Superfoods and Their Superpowers

Elaine M. Hinzey, RD, LDN

Although there is no official clinical definition, 'superfoods' are considered to be foods with high amounts of nutrient-rich compounds that help you fight disease and live healthier. Generally, superfoods are unprocessed whole foods and contain plentiful amounts of antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals. Examples of superfoods include:

• Apples: Apples contain antioxidants, fiber, and they are low in calories, which helps with weight management and reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease. Their soluble fiber helps to reduce cholesterol levels, and increase feelings of fullness. They may have benefits for your wallet as well. A recent study found that regular apple eaters tend to take fewer prescription medications.

• Beans: Beans are full of protein, fiber, antioxidants, and minerals with no saturated fat at all; the nutrients in beans work in tandem to keep your heart healthy and lower cholesterol levels. Health professionals praise beans for their role in lowering the risk of several types of cancer, lowering type 2 diabetes risk, and improving blood sugar for people who have diabetes.

• Blueberries: One of the richest sources of phytochemicals and antioxidants, blueberries may lower the risk of urinary tract infection, protect against cardiovascular disease, help to reduce short-term memory loss and Alzheimer's disease, reduce inflammation, prevent cancer, improve eye health, and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

• Broccoli: This cruciferous vegetable contains sulforaphane, a potent phytochemical that gives cooked broccoli its characteristic sulfur smell, but also has cancer-fighting properties. Broccoli also offers protection from the H. pylori bacteria. One cup of cooked broccoli contains almost half of the vitamin A requirement for an adult, more than 150% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin, and almost half of an adult's daily folate needs.

• Kale: Contains a specific phytonutrient that appears to battle against many types of cancer and might trigger the liver to make enzymes that neutralize potentially cancer-causing substances. One cup of kale meets 206% of the daily value for vitamin A, 136% for vitamin C, and 684% for vitamin K-all with only 33 calories!

• Nuts: Some nutrition professionals have tried to choose the "best nut" from a nutritional perspective, but they are all fantastic. Almonds are very high in vitamin E and contain a natural form of the same drugs used to treat Alzheimer's disease. Brazil nuts are tops among all foods for selenium content and may help to prevent cancer, heart disease, and viral infection. Pecans have more antioxidants than any nut. Pistachios contain natural phytosterols, which help to lower total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, and may reduce cancer risk (especially prostate and breast cancer). Walnuts contain more omega-3 fatty acids and bring down total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels as well, and the type of fat in walnuts is good for the bones.

• Oats: Lots of heart disease-fighting soluble fiber, magnesium, potassium, and phytonutrients make oats a superfood. In fact, postmenopausal women who eat whole grains, such as oats, have stronger cardiac profiles than their refined grain-eating counterparts. Oats also appear to reduce the risk for both diabetes and obesity.

• Oranges and other citrus fruit: Although most people think of vitamin C when they see citrus fruit, these brightly colored citrus fruits also offer up fiber, potassium, folate, and many other vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C prevents the oxidation of LDL, and therefore helps to prevent heart disease; it also prevents cataracts and improves the absorption of iron, as well as helping with the maintenance of healthy skin and gums. The folic acid in oranges helps to prevent against birth defects. Citrus fruit might help to prevent the formation of kidney stones and the loss of bone, maintain healthy brain tissue, reduce the risk of cancer, and decrease the chances of hemorrhagic stroke.

• Pumpkin: The beta-carotene in pumpkin aids skin health, protects your vision, and might reduce arthritis. Its potassium lowers blood pressure, is crucial to normal muscle contraction and relaxation, and helps to regulate the heartbeat. Manganese is found in large quantities in pumpkin, and especially in pumpkin seeds, and is crucial to bone and skin health, as well as blood sugar control. The magnesium in pumpkin helps to maintain normal muscle and nerve function, keeps heart rhythm steady, supports a strong immune system, keeps bones healthy, helps to regulate blood sugar, and promotes normal metabolism. Copper, which is found in pumpkin, is important for healthy skin and iron absorption and release from the intestine.

• Quinoa: Like pumpkin, quinoa also contains potassium, manganese, magnesium, and copper in spades. The iron in quinoa is important for red blood cell function, immune function, and cognitive performance. The thiamine is required for normal functioning of all body cells, converts carbohydrate into energy, and is involved in the formation of DNA and RNA. Quinoa is also rich in riboflavin, which supports normal vision, helps to maintain skin and mucous membranes, is involved in the production and regulation of certain hormones, and is involved in the metabolism of carbohydrate, protein, and fat.

• Red bell pepper: If you want to pump up the vitamin C content of your diet, look no further than the trusty red bell pepper, which also delivers beta-carotene and plenty of water (which might help you to feel full with fewer calories).

• Salmon: Contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to reduce inflammation, improve circulation, increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol while decreasing LDL cholesterol levels, help arthritis, and fight depression. Salmon contains selenium and B vitamins. The American Heart Association recommends at least two servings of fish, like salmon, each week. If you do not like salmon though, these fatty acids can also be found in herring, sardines, mackerel, trout, fortified eggs, flax seed, and walnuts.

• Spinach: The vitamins and minerals in this leafy-green powerhouse help to keep eyes and bones healthy, improve immunity, aid in the prevention of birth defects, and promote a healthy central nervous system.

• Tea: Tea has been consumed for its health benefits for thousands of years. Both green and black tea have been studied for their role in stroke prevention, reduction of cancer risk, weight loss, the slowing of memory decline with aging, heart disease prevention, avoidance of osteoporosis, inhibition of tooth decay, decrease in the risk of Parkinson's disease, and improvement in immunity.

• Tomato: Tomatoes contain the antioxidant lycopene that protects the eyes, might protect the skin against harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, reduces the risk of certain cancers, especially prostate cancer, and lowers cholesterol. Tomatoes also contain plenty of potassium, fiber, and vitamin C.