What do blueberries, chia seeds, and avocados have in common? At some point, they’ve all been given the prestigious title of “superfood.”
Superfoods are allegedly able to do everything from boosting your energy levels to reducing inflammation and helping you live longer.
It’s no wonder that they remain attractive, and popularity surging in recent years.
With so much confusion when it comes to nutrition, the idea that certain foods are super healthy seems appealing. A quick fix to health — what could be better?
In reality, “superfood” is just a marketing term, not a scientific one.
So, let’s dig into the details.
What's a superfood?
Essentially, “superfood" is a buzzword, a ploy the food industry uses to persuade you that certain foods are superior to others.
The definition of a superfood is a nutrient-rich food containing compounds — such as vitamins, minerals, and plant chemicals — that benefit your health.
But doesn’t this describe many foods? Of course. But exotic, brightly colored goji berries are more marketable as a superfood than the humble Granny Smith apple.
Spoiler alert: No single food will make a diet healthy. Superfoods are not a quick fix, and they won’t counteract an unhealthy diet and lifestyle.
The term “superfood” is widely used as a marketing tool, often alongside bold health claims. But usually these aren’t grounded in science.
What research has shown is that so-called superfoods don’t live up to the hype.
Although the superfood obsession seems rather recent, it dates back at least 100 years.
The first superfood was the banana. Of course, bananas are super in their own way, but they shouldn’t rest on a pedestal above other fruit.
The bottom line is that all fruits have nutritional value to offer. And no single food will deliver everything that you need.
What makes a food ‘super’ for you?
So, if we shouldn’t focus on superfoods, what should we focus on?
In reality, your whole dietary pattern is what matters. What you eat day to day, week to week, and month to month is a far more powerful predictor of your overall health than whether you add in superfoods.
A healthy dietary pattern is diverse. So, no food should be off-limits. It’s best to have a dietary pattern that includes rather than excludes.
But navigating what to put on your plate can be confusing, so here are a few tips to help you have a super dietary pattern.
Go for minimally processed
While food processing is a sliding scale, it’s ultra-processed foods you should look out for.
These include ready meals, fast food, takeaways, sodas, and candy, which typically contain a lot of added salt, hidden sugar, unhealthy fats, and additives.
Next time you're at the grocery store, spend a bit of time looking at labels.
Ultra-processed foods generally have longer ingredients lists. They have more additives, such as colors, preservatives, emulsifiers, and artificial sweeteners.
Meanwhile, whole foods are generally unprocessed or minimally processed. These might include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs, and fish.
It's OK if these foods are frozen or canned — which are types of minimal processing — especially if the added convenience means you’re more likely to eat them.
The main idea is to choose foods with fewer ingredients when possible.
Still, you don’t need to entirely remove ultra-processed foods from your diet. That would be almost impossible. But it’s best to enjoy them less often than whole foods.
Research shows that plant-based foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, are essential for overall health and well-being.
These foods are the basis of plant-based diets, such as vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, flexitarian, and Mediterranean diets.
Following the Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of several chronic health conditions, particularly heart disease. It’s also linked with improvements in mental health.
Plant-based foods are abundant in nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, and plant chemicals, which, funnily enough, is the definition of a superfood.
The other good thing about plant-based foods is that they naturally contain fiber, which is important for controlling blood sugar, reducing cholesterol, regulating appetite, and keeping you healthy.
Many plant-based foods also contain prebiotics, which feed your gut microbes.
On the other hand, a Western diet, which typically contains more ultra-processed foods, is linked to a higher risk of several chronic health conditions.
Try aiming for lots of variety, and don’t be afraid to mix it up.
In fact, results from the American Gut Project showed that people who ate 30 or more plants per week had more diverse gut microbiomes than those who ate 10 or fewer plants each week.
So, next time you’re food shopping, instead of a bag of frozen blueberries, choose the bag of mixed berries. Instead of a can of kidney beans, choose a can of mixed beans. Instead of a bag of peanuts, choose a bag of mixed nuts. You get the picture.
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ZOE’s research has shown that each of us responds to foods differently.
For instance, blood sugar and blood fat responses after a meal vary substantially between people, even between identical twins.
So, what makes a food “super” for you depends on your unique biology.
When you join ZOE, we measure your blood fat and blood sugar responses to food. With this information, we help you tailor your diet to suit your body’s needs.
We also analyze your gut microbiome and tell you which “good” and “bad” gut bacteria you have. And we provide ongoing nutrition coaching to answer any questions you have along the way.
To find out more, start by taking our free quiz.
Instead of superfoods, think superswaps. These are quick, easy ways to boost the quality of what you’re eating day to day.
The key is to switch out foods for alternatives with a bigger nutritional punch.
Higher-fiber superswaps to support metabolic health and gut health include:
swapping out white rice for brown rice
swapping out white pasta for whole wheat or chickpea pasta
swapping out white bread for wholegrain bread
swapping out sweets and candy for fruit
Healthy fat superswaps to support vitamin absorption and provide you with essential fatty acids, such as omega-3s, include:
when cooking, swapping out butter for olive oil
swapping out potato chips for a nut or seed mix
swapping out butter or cream cheese for avocado on your bagel
Protein superswaps to support and maintain pretty much all your bodily functions include:
in a lasagne, opting for for 50% meat and 50% lentils rather than all meat
in a sandwich, swapping out ham or salami for chicken or turkey
opting for oats instead of cornflakes
swapping out jam for nut butter
swapping out fruit yogurts, which often include added sugar or artificial sweeteners, for plain or natural yogurts and berries
Polyphenol superswaps to support gut and overall health include:
swapping out milk chocolate for dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa
when cooking, swapping out salt for herbs and spices
opting for green or black tea instead of soda
swapping out white, creamy pasta sauces for tomato-based options
There’s no such thing as a superfood — it’s just a very successful marketing term.
All foods have their place in a healthy diet.
Rather than focusing on individual foods, it’s best to build a healthy overall dietary pattern that includes a variety of plant-based foods.
When possible, choose minimally processed foods that pack a nutritional punch. So, instead of superfoods, think superswaps.
And understanding how your body responds to foods can help you make the best decisions for your long-term health.
With ZOE, no food is off the table. Instead, it’s about focusing on a rich diversity of plant-based foods.
American gut: An open platform for citizen science microbiome research. MSystems. (2018). https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128/mSystems.00031-18
A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Medicine. (2017). https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y
Effects of superfoods on risk factors of metabolic syndrome: A systematic review of human intervention trials. Food and Function. (2018). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29557436/
Human postprandial responses to food and potential for precision nutrition. Nature Medicine (2020). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0934-0.
Nutritional components in Western diet versus Mediterranean diet at the gut microbiota–immune system interplay. Implications for health and disease. Nutrients. (2021). https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/13/2/699
Tea polyphenols in promotion of human health. Nutrients. (2018). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6356332/pdf/nutrients-11-00039.pdf
The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain: A systematic review. Translational Psychiatry. (2019). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41398-019-0552-0
Truths and myths about superfoods in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. (2022). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35930325/