Superfoods and Your Health
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What is a superfood?
There is no exact definition of what makes a “superfood.” However, superfoods are considered to be nutrient powerhouses that provide large quantities of antioxidants, phytochemicals (chemicals in plants responsible for colors and smells), vitamins and minerals. Most superfoods are plant-based, but some fish and dairy also make the cut.
Examples of popular superfoods include salmon, kale, açaí berries, kefir and almonds, just to name a few. Since there is not a strict definition of superfoods, any food that is nutrient-dense is commonly put into this category.
Benefits of superfoods
The high vitamin and mineral content found in superfoods can help your body ward off diseases and keep you healthier. When incorporated into a well-balanced diet, these foods can promote heart health, weight loss, improve energy levels and even reduce the effects of aging.
Antioxidants found in many superfoods may help prevent cancer, while healthy fats can reduce your risk of heart disease. Fiber, which is also found in many superfoods, can help prevent diabetes and digestive problems while phytochemicals have numerous health benefits including reducing your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. Superfoods are also known to protect your organs from toxins, help lower cholesterol, regulate metabolism and reduce inflammation.
Eating a well-balanced diet
It’s important to note that while superfoods are good for your health and provide many nutrients you need on a daily basis, eating superfoods alone does not contribute to a healthy diet. Eating too much of one type of food can actually be detrimental to your health and prevent you from getting all of the nutrients you need. For this reason, superfoods should be added to a well-balanced diet, not replace one.
“No one food can provide you all of the essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants you need,” says INTEGRIS dietitian Meagan Ballard. “It is very important to eat a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods to obtain the health benefits our bodies need. There is nothing wrong with eating a food item that provides you a good amount of a specific vitamin or mineral that you need, but our bodies require many vitamins and minerals to function properly, so don’t rely on one superfood alone to achieve this.”
A well-balanced and nutritious diet should include fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, legumes and nuts while limiting the intake of sodium, bad fats and refined sugar. When combined with exercise and regular physical activity, a healthy and nutritious diet can work wonders for your health. As Ballard says, “Food IS medicine.”
Below are some of the most popular superfoods and the benefits they provide. When adding superfoods to your diet, be aware that unprocessed, natural varieties offer the most benefits. Foods can quickly lose their nutrient-rich superiority when processed or sugar is added for flavor. For example, green tea provides many antioxidants that your body needs, but is often processed using inferior tea and brewed with copious amounts of sugar, lessening its health benefits.
Açaí berries are grown in Central and South America and are the fruit of the Amazon palm tree. They are high in antioxidants, healthy fats, fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus — meaning they definitely live up to their superfood designation. Studies have shown that these berries can help suppress and repair oxidative damage and help you maintain normal blood sugar.
Other berry varieties, like blueberries, strawberries and cranberries, are also rich in vitamins, soluble fiber and phytochemicals. Certain antioxidants and plant compounds found in berries can slow the growth of cancerous cells and help protect memory and cognitive function.
You’ve probably never heard of kefir, but it’s one of the most probiotic-rich foods on the planet. Kefir is a cultured, fermented beverage made from kefir grain and raw milk. This yogurt-like beverage is high in protein, B vitamins, potassium and calcium. However, it’s most powerful health benefit is its probiotic properties. Probiotics can improve the healthy bacteria ratio in your gastrointestinal tract, treat and prevent diarrhea, treat irritable bowel syndrome and reduce gastrointestinal infections, among other benefits.
Because kefir is fermented, people who are lactose intolerant can enjoy kefir and all of its many benefits despite the fact that it’s made from milk.
Avocados are known to help with everything from reducing cholesterol and alleviating arthritis to lessening the side effects of chemotherapy. Avocado is high in monounsaturated fats that can improve good cholesterol levels. It is dense with vitamins E and B6, which aid in red blood cell formation, helping protect body tissues from free radicals, producing glycogen (an energy source for your body) and promoting skin health.
Avocados can also help your body absorb carotenoids — plant pigments responsible for bright red, yellow and orange hues found in other fruits and vegetables. Carotenoids are great because they contain high levels of vitamin A, the vitamin linked to reducing your risk of cancer, heart disease and eye degeneration.
A commonly known superfood, kale is a leafy green vegetable high in vitamins A, C and K as well as calcium, manganese, antioxidants and iron. Kale is very low in calories and high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help fight inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, asthma and certain autoimmune disorders.
Like kale, other leafy greens such as Swiss chard, collard greens, mustard greens, spinach, cabbage and broccoli are rich in vitamins that support vision, prevent blood clots, support bone health, boost metabolism and prevent certain cancers.
Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Introducing salmon into your diet can decrease your blood pressure, reduce inflammation and even boost your mood. This fish is also rich in vitamin D and selenium, which prevent cell damage and benefit your hair, skin, nails and bones. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish such as salmon at least two times per week.
A little-known superfood but widely-used spice, ginger can give your immune system a boost, fight infections and protect against cancer. Ginger has been used throughout history as a treatment for nausea, digestive problems and muscle pain but has also been known to reduce inflammation and lower blood sugar. Try adding ginger to meals as a spice, drinking it in tea or taking ginger root supplements.
Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of fiber, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, iron, magnesium and potassium. All of these nutrients can help prevent heart attack, keep you looking younger, promote immune system health, improve vision and maintain healthy teeth, bones and skin. Since sweet potatoes are naturally sweet, they don’t require the extra butter, cream or salt that is typically added to potatoes to make them taste better.
Quinoa is a super grain that is high in fiber and protein; in fact, it contains more protein than any other grain. Besides high levels of protein, quinoa is also a source of iron and potassium.
Quinoa is technically not a grain but is actually a seed. Quinoa is naturally gluten-free and is often used as a rice substitute. On top of all of its other benefits, quinoa is also a great source of many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
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