“Superfood” is a buzz word now. Superfoods are the powerhouses of nutrition, packing the most nutrients, antioxidants, phytochemicals and other healthful elements, all summarized as nutritional density of food. If food’s nutritional density outweighs its energy density (calories), simply put – if food has a lot of nutrients and is low in calories – add it to your grocery cart. The list is truly endless – majority of plant whole foods are rich in vital nutrients and antioxidants while staying low in calories, promoting health and regulating weight. Some of those foods are rather exotic and not always available – like acai berry, camu camu (African berry), maca, etc. Besides being inaccessible, many of the foods are also expensive, which deters most health-conscious consumers from buying them in first place. However, there are foods that are regulars at local grocery stores, and even in our daily menus, that are chock-full of beneficial nutrients we may not even know about, and they are very affordable as well.
Let’s look at some of those “underdogs” foods and their health benefits:
- Broccoli. This member of the cruciferous vegetable’s family (others include arugula, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts) is a potent anti-cancer superfood. Broccoli contains sulforaphane, a molecule that has been extensively studied and touted as a potent cancer-fighting element. Here’s the trick to activate the most sulforaphane – you need to cut or chop broccoli and actually wait for 45 minutes prior to cooking. To avoid the wait – cook it at once and sprinkle some mustard powder on it, this will activate sulforaphane to work its magic in your body. Another study found a link between broccoli, brussel sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables to “one of the body’s most potent tumor-suppressing genes” – a compound called I3C that is involved in a complex chemical chain reaction that frees the tumor suppressor to do its job.1
- Oats. This is a true staple in my kitchen because the possibilities are endless when it comes to cooking with oats. Is “oatmeal” the only thing that comes to mind?! Read on! First, why are oats a superfood? Oats are whole grains high in soluble fiber which is know to lower bad cholesterol, support stable blood glucose levels, and keep digestion in check. Oat has a unique protein composition along with high protein content of 11–15 % – a great protein source for individuals on plant-based diets. Oats boast a rich phytochemical profile along with some trace minerals and B-vitamins.2 Now before you start packing your overnight oats mason jar, consider the following uses for them:
- blend them up into a coarse flour and add to your favorite baking recipes;
- add to smoothies, soups, stews and sauces;
- mix with some peanut butter, maple syrup and chocolate chips, roll into balls and freeze – those energy treats will keep you focused during an afternoon slump.
- Lentils. These little pearls of goodness are rich in protein, iron, folate, potassium, manganese and low in calories. They are an excellent source of fiber which keeps you full, and last but not least – they are cheap. They are easy to cook and incorporate in many dishes – use them as a side, mixed veggie stew, add then to veggie burger mix or salad – lentils are very versatile. They also have the highest percent of protein, out of the plant-based sources (25%).3
- Sardines. Canned sardines could be found at most grocery stores, and even some convenience stores and gas stations. They are nonperishable, meaning they last very long in your pantry. They are rich in healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids known for supporting brain health, immunity and lowering blood pressure. They are an excellent source of protein, calcium, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, selenium and phosphorus. They make a great smoke fish dip, go well on top of an open-face sandwich and make a delicious fish soup. Choose sardines either preserved in water or extra virgin olive oil, not canola or sunflower oil as those are usually highly processed.
- Sweet Potatoes. This root vegetable is high in beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A in our bodies – a potent fat-soluble antioxidant that protects eye health, immune system and enhances brain function. They are also rich in fiber and improves gut health, vitamin C, potassium, and vitamin B6. Besides being nutritious they are so very delicious and easy to make. Roast them whole or cut in cubes, add to salads, entrees, drizzle with some nut butter or enjoy alone.
- Chicken Liver. One of the richest sources of vitamin A is generally animal liver, chicken being probably the most affordable and palatable. Some people have a genetic predisposition for poor conversion of beta-carotene into vitamin A, and would benefit from consuming its direct source. Chicken liver is a great source of iron, folate and biotin. Simply sauté with onions and spices for a superfood meal.
- Sunflower Seeds. As a natural source of vitamin E, magnesium, selenium, fiber and antioxidants, sunflower seeds are a healthful addition to your diet. They may help lower cholesterol and triglycerides, help fight off free radicals in preventing cancer and heart disease, and support healthy thyroid function providing an important trace mineral – selenium. Sprinkle on top of your salad, slather a layer of sunbutter on your toast or enjoy a handful just by themselves.
- Edamame. Edamame may sound exotic, but all they are – raw or steamed soy beans. The best way to buy them is in the frozen section of your supermarket. Not only they are a source of complete plant of protein featuring all essential amino acids, they provide phytochemicals known to prevent and fight disease. American Institute for Cancer Research lists soy as one of the foods that fight cancer. When it comes to soy it’s best to consume minimally processed organic versions like edamame and tempeh, to avoid running into pesticide residues and chemicals used in processing.
- Frozen berries. While fresh berries are a seasonal treat and could be very expensive, frozen berries are always available, affordable and pack high nutritional profile due to being picked when ripe. Most berries are rich in antioxidants, vitamins and immune boosting phytochemicals supporting our health. Their colors are determined by the phytonutrient they are rich in – purple, blue, and red berries contain anthocyanins that possess antioxidative and antimicrobial activities, improve visual and neurological health, and protect against various non communicable diseases. Quercetin is responsible for the white portions of berries – usually the content under the colored skin and is a potent immune booster and antioxidant promoting general health and fending off disease.
- Bananas. These guys are everywhere nowadays – grocery stores, gas stations, even pharmacies. You’ll see an occasional runner or bike rider with a banana sticking out of the pocket. Even when not in season, bananas are inexpensive and ripen on your kitchen counter in just a couple of days. Bananas are amazing! They can be used as a natural sweetener in an oatmeal, yogurt, baking recipe or a top of a rice cake with peanut butter. Bananas are rich in fiber for digestive and heart health, potassium for cardiovascular health, magnesium for regulating blood sugar, blood pressure and muscle and nerve function, vitamin C, manganese and vitamin B6. Banana peels contain antioxidants, and have long been used in traditional and folk medicine as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory to promote wound healing from bug bites, minor burns, and sunburns.4 As a simple home remedy, the inside of the banana peel is pressed on a wound for several minutes.
As you can see, not all “superfoods” have to be expensive and hard to get. Many of the most common foods are often underappreciated simply because we are not aware of their nutritional benefits. Keep it simple, eat whole unprocessed foods, mostly plants to stay healthy.
- Powell, Elvin. “Broccoli and Brussels sprouts: cancer foes.” The Harvard Gazette, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/mla_style/mla_formatting_and_style_guide/mla_works_cited_electronic_sources.html. May 16, 2019.
- Rasane, P., Jha, A., Sabikhi, L., Kumar, A., Unnikrishnan, V.S. Nutritional advantages of oats and opportunities for its processing as value added foods – a review. J Food Sci Technol (February 2015) 52(2):662–675 DOI 10.1007/s13197-013-1072-1.
- Ganesan K, Xu B. Polyphenol-rich lentils and their health promoting effects. International journal of molecular sciences. 2017 Nov;18(11):2390.
- Pereira A, Maraschin M. Banana (Musa spp) from peel to pulp: ethnopharmacology, source of bioactive compounds and its relevance for human health. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2015 Feb 3;160:149-63.