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What is a super food?

What is a super food?  We are often being told to eat them.  Why?  What makes a food a super food?

Do super foods possess super human powers which will be bestowed upon us once we eat them.  Does it mean once we have eaten them we will suddenly want to don blue tights and a red cape and fly across the skies upholding good health for all?

Let me put my dry and yes I agree sometimes unusual sense of humour to one side and move on.

Let us start with a definition.  Most are similar to the tone of this one.  “A nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being”.

But what does that really mean?

Read on.

You will agree there is a huge amount of nutrition information available.  On the one hand I think this is great as it raises people’s awareness of good nutrition.  However on the other hand I think there is so much that at times it can be over-whelming and difficult to decipher what is essential and non-essential information.  I also know I often find information is given out of context or at times information is unfortunately conflicting and confusing.

How do you the reader work out what is important, relevant and applicable to them?  And what has this got to do with the term super food?

What is so ‘super’ about superfoods?  

I think one of the ways we attempt to give information clarity and relevance is to summarise it, to communicate the info in short sound bites by using terms or phrases that enable it to be easily seen or understood.

I believe this is how the term super food was created.  I believe the term super food is a marketing term.  I believe it was created in an attempt to distinguish certain foods from others to highlight their health benefit.

Is this a bad thing?  Like most things there are pros and cons.

Let us look at a list of foods commonly tagged as super foods: the list includes chia seeds, blueberries, spinach, kale, nuts, quinoa, dark chocolate, capsicums, sardines, beans, oats, asparagus, garlic, salmon, strawberries, eggs and coconut.  I could go on; there is a long list of foods.

On the positive side, these are great foods, they are nutrient dense and if raising people’s awareness of these foods means they are included in their eating plans, fantastic!

Sensitivities, intolerances & compromised health

However there are also a whole bunch of other foods I could also put in this category not tagged as super foods. Does that mean we should think of them as inferior?  Or are these foods just not considered the focus of the current trends and fads about what we should eat.

In addition, the term super food implies all good news, however foods also contains substances that can be harmful.  You do not want to focus on the negative; however you want to ensure people have the total story. Let us look at the wonderful strawberry.  Strawberries are a great food however strawberries also contain salicylates, if people with severe salicylate sensitivity eat too many salicylates it can cause their lips to swell and trigger vomiting.

Let us take beans.  Beans are also a great food however they also contain oligosaccharides.  Some people are sensitive to oligosaccharides, when these people eat beans they experience very painful and upsetting flatulence (fancy term for wind).  For many of us the wind is minor, but for some not so.  The literature suggests there is likely for some an association between Irritable Bowel Syndrome and eating oligosaccharides.

I could go on, but instead let me cut to the chase and list my major concerns with promoting foods as super foods.

  1. It brings the focus on specific foods at the expense of others.  Foods contain nutrients; there is no one food that contains all of the nutrients the body needs.
  2. Foods also contain substances to which some people are sensitive and will react.  This can result in compromised health.
  3. We often assume that when a food is tagged a super food we need to eat it every day and a lot of it.  In fact often eating more can lead to unwanted side effects and imbalance in our bodies.
  4. We could keep adding to the list of super foods to include more and more great foods, but then the desire to highlight a few foods becomes difficult if not impossible.
  5. People may begin to restrict their diets to focus on what they perceive as super foods.  I believe a good diet is varied.  I find restriction leads to terms such as I should and I should not and this leads to guilt in eating.
  6. Taking information in sound bites means we may lose essential context to explain the role of a food or food group in our daily eating plan.

So where does that leave us?

A guideline for creating a healthy eating plan

I believe you should use the following guidelines as the basis for creating a healthy eating plan.

  1. Work out how your body responds to different foods, we are all different and hence what we eat can differ.  This is okay.  If a food coined as a super food does not agree with you, do not eat it.
  2. Eat a balanced and varied diet and aim not to exclude any major food groups (macro or micro nutrient) if at all possible.
  3. Enjoy your food and try to avoid using the terms, I should or I should not.  Guilt distracts and interferes with your ability to enjoy your food.
  4. Treat eating as a journey of discovery into taste, smell, sight and hearing.
  5. Focus on eating fresh foods that are in season.
  6. Share your meals where possible, eating is a social occasion to nourish the body and feed the soul.
  7. Focus on variety in your eating; it will help you get a wide variety of nutrients in your eating.
  8. Eat rainbow meals; aim to include lots of different coloured foods on your plate as is possible.

Remember enjoy your foods.

My wish is for you to eat nutritious food that nourishes your body and tantalises your tastebuds, and to for you to live mindfully with clarity of thought and purpose so that you can live and enjoy a long and healthy life.

Take Care, Speak Soon

ciao Jan