- There are many nutrient-rich foods that you can incorporate into your diet to improve your overall well-being.
- Superfoods have a high antioxidant profile, and many contain ample amounts of essential vitamins and minerals.
- It can be fun to explore fresh, colorful foods that are nutrient-dense. Chances are, the more vibrant the color, the more antioxidant power they contain.
Superfoods. It seems we hear of a new so-called “superfood” every month. A rare berry that you’ve likely never heard of is all of a sudden showing up on shelves in bulk, or perhaps the collard greens that you have been forcing down since you were a kid are now all the rage. So, what’s the real story with superfoods?
What should you be looking for in different foods to optimize your health and improve your body composition? From the very first superfood—the banana—to those listed in this article, we will discuss the importance of nutrient-rich foods, including which foods contain the most nutrients, and how you can fill your plate with the best variety of foods to improve your overall health and support strong body composition.
What is a Superfood?
According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, a superfood is defined as a food that is rich in compounds considered beneficial to a person’s health, such as phytochemicals, fiber, and Omega-3 fatty acids. Superfoods are recognized by national nutrition guidelines as Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables (PFV).
Now, of course, fruits and vegetables are not the only superfoods, but research shows that a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease.
Phytochemicals include antioxidants such as polyphenols, which provide anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation can be caused by infection, injury, or disease. Additionally, normal amounts of acute inflammation can be caused by exercise. Evidence shows that a diet rich in antioxidants can lead to faster recovery time from injury, illness, and exercise-induced stress.
Antioxidants reduce free radicals as well as prevent and repair damage caused by oxidative stress. Oxidative stress occurs when free radicals accumulate in the body and can play a major role in chronic and degenerative illnesses such as cancer, arthritis, and cardiovascular disease.
Anthocyanins are a type of polyphenol that can act as an antioxidant and reduce the incidence of chronic disease. They are one of many different types of pigments found in plants, giving certain fruits and vegetables their vibrant colors. These include berries, cherries, peaches, pomegranates, black beans, eggplant, and purple sweet potatoes. Accumulative evidence suggests that a diet rich in anthocyanins can reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, prevent cardiovascular disease, and help control and prevent diabetes.
Whether your goal is weight loss, improved muscular function and composition, or you simply want to boost your immune system, incorporating superfoods into your daily diet will ensure you are getting enough of these essential nutrients to reach your goals.
What Are The Key Nutrients in Superfoods?
In addition to the antioxidant properties found in many superfoods, there are some noteworthy nutrients that you should be aware of. While this is not a comprehensive list, focusing on the nutrients listed here may be beneficial in optimizing your health. Please remember to consult your physician before changing or supplementing your diet.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Vitamin C
- B Vitamins
OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
Omega-3 fatty acids provide many health benefits, including reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses. Omega-3’s contain anti-inflammatory properties and are shown to enhance post-exercise recovery.
The Standard American Diet typically contains a higher ratio of Omega-6 fatty acids compared to Omega-3. This unbalanced ratio has been shown to increase inflammation and reduce immune response. Omega-6 sources include vegetable oils, and while they do offer health benefits, it is important to consume foods that have higher amounts of Omega-3s to keep a healthy balance.
The best sources of Omega-3s include:
- Fatty fish and fish oils such as salmon, mackerel, and cod liver
- Chia seeds
Dietary magnesium supports a healthy immune system. It helps maintain healthy bone structure, muscle function, and insulin levels. Magnesium assists the body with ATP (energy) metabolism and acts as a calcium blocker, reducing cramping and aiding in muscle relaxation after exercise.
Because magnesium is essential in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body, slight deficiency may lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Ongoing research shows that magnesium deficiency may lead to a higher risk of insulin resistance as well.
Many magnesium-rich foods are also high fiber foods such as dark leafy greens, nuts, legumes, and whole grains. Studies indicate that individuals consuming a diet rich in magnesium also have a higher intake of dietary fiber. Dietary fiber aids in digestion helps control weight, reduces cholesterol, and stabilizes blood sugar.
The best sources of Magnesium include:
- Green vegetables such as spinach, swiss chard, and turnip greens
- Nuts such as almonds and cashews
Zinc is an essential nutrient that supports overall immune function. It is also a powerful antioxidant that aids in anti-inflammatory and oxidative stress responses. Many chemical reactions within the body require zinc. Zinc is a necessary element for muscle protein synthesis and hormone regulation.
Zinc deficiency is common in elderly individuals and has been connected with degenerative diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, atherosclerosis, and age-related macular degeneration. Additionally, zinc deficiency can cause weight loss, growth retardation, and muscle atrophy.
Generally, zinc supplementation is not recommended for an otherwise healthy individual as it can interfere with other essential vitamins and micronutrients.
The best sources of Zinc include:
- Red meat
Vitamin C is likely the most well-known of the immune-supporting vitamins. It is a powerful antioxidant that can reduce free radicals and protect macromolecules from oxidative damage that may otherwise cause chronic diseases. Associations have been discovered between vitamin C deficiency and an increased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), including coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, and hypertension.
Vitamin C plays a crucial role in collagen synthesis and provides enzymatic support in vascular functioning, which helps to reduce inflammation and inflammatory diseases such as atherosclerosis. Studies have also shown that vitamin C may play a role in lowering blood pressure.
The enzymatic properties of vitamin C assist with ATP (energy) production as it helps transport long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cells). In relation to improved body composition, evidence suggests that vitamin C could help prevent obesity and obesity-related illnesses.
The best sources of Vitamin C include:
- Citrus fruit
- Tart cherries
The eight vitamins that make up the B vitamin complex are all responsible for energy production and DNA synthesis. Each of the vitamins plays a vital role in the production of ATP. Increased intake of B vitamins is associated with improved metabolic pathways such as glucose metabolism and reduced levels of obesity.
It is important to consume enough of each of the vitamins within the complex, as a deficiency in one can lead to decreased energy, poor cognition, and muscle weakness. Early studies show that biotin supplementation may improve insulin resistance and fasting glucose levels in patients with diabetes and obese individuals.
The eight B vitamins are:
- B1 (thiamine)
- B2 (riboflavin)
- B3 (niacin)
- B5 (pantothenic acid)
- B6 (pyridoxine)
- B7 (biotin)
- B9 (Folic acid)
The best sources for B vitamins include:
- Beef and liver
What Are The 10 Superfoods to Eat?
- Dark leafy greens: rich in vitamin A, C, and K, iron, etc
- Salmon: good source of Omega-3s
- Tart Cherries: rich in vitamin C and polyphenols
- Berries: rich in Vitamin C and high in antioxidants
- Nuts: packed with essential vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats
- Garlic: great source of Vitamin C and B-Complex
- Turmeric: potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant (curcumin)
- Cacao: nutrient-rich, containing magnesium, zinc, iron, potassium, etc
- Manuka Honey: contains antioxidant properties and anti-inflammatory
- Tea: contains antioxidant properties and polyphenolic compounds
When focusing on improving your health and well-being through better dietary choices, you want to get the most bang for your buck. Supplements can be pricey and unsatisfying compared to a delicious, fresh, wholesome meal.
Each of the foods listed below contains ample amounts of the nutrients discussed earlier in this article and have active ingredients that help support a healthy body. These are foods that are shown to improve body composition, reduce the risk of chronic illnesses, provide immune support, and have antioxidant properties that reduce inflammation, oxidative stress, and free radicals. The best part is, half of them are staples you can keep in the pantry, and the other half, with a bit of planning, are easy to consume every week.
DARK LEAFY GREENS
Consuming dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, turnip greens, and collard greens have been associated with a reduced risk for type II diabetes and cancer (including breast cancer), and are protective against depressive symptoms.
Leafy greens are an important source of many nutrients, making them a superfood staple of any healthy diet. Dark leafy greens contain sufficient amounts of vitamins A, C, and K, iron, folate, zinc, and magnesium. They are also a good source of fiber and carotenoids, antioxidants that protect the cells.
Salmon is a good source of Omega-3s, which aid in improved immune response and neuromuscular functioning, and enhanced cognition. Frequent consumption of salmon, and other fatty fish, has been shown to reduce blood pressure and symptoms associated with coronary heart disease (CHD).
Studies indicate that consuming whole food proteins such as salmon helps with post-exercise muscle protein synthesis better than using a protein supplement. Additionally, studies suggest Omega-3s like salmon can improve body composition as the fatty acids counteract muscle atrophy and promote recovery from periods of muscle disuse induced by surgery and subsequent inactivity.
Cherries are a rich source of vitamin C and polyphenols, both of which contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that aid in the reduction of oxidative stress. It is widely known that oxidative stress contributes to inflammation and atherosclerosis, which is thought to play a large role in cardiovascular disease. Evidence suggests that tart cherries promote health, providing cardioprotective support, and helping to reduce blood pressure and LDL cholesterol.
A study published in 2010 sought to find a better way for endurance athletes to improve muscle recovery time from long-distance runs. Some endurance athletes take NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) to reduce muscle inflammation and pain. The results from this study concluded that the anti-inflammatory properties of tart cherry juice can effectively minimize post-exercise muscle pain, without the adverse side effects of regularly taking NSAIDs.
Berries are well-known for their antioxidant properties. Fruits such as blueberries, strawberries, lingonberries, and blackberries contain flavenoids and anthocyanins, both are types of polyphenols that reduce oxidative stress.
Cardiovascular health has been shown to improve with the increased consumption of berries. This study concludes that moderate consumption of berries improves platelet function and HDL cholesterol, as well as reduces blood pressure.
Many factors can lead to the manifestation and progression of cancer. Anthocyanins, flavonoids, and other antioxidants and phytochemicals are believed to offer protective functions that reduce the risk of cancer, primarily of the GI tract and breast.
Along with other superfoods outlined in this article, berries provide neuroprotective support, which may prevent cognitive decline and dementia.
Much more research needs to be done in determining the causes, and prevention, of diseases such as cancer and dementia. What is clear, is that an antioxidant-rich diet provides the body with protective armor in preventing many inflammatory illnesses.
Nuts are a highly nutritious food containing many essential vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. Often, nuts are recommended in limited quantities due to their high-fat content. Additionally, when nuts are salted or flavored in some way, its health benefits are significantly reduced.
Research shows that individuals who consume a handful of nuts as part of a healthy diet can maintain or improve body composition. Top-ranked healthy lifestyle diets such as the DASH Diet and the Mediterranean Diet specifically recommend moderate consumption of nuts as they lower blood pressure, improve heart function, and reduce factors associated with coronary heart disease and diabetes.
Nuts contain a variety of nutrients that place them in the superfood category. These nutrients include vitamins B3, B6, B9, and E. Additionally, they are a great source of magnesium, potassium, and fiber. All of these contribute to a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome and related illnesses.
In addition to the nutrient profile of nuts, this food also provides an impressive list of antioxidants, including phytochemicals such as carotenoids, polyphenols, and tocopherols. These compounds are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. As such, nuts may have the potential to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
A potent antioxidant, garlic has been shown to improve immune function and support the cardiovascular system. Garlic is a good source of vitamin C and vitamins of the B-complex, which both enhance the efficacy of garlic in immune protection. Studies confirm that consuming garlic lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, delays the progression of atherosclerosis, and improves circulation.
Garlic has been used for medicinal purposes for over 5,000 years. Certain studies indicate that garlic has been effective in inhibiting yeast infections and treating ear infections. Additionally, the compound allicin is believed to help shield the stomach from the spread of Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium directly related to gastrointestinal cancer.
Like garlic, turmeric is an incredible antioxidant. It aids in the management of inflammatory conditions such as metabolic syndrome and arthritis. The polyphenol antioxidant found in turmeric is curcumin, which has been shown to help reduce inflammation and pain as well as benefit the kidneys.
Curcumin has been shown to reduce many issues resulting from metabolic syndrome. Studies show that curcumin may improve insulin sensitivity, reduce the accumulation of fat stores which lead to obesity, and lower blood pressure and oxidative stress.
Interestingly, the bioavailability of turmeric alone is limited, but when paired with piperine, the main compound found in black pepper, the bioavailability of turmeric increases by 2000%.
Cacao is chocolate in its purest form. It is nutrient-rich, containing magnesium, zinc, iron, potassium, calcium, copper, and manganese. Cocoa, a derivative of cacao, is the processed form that generally contains additives like sugar and dairy.
Cacao beans contain antioxidants and phytochemicals such as polyphenols and flavonoids that protect your cells against free radicals and oxidative stress. The main flavanol in cacao is epicatechin, which has been linked to improved cognition and enhanced mood.
Dark chocolate has been found to reduce metabolic syndrome risk factors, including reduced blood pressure, improved insulin sensitivity, and stabilized glucose. Additionally, researchers found that the antioxidant properties of cacao improve heart function by reducing platelet reactivity and inhibiting oxidant production.
Honey has been used for both nutritional and medicinal purposes for centuries. Evidence shows that honey has antioxidant properties and can provide anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits. Because honey is composed of various sugars, flavonoids, phenolic acids, enzymes, amino acids, proteins, and other compounds, studies show that it possesses antitumor and antileukemic activity.
Manuka honey has also been shown to have antibacterial properties and is beneficial in wound healing. There is, however, a difference between medical-grade honey and the stuff you buy at the store, so it may not be a good idea to treat cuts and wounds with generic honey.
Manuka honey is a darker, thicker type of honey that comes specifically from the manuka plant. It has been shown to contain more microbial properties than other types of honey. While all honey has antioxidants, Manuka honey is shown to have an unusually high level of methylglyoxal (MGO) formed from dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which correlates with increased antibacterial activity.
Honey can greatly reduce oxidative stress and, as such, has been shown to exert protective properties of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Similar evidence shows that it is among the most potent antioxidants beneficial in athletic performance.
Honey is easily incorporated into your daily diet as a sweetener to your tea, or as a topping on yogurt or oatmeal. As a reminder, honey is not recommended for infants under one year of age as babies are at a higher risk of contracting botulism.
Tea is a popular beverage around the world and has received a lot of attention for its health benefits over the past few decades. Tea contains antioxidant properties and polyphenolic compounds that attribute to the health benefits of tea. Studies indicate that the polyphenols found in tea, specifically green tea, have anti-inflammatory properties, shown as a positive strategy in preventing osteoarthritis.
The catechins (a type of phenol) present in tea are strong antioxidants, reducing free radicals and the presence of oxidative stress. Catechin activity has been a proposed mechanism for the anti-cancer properties present in tea.
Tea has been shown effective in improving body composition. Studies indicate that consuming 3-4 cups of tea per day can significantly reduce body weight gain and risks associated with metabolic syndrome. While consuming 3-4 cups a day may not be the right answer for everyone, the antioxidant properties found in tea make it something to consider including in a healthy diet.
How to Incorporate Superfoods Into Your Life
While the term superfood may seem redundant, the main point is this: to improve body composition, it is important to choose a diet that is nutrient-dense and includes a variety of fresh, whole foods. There is no such thing as a miracle food or effective cure for cancer, but including nutrient and antioxidant-rich foods in your daily diet can improve your overall health.
If you are still not sure where to start, there are a few specific lifestyle diets that incorporate this message. We call these “lifestyle” diets as they are meant to invoke lifestyle change and are not a restrictive diet to simply shed pounds. These healthy lifestyle diets include:
The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is a non-restrictive diet that promotes the consumption of fresh, whole foods while focusing on serving and portion sizes. It was developed through trials by the National Institute of Health as a means to reduce blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health among the U.S. population.
The Mediterranean diet is based on the eating patterns of those living in the countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea. Scientist Ancel Keys led the Seven Countries Study in 1958 and determined that those living in this region were among the healthiest individuals with the lowest prevalence of cardiovascular-related illnesses and obesity and improved overall mental wellbeing.
The diet emphasizes physical activity and the frequent consumption of fresh, whole foods, including heart-healthy foods such as fish and other seafood.
A flexitarian or semi-vegetarian diet is one that is primarily vegetarian with the occasional inclusion of meat or fish. The flexitarian diet focuses on sustainability and is ethically-conscious, but recognizes that meat contains vitally important protein, vitamins, and other nutrients, but also that the consumption of meat is not a necessity every day.
Studies show that those who switch from mostly meat-based diets to a flexitarian diet improve body composition, and reduce their risk of developing metabolic syndrome and related risks, diabetes, and cancer.
In closing, whenever making adjustments to your diet, remember that small changes go a long way. Try incorporating a new healthy food and one or some of the superfood listed above into your diet. Don’t be afraid to try something new and have fun with it! Keep in mind that adding these essential superfood nutrients can provide amazing benefits for your overall health and well-being.
Nicole Pepper is a health and wellness professional with a passion for improving the lives of those around her. She enjoys cooking, baking, running, and likes to balance her obsession with murder mystery shows with Disney movies.