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Dr Joan Ransley
The idea a single food can help cure or prevent disease is appealing and has prompted increased sales of many so called ‘superfoods’ including blueberries, goji berries, avocado and salmon. But do they deserve to be called ‘superfoods’? And are some foods more ‘super’ than others?
In 1918 a magazine in the US called the Scientific Monthly featured and article about foods of ‘exceptional value’. Top of the list was the humble banana. The United Fruit Company ran an advertising campaign promoting the banana’s nutritional value and sales soared. A similar thing happened to blueberries in the 1990’s when the US government endorsed them as antioxidant rich disease fighters. Even though the scientific claims were retracted 10 years later blueberry sales increased dramatically, and the idea of superfoods really took off.
There is a dictionary definition that says a superfood is rich in compounds that are beneficial to health but there is no scientific definition. However, between 2011 and 2015 there was a 200% increase in the number of new food and drink products that used the term ‘superfood’ in their marketing. They indicated these foods contain antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and healthy fats and claimed they could do everything from aid digestion, prevent cancer, improve brain function and reduce symptoms of autism.
The truth is you cannot have a ‘cure all’ in one single ‘super food’ and disregard the rest of your diet. There are single nutrients that can prevent certain nutritional deficiency diseases such as the role vitamin C plays in preventing scurvy, but nutritional deficiencies today are rare.
Diseases such as heart disease, cancer, obesity, and osteoporosis have a more complicated relationship with diet and lifestyle factors. One so called miracle ‘superfood’ does not have the ability to prevent or cure disease on its own. A good diet and a healthy lifestyle can help to reduce your risk of developing many diseases.
Some foods are certainly more nutritious than others and they can play a role in preventing disease. A good example is olive oil which has been studied extensively in the CORDIOPREV trial and has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
One of the best ways of improving the quality of your diet is to make ‘super swops’ by substituting foods with little nutritional value with foods of a higher nutritional value. For example, substituting white rice with quinoa would provide more nutrients in your diet. Quinoa is a wholegrain, has more protein and vitamins than white rice and it is not a refined carbohydrate.
Other healthy swops would be olive oil instead of butter, wholewheat pasta instead of white pasta, pearl barley or spelt instead of risotto rice, nuts and seeds instead of sweets and crisps.
The term super diet could be used to describe a diet that is diverse, packed full of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds pulses and mainly unprocessed plant-based foods.
In addition, there are some foods that have a particular effect on the body such as fermented foods, including live yogurt and kimchi, that increase healthy gut bacteria which in turn helps to keep the immune system healthy.
These foods contribute to the overall quality of the diet rather than acting alone to prevent disease.
It is our whole dietary pattern that determines the healthiness of our diet rather than single foods. Foods work in unison and how one nutrient and one food impacts, another nutrient is important. So it is thumbs down for superfoods, and thumbs up for super swaps and a super healthy diet.
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