Advice Column, Experts, Happy Family Organics, Health, Parenting

What are superfoods and why do we need them?

  • Happy Family Organics
  • Category Advice Column, Experts, Happy Family Organics, Health, Parenting

The term “superfood” is relatively new, but it has become extremely popular. “Superfoods” refer to foods that have exceptionally high nutritional value in the form of vitamins and minerals, and minimal calories. They are also known for being packed with antioxidants. 

There is currently no legal criteria or definition that defines a food as a superfood, but selected fruit, veggies, nuts, spices and even teas have been upgraded to superfood status. So how do you know if a food is a superfood, and which ones should your little ones be consuming?

What are superfoods?

Superfoods are (usually) plant-based foods that have a very high nutritional density. This means that the food can provide the body with a lot of nutrients, without consisting of a lot of calories. One of the most important nutrients superfoods have to offer, is antioxidants. Antioxidants occur naturally in certain foods, and they are essential in neutralising free radicals (these are by-products of energy production and they are known for causing various health problems). Free radicals have been linked to cancer, heart disease, arthritis and various other conditions. Antioxidant molecules can decrease, and in some cases even reverse, the effect of free radicals on the body. Studies have shown that superfoods high in antioxidants also have the ability to decrease inflammation in the body. 

Because there is no legislation that regulates which foods can be labelled “superfoods” and which can’t, there has been a lot of speculation over whether the much-used term is just a marketing gimmick. Superfoods are in no way magical, nor do they guarantee a body free from disease or health conditions, but when incorporated into a healthy diet, they can help strengthen the body’s immune system and improve its functionality. They should be understood as an important part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, but not as a cure-all.

What types of foods are superfoods?

Superfoods are usually plant-based: either fruits or vegetables. Some of the most common superfoods include:

Berries

Berries have high levels of flavonoids (plant chemicals found naturally in fruit and veg), which aid a healthy heart. The berries most commonly believed to be superfoods are:

Blueberries – high in fibre, vitamin K and manganese. 

Goji berries – a small red berry native to Asia, goji berries are high in vitamins C and E. 

Acai berries – these small purple berries contain 19 different amino acids and many antioxidants.

Tea

Tea is a naturally healthy drink. It helps aid digestion, has very few calories (provided you do not add sugar to it) and is filled with antioxidants. Green tea and white tea have shown some of the most health benefits, such as reducing stress levels, suppressing inflammation and having anti-carcinogenic properties. 

Mango

Mangoes contain more than 20 different vitamins and minerals. Just one serving provides you with 100% of your daily required vitamin C intake!

Green leafy vegetables

Think spinach, kale and broccoli. They are rich in vitamins A, C, E, and K, and many B vitamins. Leafy greens also contain an abundance of carotenoids, iron, magnesiumpotassium, and calcium.

Dark chocolate

Chocolate lovers, rejoice! Studies have shown that dark chocolate is extremely high in antioxidants. The darker the chocolate, the better for your health. 

Beets

Beets are very dense with nutrients, including potassium, magnesium, folate and vitamin C. They can help improve circulation and cognitive function, and some studies have even shown that they may contribute to improved athletic performance thanks to their ability to help enhance blood flow.

Salmon

While most superfoods are plant-based, we simply cannot ignore the health benefits of salmon. High in omega-3 fatty acids, salmon can help reduce high cholesterol and slow the growth of arterial plaque.

Grapes (and wine!)

An antioxidant known as resveratrol is found in the skin of red grapes, and is also present in red wine. Resveratrol is, in fact, the reason red wine is believed to be good for the heart. It has also shown to relieve some of the symptoms of menopause, ease symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and improve blood glucose control. When it comes to alcohol though, less is more! One glass of red wine a day is the recommended dose in which to get all the resveratrol you need.

Some other superfoods you may wish to incorporate in your diet is garlic, ginger, turmeric, spirulina and wheatgrass. 

How to make the most of your superfoods

People tend to think that superfoods are expensive, and while they can be, there is no reason why you can’t consume them on a budget. The key is to buy superfoods that are in season. You’ll notice that some superfoods like grapes and blueberries are either very expensive, or very reasonably priced. This is because they need to be imported or transported to your region if they are not in season, which comes at a high cost. If you’re not sure about which foods are in season at what time of the year, do some research and draw up a calendar to refer to. 

Replace as many processed foods as possible with fresh alternatives. For example, it may be convenient to keep tinned fruit in the cupboard, but fruit in tins does not offer the equivalent nutrition as that of fresh fruit. They are usually preserved by means of a sugary syrup, which is very unhealthy. Convenience foods are just that – convenient – but sadly do not offer the same health benefits as fresh, whole foods. 

How to incorporate more superfoods into your diet:

Antioxidant-rich foods are known to be bright in colour – think red and yellow peppers, berries, spinach, tomatoes and beets. If your plate is looking a bit bland in terms of colour (browns, beige, creams), you are probably eating too few fruit and veggies! Fresh foods rich in colour are usually rich in nutrients, so be sure to eat a colourful plate of food.

If you’re struggling to get your family to eat their green vegetables, get sneaky. Shred broccoli, spinach or kale and add it to your soups, stews or stir frys. Grate broccoli into your cottage pie mix, add some shredded veg to your burger patties or blend into a fruit smoothie. 

If you eat cereal, muesli or porridge for breakfast, add some berries for an antioxidant boost.

Try to eat less meat and chicken, and to increase your consumption of salmon or tofu / soy instead. Not only do they contain less unhealthy fat, but many meat-free protein options have shown to sometimes comprise even more protein than meat does. Plus, these options are kinder to the planet. 

Try to replace at least one of your cups of coffee a day with a cup of green or white tea. If you don’t enjoy the taste, opt for a herbal or berry tea instead.

Try to include fruit and veg into at least two of your three meals a day, and when possible, snack on fresh fruit or vegetables instead of crisps, crackers or treats. Healthy raw nuts like Brazil nuts and sunflower seeds are also great snack options. 

Try healthy alternatives wherever possible. Children are known to be picky when it comes to vegetables. There’s a good chance they won’t touch the Greek salad next to the potatoes when you have your next braai. But that doesn’t mean they should only have of the meat and potatoes. Offer some fresh fruit like pineapple, berries or grapes as an alternative. 

Get creative. We don’t all have the time to prepare playful plates of food at every meal, but if it helps your kids eat more fruit and veg, try something different when you get a chance, like on the weekend. You can use berries to make a face on a pancake, for example. If meal-time is fun, kids are more likely to eat everything on their plate.

Cook an all-in-one pot. Many vegetables contain water-soluble vitamins, which means that their vitamins dissolve into the water when they are cooked. If you throw these veggies into a pot of soup or stew, the vitamins will cook into the fluid in the pot instead of being thrown off the food once it’s done.

Instilling healthy eating habits in your little ones from an early age is one of the most important ways of ensuring they enjoy a healthy diet as they grow up. When healthy foods are offered from a young age, children are more likely to make healthy eating choices as they grow up. You may find it easier to convince your children to eat fruit, due to the bright colours and natural sweetness they offer. Veggies are usually much trickier. It’s important not to give up, and don’t be discouraged if it takes time. If your child refuses a new food, move on to something else and try again another day. It can take up to 15 times (or even more!) for a child to accept and eat a new food. 

Experts may not always agree on which foods should be labelled “superfoods,” and which shouldn’t, but what they do agree on, is that foods rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are essential for a healthy body. The fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices that typically fall into this category support the body’s organs, aid growth, strengthen the immune system, and may even help prevent certain diseases later in life. To ensure your family gets a healthy intake of superfoods, try to incorporate fruit and vegetables into at least two meals a day. The brighter the colour of the fruit or veg, the higher its level of antioxidants, so try to compile meals with lots of different colours, or at least a minimum of brown, beige or cream (think pasta, potato, meat and rice). 

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