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Are Superfoods Really Good For You?

We are captivated by their mystery and promises to improve our health. But are they really that good for us?

When it comes to nutrition, those with little to no training on the topic seem to be the most influential. Celebs wield huge influence when it comes to product and food-related endorsements.

If one of them declares a new "superfood," demand for it is sure to skyrocket. When I worked at a grocery store, I would take note of foods mentioned on The Dr. Oz Show, and then watch with bewilderment as they flew off the shelves for weeks. The "Dr. Oz effect" is likely so powerful because it draws on society's incessant longing for a quick-fix cure-all, especially if it aids with weight loss.

From the everyday superfoods like kale, coconut oil and quinoa, to the more exotic (and particularly hard on your wallet) superfoods like spirulina, sex dust and maca root powder, we are captivated by their mystery and potential power to improve our health and "rev" our metabolism.

So, what's the deal? Should you be seeking out these so-called superfoods?

Well, it depends. If you appreciate that most superfoods get more attention than warranted, but you get excited about adding new and interesting foods into your diet (and you can afford to) then go for it! Most "superfoods" are nutritious choices. Just don't expect any miracles, especially if you are consuming them in juice form.

"Eating the whole fruit is always a better choice than drinking the juice — even when it's superfruit juice."

A 2013 study in the Microchemical Journal showed that the juices of açaí, mangosteen, pomegranate and goji berries contributed minimal amounts of minerals to the diet (note that this doesn't capture vitamin and phytochemical content). However, the same study noted that chia seeds and sun-dried goji berries contained a significant amount of minerals, such as potassium, iron and zinc. Eating the whole fruit is always a better choice than drinking the juice — even when it's superfruit juice.

If you're on a tight budget, the cost of produce this year is likely making you sweat already, especially if you have a family to provide for. Ensuring you and your family eat plenty of vegetables and fruit is exceedingly more important than buying expensive superfoods with flashy claims. So don't let the celebs make you feel bad for not spending $25 on a bag of lucuma powder or organic goji berries.

Cheaper superfood alternatives

Humdrum food options (that you can actually find at your local grocery store) stack up fairly well to superfoods, anyway. For example, quinoa — touted for its high protein and fibre content — is actually lower in protein and fibre than wheat berries. And coconut oil isn't actually ideal for higher-heat cooking (gasp!). Virgin olive oils are a better choice for medium-high heat cooking.

Want the nutrient-packed foods without the superfood label and price? Here are some swaps that could free up more money for fresh produce in your food budget (and please don't hate me for the last suggestion):

Other everyday foods that are reasonably priced and a great addition to any diet, include:

  • Plain yogurt (look for active bacterial cultures)
  • Berries
  • Oatmeal
  • Ginger
  • Eggs
  • Beets
  • Almonds and other nuts

If you're interested in digging deeper into this subject, my colleague Jennifer Sygo discusses the latest research on many popular superfoods in her book, Unmasking Superfoods.

"Diet diversity is crucial for maintaining a robust gastrointestinal microbiome."

No matter what "superfoods" you favour, you can't live off of them alone. No, not even sex dust. We need to eat a variety of foods for optimal health (and enjoyment), with a focus on vegetables and fruit, nuts, legumes, fish and minimally-processed grains. In fact, a recent study reported that diet diversity is crucial for maintaining a robust gastrointestinal microbiome. This is notable as research continues to develop in this area highlighting the influence of our gut microbiota on health.

Some foods definitely deserve more hype than others. For example, you should aim to get at least one dark green (e.g. broccoli) and one orange (e.g. carrots) vegetable every day to ensure you meet your nutrient needs. However, most whole foods are super in their own way. And while "superfoods" are likely nutritious choices, they are probably not worth the extra money when you can get better value for your hard-earned dollar elsewhere.

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