Superfoods are a hot topic and they have been for quite a while. Superfoods are considered to have extra nutritional punch and provide health benefits above and beyond other foods. Things like blueberries, dark chocolate, and kale have been labeled superfoods as well as more exotic options such as acai berries, which come from palm trees in the rainforests of South America.
Despite the hype, focusing on superfoods may not be the best way to health and longevity.
The studies that support claims of superfood status are building blocks to a better overall understanding of food, nutrition, and health. These laboratory studies are done under artificial conditions (often with rats or isolated human cells) using unrealistically high dosages of a single food or nutrient. Furthermore, the effects found in these studies are typically short term.
This makes it hard to apply the results of any one study, or even a set of studies, to the diets of real people. You probably have to eat much more than a square of dark chocolate a day to truly see any benefit over the long term. As a proud chocoholic, that sounds good to me, but it could be counter-productive in other ways, such as calorie intake. The flavonoids that provide the health benefit in chocolate are in straight cocoa, while the dark chocolate we enjoy has plenty of added sugar and fat.
We also don’t eat foods in isolation. When I eat blueberries, it’s typically in my morning oatmeal, which may change how the various nutrients of both the blueberries and the oats are absorbed.
Finally, the focus on superfoods ignores other foods that are pretty nutritionally great, too (don’t forget the lowly carrot).
So what’s a human to do? No surprises here. Eat a balanced diet across all the major food groups.
In fact, dietary research is focusing increasingly on healthy eating patterns rather than the influence of specific nutrients or food groups. That doesn’t discount the scientific importance of understanding the health impacts of individual foods, but the application of that research is focusing less on superfoods and more on super habits.
Our nutritional and caloric needs change as we age. A focus on eating patterns is powerful in part because there are multiple diets that have similar results. That means there are multiple, healthy ways to accommodate our changing needs and tastes. Data from the NIH AARP Diet and Health Survey suggest that diets such as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Mediterranean Diet, and the DASH diet (which focuses specifically on prevention of heart disease and stroke) reduce population mortality caused by a number of diseases. There is evidence that healthy dietary patterns such as these reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancers. There is also emerging evidence of relationships between diet and some neurocognitive disorders and congenital anomalies.
The importance of eating more fruits and vegetables is common across these diets. They also emphasize eating more whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, nuts and less meat, sugar-sweetened foods, and refined grains.
The 2015-2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines continue this focus on healthy eating patterns. According to the guidelines, about 3/4 of us don’t eat enough vegetables, fruits, dairy, or oils and half of us eat more grains and proteins, added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium than recommended.
We also eat too many calories. The amount of calories we need each day varies by age, sex, and physical activity. For men over 65 it ranges from 2,000 to 2,600. For women the range is 1,600 to 2,000.
Another reason focusing on super habits is a better approach than superfoods is that small changes can make a big difference. Consider substituting a high calorie snack with a nutrient-dense snack like carrots and hummus. Eat a piece of fruit tomorrow instead of the sugary fig newtons. If you’re given the choice of white or brown rice, take the brown rice. Take out one sugary beverage a day and try substituting oils instead of solid fats like butter. None of these require that you give up the foods you love or suggest that you eat nothing but blueberries and kale. It’s all about creating a healthy balance and fueling your body with the nutrients it needs to function properly.
This chart is helpful for learning about the recommended amounts of food from each food group depending on the amount of calories you eat per day.
Here is a primer on the vitamins we need and where they come from.