5 Superfoods That Actually Live Up to the Hype

Thursday Apr 30 | BY |
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These five superfoods won’t break the bank, but they will provide great health benefits.

Last week we talked about five superfoods that are more hype than substance. (Check it out here in case you missed it.)

Though they were healthy foods, they didn’t necessarily deserve the moniker “superfood.” On top of that, they tended to be expensive, and not really worth the money when other, more economical foods provide similar benefits.

So this week, we thought it would be fitting to turn the tables. What five foods do live up to the hype, and truly deserve to be called superfoods?

What is a Superfood?

The official definition of “superfood” is a “nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.”

If we go by that definition, we can expect that superfoods have something extra, or something more than the standard food. More nutrients per serving, for example, or a more powerful ability to help us reduce risk of disease.

We have a number of recent scientific studies on certain foods that seem to show that they have extra health benefits. Many of these studies were performed in the lab or on animals, however, which is a good start, but doesn’t give us conclusive evidence about how the foods may perform in a standard human diet.

Some of the studies also use extracts—condensed, high-dose levels of certain compounds in the foods—which can tell us how these extracts may help prevent or treat some health conditions, but again, doesn’t tell us that the regular food we eat at the table will do the same.

The idea that one or a handful of certain foods will give us a healthier, longer life is an attractive one. We seek simple answers, and want simple solutions to the health challenges we face today. What’s closer to the truth is that good health is more complicated than we know, and that one or two or five types of foods—though good for us—are probably not going to provide those golden geese we seek.

From what we know so far, the best solution is to eat a variety of healthy foods on a regular basis. Still, we have found that some foods pack a powerful punch per serving, when it comes to nutrients and health, and so are worth a little extra attention.

5 Superfoods that Pack a Big Health Punch
1. Leafy Greens

These include spinach, kale, collards, arugula, bok choy, romaine lettuce, dandelion greens, turnip greens, endive, Swiss chard, and mustard greens. You already know they’re good for you, but you may not know how much. Not only are they rich in nutrients like fiber, carotenoids, flavonoids, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, they seem to provide protection in a number of ways. We have evidence showing they may be key to avoiding several of our most common diseases—and they’re usually very reasonable in price.

  • Dementia: A 2015 study found that adding more leafy greens to your diet could help slow cognitive decline. Researchers tracked the diets of nearly 1,000 older adults for 5 years and found that those who ate one to two servings a day had the cognitive abilities of people 11 years younger than those who consumed none.
  • Clogged arteries: A 2001 study found that higher levels of lutein, a flavonoid found in leafy greens, may help arteries resist plaque buildup—thereby reducing risk of heart disease. Researchers monitored nearly 500 men and women between the ages of 40 and 60 with no history of heart disease. They measured the thickness of their carotid arteries at the beginning of the study and again 18 months later, while also measuring levels of lutein in the blood. They found that those people with the highest levels of lutein averaged only a 0.004 mm increase in artery thickness, while those with the lowest levels increased an average of 0.021 mm.
  • Lung cancer: A 2008 study found that a daily serving of green leafy vegetables could cut risk of lung cancer in half. Researchers from Spain analyzed the diets of over 600 people, including nearly 300 lung-cancer patients and about the same number of healthy controls. They found that those who ate the green leafy veggies at least once a day had a 50 percent reduced risk of developing lunch cancer, compared to those who ate fewer than five portions a week.
  • Stomach cancer: A 2006 study looked at the consumption of fruits and vegetables and the incidence of gastric cancer among people in two huge studies—the Swedish Mammography Cohort (over 36,000 women) and the Cohort of Swedish Men (over 45,000 men). During a follow up of just over 7 years, they found no association between eating fruit and stomach cancer, but those participants who consumed leafy green veggies had a lower risk of stomach cancer than those who didn’t.
  • Diabetes: In 2010, scientists announced that eating more green, leafy vegetables can significantly reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. They reviewed six studies involving over 220,000 people and found that eating one-and-a-half servings of leafy green veggies a day reduced risk of type 2 diabetes by 14 percent.

There are other animal and laboratory studies showing that eating leafy greens may provide even more benefits, including a stronger immune system, lower cholesterol levels, reduced risk of cataracts, and better bone health.

Healthy Note: Make sure to vary your sources (too much kale, for example, can backfire—see our post, “Could Kale Cause Thyroid Problems?”).

2. Beans & Lentils

It seems they truly are the magical (ahem) fruit. They include beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas.

The more we research them, the more we find out how miraculous they really are. For starters, they’re rich in protein and fiber, are a good source of complex carbohydrates, are low in fat, and give us a good dose of antioxidants.

Even better news—Money magazine listed beans as one of the 7 foods to buy when you’re broke. According to Carol Wasserman, certified holistic health practitioner in Manhattan, dry beans can cost about $1 per pound and expand to three times their volume when cooked.

A peek at the research:

  • Diabetes: A 2012 study found that those with type 2 diabetes who ate more legumes had better control over their blood sugar levels. It was a small study—only 121 participants—but results showed that those who increased legume intake by at least one cup per day lowered blood fat, blood glucose, and hemoglobin A1C levels, and also lowered blood pressure.
  • Obesity: Because they’re full of fiber and very satisfying, beans may help people lose weight. A 2014 study of nearly 200 people found that those with a high-fiber, bean-rich diet lost about 8 pounds after 16 weeks, and also reduced their LDL “bad” and total cholesterol levels. Researchers compared the bean-rich diet with the low-carbohydrate diet and found it was just as effective at encouraging weight loss, while more effective at lowering cholesterol. An earlier 2008 study looked at data from the NHANES 1999-2002 study, and found that bean consumers had a lower body weight and smaller waist size compared to non-bean consumers. They also had better overall nutrient intakes.
  • Heart disease: We have quite a few studies showing that making beans a part of your daily diet can help reduce a lot of factors that can lead to heart disease. In addition to the one above (in “diabetes”) that showed beans helped lower blood pressure, we have a 2007 small human study showing that pinto bean intake could lower total and LDL cholesterol, as well as high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, thereby reducing risk of coronary heart disease. In 2005, scientists reported that those consuming at least one serving of beans a day had a 38 percent lower risk of suffering a heart attack than those who didn’t. An earlier 2001 study of over 9,000 people found similar results, reporting that consuming legumes four or more times a week was associated with a 22 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease.
  • Cancer: Beans may have cancer-protective powers. Analysis of data from nearly 35,000 participants (in the Nurses’ Health Study) found that women who ate four or more servings a week of legumes were 33 percent less likely to develop tumors in the colon (that can progress to colon cancer). A 2006 study showed that those who had developed non-cancerous tumors in the colon in the past were less likely to experience a recurrence if they increased their consumption of beans. A 2015 meta-analysis concluded that a higher consumption of legumes was associated with a decreased risk of colorectal cancer. Other studies have found that a higher intake of legumes significantly lowered risk of prostate cancer. Finally, a Canadian study reported that women who ate beans or lentils at least twice a week were 24 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than those who ate them less than once a month.
  • Longevity: Could eating beans more often help you live a longer life? We have some evidence to suggest it might. In 2004, researchers reported that for every 20 grams increase in daily intake of legumes, participants experienced a 7-8 percent reduction in mortality. This, after they had gathered data on food intakes for nearly 800 people in Japan, Sweden, Greece, and Australia. Legumes were the only food to show the reduced risk of all foods tested, showing it to be a superstar across a variety of cultures.

Laboratory and animal studies have also suggested that beans may help reduce risk factors for many other types of cancer, including stomach and kidney, but we need more research to confirm this.

Healthy note: If beans cause you digestive stress, try gradually increasing the amount you eat over several weeks. Other tips: make sure you soak uncooked beans overnight before cooking, add digestive spices like ginger and turmeric to ease digestion, and chew carefully.

3. Flax and Chia Seeds

These are both great sources of fiber, protein, phytochemicals, and antioxidants, as well as minerals like calcium and phosphorus, but their main claim to fame is their omega-3 fatty acid content. Chia is particularly easy to digest, which makes it a great addition to soups and smoothies for that filling fiber. Flaxseeds work as egg substitutes in baked goods for vegans, and can be cooked into a hot cereal.

Some people like to pin one against the other, to see which is healthiest, but they end up coming out about even. Both provide essential vitamins (like B and E) and minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus. Chia provides more iron, calcium, and selenium, wile flax provides choline (important for brain health). Both deliver a massive amount of nutrients for very few calories.

Both are omega-3 powerhouses, providing alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) of between 5 and 6.5 grams per ounce.

These seeds have been linked to a number of health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer, reduced food cravings and appetite, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and improved exercise performance. Studies have been inconsistent so far, however, so we’re still waiting on further research to be sure just what these seeds can do.

Meanwhile, we’ve included them in this list because of the many ways that omega-3s can benefit our health. Though recent studies have cast doubt on their ability to help reduce risk of heart disease, we still have evidence showing they can help reduce risk of depression, improve cognitive ability and boost brain health, protect eye health, and suppress some forms of cancer.

4. Dark Chocolate

Yes, you have to be careful not to eat too much, but a small serving of dark chocolate a day packs a big punch as far as your health is concerned. And that much is certainly not going to break the bank anytime soon.

First of all, dark chocolate provides a number of nutrients. As long as you’re getting the type with a level of cocoa 65 percent or higher, a 100-gram bar will give you 11 grams of fiber, about half your daily requirement of iron and magnesium, nearly all your daily requirement of copper and manganese, and about a third of your requirement of phosphorus. It’s also a great source of healthy antioxidants, polyphenols, and flavonols, containing more per serving than other antioxidant powerhouses like Acai berries and blueberries.

While you’re enjoying the taste, you’ll also receive the following health benefits:

  • Brain health: Ingredients in chocolate help increase blood flow to the brain—a study from the University of Nottingham found that to be so, and that afterwards, cognitive performance increased. A 2014 study found that people aged 50 to 69 who drank cocoa flavonols for three months performed about 25 percent better on a memory test than those who didn’t. An earlier 2011 study found similar results—cocoa flavonols improved spatial memory and performance, and also helped improve visual sensitivity.
  • Skin cancer: Eat chocolate for your skin? It may be a good idea. One study found that eating 20 grams of dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa—half a small bar—every day for 12 weeks created UV resistance in the skin. In other words, adults were able to withstand double the amount of sunburn-causing UVB rays before their skin started to redden, compared to those who ate ordinary chocolate.
  • Heart disease: Though we don’t have a lot of research on chocolate and heart disease, what we have looks promising. A 2006 study of nearly 50 men found that those who consumed the highest level of cocoa lower levels of blood pressure, and a reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and from any cause at all. A 2011 study found that those who ate chocolate on a regular basis were less likely to suffer from coronary heart disease, and a 2010 study reported that chocolate eaters were less likely to have plaque buildup in their arteries.
  • Curbs the appetite: If you’re failing at your weight loss efforts because of cravings, try adding some dark chocolate to your dessert list. It seems to work as an appetite suppressant. In a 2011 study, participants who ate 100 grams of dark chocolate felt more satiated and less hungry afterwards than those who ate milk chocolate. They also ate less at their next meal—17 percent less.
  • Stroke: Chocolate lovers may be less likely to suffer a stroke than those who don’t eat chocolate. This, according to a 2012 study. Researchers followed over 37,000 men for 10 years, and found that those with the highest quartile of chocolate consumption (about 2 ounces) a week were less at risk than those who ate little to no chocolate.

Other studies have suggested that cocoa may help reduce risk of heart disease, and may have some protective effects against DNA changes that can lead to cancer.

5. Blueberries

They contain a broad range of antioxidants, and are known as one of the foods highest in antioxidants in the world. Just one cup of blueberries gives you a quarter day’s supply of vitamin C and K along with manganese, about 17 percent of your daily fiber requirement, and a strong dose of resveratrol, gallic acid, lutein, and zeaxanthin. They’re also low in fat and help keep you satisfied.

Studies on blueberries show that they may be key foods when it comes to protecting the heart and the brain.

  • Reduce risk of heart attack: According to Harvard Medical School, women who ate the most blueberries and strawberries were 34 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack than those who ate the least of these fruits.
  • Blood pressure: A recent study found that women who ate about 1.5 tablespoons of freeze-dried blueberries (equivalent to a cup of fresh berries) for two months were able to lower their blood pressure readings by about 5 to 6 percent and boost their nitric oxide levels by 68 percent—which helps relax blood vessel walls.
  • Brain health: A 2009 study reported that drinking a blueberry smoothie for breakfast improved mid-afternoon mental performance. In fact, those who didn’t drink the smoothie saw their mental performance fall by 15 to 20 percent five hours later. A 2012 report from the American Chemical Society stated that berry fruits help the brain stay healthy in many ways, preventing inflammation and improving motor control and cognition.

Other research has suggested that blueberries may help protect against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, reduce cancer risk, help you lose weight, promote the production of collagen (potentially reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles), boost the immune system, and protect eyes from damage caused by inflammation.

Do you have other favorite superfoods? Please share with our readers.

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Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com

3 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

Comments are closed for this post.

  1. Isn’t flaxseed an edocrine disruptor like soy is? Don’t they both contribute enoestrogens that mess up the thyroid?

  2. Juan says:

    How many grams of dark chocolate can you eat safely everyday without getting fat ?

  3. john polifronio says:

    The evidence for these 5 foods is overwhelming, and keeps increasing.

    What is needed now, is an evidence based list, of the 10 most harmful foods.

    As for chocolate, the conspicuous absence, from nearly all articles regarding the “amount” of this food, that it’s best to consume, tells me, that no one really knows, for sure. I’m 5′,9″, am obese, at 265 lbs., and, typically consume about 15gms daily.

    thanks

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