Last week I wrote about real foods and edible, foodlike substances. Now I turn to the topic of superfoods. We are now not only encouraged to avoid the foodlike substances, we should make sure the foods we are about to consume are real, and we would be better off if we get more than our share of superfoods. David Wolfe defines Superfoods as those “that have a dozen or more unique properties, not just one or two.” 1 In SuperFoods Rx Stephen Pratt and Kathy Matthews introduce us to fourteen foods “that have been proven to help prevent, and in some cases, reverse the well-known scourges of aging, including cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, hypertension, certain cancers, and even dementia.” 2 Instead of superfoods, Connie Guttersen in The New Sonoma Diet presents twelve power foods which are “a core of earthly delights, that not only promotes health, but also a key to your success in losing those extra pounds.” Furthermore “they’re the ones that offer the most exceptional nutritional value with the fewest calories.” 3
As we have seen with the term processed food, superfood takes on different meanings depending on who is talking about it. Ambiguity obscures clarity in both cases. It is not hard then to divide the vast array of foods available to us into superfoods which are good for us, other whole foods which are somewhere in between, and processed foods which are bad for us. Pratt and Matthews even go so far as to paint the picture of two types of senior citizens:
- the frail person who parks in the handicapped space and struggles to walk to the back of the drug store to pick up the multiple medications needed to sustain life, and
- the vigorous person who shops at the local farmers market after playing a set of tennis.
It is not too difficult to figure out which one feasted on superfoods when young and which one is wasting away by falling victim to processed foods. As a senior citizen myself who has many older friends, life just is not that simple. Many of my healthy elders are active and eat well, but they also appear to be winners in the gene pool.
What are the superfoods?
The list in Superfoods is more exotic than the other two with many of them more ingredients than foods and are more likely to be found in a health-food store than a local supermarket. Two common ingredients on his list, however, are cocoa and honey, but none overlap those in SuperFoods Rx or the power foods in The New Sonoma Diet. Five foods appear on both of these last two lists: beans, blueberries, broccoli, spinach and tomatoes. Note that all five are consumed as foods rather than serve primarily as ingredients and all are fruits or vegetables. On the Pratt/Matthews list of superfoods are oats, oranges and walnuts which are reasonably compatible with the whole grains, citrus and almonds that are part of Guttersen’s power foods. Again we are dealing with foods that are all plant based. Superfoods Rx also include three more plant-based items (pumpkin, soy and tea) as well as three animal products (wild salmon, skinless turkey breast and yogurt). The New Sonoma Diet adds one vegetable (bell peppers), two fruits (grapes and strawberries) and one ingredient (olive oil).
Are superfoods really super?
It is certainly hard to deny that the 27-year-old individuals of today who substitute fruits vegetables and whole grains for snack foods high in salt and sugar will be more likely to be active and healthy at age 67 than their more cavalier friends. It will be more difficult, however, to really tell if it was the benefits of the superfoods they ate or bypassing the detriments associated with a diet based on consuming large amounts of junk food that improved their chances later in life. Preventing is a much stronger promise than decreasing one’s chances of contracting a chronic disease. I know of no research that demonstrates that consumption of these superfoods over an adult lifetime can actually prevent any of the debilitating diseases that plague the elderly of Western society. Diets that are overly restrictive to healthy foods can lead to obsessions which can lower health expectations rather than elevate them.4 It seems to me that there is a happy medium between the extremes of gorging on superfoods and excessive consumption of junk food that can lead to health outcomes of people as they become eligible for Medicare.
I chose these two lists as they emphasize foods we run into daily rather than those that need to be sought out or the latest trendy miracle fruit or magic potion. I also like them because they supplement whole foods with processed foods and ingredients. In their list of superfoods, Pratt and Matthews include frozen berries, and recommend tea which is a processed food both before and after the hot-water extraction that occurs when the beneficial chemicals in the tea are transferred from the chopped leaves into the water. Guttersen’s recipes include numerous processed ingredients including balsamic vinegar, canned tomato sauce, cannellini beans, Dijon mustard, pitted Kalamata olives, ricotta cheese, and tahini. Of all of the diets out there, the Sonoma Diet to me is the most reasonable and best based in classic nutrition.
All that I am asking is that the use of the terms superfoods and power foods be dropped as the hype is no better than the high-powered marketing of junk foods by Big Food. And while we are at it, let’s stop associating all processed food with junk foods as many processed products such as low-fat milk and whole-grain cereals can be part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Disclosure: I am a 67-year-old male who has consumed a balance of processed and whole foods all of my life. I am currently just below the magic number of 25 for my BMI, classifying me in the desirable weight category thanks in part to The New Sonoma Diet. I am on two prescription medications and one over-the-counter supplement. I no longer play tennis, but I do about 15 minutes of calisthenics each morning and like to swim and ride my bike when I can. I had my latest check-up with my physician this past Monday, and it was a good one.
Next week: Nutritional information and the Goldilocks effect
1 Wolfe, D., 2009, Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future, Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books
2 Pratt, S. and Matthews, K., 2004, SuperFoods Rx: Fourteen Foods that Will Change Your Life, New York: HarperCollins
3 Guttersen, C., 2010, The New Sonoma Diet: Trimmer Waste, More Energy in Just 10 Days, New York, Sterling
4 Bratman, S., 2004, Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia nervosa – the Health Food Eating Disorder, New York: Harmon
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