are a fantastic source of fiber, antioxidants and vitamin C, yet your basic orange is also another pretty great source of these nutrients, especially the pulp. Why spend all of your hard earned money on acai berries when you can buy cheaper fruits that are more budget-friendly?

“Your regular fruits and veggies are precisely the same [as the acai berry],” said Felten.

In order to receive the full benefits from fruits and vegetables Felten recommends visiting fruitsandveggiesmorematter.org. The acai berry does have many great benefits, but it’s important to incorporate it in with other foods. New dietary guidelines suggest diversifying your diet as much as possible. Don’t rely on one superfood to nourish you. Instead, make your plate as colorful as you can, and eat a wide array of fruits and veggies with every meal as much as you can.

“The more we diversify with high quality foods, the more we’re going to get what we need,” said Felten.

Felten says that if you look at a society where they only have one food to consume, there’s a serious amount of malnourishment. It’s not healthy or possible to rely on one superfood to give you all of the nutrients your body needs.

In terms of fighting disease, diversification in color is the best option according to Saeedi. All fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals. These chemicals are very useful for fighting disease. Each color in the rainbow and each color in your fruits and vegetables has one specific phytochemical. Some [colors] are high in vitamin c, and some are high in lycopene like in tomatoes. What’s important to keep in mind here is that each phytochemical has a different disease-fighting purpose in the body. Rather than just depending on one super veggie or super fruit, it’s important to have a wide array of colors.

“Whenever you’re having a salad, make sure you have as many different colors of food. Make a rainbow,” said Saeedi.

As far as being a cost-effective college student, frozen fruits and vegetables have the same exact amount of nutrients as fresh ones and for a lot cheaper. Saeedi says that some kinds of frozen fruits or veggies are even better frozen because they’re picked at the right time during season when they are ripe. Just be weary of canned fruits and vegetables due to the great amount of salt added.

If superfoods aren’t the go to choice for a healthy diet, then what is?

Felten states the key is a wide variety of nutrient dense foods. Nutrient dense meaning the most vitamins and minerals per given calorie in a food. It’s also important to make the choice to stay away from foods with empty calories. By definition, empty calories are void of nutrients. A prime example is Coke. Yes, it contains calories. However, there’s no fiber, vitamins or minerals.

Starting with nutrient dense foods are healthy carbohydrates. They should actually take up 50% of your daily calorie intake, according to Felten. Her recommendations for healthy carbohydrates include whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Felten often sees many people try to go into carb free diets, but the fact of the matter is that they’re missing key nutrients from grains containing vitamins, minerals and fiber. Oatmeal is also another great choice primarily because it is a great, soluble fiber.

Protein should make up 10–35% of your daily calorie intake. It is important to limit the amount of times you eat lean meat to about two to three times a week. All meats should also be unprocessed. Fish is also a great source of protein. On a student budget, this can often be very expensive, but there are alternatives. Tuna can be a relatively cheap option, but Felten recommends staying away from albacore tuna because it is higher in mercury.

Eggs are a wallet friendly source of protein. There’s also no reason to only eat the egg whites. Cholesterol, found in the egg yolk, is no longer on the radar in science, according to Felten. New dietary guidelines are not even addressing it.

Healthy fats should make up 20–35% of your calorie intake as well. Among Felten’s list of healthy fats are avocados, olive oil and canola oil because of its great source of omega-3s. Olive oil was researched in an evidence-based study published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Olive oil was examined in the Mediterranean diet which is very rich in olives and olive oil. However, the study ended early because nutritionists were discovering so many beneficial facts about olive oil.

What’s also highly important to Felten is focusing on the perspective of preventing chronic diseases. Flax seeds and chia seeds are great sources for omega-3s along with any other nut and seed for that matter. Any source of soluble fiber is highly recommended by Felten as a prebiotic to nourish the colon. Greek yogurt is a great source of protein, calcium and good bacteria for the colon as well.

Rather than students relying on trendy blogs for accurate information about nutritional value, Felten recommends following the United States Department of Agriculture’s new dietary guidelines available online. Foodinsight.org is also a highly recommended website for clear analysis of information about nutritional value.

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