Did you know that only about 12 percent of household food and beverage expenditure is spent on the purchase of fruit and vegetables? According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009-10), household expenditure on fast food for the same period was 31 percent!
The lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in our diet is directly related to many modern diseases – research clearly shows an unmistakable connection between, for example, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, and poor intake of quality fruit and vegetables. In the fight against Australia’s steadily increasing rate of obesity (almost two-thirds of all adults are considered obese or overweight), eating more fruit and vegetables is one of the most effective dietary changes we can make. Fruit and vegetables are ‘superfoods’ in their own right, offering healthful, nutrition-packed sustenance that help our bodies function optimally.
One of the essential components of the integrative approach to health is the goal of not just restoring health but actually promoting optimal health – a vibrant life full of vitality. This is more than simply eliminating disease, or returning the body to ‘the absence of symptoms’ but instead focuses on the health potential of each individual seeking to ‘create’ the best possible health in the present and in the long term. A ‘super’ life such as this is greatly supported by ‘super’ foods, and in recent years there have been many foods that research has highlighted as having potent effects in the human body. Many fruits and vegetables are now considered to have ‘super’ health properties and many other foods, such as oily fish, nuts, some grains and cocoa, are also classified as superfoods.
What makes a food super? For the most part superfoods are also natural foods, that is, they are handmade by nature not machines, and typically exist as wholefoods in their natural form. Superfoods are readily available (based on seasonal and regional variations) and do not tend to be highly packaged foods. (In recent years, commercial food promotion has annexed the words ‘super’ and ‘natural’ so it pays to be savvy when assessing the label and the real merit of any food that is being marketed in this way.)
The essential key to superfoods is that they are micronutrient dense and calorie light. Many superfoods are classified as such because they contain nutrients the body needs but cannot manufacture. In addition to having unique or higher than typical nutrients (compared to most foods), many superfoods are also high in antioxidants. They also earn their super reputation because they create powerful biochemical responses in the body and are backed by rigorous scientific testing that supports their medicinal effectiveness.
There is no definitive list of superfoods. Through ongoing research into the nutrients and medicinal properties in common foods, we are continually gaining new understandings about the unique ways in which various foods can improve our health, typically without side effects.
Including more superfoods in our diets may enhance our health by (but is not limited to):
Promoting good gut bacteria and improving digestion
Lowering cholesterol, regulating blood pressure and supporting cardiovascular health
Providing protection against (or reducing) inflammation in the body
Detoxifying organs and reducing free radicals in the body through antioxidant action
Regulating metabolism, blood sugar levels and the fat burning process in the body
Enhancing longevity (anti-ageing) and improving mood
Good gut bacteria is increasingly understood to be of critical importance to health, with research proving links, for example, between poor gut health and some cancers and even obesity. Some foods, such as raw honey, brown rice, chocolate, kiwi fruit and banana are prebiotic providing the necessary ‘food’ for bacteria to develop, and some superfoods are probiotic with good bacteria already active in their constitution. Although there are trillions of bacteria in the gut, the use of antibiotics, stress and poor eating habits means that most people have less than optimal healthy bacteria levels.
Fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir (a cultured milk product), fermented soy products such as miso and natto (made from soybeans), cultured vegetables such as sauerkraut, kimchi and other forms of pickled vegetables (preferably not commercially prepared as they are often high in sugar, salt and artificial colours).
Promoting cardiovascular health is of concern to many Australians. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death, responsible for over 30 percent of all mortalities. Many superfoods have been proven to help in symptom management, and also have protective effects.
People on statin drugs (cholesterol-lowering) are warned to avoid citrus fruits, especially grapefruit, as they may super-charge drug potency. Research is now exploring how this may be efficiently used to reduce dosage of some prescription medications by purposefully combining them with specific superfoods.
Oily fish such as sardines and salmon (rich in Omega 3 fatty acids), and use olive oil (and eliminate vegetables oils from the diet). Cocoa (or dark chocolate), garlic, pomegranate, avocado and green tea are all superfoods that can support improved cardiovascular health.
Inflammation is the process by which the immune system deals with infections or injury due to pathogenic bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. Pro-inflammatory states in the body can contribute to many diseases and are created by foods high in saturated fats and trans fats, fructose and glucose, which includes most fast foods. In contrast many superfoods have a soothing and restorative effect on the body as they have anti-inflammatory and immune-enhancing properties.
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, red cabbage and kale for their cancer fighting enzymes and anti-inflammatory effect. Superfoods high in polyphenols such as red grape juice, red wine (in moderation) and cocoa/dark chocolate are highly beneficial. Cherries are also beneficial as they contain anthocyanin, a powerful anti-inflammatory that can provide relief for arthritis. Fish and fish oils have a very strong anti-inflammatory action. Curcumin, which is found in ginger and turmeric, also has anti-inflammatory properties.
Detoxifying organs improves and sustains good health. Antioxidants include the vitamins A, C and E, beta-carotene, lycopene and minerals such as zinc, selenium and copper. Antioxidants mop up free radicals circulating in the body. As a general rule of thumb, the darker the fruit or vegetable, the more antioxidants it has.
Tomatoes and guava are rich in lycopene, and colourful fruits and dark coloured vegetables are high in antioxidant vitamins and minerals. Berries, especially blueberries, have a well-deserved reputation as powerful antioxidants. Blueberries have 50 percent more antioxidants than strawberries, and three times more than kiwi fruit, and have even been shown to improve age-related dementia. Goji berries have been extremely popular in recent years and have excellent antioxident properties.
Leafy greens high in chlorophyll are also excellent detoxifiers and green tea is a proven superfood, not only for its detoxifying effects, but also for its many other health benefits.
Metabolism, blood sugar and fat burning superfoods are important not just for those attempting to lose weight, but also for ongoing weight maintenance. Type 2 diabetes is a major worldwide health concern with the number of patients expected to rise to 300 million people by 2025. Dietary changes (and exercise) have been proven to be more effective at preventing and treating diabetes than drug therapies, so superfoods can play a particularly effective role in the management of this disease.
Oats are low GI and can help regulate blood sugar. Chia seeds also aid in regulating metabolism and have a host of beneficial nutrients. Green tea, a ‘super’ superfood has been shown in research to help control blood sugar spikes and improve fat-burning processes in the body. Coconut oil is a unique fat that has many benefits including the ability to stimulate metabolism. It is also antiviral and anti-bacterial. Cinnamon has an important role in helping to normalise glucose (blood ‘sugar’).
Enhancing longevity and happiness and superfoods have something in common.
The Mediterranean diet has been noted for its positive impact on longevity and health. In addition to many lifestyle factors that are the cornerstone of Integrative Medicine, the Mediterranean diet is notable for its high consumption levels of superfoods. The focus on fresh fruit and vegetables, oily fish, olive oil and quality low GI grains is a ‘model’ that we all can benefit from. Feel good superfoods include those high in calcium, magnesium and vitamin B12. Seaweeds or sea vegetables are also high in important minerals and oils that support positive mood enhancement.
Olive oil is an important healthy fat. Olive trees are extremely resilient so it stands to reason that the active properties in olives will also be of benefit in our bodies, and research has proven this to be so. The same can be said for tea and cocoa, which are also known for their longevity as plants. Seafoods, cottage cheese, bananas, spirulina and other foods that contain tryptophan may be supportive in improving mood.
Although food as medicine is a concept that predates modern medicine, today’s science is only now making the important discoveries that provide us with an understanding of why certain foods have such advantageous effects in the body. This means that the list of superfoods will continue to grow and we will be further empowered to choose foods for their particular health benefits, according to our particular needs. Fruits such as figs may not yet appear on the superfood list even though we already know them to be rich sources of vitamin C and an excellent source of dietary fibre. As a food that has been cultivated by many cultures for thousands of years, it stands to reason that they are of superior nutritional benefit – even though they are yet to be subjected to the rigours of science!
There is good reason and great evidence that suggests that the addition of superfoods to your daily meal plan can be advantageous to health. If your daily consumption of fruit and vegetables is at the low end of the scale, superfoods can provide a much needed nutritional boost. If you already enjoy a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, wholefoods, quality grains and good fats from fish, olive and nuts, then the addition of superfoods provides a tasty and nutritious boost that fast tracks the path not only to good, but optimal health today.
Professor Avni Sali is Founding Director of the National Institute of Integrative Medicine (NIIM). He oversees the facilitation of the practice of Integrative Medicine at the NIIM Clinic in Hawthorn, as well as the promotion of education and research.