‘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|
As 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
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 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
Another 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
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, 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
As 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.