Superfoods – What They Are, What They Are Not

“Let food be thy medicine, thy medicine shall be thy food.”
— Hippocrates

superfoods-glo-magazineThe term ‘superfoods’ has been around for a while, but recently the claims made seem to have picked up speed exponentially. A quick Google search reveals over 13 million hits. The idea that a group of foods could have special health properties is appealing. And why wouldn’t it be? Everyone would like to feel what they are putting in their bodies is making them healthier—or at least not making them sick. Yet at the same time, no one wants to think they are falling prey to slick marketing techniques.

What exactly is a superfood? Oxford Dictionary defines a superfood as, “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial to health and well-being.” The list of superfoods is varied, depending on whom you ask. Some examples, though, are blueberries, salmon, broccoli, spinach, yogurt, almonds, beets and more exotic selections like chia seeds, pomegranates, spirulina (algae) and quinoa. Sources claim these foods fight cancer, stop memory loss, reduce PMS, improve brain function and the list goes on.

These are strong claims, but is there any truth to them? Really, it depends who you ask. According to the CNN article, “Stress Eating Helps, When They’re These Superfoods,” yes, superfoods have real health and brain benefits. The article states pistachios may lower blood pressure and heart rate, and eating a piece of dark chocolate can reduce stress hormones. Another study published in the journal Neurology, correlates ingestion of Omega-3 (found in oily fish like salmon, sardines and in leafy greens) with larger brain volume in postmenopausal women. Another example is a study done by the European Food Information Council, which has shown conclusive health benefits of blueberries. “The berries’ high concentrations of a group of antioxidant plant compounds, especially those called anthocyanins, have been reported to inhibit the growth of cancerous human colon cells, as well as kill them off.”

Others say there is no conclusive evidence of superfoods having ‘superpowers.’ Dr. Mark Delbello of Dupont Internal Medicine in Fort Wayne stated the promotion of superfoods as more beneficial than many other foods was misleading. “Sometimes researchers will have a small group of people who respond positively to a food and then report those findings, ignoring the larger group’s response.” He said the people who eat superfoods probably have healthier lifestyles anyway— which then contributes to their positive response to those foods.

A noteworthy point in the superfood debate is that much of what is written about superfoods contains language such as, “may prevent,” “shown to prevent in rats,” “found in human tissue research.” That is, they are not proven in human subjects.

So, was Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine right? Is food medicine? Many people and doctors would agree it is, but really the bottom line is this: more studies are needed to confirm the benefits of superfoods. However, eating oily fish, leafy greens and legumes cannot hurt you. So, eat these things and feel good about them, but don’t expect that the other hallmarks of a healthy lifestyle such as exercise and management of stress can go by the wayside. Superfoods are just part of a healthy lifestyle; they are not the only part.

Dupont Internal Medicine, Fort Wayne,

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