The term “superfood” gets thrown around a lot, usually by the media or somebody selling something. But more often than not it sends the wrong message about healthy eating, and only serves to fuel the fire of nutritionism.
Superfood refers to an edible plant (e.g. blueberries) or animal (e.g. salmon) that contains high levels of a particular nutrient (antioxidants! omega-3s!) that can supposedly help with a certain health issue. When something gets labeled as a superfood, most of us will automatically assume that it is extra super duper healthy and we should go out of our way to eat more of it. Not that we will, but maybe we’ll try to try and eat more.
To their credit, the superfoods I’ve seen are usually legit healthy foods. They tend to be berries, greens, fish and other natural ingredients. In other words, I haven’t seen any reports that Vitaminwater is a superfood and actually really good for you.
But is there really some list of magical foods that will save you from certain death? Probably not.
Obviously nutrients are important, but large doses of them from either food or supplements are almost never associated with added benefits. That is because the way our body deals with micronutrients is not linear (more does not mean better). Instead there is typically an ideal dose range for a given nutrient where too little is bad and too much is also bad, but any reasonable quantity is pretty darn good. Think of Goldilocks finding the perfect porridge temperature and bed softness. In normal ranges your nutrient levels will be just right, freeing you to continue snooping around strangers’ homes (or whatever).
Though it is hard to overdose on whole foods, it is possible. But more important, eating a lot of one kind of food almost certainly won’t give you any health advantage. If you’re eating something that means you aren’t eating something else, and in Western cultures what we’re really lacking is nutrient diversity.
The vast majority of our diets are made up of the same handful of foods that we eat over and over again. Even people who make legitimate efforts to eat healthy have rather limited diets if their fruit and vegetable purchases come from standard supermarkets. Throwing blueberries in there every now and then can only add so much.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of important nutrients (vitamins, antioxidants, etc.) in our diets, and the reality is we probably don’t know what all of them are, let alone what functions they serve in our bodies. The problem gets even more complex when you factor in the context of our genes, environment and other foods we consume.
Each natural food contributes its own unique blend of nutrients. If you want to get the most from your diet, you’re much better off focusing on dietary diversity rather than loading up on the top 10 foods some magazine says you should eat more of.
All that being said, it does make me happy when lowly, forgotten vegetables like beets and lima beans get featured in the New York Times. Vegetables need all the press they can get, and it’s true that most people don’t eat enough vegetables period. Any article that encourages you to try a new kind of food is a good thing.
Keep in mind that if you see a food labeled “super” you should take it with a grain of salt, because the reality is that all natural foods are superfoods. The ones that make the news just happen to be those that some reporter decided to shine her spotlight on for the time being. Who knows what vegetable will land in the spotlight tomorrow?
What are your favorite unsung superfoods?
Originally published August 11, 2010.