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‘Superfood’ is a term for foods that are touted to be highly nutritious and provide lots of nutrients but very few calories. They’re found across the food spectrum and include grains, berries, vegetables, and fish. Some are traditional and familiar food choices, but many superfoods have only recently emerged as healthy options. Although ‘superfoods’ aren’t a food group, and haven’t been defined by regulators, they’re receiving new attention and research as scientists try to reveal their nutritional secrets.1,2 Let’s take a look at which superfoods can actually be a part of a healthy diet.

Putting The ‘Super’ In Superfoods: Amino Acids, Flavonoids, And Antioxidants

The ‘super’ qualities of many superfoods come from the presence of amino acids, known as the ‘building blocks of life’ because they come together to form chains which create proteins. When you eat protein, it is broken down into its component amino acids, so that they can be used in the body for specific purposes. There are around 20 of these essential, tiny, various molecules, and in the body, they support a huge range of processes including:

  • Heart and liver health (arginine)
  • The removal of toxic ammonia from the body (asparagine, glutamine)
  • Enzyme function (lysine, serine)
  • Connective tissue health (proline)
  • Hormone precursors (tyrosine)
  • Serotonin production (tryptophan)3

Of the 20 amino acids, 11 are made naturally in the body, but the other nine listed below must be consumed through diet:4

Amino Acid Role in the Body Food Sources DV per 1kg (2.2 lbs) body mass (mg) DV for 120 lb / 54 kg (mg) DV for 180 lb / 82 kg (mg)
Histidine Helps produce histamine, vital for immune response; protects nerve cells Meat, tuna, white beans5 14 756 1148
Isoleucine Muscle metabolism, immune function, energy regulation Meat, tuna, milk, lentils6 19 1026 1558
Leucine Protein synthesis, muscle repair; supports healing and growth Meat, beans, cheese7 42 2268 3444
Lysine Protein synthesis; enzyme and hormone production; connective tissues Meat, tuna, crab, cheese8 38 2052 3116
Methionine Mineral absorption; metabolism and detoxification Meat, tuna, milk, cheese, Brazil nuts9 19 1026 1558
Phenylalanine Neurotransmitter precursor; protein and enzyme function Meat, tuna, pinto beans, pumpkin seeds10 33 1782 2706
Threonine Fat metabolism; immune function; structural proteins Meat, cheese, salmon, clams11 20 1080 1640
Tryptophan Nitrogen balance; serotonin production Pumpkin seeds, cheese, meat, fish12 5 270 410
Valine Muscle growth; energy production Meat, tuna, yogurt, beans13 24 1296 1968

superfoods | Unify HealthAs you can see, your body needs significant amounts of these amino acids in order to function normally. A healthy, balanced diet might be sufficient to meet these needs, but if you’re concerned about the levels of one or more amino acids, or you want to make extra sure you’re hitting your DV targets, consider adding some superfoods to your diet.

Antioxidants are powerful natural chemicals which support your body’s defense against free radicals. Free radicals are damaging products of energy synthesis in the body, which can lead to oxidative stress and DNA damage.14

An important sub-group of antioxidants are flavonoids, which are naturally occurring plant chemicals which, along with carotenoids, give food their color. Research is showing that these antioxidant compounds might have broad health benefits.15

Choosing Superfoods To Suit Your Diet

Let’s take a look at some of the superfood options which can bring lots of amino acids, flavonoids, and other antioxidants into your diet. You’re might already be eating some of them without realizing the added benefits they can bring:

Berries: From Traditional To Unfamiliar

goji berries | Unify Health

You don’t have to search out unusual or expensive berries to get a superfood fix. Blueberries are antioxidant powerhouse, and both raspberries and strawberries offer most of the same benefits, including vitamin C.16

However, to add variety to your fruit options:

Goji berries look like large, red raisins, and they originated in the Himalayas. Mostly sold dried or powdered, they taste a little like cranberries. They can be used in the same ways to make cookies and granola or as a topping for breakfast cereal. You can also hydrate the berries in warm water for a few minutes, and then fold them into a chili, rice pilaf, or salsa.

One ounce of gojis provides a healthy 4g of protein (a huge amount for a fruit), 3.7g of soluble fiber, lots of vitamin C, and an enormous 152% of the daily vitamin A requirement. But goji berries are considered a superfood mainly because they are a complete source for amino acids (i.e. they contain all of those which can’t be made naturally in the body). They also offer plentiful amounts of zeaxanthin, an antioxidant which might help support eye health. This is what gives goji berries their red color.17,18,19,20

goldenberries | Unify HealthGoldenberries look more like tomatillos, to which they are related. With only 74 calories per cup (140g), they offer a potent 6g of fiber, 2.7g of protein, and a wealth of minerals and antioxidants, including plenty of vitamin C. Snack on goldenberries, or use them as you would cranberries or raisins to top salad, as a side, or with yogurt for breakfast. They also make a fine jam.21

Aronia berries are another antioxidant powerhouse. They’re great in smoothies when combined with other juices or powders. Research supports aronia’s powerful anti-radical properties.22,23 The same is true of the acai berry, which is a potent source of anthocyanins, a useful antioxidant.24

Vegetables: It’s All About The Shape

The most dependable non-berry antioxidant sources in the plant kingdom are all the same shape: cruciferous veggies. These vegetables’ flowers have four petals, giving them the appearance of a cross, or crucifix (thus, the name). Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, radishes, and mustard greens are fantastic sources of fiber and vitamins, and also powerful phytochemicals (healthy plant-based compounds).25

leafy greens | Unify HealthAnother category of superfoods is the green leafy vegetables, such as red cabbage and kale, as well as spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, and collards.26 Not everyone loves these heart-healthy leafy green vegetables without some seasoning or cooking, so create tasty stir-fries with a little garlic, include them in vegetable stews with plenty of herbs and spices, or make homemade kimchi.

The sweet potato is an excellent source of carotenoids, fiber, and trace minerals.27 The rather lumpy and unlovely root vegetable celeriac is surprisingly packed with vitamins C and K; it shreds easily to make a tasty coleslaw.28 Then, there’s avocado, a fantastic source of vitamins, soluble fiber and oleic acid, the same healthy plant fat found in olive oil.29

No list of superfoods would be complete without ginger and turmeric. Both are loaded with phytochemicals – those powerful plant compounds which aren’t created in our bodies – and research is showing a broad range of potential benefits, including supporting heart health and healthy blood sugar levels.30,31

Drinks: The Powerful Antioxidant Effects Of Green Tea

green tea | Unify Health

Second only to water as the world’s most popular drink, green tea may offer a range of potential health benefits. It contains much less caffeine than coffee, and it has only 2.5 calories in each cup.32,33,34 Most importantly, green tea is an excellent antioxidant source, and it may have benefits to help support heart health.35,36,37

Fatty Fish: A Tasty, Sustainable Antioxidant Source

salmon | Unify HealthSalmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines are superfoods in their own right, offering outstanding levels of omega-3 oils. These natural, healthy fats have been linked to a range of health benefits, so much so that fish oil supplements are now among the most popular. Salmon is a great source of vitamin b6, which is important for the immune system.38,39

Other Sources: Oils, Grains, Nuts, Seeds, and… Chocolate?

If you’re already cooking with extra virgin olive oil, or using it to dress salads, you’re consuming a superfood that’s packed with antioxidants.40

Almonds and pistachios are superfoods which offer lots of fiber and vitamins. Studies are showing impressive beneficial health effects for many kinds of nuts. Walnuts, in particular, are highly prized for their plentiful alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid.41

superfoods you should eat | Unify HealthAs you’ll remember, superfoods are good sources for flavonoids. If you’re a chocolate fan, here’s some good news: one of the best sources of these powerful antioxidants is dark chocolate. Be careful, though, as the downside is the potentially high sugar content and the amount of fat.42

Ancient whole grains such as kamut and quinoa are rising in popularity. Originating in Egypt, kamut provides 11g of protein per cup – almost four times that offered by white rice. It is an excellent substitute for bulgur when making tabbouleh. Quinoa’s pleasing, nutty aroma (especially when toasted in a skillet) makes it perfect for salads and sides. It’s also a complete source for amino acids.43,44

Fenugreek also deserves a mention. It’s being actively studied for its potential health benefits, along with chia seeds, which offer an extraordinary amount of plant protein. Both chia seeds and ALA-packed hemp seeds are a great topping for cereal or yogurt.45,46,47

Taking Advantage Of Superfoods

‘Superfood’ might be a slightly unscientific term, but it describes some remarkable potential benefits from foods you might otherwise overlook. So, try some of these superfoods to boost your amino acids, antioxidants, and other beneficial nutrients.

Learn More:
Age And Nutrition: How Do Your Nutritional Needs Change As You Age?
What Are The Benefits Of Drinking Celery Juice?
Prepping Food For Healthy Eating During Quarantine

1 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/true-superfoods
2 https://www.livescience.com/34693-superfoods.html
3 https://www.technologynetworks.com/applied-sciences/articles/essential-amino-acids-chart-abbreviations-and-structure-324357#:~:text=Amino%20acid%20chart,or%20side%20chain%20they%20have.
4 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/essential-amino-acids#roles-in-your-body
5 https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-histidine-foods.php
6 https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-isoleucine-foods.php
7 https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-leucine-foods.php
8 https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-lysine-foods.php
9 https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-methionine-foods.php
10 https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-phenylalanine-foods.php
11 https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-threonine-foods.php#:~:text=High%20threonine%20foods%20include%20lean,or%206.8mg%20per%20pound.
12 https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-tryptophan-foods.php
13 https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-valine-foods.php
14 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/foods-high-in-antioxidants
15 https://www.livescience.com/52524-flavonoids.html
16 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/foods-high-in-antioxidants#section4
17 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/lutein-and-zeaxanthin
18 https://www.nutritionvalue.org/Goji_berries%2C_dried_nutritional_value.html
19 https://www.bonappetit.com/test-kitchen/ingredients/article/goji-berries
20 https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322693#seven-scientifically-proven-benefits
21 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/golden-berries#nutrition
22 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/aronia-berries#benefits
23 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21214419/
24 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-acai-berries#section2
25 https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/10-superfoods-to-boost-a-healthy-diet-2018082914463
26 https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/303079#common_superfoods
27 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/true-superfoods#section14
28 https://www.eatthis.com/best-superfoods-ever/
29 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-proven-benefits-of-avocado#1
30 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/true-superfoods#section10
31 https://healthcare.utah.edu/healthfeed/postings/2020/02/turmeric.php
32 https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/171917/nutrients
33 https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/171917/nutrients
34 https://www.starbucks.com/menu/product/406/hot?parent=%2Fdrinks%2Fhot-coffees%2Famericanos
35 https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/303079#common_superfoods
36 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-green-tea
37 https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/green-tea-may-lower-heart-disease-risk
38 https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/40253#health_benefits
39 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-omega-3-rich-foods#1
40 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-proven-benefits-of-olive-oil#section2
41 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/9-healthy-nuts#section1
42 https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324747#risks-and-considerations
43 https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/10354/2
44 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-proven-benefits-of-quinoa
45 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/6-health-benefits-of-hemp-seeds#section2
46 https://blog.prepscholar.com/fenugreek-benefits-side-effects
47 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627181/