There is no approved definition for what qualifies as a superfood, but health professionals agree that these foods provide a high level of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (natural, disease-fighting chemicals). Here are a few delicious superfoods to start eating now!
Apples: Apples contain soluble fiber which helps lower cholesterol levels, and insoluble fiber for a healthy digestive system. This fruit is also a source of the antioxidant quercetin, known for its anti-inflammatory properties.
Almonds: These nuts are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. They are also a source for the trace minerals manganese and copper, which are essential for energy production.
Avocados: Avocados contain 5 different types of anti-inflammatory nutrients. They are also rich in the carotenoids that we often only associate with orange vegetables.
Barley: The dietary fiber in hulled barley supports healthy bacteria in the intestine. It also contains selenium, a powerful antioxidant for the prevention of cancer and heart disease.
Beets: The betalins in beets are phytonutrients known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammation properties.
Black Beans: Three different antioxidants, called anthocyanins, give black beans their dark color. These beans also contain kaempferol, another antioxidant that reduces the risk for heart disease and cancer.
Blueberries: Ranked as one of the top food sources for antioxidants. Research shows blueberries contain at least 15 beneficial phytonutrients.
Cinnamon: The essential oils in cinnamon bark have been found to reduce inflammation and help with controlling blood sugar. These oils are also anti-microbial, preventing the growth of unhealthy bacteria.
Garlic: Sulfur compounds in garlic can reduce the oxidative stress that leads to blood vessel damage. These compounds have also been found to reduce triglycerides, total cholesterol levels, and blood pressure.
Kale: Researchers have identified over 45 flavonoids (a type of phytonutrient) in kale. As a result, kale has been found to reduce the risk of over 5 types of cancer, and it supports the body’s natural detox system.
Lentils: Lentils are a good source of folate and magnesium, which help to promote heart health. They are also loaded with fiber.
Oranges: Citrus fruits contain vitamin C, but oranges also contain the phytonutrient herperidin that may reduce blood pressure and cholesterol. Additionally, oranges contain limonoids, which have been shown to protect against 6 types of cancer.
Red Cabbage: Cabbage contains a compound called sinigrin that has been linked to the prevention of bladder, colon, and prostate cancers. Red cabbage has added benefit due to the presence of anthocyanins, which act as antioxidants that protect against heart disease and cancer.
Sauerkraut: Fermented foods such as sauerkraut contain probiotics (live organisms in food and supplements that benefit health). Probiotics are associated with improved digestion and intestinal health. Sauerkraut is also full of vitamins that may help prevent infection.
Spinach: Researchers have identified over 12 flavonoids in spinach that are anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer. This leafy green is also packed with the antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin A, beta-carotene, and manganese.
Sweet Potatoes: Orange-flesh sweet potatoes are rich in the antioxidant beta-carotene and purple-flesh sweet potatoes contain the antioxidant anthocyanin. Research shows that sweet potatoes help with blood sugar regulation.
Tomatoes: The numerous phytonutrients in tomatoes are associated with decreased total cholesterol, decreased LDL-cholesterol, decreased triglycerides, and a reduced risk of cancer. More recently, the antioxidant, lycopene, has been linked to improved bone health.
Turmeric: Found in curry powders and yellow mustard, turmeric contains curcumin, which has been found to be as effective for reducing inflammation as some over-the-counter medications.
Walnuts: They are well-known as a source of omega-3 fatty acids, but walnuts also contain phytonutrients that are rarely found in other foods. Walnuts have been found to protect against heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.
Yogurt: Like sauerkraut, yogurt is a fermented food. Yogurts that contain live and active cultures act as probiotics, which may improve intestinal problems such as lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome.
If you eat a typical western diet, you are likely consuming nearly 50% more sodium than experts recommend. A high-sodium diet can increase your blood pressure putting you at risk for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. Here are 6 things you should know about sodium and how to reduce your intake to improve health.
Why Sodium Is Important
Sodium is needed for nerve impulses, muscle contraction, and fluid balance in the cells. Your body needs sodium to be healthy, but it needs much less than the estimated 3,400 mg of sodium that Americans consume every day.
Reasons to Lower Sodium Intake
The current recommended sodium intake is no more than 2,300 mg per day. The American Heart Association and the Harvard School of Public Health suggest that the daily limit be set to 1,500 mg to improve health and reduce healthcare costs.
Why are these lower intakes suggested? Your kidneys process sodium, and when they can’t keep up with the extra sodium you eat, the body holds water to balance the sodium in your system. This is called fluid retention and over time, it can increase blood pressure. Excess sodium can also cause a loss of calcium, which can jeopardize bone health.
Salt and Sodium Sources
It’s estimated that Americans consume 75% of daily sodium from prepared or processed foods. While table salt added during cooking and at the table contributes to sodium intake, it isn’t as concerning as the fast food and snacks that make up a large part of the U.S. diet. The American Heart Association has a list that they call “The Salty Six”. These are the top six foods contributing to excess sodium intake: bread, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, poultry, soup, and sandwiches.
Identifying Sodium in Your Food
Table salt is made up of about 40% sodium, but when trying to identify sodium in the foods you eat, it’s important to look for terms beyond just salt. Monosodium glutamate, sodium citrate, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and sodium alginate are a few of the ingredients that tell you if a food is high in sodium.
Easy Ways to Lower Sodium from Foods
Eat more fresh foods and fewer processed foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain very little sodium. Replacing snacks such as pretzels and crackers with a piece of fresh fruit or carrot sticks can greatly reduce the sodium in your diet.
Check labels of packaged foods. There are government rules that define terms used on food packages.
Sodium-free: Fewer than 5 mg of sodium per serving
Very low sodium: No more than 35 mg of sodium per serving
Low sodium: No more than 140 mg of sodium per serving
Reduced-sodium: At least 25% less sodium than the regular version
Easy Ways to Lower Sodium When Cooking
Measure all of the salt you add to food during cooking and at the table. Research shows that most people won’t notice even a 25% reduced sodium level. Get a baseline measurement for how much you add now, and then slowly reduce it an eighth of a teaspoon each time you make a dish until you find a lower salt level that still tastes good to you.
Try sauteing, stir-frying, and roasting. Steaming and microwaving foods can decrease the flavor, tempting you to add more salt.
Rinse and drain canned foods. Tests have shown that when canned beans are rinsed and drained, it can reduce the sodium content up to 40%.
Use more herbs and spices. Garlic powder, curry powder, and smoked paprika have strong, pleasant flavors, which make adding salt unnecessary. A small splash of sesame oil or citrus juice can also add more flavor to your food.
Despite the promises, a detox diet is not the magic pill you need to boost health. Most medical professionals discourage the use of detox diets because they are both unnecessary and dangerous.
Identifying a detox diet
Weight loss is not always the main goal with detox diets. Most claim that they will help rid your body of toxins resulting in increased energy or a boost in metabolism.
They are similar to other fad diets in that they involve calorie restriction, cutting out food groups, and often forbid solid foods all together. Detox diets include juice fasts, colon cleansing, and master cleanses. They often require the purchase of expensive herbal supplements (such as powders, pills, or teas).
Dangers of detox diets
The kidneys and liver sufficiently cleanse the body and eliminate toxins without help from detox diets. According to Mayo Clinic nutritionist Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D., the benefits that people claim they feel after trying a detox diet may come from simply avoiding highly processed foods, which contain solid fats and added sugars.
Fatigue, irritability, headaches, cramping, and nausea are only the initial side effects of many detox diets. Long term, these diets can result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies and dehydration. Detox diets are especially dangerous for those with diabetes, low blood sugar, teens, pregnant women, and those with eating disorders.
Due to low calorie and low protein intake, detox diets can also lead to a loss of muscle mass. Muscle keeps you fit and supports a healthy metabolism. A healthy fitness plan is one that helps you build and maintain muscle mass, not lose it because of a quick-fix promise for more energy.
Alternatives to detox diets
Improved health and increased energy come from a balanced diet and regular physical activity. You can promote a healthy digestive system that removes toxins by eating fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains, by staying hydrated, and by eating foods that promote digestive health (such as yogurt). Get the nutritional benefit of fresh fruit juices by incorporating them into an already healthy diet, not by making them your sole source of nutrients for a week.
Also remember that when it comes to nutrition and health, detox is a term that is often used loosely. You may hear a friend claim she’s on a detox diet this week only to mean that she has cut out processed foods or desserts. But if those detox diets include cleanses and fasts, your money would be better spent on nutritious foods that promote a healthy lifestyle.
Dairy foods are most often recommended for calcium intake because these foods provide a form of calcium that is easily absorbed by the body (high bioavailability). Additionally, many dairy foods are fortified with vitamin D, which is needed for calcium absorption.
Calcium in common dairy foods:
Skim milk (1 cup) - 300 mg
Low fat vanilla yogurt (1 cup) - 400 mg
Cheddar cheese (1 oz.) - 200 mg
Other Natural Sources of Calcium
If you are lactose intolerant, do not like dairy, or follow a vegan diet, you will need another source of calcium. The good news is that there are plenty of other foods that naturally contain calcium. According to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, broccoli, bok choy (Chinese cabbage), mustard greens, turnip greens, and kale have a similar calcium bioavailability to dairy.
Below is a list of non-dairy foods that contain calcium:
Tofu made with calcium sulfate (79 g) - 100 mg
Canned salmon with bones (3 oz.) - 181 mg
Canned sardines with bones (1 oz.) - 108 mg
Broccoli (1 cup, cooked) - 60 mg
Bok choy (1 cup, cooked) - 158 mg
Collard greens (1 cup, cooked) - 266 mg
Kale (1 cup, cooked) - 94 mg
Mustard greens (1 cup, cooked) - 104 mg
Turnip greens (1 cup, cooked) - 197 mg
There are several factors that influence how well your body can absorb calcium. Vitamin D intake is important for calcium absorption. Some foods contain phytates and oxalates, which decrease the amount of calcium that can be absorbed by the body. Phytates are found in unleavened bread, seeds, and nuts. Oxalate is present in spinach and rhubarb. And finally, a high intake of sodium or protein can cause the loss of calcium through urination.
Supplements and Fortified Foods
You can easily find foods which are fortified with calcium, such as calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice. These are decent sources of calcium, but not as good as dairy or other foods that naturally contain calcium (again, because of how well it can be absorbed). To determine whether a food is a good source of calcium, check the food label. If the "percent Daily Value" (%DV) of calcium is 20 percent or more per serving, the food is considered high in calcium.
Most health professionals agree that food is the ideal way to get your calcium, but supplements can be used if you are not meeting your calcium needs through food. Just remember that a supplement should be used to support a healthy diet, not as a substitute for nutritious foods. If you do take calcium supplements, take them between meals, in 500 mg doses or less, and do not take them at the same time as iron supplements.
These grocery shopping tips will help you fill your kitchen with nutritious foods.
Choose a variety of colors and types of fruits and vegetables. Green leafy vegetables (lettuce, kale), cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage), root vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes), berries, and citrus fruits are all nutrient-packed choices.
Select in-season produce as often as possible for the best flavor.
Pick up a few fresh herbs. Cilantro, mint, and parsley add flavor and nutrition to your meals.
Breads, Cereals, and Grains
Choose foods with "100% whole grain" listed on the label or in the ingredient list. Pasta, pita bread, and tortillas all come in great-tasting, whole grain varieties.
Locate a supermarket or health food store that sells cereals and grains in bulk bins. Buying from bulk bins allows you to try smaller amounts of different grains and flours for less money.
Canned and Dry Foods and Oils
Check the label for serving sizes and sodium content of all canned goods.
Choose "no-salt added" or "low-sodium" products whenever possible.
You can pick up plenty of protein in this section. Canned and dried beans, dry lentils, and canned tuna are protein-rich choices.
Choose bottled olive and nut oils over butter and margarine for cooking and flavoring your food. These oils contain heart-healthy, unsaturated fats.
Pay attention to serving sizes on food labels. Check the "serving per container" and "serving size amount." At first glance, the calorie content may seem acceptable until you find the serving size is very small.
Beware of foods labeled "non-fat" or "sugar-free." Sometimes these products contain more calories and are no better than the original version.
Choose whole grain and baked snacks instead of fried products.
Meats, Poultry, and Fish
The Mayo Clinic recommends round, chuck, sirloin, and tenderloin for the leanest beef choices. Also look for "Choice" or "Select" beef, which is often lower in fat than “Prime” beef. Choose pork from the tenderloin, loin chops, and leg.
Breast cuts are the leanest choices when it comes to poultry. Check the labels of ground poultry as many options contain both dark and white meat and have as much fat as beef.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program provides suggestions for low-mercury fish choices that are environmentally friendly. These include albacore tuna from the U.S. or British Columbia, farmed rainbow trout, and wild-caught Alaskan salmon.
Avoid deli and processed meats, which are high in sodium.
Buy skim or 1% dairy products rather than 2%, whole milk, or cream. The products with the lower fat percentages contain the same amounts of calcium, vitamins, and minerals as their higher fat counterparts.
Choose only 100% fruit juices without added sugars.
Pick plain or low-sugar vanilla yogurts and add your own toppings, such as fresh fruit or a small amount of honey. Compared to flavored yogurts, this approach will help reduce your added sugar intake.
Buy frozen fruits and vegetables without added salt, seasonings, or sugar. When you add flavorings yourself during cooking, you can better control the nutritional content.
When you crave a frozen treat, look for frozen yogurts, ice milk, and sherbet, which have less saturated fat than ice cream.