Superfoods: My Top 5 & Why You Should Eat Them
Updated: Jan 12
"Superfoods" has become somewhat of a buzz word in recent years, which has made many people believe that they must get their hands on them and that these will either cure all their ailments or will make them invincible. Although they are neither a panacea nor a handful of magical beans, their popularity isn’t unfounded.
For those who haven’t done their "Google research” yet, superfoods are very nutritionally dense foods. For those who live by Hippocrates’ mantra to 'let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food', superfoods have a high medicinal value and they should be in every pantry.
However, not everyone needs all superfoods all the time, especially those who are already quite healthy. Take the example of seaweed powders like chlorella and spirulina, which are ingredients in 99% of commercial greens powders on the market. I started taking spirulina capsules when I moved to China with my best friend because a naturopathic doctor told us it would help cleanse lead out of the body. For us it was indeed essential, because we lived in Shanghai for years and the smog reaches terrifying levels every winter. However, for someone living in a clean suburban area in Canada, with lots of trees around, and who bikes through the park to work, cleansing lead may not be the right reason to spend money on a daily additional ingredient for the morning smoothie.
In addition to that, foods are seasonal, so when we intend to have the same product all year around, we may end up importing it from very far away where it’s harvested before it’s ripe (in order to last the trip) and therefore arrives to us with less nutritional value than we expected. Berries are a great example of this: even though they are freezer-friendly and also dehydrate very well, many people prefer the convenience of buying fresh ones all year around, regardless of where they come from or how many chemicals may be on them to extend their shelf-life.
1. Hemp seeds
Native to India, the hemp plant has more uses than anyone could imagine than any other plant, so no wonder its role in food is so mesmerizing. Hemp is now widely cultivated in Canada, and its seeds are some of the few foods from the plant kingdom that are complete proteins meaning they contain all the essential amino acids. Since they are seeds, they can be stored easily for a very long time, and since they are local, they are not as expensive as walnuts, almonds or pecans. If we compare them with another local, cheaper seed like pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds contain a slightly higher amount of protein, higher amount of phosphorous and 3 times the amount of zinc!
Zinc is an important mineral because current farming methods have depleted the soil of it, so many people in North America are zinc-deficient. This essential mineral takes part in a whole range of functions in the body, including DNA synthesis and supporting our immune system. We also need zinc to make enough stomach acid to digest proteins and help our body make the most of those good amino acids we ingest. One ounce of hemp seeds alone contains about a quarter of the average person’s daily zinc needs, which makes it a great complement to a diet rich in organic whole grains, legumes and vegetables.
At home, I make hemp milk with ½ cup seeds to 4 cups water and save the pulp for a breakfast bowl or as an ingredient in bliss balls. Some of my friends use them in their granola mix, and we make vegan hemp cheeze dip for tortilla chips & movie night – delish!
"If we compare hemp with another local, cheaper seed like pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds contain a slightly higher amount of protein, higher amount of phosphorous and 3 times the amount of zinc!"
This beautiful giant flower has incredible properties, many of them attributed to the fact that it’s a cruciferous vegetable. This group of vegetables contains great amounts of antioxidants that help clean and build blood, and support the immune system by being anti-inflammatory – which in turn supports the health of the whole body. Some compounds have very specific beneficial functions:
Indole-3-carbinol, for example, is a phytochemical that produces diindolylmethane in the body and supports the liver during detoxification of xenoestrogens and during estrogen metabolism. It allows us to keep a healthy balance between estrogen and progesterone by reducing the amount of estrogen we don’t need - in both men and women.
Sulforaphane is another wonderful compound made by broccoli that has been the focus of a lot of research in recent years. It’s been associated with lower risk of some types of colon cancer, with slowing down the progress of prostate cancer, with protection from DNA damage and lymphoma formation and with reduced susceptibility to breast cancer. Broccoli starts “making” this compound when hurt – yes, you read that right. When we chop, blend, slice, or bite into raw broccoli, the chemical formation kickstarts. If you really want to cook it, make sure you cut it long before adding it to the meal – to allow sulforaphane to form – and then put it in when you are turning off the heat.
Frozen broccoli, however, has been pre-cooked (blanched) before freezing, so it does not have the ability to make sulforaphane anymore. When you can’t find fresh broccoli or if it’s not affordable when out of season, substitute with any of broccoli’s cousins including cauliflower and purple cabbage. If you can find broccoli seeds and you like sprouting at home, broccoli sprouts have a really potent amount of sulforaphane and become a really economical option!
Sometimes confused with a grain, quinoa is actually a seed related to amaranth. Traditionally a staple food in the Andean Region of South America, its high nutritional value and relative ease of cultivation has popularized to the point that it is grown also in the United States, our closest neighbour.
When cooked, a cup of quinoa (which is a good average serving in a meal), contains over 8gr of protein – higher than the daily value of carbohydrates it provides, and higher than most foods used as carb or grain in meals, from a macronutrient perspective. It also offers incredibly high amounts of essential minerals such as magnesium, manganese, phosphorous and copper. The ancient grain kamut (now widely grown in Canada) is higher in zinc, manganese and selenium, but some of the great advantages of quinoa is that it is easy to find, it is naturally gluten-free – a common allergen now in North America – and it is very versatile in the kitchen. I use cold cooked quinoa to replace bulgur in tabbouleh salad, as the warm accompaniment for chili or curry instead of rice, and it is often a key ingredient in our homemade bean burgers.
4. Sweet potatoes
I guess most people expected to see berries on this list, rather than sweet potatoes. Don’t get me wrong, berries have amazing properties and make up one of the best types of fruit around, but almost anyone who knows anything about superfoods already knows berries. That's why I prefer to focus on a less common, overlooked starchy vegetable out there.
Just 100gr of cooked sweet potato can provide about one fifth of our daily needs of minerals copper and manganese but more importantly, of vitamins B5 and B6 which are vital for the health of our adrenal glands, those little glands that support us when we are stressed – which, in modern times, seems to be all the time. On top of that, that amount of sweet potatoes would probably provide you with your full daily need of the antioxidant beta-carotene and vitamin A.
Vitamin A is an incredible vitamin that’s often underrated. Most people associate it with better eye health, but it does so much more than that. In our digestive system, it is essential for the functioning of the mechanism that allow us to tolerate foods, and helps maintains healthy mucous membranes that protect us both in the gut and in the respiratory system. It has an antioxidant role in the nervous system, protecting us from free radicals involved in neurodegenerative disorders, and in the immune system, reducing inflammation and fighting pathogens. In growing children, it supports bone re-modelling. In the urinary system, it acts as an antiviral, antimicrobial and antihistamine. It´s important for skin regeneration. The list of vitamin A benefits seems endless.
Vitamin A seems to perform its functions much better if our bodies have good amounts of zinc and protein, so the hemp seeds mentioned above are a nice addition to the menu if you want to make the most out of your sweet potatoes. Good amounts of vitamin A and zinc have shown to increase healing rates in people after having surgery and help treat skin problems.
Besides a plain good old baked sweet potato, it is great when cubed and added to any stew, curry and chili. When puréed, it makes a great replacement for oil and some of the sweeteners used in baked recipes, due to its natural sweetness. Any pumpkin pie could become sweet potato pie, for example!
5. Magic Roots: Ginger and Turmeric
This 2-in-1 combination may seem like cheating, but since turmeric belongs to the ginger family and they have common properties, it makes sense to list them together as one.
One of the main attractive points of ginger and turmeric is their anti-inflammatory properties: they help relieve pain, aid digestion and they are fantastic vasodilators, which make them ideal to enhance blood circulation for anyone that gets cold hands and feet in winter - not just for our grandmas with circulation problems. Ginger is extensively used in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Chinese cooking, while turmeric is a common ingredient in Indian and Indonesian meals. The second most important attribute are the antioxidant properties of the curcumin found in turmeric, which has been researched to protect against free radical damage and for cancer prevention and healing.
These roots keep well in a cold cupboard or root cellar, but they are also found powdered in the spice section of most supermarkets, which makes them even easier to use in meals and even drinks. In winter, I personally tend to switch from a matcha oat latte to a turmeric oat latte, which can be spiced up with some ginger powder. For women, consuming ginger daily during the week before and during each menstrual period may help relieve cramps thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties – I steep fresh ginger slices in hot water for 10 minutes as an herbal infusion and then reuse that ginger in another drink or in a curry. Feel free to sweeten these drinks with powdered stevia leaves or honey – I’d avoid most sugar and syrups during those days, but if it’s what your body calls for, listen to it!
Written by Desiree Nieto Fernandez
Student of Natural Nutrition at Canadian School of Natural Nutrition in Ottawa, Canada