Last of a two-part series
Last monthâ€™s article looked at the top five most popularly mentioned superfoods. They included turmeric, garlic, ginger, healthy fats and tea. The theme of these food items is they have known anti-inflammatory properties. This month, we will look at the next five most popularly mentioned superfoods. The list was compiled after looking through current superfoods literature.
The berry category covers many different fruits, but the few specifically mentioned most in superfoods literature include blueberries, goji berries, and acai berries. Each will be discussed separately.
The primary nutrient that brings blueberries to superfood status is phytonutrients, specifically the high concentration of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Antioxidants serve as destroyers of free radicals that can cause cellular damage in the body. Further, blueberries have a low glycemic index, which means they donâ€™t have a strong impact on blood sugar levels and may even help regulate blood sugar in persons with type-2 diabetes. Blueberries are also a good source of vitamins K and C and manganese.
The health benefit of blueberries is well-known, and research is beginning to look more closely at the powerful little fruit. Studies have found blueberries to help improve memory, prevent muscle damage after muscle strain, improve cardiovascular health and help prevent cancer.
When consuming blueberries, it is best to eat them raw rather than in cooked form. Freezing blueberries does not appear to affect their nutritional value, so that is another good option. Finally, literature suggests that organic blueberries may have higher levels of antioxidants than conventionally grown blueberries. Eating raw and organic blueberries is the best way to maximize the health benefits.
Goji berries, somewhat new to the West, often are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to help eyesight, protect the liver, boost immunity and improve circulation. They interact mostly with the liver and kidney systems. Recent research found support for the claim that goji berries help improve vision. Many people eat goji berries to help with general weakness and lack of energy. Recent uses also include negating the effects of chemotherapy and radiation and for burns, ulcers, bedsores and frostbite. The main health-promoting nutrients in goji berries include its phytonutrients, but also vitamins C, B1 and B2 and antioxidants. Commonly mentioned for its potential anti-aging properties, goji berries have been found to contain very high concentrations of antioxidants, which may help slow the aging process in the body.
One thing to be aware of with goji berries is the high incidence of marketing claims. It seems that the more exotic the superfood, the more likely manufactures are to try to exploit it. Some manufacturers say goji berry juice will cure cancer or help people live longer, with little to no proof. There are plenty of other ways to increase antioxidant consumption (such as blueberries), and many can be found more locally than goji berries. If you choose to try goji berries, be sure they are from a reputable source and be aware of the claims. While goji berries do have healthy properties, many are exploiting this and consumers by selling expensive products that may not even be pure goji berry.
The last of the superfood berries, acai berries, are again high in antioxidants. While commonly marketed as helping aid in weight loss, studies have not supported this claim to date. While antioxidant-rich foods and fruits are a part of a balanced diet and that may affect weight loss, acai berries have not been found to have any special weight loss properties.
Like goji berries, acai berries are an exotic fruit recently introduced to the West as a sort of miracle potion. Be cautious about marketing claims, and be sure you know the source of any acai berry products you may purchase. If you prefer to stick with more local options, blueberries contain many of the same healthy components.
NUTS AND SEEDS
Similar to berries, the nuts and seeds category include many different options. Some nuts and seeds have more nutritional value than others, but in general, nuts and seeds are part of a balanced diet. Many nuts and seeds contain high concentrations of many vitamins and minerals that are necessary for optimal health.
Nuts and seeds are high in protein and fiber, and they are a high-fat food, but the fat is heart-healthy unsaturated omega, which may help lower cholesterol and reduce heart attack risks. Nuts, specifically walnuts, are high in omega 3 fatty acids and some contain antioxidants. Nuts and seeds may help reduce inflammation and clear the bowels.
The great thing about nuts and seeds is the ease in eating them. Both make a great snack, and can be munched on whenever hunger strikes. Due to the protein, fiber and fat, nuts and seeds will help satisfy hunger for much longer than other snack foods. The highest health benefit from nuts and seeds will come from raw and unsalted varieties.
Many suggest purchasing organic when possible. Often co-ops and natural food stores will have bulk options of nuts and seeds, which is a highly cost-effective way to purchase them. In addition, using nut oils in cooking is another way to increase omega-3 fatty acid consumption. To enjoy seeds without much effort, simply sprinkle them on salads, stir-fries, desserts and oatmeal or cereal. The opportunities to use them are plentiful.
The next category includes sweet potatoes, squash and pumpkins. One important note is that these vegetables are not in the same botanical family, and thus are quite different. However, they include very similar nutrient properties, namely the antioxidant beta-carotene. In the body, the carotenes are then converted to vitamin A. Beta-carotenes are known to protect against cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Sweet potatoes, the unlikely tubers, are actually very high in nutrients. Considered nothing more than a dessert-like side dish to many, a sweet potato contains high levels of vitamin A, antioxidants, specifically beta-carotene, and is an anti-inflammatory. Research suggests that sweet potatoes are especially potent when passing through the digestive tract to help remove heavy metals and free radicals. Another potential benefit of sweet potatoes is that they can help regulate blood sugar, even in persons with type-2 diabetes. Further, when steamed or boiled, sweet potatoes have a low glycemic load and are high in dietary fiber. Lastly, sweet potatoes may have antibacterial and antifungal properties.
Sweet potatoes can be boiled, steamed or roasted like any traditional potato.
Like sweet potatoes, squash, specifically winter squash, are extremely high in the antioxidants alpha and beta-carotene and vitamins A and C. And also like sweet potatoes, we often think of squash as being a starchy carbohydrate. While true, new research is suggesting squash starch is different than that of more unhealthy varieties, and that it actually contains anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-diabetic properties. These anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties are the reason winter squash is being studied for its potential cancer prevention and treatment abilities. Studies also are ongoing to determine how well winter squash helps regulate and potentially prevent diabetes. In addition, winter squash contain decent amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Finally, like most other superfoods, the anti-inflammatory effects of winter squash may help prevent cardiovascular issues.
Like sweet potatoes, squash can be cooked and seasoned in many ways; it can be prepared by roasting, baking or steaming. You can save the seeds from the squash and roast them for a nutrient-dense snack (see nuts and seeds).
The bright orange color of pumpkins is a giveaway that beta-carotene is present in this superfood. It contains strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Pumpkins can be prepared similar to squash and the seeds can also be roasted to make a healthy snack.
The word Cruciferous comes from the former botanical name for this family of plants, the Cruciferae. This name was derived from the appearance of the plants, namely their four-petal, cross-like (crucifix) flowers. Although this family of plants (commonly called the mustard family) is now named the Brassicaceae, nutrition literature commonly refers to the vegetables in this family as Cruciferous, including cauliflower, broccoli, broccoli sprouts, cabbage, bok choy, cress, horseradish, kale, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, rutabaga, kohlrabi, arugula and radish.
Nearly all the cruciferous vegetables are high in vitamins C and K, fiber, folic acid, and manganese, with each vegetable containing a different combination of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. They also include the antioxidant vitamin A carotenoids and demonstrate anti-inflammatory properties.
Cruciferous vegetables have known anti-cancer properties. The vitamin K component helps reduce inflammation, which could play a role in its ability to fight cancer. In addition to the anti-inflammatory properties, cruciferous vegetables are strong antioxidants. They also contain high levels of fiber, even without much intake, which can have an effect on the digestive tract and digestive cancers. The phytonutrients in cruciferous vegetables, namely glucosinolates, help prevent cancer and are found almost exclusively in cruciferous vegetables.
Cruciferous vegetables can be eaten raw or cooked, and come in a variety of recipes and varieties. Some of the vegetables are preferred one way or another, so finding a recipe is advised when trying a new variety.
Legumes are the fruits from plants of the Fabaceae (commonly referred to as the pea) family. Examples of commonly eaten legumes include peas, beans, lentils, peanuts, alfalfa and soy. Most legumes are high in protein and fiber, minerals such as potassium and magnesium and the vitamin folate. They also contain antioxidants.
Legumes are touted for promoting longevity, as consumption of them is high in various countries with high life expectancies. Legumes may also help protect against cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis. The fiber in legumes helps with digestive issues and may help prevent colon cancer.
Legumes are versatile and can be prepared in a plethora of ways. Add them to soups and stews and salads or use them as a side-dish.
Just in case this top-ten list doesnâ€™t provide enough options to increase the nutrients in your daily meals, weâ€™ll throw in a couple of honorable mentions. While not mentioned in nutrition literature as superfoods by as many sources, these foods all provide some sort of health-promoting benefits, just not as much as the others.
The honorable mentions include:
- Dark Chocolate (the higher percentage of cocoa, the better)
- Tomatoes (beware of canned tomatoes due to potential BPA seepage from the can lining)
- Red wine (due to the phytonutrient, resveratrol)
- Whole Grains (namely quinoa, oats, buckwheat and barley)
- Blue Green Algae (especially spirulina)
Now, relax, take a deep breath and remember, itâ€™s about small changes. Trying to do too much, too quickly, often isnâ€™t a sustainable approach, especially when it comes to eating habits. We all have those urges to change everything, or to incorporate all of these foods into almost every meal, starting tomorrow. But we also all know those types of approaches often fail, leaving us worse off than we were to start.
Take one of these, or two, and begin incorporating them in natural ways that you enjoy. If you donâ€™t like it, donâ€™t eat it. If it isnâ€™t a food that works with your body, donâ€™t eat it. The main thing is to find what works for your lifestyle, preferences and body, and eat more of them. If you happen to already be eating foods on this list, great; begin trying to add more of them.
As the old adage states, you are what you eat. The beauty is, you get to choose. Next time you take that (potentially) dreaded trip to the grocery store, hopefully you feel more prepared to make good choices; I know I do.