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Superfoods: Is there such a thing?

Posted on by Karen Sabbath, MS, RD, CSO

“If you eat certain superfoods, you won’t get cancer (or heart disease or diabetes or high blood pressure or arthritis or Alzheimer’s.” The concept of superfoods was originally developed by the United Fruit Company, banana importers, around World War I as part of a marketing campaign touting the many benefits of eating bananas, including the fact that they came in their own germ-proof package.

And then there’s the famous “an apple a day” slogan. We all are familiar with the promotion of blueberries as a superfood, which was initiated by the Maine Blueberry Board to market wild blueberries. The list goes on and on. The most recent “superfood” about to be marketed is cockroach milk. Yes, you read correctly.

It turns out the term “superfood” is only a marketing tool with no scientific basis or definition. Foods labeled as superfoods are usually nutrient-rich and are often packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can impact health, but do not have magical benefits. The term “superfoods” often translates into super sales, and people are willing to pay more for foods they perceive as extra healthy, even if there’s no research to back up the claims.

Does that mean that the many foods on the list of superfoods, lots of which are fruits and vegetables, are not worth eating? Absolutely not! In fact, the multiple health benefits of a plant-based diet, also known as the Mediterranean Diet, are well documented and highly recommended. And many of the popular superfoods have always been a part of this healthy eating plan. Eating a wide variety of healthy foods can have tremendous health benefits. It is the combination and variety of foods consumed, rather than one particular food, that provides the many vitamins, nutrients, and naturally occurring antioxidants and phytonutrients that help to lower the risk of many chronic diseases.

Eating a Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet is based on the foods and eating style that people from countries like France, Italy, Spain, and Greece enjoy on a daily basis. Research has shown that people in these countries are often healthier, live longer, and have fewer chronic diseases. Although there are no strict rules, the diet typically includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans), nuts, seeds, heart-healthy fats, and lean proteins. Processed foods, refined grains, and added sugars are kept to a minimum. Portions of meat are smaller, and the majority of the meal is from plants (fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains).

The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid at right can be used as a guide to incorporating this plant-based diet into your lifestyle.

Rainbow of Plant Nutrition

To get the maximum benefit from your food, it is important to include a wide variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Eating as many “colors” as you can in a day or week gives you the best coverage. If you think of the Mediterranean Diet as a wealth of foods that are “super” healthy, you will be giving yourself a gift of good health.

Are you up for the plant-based food challenge?

Every day, try to consume 10-20 different fruits, vegetables, or whole grains; 14-15 plant-based foods are highlighted in the sample menu below.

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal with added almonds and blueberries, and orange juice
  • Lunch: Salad with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, grilled chicken, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar OR sandwich on whole wheat bread with turkey, lettuce, tomato, and a pickle
  • Snack: Yogurt with added strawberries or an apple
  • Supper: Salmon, asparagus, sweet potato, whole wheat roll, dessert of cut-up cantaloupe or watermelon