Do ‘Superfoods’ Live Up to the Hype?

By Teri Dreher, RN, guest blogger

Proper nutrition is important for everyone, but it’s arguably even more critical for people with disabilities.

Our bodies already face myriad challenges, and we don’t want to make things even harder on ourselves by eating poorly.

A steady diet of nutrient-poor processed foods can sap the energy we need to deal with our physical limitations. And if we gain weight, it can be significantly harder to push a wheelchair or walk on crutches.

Still, there’s lots of dubious nutrition advice out there — including about so-called “superfoods.”

“Superfood” has become a marketing buzzword that companies use to sell more of their products and perhaps even charge more. But is there any truth to the term?

The first superfood – though it wasn’t called that – was the banana. It was promoted not by researchers, but by the United Fruit Company in the early 20th century, according to Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They were importing a lot of bananas and had to sell them, so they published informative brochures about the virtues of the banana.

Ever since, industry-sponsored research has looked for “super” qualities in chocolate, red wine, blueberries, macadamias, raisins, and a host of other foods.

Now, are some of those good for you? Yes. They’re plant-based, and it’s been shown repeatedly that people who eat a plant-based or plant-forward diet are less prone to obesity and have a lower risk of cancer and heart disease. But the “super” qualities of these foods are open to debate.

Marion Nestle, nutritionist and public health advocate, wrote in her 2018 book, “The Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat”:

All these foods are highly nutritious and well worth eating for their taste and texture as well as for their health benefits,” Nestle says. “Is one fruit, vegetable, or nut better for you than another? The answer, as I keep saying, depends on everything else you eat or do. … Variety in food intake and calorie balance are fundamental principles of healthful diets.

Even so, some foods pack a bigger nutritional punch than others on a per-calorie basis. Consider adding some of these to your daily regimen.

Dark leafy greens

Dark-colored leafy greens – not iceberg lettuce, but spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and their cousins – carry very few calories but a lot of nutritional upside. They are rich in carotenoids, which have been shown to protect the eyes. The vitamins A and C in spinach may help protect the heart. Make these greens the basis of your salads, or you can even sauté them in a smidge of olive oil to fill an omelet. And that brings us to…

Eggs

Eggs got a bad rap in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when doctors surmised that their high cholesterol content contributed to artery-clogging cholesterol in a person’s body. That’s been disproven, and now they’re considered a safe and nutrient-dense source of protein. Eggs contain vitamins B, E, and D, and they’re low in saturated fat. They also contain nutrients that are beneficial for your eyes and bones.

Eating eggs to excess can still be harmful, particularly in people with cardiovascular disease. But for most of us, an egg a day – including the yolk – is a good choice.

Broccoli

If your mother told you to eat your broccoli, she knew what she was talking about. Broccoli and its cruciferous cousins (cabbage, Brussels sprouts) provide fiber and micronutrients and may reduce the risk of cancer because of their phytochemicals, according to UCLA Health.

Salmon

Do you take fish oil? Why not try the real thing, in the form of salmon, trout, or tuna? These are excellent sources of protein, which we need as we age to maintain muscle mass. And those omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. Broiled, baked, or grilled fish, served with a side of broccoli, is a nutritional win-win.

Blueberries

Blueberries have many redeeming qualities: They’re versatile, have antioxidants, and are delicious. The may even reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease and delay cognitive decline. As Marion Nestle wrote, “This is an impressive range of health benefits for a tiny fruit consumed in small amounts.”

Nuts

Vitamin E is helpful as we age, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, because it boosts the immune system and keeps blood vessels from narrowing. One of the best sources of Vitamin E is almonds, but other nuts and seeds, such as sunflower, also contain significant amounts. Eat them sparingly, though, because they’re high in calories.

Avocados

Randomized, controlled studies have found that the fats, antioxidants, and other nutrients in avocados reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and the risk of cardiovascular disease, give skin more elasticity, and improve the bacterial environment in the gut, among other benefits. A serving is less than you’d expect, though: about a third of a medium avocado.

Although these are all high-quality foods, many others can also contribute to a healthy diet. Rather than focusing on those marketed as “superfoods,” focus on filling your plate with super nutritious choices. TwP

Teri Dreher, RN, is a patient advocated with NShore Patient Advocates. She is the author of How to Be a Healthcare Advocate for Yourself & Your Loved Ones, available on Amazon. She would be happy to offer readers a free phone consultation. Reach her at Teri@northshorern.com

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