Saturday 4 April 2015

'Superfood' - What Does It Really Mean?

   I hear the term 'superfood' a lot - I'm sure you do too, even if you're not looking for it. It's not just a term used in the health and fitness world anymore as it's started to bleed out to everything around it. I used to be sceptical of the term - as I so often am - and then I took the time to find out just what superfoods are. I then made the common error of assuming that 'more is better' and assumed that by binging on superfoods would help me lose weight. I can hear some of you already shouting at me. Fortunately, that lasted no longer than a week, when I realised all on my own that more is rarely better, unless you're talking about hugs or puppies.

   Superfoods are defined by Oxford 'a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being'. This means that, to qualify as a superfood, the piece in question must naturally contain either a high quantity or high density of nutrients when compared to other similar foods. This can mean that it's high in a range of different vitamins, or it can mean that it's particularly high in just one or two, but so much so that it blows the rest out of the water. So super-healthy food. However, because people have misunderstood the above term so severely along with other half-researched claims, taking it to mean that superfoods can help you lose weight just like I believed or, to a more extreme scale, cure disease or outright prevent it, the use of the term 'superfood' in marketing has been prohibited in the European Union unless credible scientific research can be provided to support the claim.

   Superfoods will not cause you to lose weight, and they also don't cure or prevent diseases. The best you'll get from them is a good source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidents, but it's these that contribute to a healthy body, and a healthy body is key for maintaining a strong immune system and keeping in healthy shape, which keeps weight off and makes it easier for your body to fight off disease. But of course binging on these superfoods even with that clear meaning lodged in your mind is still no good.
   Superfoods are most usually fruits, nuts and seeds, whole foods that are healthy from the off as they contain no additives or anything like that, purely because they're already whole and ready to eat. But, fruits are carbohydrates and filled with natural sugars, and nuts are filled with fats - the good fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) but fats nevertheless, and fats and sugar are both very high in calories.
   Fruits and nuts should not be avoided unless you have allergies, but the additional problem with 'superfood' claims on fruits and nuts is that people are more inclined to eat more of them because they're good for you. This, in fact, will lead to weight gain unless those calories are spent, and what's more is that because they're healthy foods, people have a tendancy to add these onto their diets without taking other things off. You need only eat about 25g of nuts a day to reap their benefits, and as fats digest slowly - not as slowly as protein, but slower than carbs - they're perfect for topping you up if you're hungry. You'd be surprised how far 3 walnuts will go. But in this case you should replace a snack with them, rather than eat them when you're not hungry just to get them into your diet.

   At the end of the day, superfoods have great and terrible reputations depending entirely upon who you talk to. Some people will blindly tell you that superfoods will make you live longer, prevent diseases and fight breast cancer, while others will adamantly tell you that it's all a load of rubbish and you should just stick to the fruit in the supermarket. The first has told you this with blueberries popping out of their mouth, having read articles without doing their own research to find out more about it before buying five punnets of blueberries a week, and the second has read a lot of sceptical articles and has noted the use of the phrase 'may help' in almost all of them, but has forgotten that fruit and nuts are still good for you, and some of the more unusual (read: not what grows in your back garden) do have benefits that we're not getting elsewhere.
   When it comes to superfoods, the science matters, but try not to focus on what it can supposedly do, and concentrate instead on what it actually has. Look only at the vitamins, minerals and other nutritional values like fibre, because these are real and take little scientific work to discover. The rest, such as its claims, take a lot more work, a lot more time, and sometimes aren't tried on people but animals and cells instead.


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