Every season, it seems, one fruit or vegetable gets the “superfood” treatment, gracing headlines and topping the grocery lists of health-conscious foodies. Last year, the favoured foods were beans and lentils. Next in line is protein-packed insects as an alternative to meat.
There’s a whole spectrum of so-called superfoods, from the obscure (mealworms) to the more familiar (blueberries). Broadly defined, a superfood is a nutrient-dense food loaded with phytonutrients (plant-based chemical compounds), vitamins and antioxidants and often credited with boosting the immune system.
Should you pack your cart with all the latest trendy foods? Or should you stick with the conventional advice of dietitians and, probably, your mom: eat a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Although there are numerous research studies claiming to support the health benefits of so-called superfoods, the studies’ methodology can be varied and open to scrutiny, says Théa Demmers, dietitian at Concordia University in Montreal. In fact, Demmers says, most nutritionists and dietitians refrain from using the term “superfood.”
So-called superfoods such as goji berries, quinoa (a grain) and moringa (a plant) are not superior to other fruits and vegetables, says Demmers. In fact, they can do harm indirectly by taking up the portion of your food budget that could be spent on common apples and oranges.
“We like to isolate these specific foods as if not all the other greens are nutrient-dense – but they all are,” says Danielle Levy, a registered holistic nutritionist in Montreal.
Kale, which, like broccoli, is a member of the cruciferous family, was anointed superfood status for being high in fibre and vitamins A, C and K. Kale’s popularity resulted in new kale products, such as powder supplements, chips, pop and even nail polish infused with its extract.
But spinach, Swiss chard and brussels sprouts, which have yet to have their moment, also are a reliable source of valuable nutrients, Levy says.
Meanwhile, some foods have been stripped of their “super” status. At the peak of the coconut craze, for example, people substituted the oil for other oils, an alternative to dairy and a healthy baked good, says Jennifer Keirstead, a registered holistic nutritionist in Krestova, B.C. Levy had clients who threw out their olive oil for coconut oil, which has much higher proportion of saturated fat than butter or lard.
With every superfood that enters our radar, Levy says, we need to apply healthy skepticism – to question why that food would be considered so good. Hype surrounding a handful of foods often causes us to focus exclusively on consuming those foods, she adds.
The trick is to avoid reaching for the same superfood week after week. “If you always cook with sweet potato, try pumpkin,”Levy says. Or, instead of always going for quinoa, there’s faro. If you like chickpeas, try adzuki beans or edamame.”
Nutritionists are bound by a code of ethics that discourages them from advocating one healthy food over another. They say a better measure of a nutritious diet is one that takes a diverse approach, incorporating variety and moderation.
Instead of consulting a list of superfoods, another approach to integrating healthier eating habits into your daily routine, Keirstead says, is to follow the “cycle of Mother Nature.”
She suggests taking a trip to a farmer’s market during summertime for a bounty of colourful squashes, root vegetables and leafy greens. Now that winter has arrived, do an inventory of seasonable options at the grocery store.
The range of seasonal options does narrow in winter, but frozen alternatives are fine, say Demmers and Levy. There’s a misconception that frozen fruits or vegetables are less healthy. But when these foods are harvested and frozen straight away, many of their nutrients are preserved in the process.
The key is to go for a mixture of fresh and frozen produce if choice is limited. With nutrition, variety is a good rule of thumb.
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