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What's So Super about 'Superfoods'?

What do kale, dark chocolate, red wine, pumpkin, salmon, flax, walnuts, broccoli all have in common?

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They regularly appear grouped together as "superfoods."

The term is one of the latest and greatest buzzwords and is even defined by the online Oxford Dictionary as "a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being."

There's a lot of room for interpretation there, and like the word "natural," it's not legally defined by any entity (at least not yet). Enter the word "superfood" into a search engine and you'll come up with nearly 1,000,000 results. That's a LOT of hits for a word with no specific definition.Image removed.Image removed.

I'm not surprised that the word has gone viral. After all, we're always looking for the next best thing, especially when it comes to our health. It kind of makes me laugh – we're quick to blame artificial sweeteners for obesity but jump on the goji berry bandwagon as the cure for our ills.

But it begs the question, what makes a food super? Nutritionally speaking, there are several things that can boost superfood status. Fiber, vitamins and minerals, healthy fats, and protein are all characteristics common to foods deemed super.

What really makes a food super to me in terms of nutrition is the comparison of nutrients to calorie content. A food that has a lot of nutrients per calorie is called "nutrient-dense." You get more bang for your buck, so to speak.

Both boxes below have the same volume (amount of calories). But you can see that Box A has more nutrients packed in.This makes it more nutrient-dense!

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Low-fat dairy products, for example, naturally contain B vitamins, calcium, potassium, protein, etc. at little caloric cost. Walnuts are high in calories but they are packed with healthy fats (including omega-3's) and other nutrients.

Beyond nutrition, certain foods have non-nutritive components that can affect our health. Probiotics in yogurt and other fermented foods can help improve digestion and even immunity. Plant chemicals like resveratrol in red wine, lycopene in tomatoes, and sulfuric compounds in kale and broccoli have been shown to have antioxidant activity.

Some companies have capitalized on this and sell supplements with these "miracle" compounds. Unfortunately, research has yet to prove that getting high amounts of plant chemicals on their own can have beneficial health effects.

Image removed.Rather than take supplements, it's important to focus on getting foods that are sources of all types of nutrients. Whole foods can have synergism – that is, they equal more than the sum of their parts. Nutrients and antioxidant compounds can interact with each other to improve their absorption and activity. At the same time, eating kale by the ton may not prevent cancer. It'll probably make you gassy, though!

The fact is, you don't need to eat a lot of one or even all top 12 superfoods to be healthy. There are all kinds of foods that don't make the cut, yet are nutritional superstars. Why? Well, it's not that exciting to just put up a picture of all fruits and vegetables.

Yes, ALL fruits and veggies are superfoods. There are plenty of studies demonstrating that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables overall is associated with decreased disease risk.

We all know that fruits and veggies are good for us, yet the vast majority of Illinois residents fall far short of the recommended amounts. Barely a quarter of the population gets 3 cups of veggies daily and only 1/3 get 2 cups of fruit!Image removed.

Based on how taken in we are by the superfood label, it might help to put the Superman logo on packages of celery and Batman stickers on bananas. Or maybe each fruit and vegetable needs its own lobby to get on the next Top 12 Superfood list.

All kidding aside, don't be fooled by marketing or hype. One fruit or vegetable is not necessarily better than the other. Superfoods may be sexy, but there are plenty of others that are just as super – and eating more of them in general will help make you super, too.


Today's post was written by Leia Kedem. Leia Kedem, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and Nutrition & Wellness Educator covering Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties. She appears weekly on WCIA-3/WCIX-49 and is a biweekly contributor to the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. She also maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts where she regularly posts health tips and answers nutrition questions for free.