How to recognize a superfood

Now that we potentially all have attention spans less than that of a goldfish – can’t believe you’re still reading this! – it is apparently more important than ever that we distill information down into small, digestible bits. One way we do this is by labeling everything, especially food. This is so we can recognize it, so we can boast about it, so we can post a photo of it, so we can pay more for it. So we can say, Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just eating my superfood salad over here. Goji berries, acai, spirulina, wheatgrass…the list of trendy branded superfoods goes on and on.

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Purple foods are rich in anthocyanins, a specific type of antioxidant.

Western society, particularly America, has some serious food issues. We are collectively overfed and undernourished. We all know that obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases are on the rise, and yet still we consume on average more than twice the calories we need in a day. We’re overwhelmed by choice and information and the constant barrage of marketing thrown at us every second. We’re no longer able to think for ourselves.

“We are a society obsessed with the potential harmful effects of eating, according to the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin, renowned for his theories on the role that fear and disgust play in modern food culture. Overwhelmed by the abundance and variety of foods in our groceries, and flooded with competing health claims, we can’t help but make instinctive food-purchase decisions, subject to the whims of the latest trends and health scares. No wonder that, when confronted with ambiguities in health-based marketing claims, we fill in the gaps with inaccurate inferences, as the Cornell University economist Brian Wansink found in a 2006 study. Food companies bragging about supposed health benefits, such as low calorie count or low cholesterol, create what the influential study dubbed a “health halo,” a vague but positive glow that temporarily relieves our food-centered anxieties—at least long enough to get through checkout.”

-Michael Fitzgerald, Pacific Standard, May 26, 2017

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Eat the stems, too. They’re full of fiber, and you paid for them.

We claim that eating healthy is too expensive, yet we spend billions of dollars on supplements and vitamins every year. Those billions feed a growing industry that is entirely unregulated – and studies regularly demonstrate that there is little to no benefit. We drink enhanced waters (???). We complain about a greedy, corrupt and unethical health care system whose entire business model is based on keeping everyone just a little bit sick and that routinely sends people into bankruptcy, yet again we refuse to change our own habits. We expect the government to save us, but we do very little to save ourselves.

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Anything in the allium family – garlic, onions, leeks – is packed with nutrients.

Humans simply cannot get the nutrients we need from pills, potions, powders or drinks. One of the most important benefits that actual foods provide is fiber – basically the traffic control system for the body’s nutrient absorption. Any time you reduce a food to a powder or a juice, you’ve removed all the fiber and therefore most of the benefit. Plus, since the supplement market is unregulated, you honestly have no idea what you’re actually consuming. At best it’s benign, at worst it’s poison. At least when you buy a head of broccoli, you know it’s broccoli.

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Fresh or frozen, berries are always a good choice.

The answer to our health crisis is right in front of us and has been for centuries: eat real food. Eat fruits and vegetables and grains and legumes in their whole, natural, unprocessed state. Eat meat and dairy and eggs if you know where and how those animals were raised. Eat things that come out of the ground, rather than out of a package. Eat food that you have to wash first, because it’s covered in dirt. Eat food you grew and harvested yourself.

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Greens of any type are also rich in nutrients – and flavor.

Here, then, is my easy trick for recognizing most superfoods: they don’t come with labels that say “superfood.” In fact, if it does have a label, then someone is trying to convince you of something, and that is how to get you to open your wallet. I’m here to tell you today that the world’s best superfoods don’t have labels. In fact, can we please just stop using that obnoxious term superfood, anyway? All it implies is that this is better than that, and for goodness’ sake we have enough snarky competition in the world. Any plain, simple fruit or vegetable, without adornment, without seasoning, without added sugar, without processing, is a superfood. It is as simple (and as complicated) as that.

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Look! It’s a superfood salad!

As we’ve said here at least one million times before, just eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Eat lots of different colors. Take whatever money you spend on multivitamins and enhanced water and juice bars and invest in a decent chef’s knife and a good pan or two, plus a few pots of herbs for a sunny windowsill. Cook it yourself, and grow it yourself, and take care of yourself. That’s all there is to it.

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