“Superfoods” provide healthy boost

As obesity rates continue to rise, so does awareness of what people put into their mouths. To help bring attention to the value of a healthy diet, there has been a shift in focus toward a new aspect of nutrition: “superfoods.”

Somewhat of a misleading term, people often assume these foods hold “super,” or magical nutritional powers that offer quick fixes to whatever health problems they may have. Realistically however, “superfoods” are nutrient-dense foods that give you a bigger bang for your calorie buck, said Rebecca Roach, food science and human nutrition teaching associate.

Generally, “superfoods” are whole foods — foods that are unprocessed and unrefined — that have extra nutritional benefits. These can include properties that may help prevent the onset of certain diseases. Here are a few “superfoods” worth knowing, as they may provide a kick start for your own diet.

Berries

More than just colorful fruit, berries contain various phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals that positively impact health. Blueberries and raspberries, in particular, contain lutein, which is important for healthy vision.

While berries deepest in color are highest in antioxidants, all berries have natural anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce the risk of colon and lung cancer, said Justine Karduck, health educator and dietitian at McKinley Health Center. Taking in too many berries, however, may lead to bloating due to their high fiber content, Karduck said. Like all foods, berries should be eaten in moderation and in a variety of colors to get their full health benefits.

Sweet Potatoes

Unfortunately, this orange root vegetable has received somewhat of a bad reputation over the years. Often thought of as being extremely high in calories and carbohydrates, it is actually what people add to sweet potatoes, like brown sugar and marshmallows, that make them a high fat and calorie choice, Karduck said.

Like other vegetables, sweet potatoes are fat-free and relatively low in calories — one small sweet potato has just 54 calories. Sweet potatoes are also high in minerals like potassium and magnesium, as well as vitamins A and E, both extremely important for skin health, Karduck said.

Sweet potatoes also contain the antioxidant beta-carotene, which the body turns into vitamin A. This vitamin plays a major role in the production of connective tissue.

Salmon

Salmon is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals. Most importantly, salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, Karduck said. Because the body cannot produce these healthy fats, it is essential to include them in your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce the risk of heart disease and also lower blood triglycerides.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, people should eat at least two meals per week that include fish like salmon.

Almonds

Packed with nutrients, these tear-shaped nuts are high in magnesium and calcium. In fact, almonds have more calcium than any other nut.

The magnesium in almonds plays an important role in the balancing of electrolytes, Karduck said. Almonds are also high in vitamin E ­— just one serving of almonds provides half of your body’s Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of vitamin E, soluble fiber and monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fat is a healthier type of fat that helps lower LDL cholesterol levels and reduces one’s risk of heart disease, Karduck said.

Almonds, however, are uniquely high in fat and calories and it is easy to go overboard with them, especially since they are often covered with extra salt. It is also important to be aware of the recommended serving size, Karduck said, which is a small handful.

Spinach

Green, leafy bunches of goodness, spinach is a “superfood” that people may hear of most often because its plant compounds can help boost one’s immune system. Raw spinach is high in vitamin A and is a good source of vitamin C and folate, while cooked spinach has the added benefit of riboflavin, vitamin B6, calcium, iron and magnesium, said Bethni Ruot, Health Education Nutritionist at McKinley Health Center.

Even though spinach is a good source of iron and calcium, oxalic acid inhibits the body’s absorption of these nutrients. Absorption can be increased by eating spinach with a fruit or vegetable that contains vitamin C, Ruot said.

Those with a family history or past medical history of kidney or gallbladder stones, however, should be cautious toward eating spinach in excess because of the oxalates it contains. These oxalates can cause crystallization of body fluids and, in turn, create possible health problems, Ruot said.

Beans

Whether garbanzo, white, black, red, navy or soy, beans are naturally low in fat and are a great source of fiber, protein and amino acids, Karduck said. The more colorful the beans, the better because they contain flavonoids. This added benefit may protect against heart disease and certain cancers.

If eaten with other green foods, one can get complete protein intake sans any meat, which is also helpful in lowering cholesterol.

Peppers

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding hot peppers and their metabolism-boosting “powers”. If these peppers provide any boost to metabolism, it is insignificant, Roach said. In fact, hot peppers have been known to act as an appetite suppressant because one’s mouth has to adjust to the hot food, Karduck said.

Regular sweet peppers and green peppers are great sources of vitamin C. Peppers contain more vitamin C than oranges, Roach said. Sweet and green peppers also contain antioxidants and should definitely be included in one’s diet, Karduck said.

Eggs

Somewhat controversial to the list because of their cholesterol level, eggs contain an ample amount of nutritious benefits. For being small, they are one of the best sources of protein, Karduck said.

Eggs are a good source of choline and are also filling. The yolk contains all of the egg’s fat and cholesterol, but also plenty of vitamins such as B2 and B12. B2 is an antioxidant commonly known as riboflavin that promotes healthy skin and B12 helps create red blood cells.

Because eggs are higher in cholesterol, to be cautious, remove the yolk and just consume the egg white, Ruot said. One egg contains about 213 milligrams of dietary cholesterol and the daily recommended cholesterol limit is less than 300 milligrams for people with healthy cholesterol levels, Ruot said. By eliminating the yolk, one can still get a healthy level of protein from the white while avoiding potential problems with cholesterol.