Imagine eating a bowl of kale and quinoa. Probably not the most delicious meal you’ve had, but if it makes you feel healthier, even while burning a hole in your pocket, you would do it – right?
A superfood is defined as a nutrient-rich food considered to be beneficial for health and wellbeing, with many being touted as so good for you that people go out of their way to incorporate them into their daily lives.
Kale, quinoa, blueberries, coconut oil, turmeric and cavolo nero (black cabbage – yes, I had to look it up too) are a few in fashion right now, but they come with a high price tag.
What is a superfood?
University of Otago director of dietetics Dr Sue MacDonell said she has discussed what makes a superfood at length with her team.
“The term ‘superfood’ is often used to refer to a food that is promoted as having extra nutritional benefit or being rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
“The consensus… was that superfoods are defined by a marketing team to promote a particular food.
“These messages often get picked up and promoted, or someone who has tried a superfood and feels better spreads the word.”
However, this can often be misleading as people can think that adding blueberries into an unbalanced diet can improve health.
“As dieticians we don’t recognise foods as superfoods because all foods have benefits; we need variety.
“The benefit of a food is often dependent on a person’s need. For instance, if they are iron deficient then red meat may be considered a superfood for them, but really this person would need a combination of foods to improve their iron status: green leafy vegetables, wholegrain cereals, fruits and veges high in vitamin C, as well as the red meat.
“The reality is that no single food will prevent disease or improve your health.”
The appeal of superfoods is understandable because most people want to be healthy, she said.
“The promise of improving your health quickly and effortlessly is a hard one to resist. We have all been tempted by quick fixes for something, and nutrition is no different.
“There can also be a perception that paying more must mean food is better, but there are plenty of low-cost alternatives that, when eaten as part of a varied diet, improve our health.”
For people wanting to eat better they should consider foods that are minimally processed.
Some that are eaten in combination provide a variety of nutrients, including dietary fibre, that can have many health benefits, says MacDonell.
These foods include all fruit and vegetables (not processed bars), wholegrains like oats and brown rice, nuts and seeds (a handful a day makes a great snack and provides protein, healthy fats and some vitamins and minerals), legumes and pulses (like chickpeas, beans and lentils), lean meat, poultry and fish (packed full of protein and minerals) and low-fat dairy.
“Put them all together and you have a super meal plan,” she says.
“We recommend avoiding the hype; cabbage and broccoli are equally as nutritious as kale or cavolo nero; oats are fantastic and cheaper than quinoa.”
People should choose food from all groups and look for food in its whole form; for example, whole fruit and vegetables, not juice or dried.
“Carbohydrates like brown rice and wholegrain cereals and breads are rich in vitamins and minerals and provide good amounts of dietary fibre; low-fat dairy products are super for our bones,” says MacDonell.
“Learn to become attuned to your hunger and fullness cues.”
In praise of the humble potato
An often-shunned carb that has been a staple in many meals has made its way onto the superfood podium recently – the humble potato.
Potatoes, while delicious covered in salt and fat, can be very healthy on their own and incorporated into meals and people are now realising their benefits.
Potatoes NZ communications and engagement officer Gemma Carroll said potatoes’ nutrition value went out of fashion. “Potatoes have always been a superfood but have been an unsung hero. People around the world eat potatoes and have done for hundreds of years.
“There was a trend for a while of eating no carbs and no white food as people thought carbs made you fat. This was a bit of a fad and some still fixate on that.”
Potatoes are a good carb, meaning they are absorbed slowly into the bloodstream and do not spike blood sugars.
“In moderation – like anything – potatoes provide you with many vitamins and are a good source of energy too.”
Potatoes are a whole food; they are low in calories, have no fat, no sodium, no cholesterol, are high in vitamin C (nearly half your daily requirement) and potassium (more than a banana) and are a good source of vitamin B6, which is great for vegetarians and vegans who may need to make up for a lack of B6 from meat).
“The potassium is particularly important as it regulates muscle contractions and nerve signals and may help to reduce blood pressure and water retention, protect against stroke, and help prevent osteoporosis and kidney stones.”
They also contain fibre (in the skins), magnesium, protein and antioxidants, she said.
Potatoes are a resistant starch, which means they support healthy gut bacteria.