First of a two-part series

Each week, I muster the energy to shop for the week’s groceries. It’s never fun. I don’t like to grocery shop. And adding to my dislike is the confusion: What really is best for me to eat? What labels or brands do I trust? I consider myself an informed consumer, and yet still struggle with what to buy. Every sign and label is trying to convince me of the health benefits: low calorie, no trans fats, high in fiber.

Then I stumble upon the dreaded “superfood” labels, touting some sort of health benefits just short of miracles. The foods are often exotic looking, and while a superfood sounds like a great thing to consume, I’m skeptical. I never know if it’s just marketing. So I keep walking.

Superfoods are perplexing for a couple of reasons. One is the marketing involved. The word is slapped on supplements, powders and pills and sold for high prices online with some sort of health claim built in. The whole idea preys on the cultural ideal of quick fixes and promising to bring people to higher levels of health quickly and easily.

Similar to this is the generality of the word itself. There is no solid definition of the term and it’s used with different meanings in different contexts. The most general, but commonly accepted definition, is that superfoods are foods that are nutrient-dense, yet low calorie, and provide more benefits than they do harm. Vague, I know. Another controversial part of the superfoods argument is that all fruits and vegetables could be considered superfoods since they are all generally low-calorie, high-nutrient (vitamins and minerals) foods. Within this argument is the idea that the best way to get nutrients is to eat whole foods, or foods in their original forms, and preferably organic.

Katie Jasper, a Certified Holistic Health Counselor at Katie Jasper Health [www.katiejasper.com] thinks there is legitimacy to the notion that some foods are more powerful than others, and she helps her clients find practical ways to work them into their diets. Further, Jasper believes that the most powerful foods, or superfoods, are the ones that help decrease inflammation in the body. A growing body of evidence is looking at cellular inflammation as the cause of chronic disease and illness and, thus, eating anti-inflammatory foods is a way to increase health and well-being.

Now that we have covered some of the background information about superfoods, it’s time to look at what foods are considered superfoods. The blessing or the curse, whichever way you look at it, is that nutritionists, physicians, scientists, media outlets and laypeople all have an idea about what foods are the most important superfoods. Many of these people have developed top ten lists. However, all the lists are different. To help de-complicate this issue, I have assembled a consolidated list of superfoods, their healthful properties and, where appropriate, easy ways to incorporate them into your diet.

Below are the five most commonly mentioned superfoods. Jasper is a strong proponent of each of these foods for their anti-inflammatory and immunity boosting properties, especially for this time of year. One thing to keep in mind is that the root source is preferred over a pill or powder, but sometimes people can’t physically ingest the amount necessary to be beneficial, so in those cases, Jasper says a pill or powder from a reputable source can be beneficial.

Turmeric
Turmeric is an herb that has been used for thousands of years for cooking and as part of the Ayurvedic philosophy, where it is often used for its anti-aging and skin protection properties. The main component attributed to the health benefits of turmeric is the pigment, which is called curcumin. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Turmeric may help treat Alzheimers, cancer and arthritis, and has many studies to support these claims. Less common benefits, according to NIH, may include heartburn (dyspepsia), stomach pain, diarrhea, intestinal gas, stomach bloating, loss of appetite, jaundice, liver problems and gallbladder disorders, headaches, bronchitis, colds, lung infections, fibromyalgia, leprosy, fever, depression, water retention, worms, kidney problems, menstrual problems, and cancer, although little research has been done to study these claims.

Turmeric is a highly popular research topic right now and the many studies are starting to show its health-promoting components. It has antioxidant, anti-fungal, anti-cancer and anti-bacterial properties, and most importantly, it is a powerful anti-inflammatory.

The easiest way to add turmeric to your diet is to use it as a spice. Include it in dry rubs or marinades, sprinkle it on stir-fries, or use it in soups or stews. Turmeric does have a strong flavor, but can be used whenever other kitchen spices are used. If cooking with it doesn’t fit your palate, supplements are available as both turmeric and curcumin.

Garlic
Garlic, another herb commonly used in cooking, has been used as a medicinal food for millennia. It has been found to be a strong anti-inflammatory, helps fight infection and has antibacterial and antiviral properties. Flavonoids, sulfur-containing nutrients and amino acids in garlic, may be the component responsible for its health benefits. The most common benefits of garlic are its ability to fight cancer and help with cardiovascular issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease, atherosclerosis, and high cholesterol. Research does support these claims. One notable finding is that garlic may be able to reduce blood pressure and slow the progression of hardening of the arteries.

According to NIH, other less-studied uses may include prevention of cancer, enlarged prostate, diabetes, osteoarthritis, hay fever, traveler’s diarrhea, cold and flu, fever, headache, stomach ache, sinus congestion, gout, rheumatism, hemorrhoids, asthma, bronchitis, shortness of breath, snakebites, strengthening the immune system, preventing tick bites, and fighting stress or fatigue, and treating infections. Evidence also supports the topical use of garlic for fungal infections such as ringworm, jock itch, and athlete’s foot. What can be deduced from this extensive list is that garlic has the potential to be a powerful medicinal food, and the scientific community is taking note, as well.

Garlic is a cooking staple in many homes, but probably not to the degree necessary to derive the most benefit. The easiest way to use garlic is to simply add it to existing recipes, such as soups, stews, stir fries, sauces, marinades and seasonings. If garlic doesn’t work for you, supplements are available.

Ginger
Ginger is another herb commonly used in cooking and is a staple in Asian medicine, where it is used for digestive or stomach issues, such as stomach aches, nausea, motion sickness, morning sickness, gas and diarrhea. Potent anti-inflammatory elements called gingerols may be responsible for the myriad of health benefits from eating ginger. Research has found ginger to be effective for treating nausea. Other uses, as stated by NIH, include treating rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, joint pain, muscle pain, upper respiratory infections, bronchitis, coughs, Ginger’s healthful benefits come from its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antibiotic, antioxidant and detoxification properties.

Ginger — a root that looks quite odd — is one of those foods that people just don’t know what to do with it. The easiest way to use ginger is in tea. Many teas on the market include ginger, or you could ground a bit of ginger root to steep at home. Another great usage is in a juicer. Ginger adds a wonderful flavor, but you have to be careful with how much you add. The taste can be a bit abrasive to some, so begin using it conservatively. If ginger doesn’t fit your palate, supplements are available.

Healthy Fats (Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Avocado, and Omega-3 Fatty Acids)
Not long ago, fat was a dirty word, and many today still think all fats are made equal. Well, they are not. We now know that there are healthy fats, and they are found in a variety of places. The most common ones that are considered superfoods include extra virgin olive oil, avocado and Omega-3 fatty acids from salmon and flaxseeds.

Extra virgin olive oil and avocado are both good sources of monounsaturated fats and are said to help lower cholesterol. Extra virgin olive oil has been found to reduce cancer risk, lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health.

Omega-3 fatty acids most commonly come from fish sources, such as salmon and sardines. However, eating enough fish is challenging for many people and many of us simply do not consume enough Omega-3s. Many fish oil supplements exist and several integrative physicians recommend fish oil supplements for everyone. Jasper says she isn’t a huge proponent of supplements, but does recommend fish oils to all of her clients. It’s just that important.

Omega-3s are powerful anti-inflammatory agents and may help protect from respiratory infections. Similar to other superfoods, Omega-3s contain polyphenols, which are known to reduce inflammation. In addition to fish, flaxseed is a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids. It has been said to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes, due directly to its anti-inflammatory abilities.

Similar to the other superfoods, olive oil can be added to just about anything. Use it to make your own marinades, toss some into your favorite salad (use with vinegar for a simple dressing), pour it over pasta, or as the moisture agent in gently cooking vegetables. One caution is that extra virgin olive oil has a low heat point, and you never want it to get hot enough to smoke.

Avocados are great on salads, as a spread on sandwiches, in guacamole or other dips, or sliced as a simple snack.

Flaxseed can be tossed into salads, soups, stews, oatmeal, shakes or just about anything you can think of. When freshly ground, they virtually disappear into what food you add them in, and have little to no flavor.

Fish can be grilled, baked, broiled, and anything in between. You could always try a little olive oil, turmeric, garlic and ginger as seasonings for a real superfood punch.

Tea
Both green and black teas are beneficial. The main component of tea with the health-promoting capabilities is polyphenols or flavonoids, which are antioxidants that come from some plant-based foods. Teas also contain a variety of vitamins and minerals. Low doses of caffeine may also play a role.

While teas come in a variety of formulas, here I am talking about basic black or green teas, which are from the same plant, but processed differently. Tea has been found to boost immunity, control cholesterol levels, help fight viruses, prevent dental cavities, reduce blood pressure and risk of stroke, and prevent and treat breast, stomach, prostate, colon, gastric, lung and skin cancers. Other common uses include improving mental alertness, aiding in weight loss, treating stomach issues such as vomiting and diarrhea, headaches, osteoporosis, treating HPV and protecting skin from the sun. Some scientific evidence exists to support these uses. According to NIH, green tea is often used for Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, kidney stones and chronic fatigue. Further, black tea is used to improve mental alertness, memory, learning and information processing. Also, teas are commonly used as diuretics.

To get maximum benefit from teas, drinking multiple cups a day is required. Be sure to buy teas from reputable sources, and preferably organic.

Now that you have an understanding of what superfoods are, I challenge you to begin using these foods more often. Jasper recommends slow change. Maybe choose one food each week to focus on, or use only the items you already have, such as olive oil. Once you are comfortable with the one item, begin to introduce more. The best way to make change is to slowly work with your existing lifestyle.

Jasper urges us to become an active participant in our health. Begin asking questions, think about why you want to include these foods more often and rather than doing it just because you feel like you should, learn what works for you and take small steps to include more of those things that do work. It’s not about being restrictive. It’s about empowering ourselves to make informed decisions about our health.

NEXT MONTH: Part Two of our list of Top Superfoods, along with some honorable mentions.

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