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Follow list of superfoods or make it a super diet?

by Doris Penner

             If you heard of a pill that helped to reduce the risk of stroke and cancer, mitigated colds, hastened wound healing and improved eyesight—and the cost of it was within your budget—my guess is you would race to the nearest pharmacy. There is, in fact, something better than a pill, something readily available and reasonably priced that provides all these benefits and more—and that is healthy food. There are certain foods that are a cut above the rest—that is, they are nutrient dense, packing a lot of punch for their weight and number of calories. These foods are sometimes called “superfoods,” a term that has become a popular buzzword in recent years, reflecting a heightened interest in food and health. What are so-called “superfoods” and what place do they have in our diets? Is it correct to use a nomenclature that points to the extreme, and what does the term do to other healthy foods?

            There is no doubt that some foods are healthier than others—that is, their nutrient content is such that they confer a superior health benefit. This usually means they are high in antioxidants, loaded with vitamins and minerals, fibre and phytonutrients, and thus have positive effects on the cardiovascular system, exhibit anti-inflammatory characteristics, strengthen the immune system and lower the risk of cancer. These are called superfoods—a term coined not by scientists, but used rather as a marketing tool.

Focus on variety

            The truth is research scientists and nutritionists do not necessarily agree which foods belong on a list of superfoods. They advocate that people should focus on eating a wide variety of healthy foods in all four groups in order to ingest nutrients necessary for optimum health—not get hung up on a few “superfoods.” There is evidence to suggest that in some cases co-consumption of foods increases the ability to absorb nutrients. One example is that eating red meat with a vitamin C source (say tomatoes or potatoes) will boost iron intake (from meat).

            Further, to label certain foods as “super” tends to give the impression that foods outside of that narrow list are not healthy, when in reality, the range of foods packed with nutrients is very wide. This again points out the merits of a diet based on a variety of nutritious foods—a true “super diet.”

            However, everyone has to make choices of foods to include in the diet. And it is wise to be aware of foods that truly pack a nutritional punch in order to incorporate them into meal plans. It’s always a good idea to start at home—to eat locally as much as possible. We are fortunate to live in a province with very strong agricultural and market garden sectors, producing some of the most wholesome foodstuffs in the world. In addition, it is still possible to harvest foods that grow in the wild without fertilizers and pesticides.

Packed with antioxidants

            Take blueberries—a food that appears on most lists of “superfoods.” The berry is packed with antioxidants and phytoflavinoids—both of which help lower the risk of cancer and heart disease—and is rich in vitamins and minerals, which aid metabolism and help strengthen the immune system. On par with blueberries are raspberries and cranberries—all rich in colour which is an indicator of nutrient content. Be assured that frozen berries are as wholesome as fresh.

            An example of the abundance of wild plants with medicinal value growing in woods and meadows of the prairie landscape is stinging nettle which early settlers used to treat a variety of ailments including relief for arthritis and digestive tract issues. Laboratory tests have shown that the herb has antihistamine properties and thus may relieve symptoms of hay fever and asthma. Today, the best way to ingest stinging nettle is through capsules or from dried leaves brewed into tea.

            Two field crops raised in Manitoba that do not readily come to mind as nutrient rich foods but are shown to have healing properties are hemp and alfalfa. Hemp seeds are a powerhouse of nutrients, containing essential fatty acids, high quality protein and magnesium, all of which promote healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels. The seeds can be sprinkled on salads and cereals or used in baked goods. Alfalfa is sometimes called a superfood because every part of the plant is rich in vitamins and minerals and offers anti-inflammatory properties, lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke, and has been shown to neutralize carcinogenic substances. The sprouts can be eaten on salads while leaves can be brewed into a tea. In high doses alfalfa seeds can be toxic, so caution is advised.