There is no universal definition for superfoods; however, nutrient dense, calorie sparse foods, packed with healthy polyphenols, and antioxidants can be considered superfoods. There is a lot of misconception around superfoods, this includes the belief that they can cure cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. Superfoods act as antioxidants, therefore they can reduce the risk of developing certain diseases, but there is no scientific evidence of these foods curing diseases. Nevertheless, there is evidence highlighting the benefits of antioxidants.
So, why do we need antioxidants? Antioxidants prevent oxidative stress. Factors like UV rays, pollution, obesity, radiation, aging, alcohol and cigarette consumption, produce something called oxidative stress. Products of metabolic processes have as an outcome something called reactive oxygen species also called free radicals; these molecules are highly unstable and affect nearby proteins and they even damage the DNA of the cells. In normal conditions, the body produces antioxidants, which will act as neutralizers of the free radicals preventing them from affecting the DNA of the cells. As we age, the body loses the capacity of producing antioxidants of their own, allowing the free radicals to damage cells. These changes on the DNA caused by free radicals accumulate until the cell cannot work properly anymore.
UV rays are one physical factor that increases the production of free radicals, causing damage in the cells of the skin that lead to skin cancer. Cigarettes increase the production of free radicals, affecting the lungs cells causing cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and emphysema. The free radicals caused by external conditions are hard to neutralize by the body’s natural antioxidants, becoming even more difficult as we get older and the natural antioxidants decrease.
Superfoods are great because they are a source of antioxidants, helping the body fight against free radicals and potentially decreasing the risk of diseases, although this theory does not have enough evidence to be confirmed. Another characteristic of superfoods is that they are low in calories. While being packed with vitamins and minerals, superfoods have very low caloric value.
In addition, super foods are rich in polyphenols, which are antioxidants; they can be found in fruits and vegetables, and according to studies, they can reduce the risk of cancer. Polyphenols are also known for reducing chronic inflammation. Most diseases like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, cause chronic inflammation. Ingesting polyphenols can help fight these conditions, but there is not enough evidence to back this claim. Studies suggest that we should incorporate superfoods in their natural form, this means eating them without any kind of processing.
7 Foods That Are Considered Superfoods
- Coffee: ancient societies like Mayas and Incas, knew that coffee had amazing properties. The key element about getting the antioxidant benefits of the coffee is to drink it plain black. When we add sugars, creams, and sweeteners, we are losing the benefits of the coffee itself. Adding unnecessary calories will have a negative impact on our health, so remember to always choose black coffee.
- Cacao: just like coffee, Incas and Mayas consumed cacao frequently and introduced it to the Europeans during the colonization. Cacao has incredible antioxidant properties on its own. Cacao nibs are a great and delicious superfood that we should add to our diets. Dark chocolate is another option. Be mindful of using chocolate that has a high cacao content (over 70%), because it has less sugar. Dark chocolate has flavonoids, which has been proven to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. Milk chocolate and chocolate desserts are high in sugar and calories, and do not act as superfoods.
- Berries: mulberries, raspberries, strawberries, and acai berries are a great source of polyphenols. They act as antioxidants, and contain amino acids and vitamins. Blueberries and cranberries can decrease the risk of kidney infections and kidney stones. Goji berries are high in vitamin C and E, and in traditional Chinese medicine, they are used to treat diabetes and high blood pressure.
- Soy: soy is rich in isoflavones, which research shows help reduce the levels of LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”). Other studies suggest that soy could prevent memory loss secondary to aging.
- Matcha: matcha is Japanese green tea powder. It has become more popular in the western world in the past couple of years. Matcha is rich in catechins, a molecule that is believed to help decrease the risk of cancer, and that reduces inflammation. Just like with other superfoods, remember to drink matcha without sweeteners and extra fat.
- Red wine: for over two decades, different organizations have recommended one glass of red wine a day to prevent cardiovascular disease. Red wine is rich in polyphenols therefore having anti-inflammatory properties. Is important to state that drinking alcohol excessively is detrimental for one’s health and acts as a risk factor to many conditions like cancer, hepatic cirrhosis, and diabetes.
- Moringa: moringa is a leaf that is high in protein and antioxidants. Maybe you have never heard of Moringa before, but this leaf is easy to find and can be ingested in the form of tea.
When it comes to superfoods it is important to remember that they are not a miraculous cure to diseases, but more of an aid to maintain good body functions. Lastly, superfoods need to be eaten on their own, to avoid adding extra sugars so you can enjoy their benefits.