Superfoods are sitting in your grocery basket disguised as their mild-mannered alter egos. They’re waiting for the chance to jump into action and battle supervillains in your body, like cell damage, inflammation, disease and anemia. While they don’t fly around pulling people from burning buildings, they have a multitude of other “powers” that make them truly super.
“A superfood … is nutrient-dense, rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and highly beneficial for overall health and wellbeing,” explains Sophie Jaffe, a certified raw food nutritionist and chef. Jaffe’s company, Philosophie, promotes a healthy diet through the regular inclusion of superfood products, offering up cleanses and recipes to their customers and readers. So it’s safe to say she is familiar with all the alter egos of our favourite superfoods.
Another man on the “in” with superfoods is Benjamin Sit, a registered dietitian nutritionist and sports dietitian; he is also the owner, founder and president of Evolved Sport and Nutrition in Toronto, a company dedicated to helping athletes (and everyone else) boost their potential for sustainable health and energy. According to him, the term “superfood” is a bit of a trick. “The issue with superfoods is that they’re marketed in a specific way and the marketing tends to focus on exotic foods that may not be available to everyone, like goji berries,” says Sit. “There are superfoods that … are widely available …. [They’re] hiding in plain sight but aren’t marketed the same way as other superfoods that are ‘new’ and ‘exciting’.”
This is akin to the media constantly telling people how Superman has “saved the day” yet again, while Bruce Wayne opens the door to his bat cave exhausted, and without any acclaim.
I asked our two superfood experts for the inside scoop on the mild-mannered superfoods in disguise; they helped pull the mask off some very interesting characters.
Nuts in general are a great source of healthy unsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, polyphenols that keep your heart healthy, protein, fibre and antioxidants, but almonds would dominate if you made them all duke it out in a ring. “Almonds are a great brain food,” says Jaffe. “High in vitamin E, skin nourishing, loaded with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and full of fibre. All of these qualities make a handful of almonds an awesome snack.” If you’re not a big almond fan, walnuts are a good alternative — they have alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid linked to heart health and mood improvements.
#2 black beans
Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart, the more you eat, the more you feel good about your food choices. “I think beans need to be highlighted for a lot of people as a better dietary choice,” states Sit. There’s good reason — one cup of black-masked wonders has 15 grams of fibre and 15 grams of protein. “It’s not a meat protein,” mentions Sit. Meat proteins are quick to digest while plant proteins are slower; the slower digestion rate helps regulate blood sugar. Sit explains: “It can help reduce total saturated fat intake …. [provide] heart protection, antioxidants and iron.” Beans are a great source of iron, with 13 mg per 3/4 cup.
“Another thing that I think is really cool too in terms of black beans,” Sit adds, “The World Health Organization has declared 2016 to be the year of the pulses and legumes, because they’ve realized that focusing more on beans and vegetable protein to meet your protein requirements can be more economical and is actually more beneficial for personal health and the health of the environment.”
“Almonds are a great brain food,” says Sophie Jaffe, certified raw food nutritionist and chef; owner and founder of Philosophie.
Blueberries were actually Sit’s first vote for superfood-status. “It has an unusually high nutrient-density,” says Sit. “[As well as] antioxidants that protect against cell damage … [and] diseases like certain cancers. They’re good at that and very tasty.” Blueberries are also high in fibre (four grams per cup) and anthocyanins, antioxidants that keep your memory sharp. Blueberries aren’t the only berry on the scene that has crazy health powers — raspberries and strawberries help with digestion and promote weight loss with their high fibre content (eight grams per cup and three grams per cup, respectively), ellagic acid — an anti-cancer compound — levels (raspberries) and vitamin C (strawberries).
According to Sit, Broccoli has a lot of vitamins and minerals like folic acid and vitamin B that “help with low-blood iron levels or disorders like anemia.” He goes on to explain that high folic acid intake is very beneficial for women who are trying to get pregnant (or plan to in the future). “It protects against neural tube defects in the first month of pregnancy, which is important because the first month of pregnancy can be when many women find out they are pregnant,” says Sit. “Meeting your folate requirements can help ensure a healthy baby.”
“Dark leafy greens and crucifers like kale, spinach and broccoli are loaded with vital nutrients,” states Jaffe, providing an alternative green for those people who don’t like broccoli. This includes iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium and vitamin E. She adds: “They also contain Spirulina — a green algae made up of phytonutrients and antioxidants that help detoxify the body and fight free radicals.”
While carrots don’t give you x-ray vision, they do help keep your eyesight sharp. “Carrots contain high amounts of vitamin A, which our bodies use to strengthen our vision and protect against brittle skin and nails,” explains Jaffe. However, if the carrot taste is too much, try sweet potatoes or butternut squash. “Other orange veggies … are anti-inflammatory and great sources of B vitamins,” says Jaffe. Carotene is the compound that makes these orange; the body converts it into vitamin A, which means, for example, one medium sweet potato has four times the recommended daily value. Sweet potatoes, carrots and butternut squash “are great options for savoury smoothies or vegetable curries,” states Jaffe.
Eggs are on every breakfast menu for a reason: They’re easy to make and very filling. Turns out, they’ve been a superfood all along.
“One of my favourite go-to proteins for a complete breakfast, lunch or dinner,” says Jaffe. “They taste great scrambled or poached but more importantly, they are rich in choline — a vitamin that is vital for brain development. This is one of the reasons why I make them for my kiddies.”
Eggs have up to seven grams of protein, all nine essential amino acids and B12 vitamins (which are difficult to come by in food). “Eggs are also high in heart-healthy omega-3 fats, making them not only rich in flavour, but in nutrients as well,” Jaffe adds. The yolk alone contains lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that improve eye health, reducing the risk of age-related macular degeneration. If you don’t have time to make eggs everyday, hard-boil a dozen over the weekend for easy-to-grab snacks throughout the week.
“One of the superfoods that is poorly understood is flaxseed,” states Sit. “It adds omega-3 fatty acids, increases fibre intake and helps people with IBS manage their gastric health.” Like walnuts, Flaxseed has ALA, which reduces inflammation; and like black beans, the protein is plant-based. “The issue I find with a lot of people is that they don’t use it properly,” says Sit. “In order to get the health benefits, it has to be milled and the husk has to be broken.” So, if you’re branching out into flaxseed, make sure it’s been milled into flour.
“Purslane is a highly abundant plant, but most people haven’t heard of it and are unaware of all of its amazing health benefits,” says Jaffe. “This is likely due to the fact that it’s basically a garden weed.” But this garden weed is packed with disease-fighting nutrients, like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium and the highest amount of vitamin E in all plant-based foods, according to Jaffe.
“It has a mild, lemon flavour,” mentions Jaffe. “Which makes it a perfect addition to a homemade pesto.”
Fish has long been an ingredient on heart-friendly grocery lists. Those “in the know” are familiar with the high levels of vitamin D and B12, selenium, protein and omega-3 fatty acids. “The body can’t produce [omega-3s] itself,” states Sit. “These … help to reduce inflammation and promote a healthier blood profile.” Of all the fish in the world though, salmon is the best meat-based superfood, because of its high omega-3 fatty acids level. Sit explains: “replacing red meats with salmon is a good way to decrease your saturated fat intake.” This, in turn, keeps the heart healthy.
Aim to eat one six-ounce salmon fillet, two to four times a week.
Probably the most familiar and well known in its every-day disguise, tomatoes are often incorporated into our daily menu without our even realizing it. Which is great, because they’re actually pretty super. “Tomatoes have a large amount of lycopene — an antioxidant that is not available in a lot of foods,” states Sit. “It promotes skin health, and guards against liver disease and cancers, like prostate cancer.” Tomatoes are also high in vitamin C, potassium, fibre and other nutrients, according to Sit. Next time you’re making a salad or sandwich, toss in your friendly red tomato.
make your menu a little more super
Knowing which pantry items possess the powers of superfood is just the first step. The next step is incorporating these foods into your week. There’s a tendency in all of us to load up with just the “good stuff” right off the bat; this is actually the wrong approach; too much of a good thing can be bad.
“Nutrition … is all about finding balance and sustainability,” says Benjamin Sit, registered dietitian nutritionist & sports dietitian; founder & president of Evolved Sport and Nutrition.
“Kale is very beneficial,” says Sit. “But over the past few years, people have gone overboard. There have been reports where people have eaten so much that … [they] started becoming more tired; hair started falling out, irregular heartbeats and digestive issues. It turns out that their entire diet was made of kale … [this] caused them to have too many naturally occurring heavy metals, like Thallium and Cessium, which in high doses can cause negative health effects.”
Don’t load down your menu with these 10 superfoods. Instead, incorporate them into your regular diet. “Consciously eat foods because you love how they taste, and you love how they make you feel,” suggests Jaffe. “That’s the most important part.”
“Nutrition … is all about finding balance and sustainability,” says Sit. “Finding a way to add healthy foods and relying less on [unhealthy] foods.” He suggests swapping out iceberg lettuce with broccoli, adding tomatoes to your salad or sandwich, and serving your dinner with a side of steamed black beans.
Be wary of imposters, like supplements. “Your body can only use a certain amount of vitamins at one time,” explains Sit. “To have all these nutrients jammed into a supplement, you’re just buying expensive urine.” If your diet is imbalanced, talk to a dietitian before throwing your money down the drain. These experts will help you unmask a few superfood options of your own for your weekly menu.