Superfoods: Hype Or Helpful for Obesity Goals?

Health Writer
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Have you had your daily dose of blueberries – quinoa - tiger nuts – coconut water today? News headlines suggest these and many other foods deserve the lofty title of ‘superfoods,’ which seems to translate into a strong recommendation to eat a lot of them, especially if you’re trying to prevent obesity and cancer. How did the term ‘superfood’ evolve and is this label helpful or possibly detrimental if you are trying to optimize your diet, lose weight, and get healthy?

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What’s in a name?

Terms like ‘power foods’ or ‘superfoods’ can tempt us into thinking that a single food or group of foods have magical powers in terms of promoting health, more than just being chock full of nutrients. Advertising slogans and labels suggest that foods containing compounds that have themselves become buzz words – antioxidants, fiber, omega 3 fatty acids – should headline our diets.

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Advertising healthy food

The United Fruit Company was the first major food company to use advertising to suggest that you could live on bananas because they were so filling and nutrient dense. This was really the first case of food manufacturers realizing that superfoods spur huge sales. Consumers will likely buy every version of that food in gargantuan amounts, and tell everyone they know to do the same.

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Is it evidence-based?

Quite often this phenomenon is fueled by a study or research, often preliminary or small in scope, indicating a singular health benefit: cholesterol-lowering, cancer-fighting, blood-pressure lowering, or supportive of heart or brain health. According to Mintel research, between 2011 and 2015 there was a 202 percent increase globally in the number of new food and drink products that were launched and advertised as a superfood, superfruit, or supergrain.

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The truth about antioxidants

The Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) was created in 1991 by scientists looking to measure the antioxidant capacity of foods. The use of this measurement became so overhyped that the USDA actually removed it from the database in 2012 because of food claims associated with it. It should not surprise you to hear that blueberries have a high ORAC. Most nutritionists would like you to eat a range of berries because each type has its own unique composite of nutrients and antioxidants.

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Too much turmeric?

It’s worth noting that the spice turmeric, although low in calories and thought to reduce inflammation due to its curcumin content, may cause gastrointestinal problems when consumed long term or in high doses. The science is just not clear yet on the exact health benefits of curcuminoids in turmeric.

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Researching specific health benefits

Limited research has identified why these popular foods might be considered ‘superfoods’: seaweed, pea protein, ginger, turmeric, matcha, chickpeas, ancient grains, whole grains. Though each of these foods or food categories offers health benefits, there may be dangers in consuming too much of them over the course of a day or several days. Ultimately, portion size and the appropriate number of servings daily is crucial to achieving weight loss or weight balance.

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Superfood assumptions

The biggest mistake someone with obesity can make is to assume that these superfoods, some of which are carbohydrates, or high in fat and calories, can be eaten without restrictions. Another assumption is that other versions of these foods are also super-healthy.

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Eating sensibly

Filling up with foods that contain beneficial compounds will likely support health. Elevating some foods to guru or superstar status, though, can cloud basic food sensibilities. If you’re managing obesity though, these terms can be somewhat misleading and even suggestive that eating any amount of them is good for you.

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Beware of processed substitutes

While it is difficult to overconsume fruit, like blueberries, it is easily possible to eat way too many fruit-based snacks (fruit leather and fruit chews) and many of these treats have added sugars. Pea protein is a newer, good source of plant-based protein, especially if you’re trying to reduce meat consumption, but if you’re making shakes with pea protein – you’re missing out on chewing, which helps you to feel satisfied when trying to lose or maintain weight.

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Portioning ‘superfoods’

Pastas made from chickpeas may help to boost the protein level, but you still need to measure portions. Chips made from vegetables and beans may or may not have less saturated fat or sodium, and a dose of protein or other nutrients, but they are essentially treat foods (with calories). You may be lured into eating bags of these healthier snack versions. Despite superstar status, coconut products are often loaded with saturated fat and calories.

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Eating a variety of foods

When trying to lose weight, eating a variety of foods in each food group category – the superstar choices from each food group - which usually means less processed foods – may indeed help you to avoid nutrient gaps and keep you satisfied and not bored with a limited diet.

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Find your balance

There’s nothing wrong with embracing some of these superfoods in your diet. Section your plate and include different fruits, vegetables, proteins, and whole grain-based portions. However, giving into the hype and overemphasizing the latest superfoods at the exclusion of all the other equally nutrient-dense foods may not do your wallet or your waistline any good.