Super foods come with good news and bad news. No single food can cancel the consequences of poor eating habits regardless of any such claims. The good news is that making good food choices can be one of the best ways to achieve or maintain good health-especially when substituted for less nutritious foods.
Super foods are nutritional powerhouses high in phytonutrients-chemicals that occur naturally in food. They protect against diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. When you make nutritious choices more often you’re doing your body a favor. It’s like being at a crossroads and pondering which direction to go. Often one direction is better than another. It works the same way with our daily food choices.
There are several cautionary notes to keep in mind. Some of these super foods are calorie-laden and should not be super-sized. Moderation is important. Also, including super foods does not make up for an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle such as inactivity. In alphabetical order here is my list of ten super foods to help you start down the path to better health.
1. Avocados. Avocados contribute monounsaturated fat which lowers cholesterol for heart health. Because they’re high in calories, limit your daily consumption. I enjoy avocado on my dinner salad daily. A recommended serving size is 2 tablespoons, or about one-sixth of a medium-sized avocado. Each serving provides 5 grams of fat and 55 calories. A whole one contains 30 grams of fat!
2. Broccoli. Broccoli contains sulforaphane, a phytonutrient, which is one of the most powerful cancer fighting components in food. Broccoli also is high in vitamins A an C-antioxidants that prevent damage to your body’s cells. It’s a nutritional bargain at only 43 calories in a one-cup serving.
3. Cranberries. Long known for promoting urinary tract health, cranberries come in several forms. Buy fresh cranberries in season, pop in the freezer, and use later. I toss dried cranberries into my homemade granola. The light version of the juice at 40 calories a glass is just as effective as cranberry juice cocktail for 140 calories in an 8-oz. glass.
4. Dark Chocolate. More isn’t better in the case of chocolate. Dark chocolate, rather than milk chocolate or white chocolate, can have some health benefits. It’s rich in flavonoids which positively affect heart health and blood flow including reducing blood pressure. Including a small amount, less than an ounce, in moderation in an otherwise balanced diet may be good for your health. That’s good news for those of us who are chocoholics. However, along with chocolate come sugar, butter and cream which translate into plenty of calories.
5. Nuts. Though the evidence isn’t definitive, including nuts two to five times a week may protect against heart disease by lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol. Nuts are high in protein and good unsaturated fat which contain naturally occurring cholesterol-lowering compounds called plant sterols. Nuts are calorie-dense at 200 calories per ounce. My husband, in the pursuit of good heart health, now substitutes an ounce of walnuts for the high-fat, high-sugar cookie he used to eat for lunch.
6. Pomegranates. Pomegranates may increase blood flow to the heart, reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol, and be effective against cancer. Each one contains about 800 seeds and 100 calories. Sprinkle the seeds over salad or mix them with fruit. Pomegranate juice, filled with antioxidants, is more convenient and available year round, but it also has added sugar to offset its natural tartness.
7. Soy. High in polyunsaturated fat, soy can benefit your heart health, especially when eaten in place of other proteins which are typically high in saturated fat. Edamame, boiled soybeans, have become a popular snack. Be adventuresome and try them in place of chips at your Super Bowl party.
8. Tea. Black, green or white tea is calorie-free and may reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and ovarian cancer. Keep in mind that during processing decaf and bottled teas lose some of the beneficial polyphenols, antioxidant compounds that act as anti-inflammatories to protect heart health. Sweetened bottled teas are often loaded with sugar. Your best bet is to brew your own. Did you know that herbal teas don’t come from the tea plant?
9. Whole Grains. Oatmeal, brown rice and whole wheat bread among other whole grains protect the heart when they’re eaten in place of refined grains. Don’t be fooled by packaging that touts "multi-grain goodness." Take the time to read the ingredients label. A whole grain should be listed first. Check the remaining ingredients to see if it’s filled with other less healthful refined grains.
10. Wild Salmon. A rich source of essential omega-3 fatty acids, wild salmon eaten twice a week can reduce the chance of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids cannot be manufactured by the body. Farm-raised fish are more likely to contain contaminants than those raised in the wild. The bottom line though is to include more fish more often.
Choosing only a few foods off the list is better than none. If you want more than a band-aid effect, include more of these foods regularly. Take it a step at a time and start by adding one or two new super foods to your daily diet. It takes a while to form good habits. Allow yourself this time because your health is worth it.
Super Foods Simply Equal Better Health
by Shirley Perryman, M.S., R.D.
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition
Colorado State University
Cooperative Extension Specialist