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So What Are Superfoods, Exactly?

by in Health Tips October 20, 2021

Plus, 34 of the tastiest foods you could call “super.” 

Article by Audrey BrunoCarolyn L. Todd, and Camille Noe Pagan for  www.self.com

It’s not hard to get on board with adding more “superfoods” to your diet. Who doesn’t want their food to be super? But here’s a followup question: What are superfoods, really? And what does it take for a food to be deemed super?

Nothing unusual, it turns out. Superfoods aren’t all that different from plain ol’ healthy foods, Dianna Sinni, R.D., L.D., wellness dietitian and blogger at Chard in Charge, tells SELF. There are no requirements or specifications for something to be considered a superfood, Sinni says. And unlike label claims such as “healthy,” “excellent source of,” and “organic,” the term superfood is not regulated by the FDA or USDA.

Without a legit, universal definition of superfood rooted in nutrition science, the best we’ve got is Merriam-Webster: “a food (such as salmon, broccoli, or blueberries) that is rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fiber, or fatty acids) considered beneficial to a person’s health.” Basically, if you squint hard enough, any generally nutritious food can fit this description. 

Often what happens is that a fruit or vegetable that’s been notoriously unpopular or otherwise forgotten (think nbussels sprouts or kale) will be remarketed as a superfood to pique the interest of consumers. Sinni explains that one negative side effect of this trend is that it may cause consumers to think of commonplace healthy foods—like spinach, oats, and apples—as nutritionally inferior, despite that not being the case. On the other hand, she says, “the term has done wonders to highlight lesser-known nutritious foods, like ancient grains or matcha,” which may otherwise not have had their moment in the sun.

Simply put, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the superfood du jour. Just remember that there are plenty of foods out there that are pretty damn super, even if they’re not thought of as “super” per se. Here are 34 foods you could totally call super. 

1. Spinach

Popeye was onto something. This dark leafy green is chock-full of so many beneficial nutrients, such as iron, potassium, and fiber. Use it as a bed for a colorful salad, or sauté it in butter or oil with garlic for a tasty side.

2. Chia seeds

These little seeds pack a major nutritional punch. A tablespoon contains 4.5 grams of heart-healthy fats, plus 5.5 grams of fiber. It’s no surprise they make a welcome addition to everything from smoothies to make-ahead puddings. Try one of these four recipes, including chia-crusted chicken and avocado-chia pudding pops with goji berries.

3. Flax seeds

Like their cousins chia seeds, flax seeds are nutritionally diverse little kernels. A 1-ounce serving has 3 grams of fiber and 4 grams of good-for-you fats. Add them to smoothies, sprinkle them atop your morning bowl of cereal, or incorporate them into your baking.

4. Watermelon

Hello, hydration. Watermelon, which gets its pretty color from the antioxidant lycopene, is a juicy, delicious way to make sure you’re staying hydrated. Try it in a salad, a smoothie, a salsa, or one of these tasty recipes.

5. Popcorn

One of indisputably best snacks of all time, popcorn is a whole grain, which means it’s full of good stuff like fiber. Sprinkle it with different spice mixes and oils to mix things up, or mix with nuts and chocolate chips for a salty-sweet snack.

6. Apples

Apples’ skin offers a good dose of filling fiber—one medium apple serves up 4 grams of the nutrient. Like other fruits, apples are full of vitamins and naturally occurring sugars. Plus, there’s about 3,000 different varieties of them!

7. Tomatoes

The combination of the antioxidant lycopene with water and potassium makes tomatoes another winner, Brigitte Zeitlin, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.N., founder of New York–based BZ Nutrition, previously told SELF. You can never go wrong pairing them with basil and fresh mozzarella.

8. Chickpeas

Whether you’re a hummus lover or not, chickpeas are a nutritional win. There’s a reason registered dietitians often call upon chickpeas as a dinner staple: Their protein content is through the roof, with 12 grams in a single cup, along with 11 grams of filling fiber. Try one of these recipes.

9. Bell peppers

Oh, bell peppers, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Not only do these colorful veggies offer plenty of vitamin C, they also make the perfect vehicle for other nutritious foods when ’re stuffed. Try filling them with meat or a plant-based protein source and grains.

10. Dark chocolate

What are superfoods that you can eat for dessert? Dark chocolate, for one. Taste aside, the cocoa that chocolate is made from contains antioxidants known as flavonoids. The higher the percentage of cocoa, the darker the chocolate and the more flavonoids you’ll get.

11. Sweet potato

Long live the sweet potato. “Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of energy,” Abbey Sharp, R.D., of Abbey’s Kitchen, previously told SELF. She recommends enjoying fiber-rich complex carbs, which raise your blood sugar more slowly. One large baked sweet potato serves up 37 carbs and 6 grams of fiber. Try these sweet potato recipes to get your fix.

12. Lentils

Lentils are a bonafide superfood if there ever was one, thanks to the legume’s fiber and protein content—1 cooked cup provides 16 grams of the former and 18 grams of the latter. There are many varieties of lentils, including red, yellow, green, and black. Add cooked lentils to pasta sauce for a heartier dish.

13. Oats

Oats are a filling breakfast choice because as a complex carb, they take longer to digest. “Your body needs to break down complex carbohydrates because they’re a complicated mesh of molecules,” Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., and owner of Nutrition Starring Youtold SELF previously. If you’re bored with the same old bowl, whip up these 13 creative oatmeal recipes instead.

14. Seaweed

Dulse, nori, kombu, hijiki, and wakame are all different varieties of seaweed that Sinni tells us are worth your time. Seaweed is packed with micronutrients like iodine, iron, calcium, and magnesium. Sinni recommends sprinkling dulse flakes onto baked potatoes or popcorn, or into warm grain and vegetable bowls.

15. Eggs

Dig into eggs, yolks and all; they won’t harm your heart. “The [USDA] Dietary Guidelines sees eggs as a healthy source of protein and groups them with meat and poultry,” Caroline Kaufman, R.D., previously told SELF for a story about what people get wrong about cholesterol. “Don’t stress about dietary cholesterol; focus on saturated and trans fats.” Veggie-filled omelets and scrambles are obvious choices, but if you can’t cook before work, bake a frittata on Sunday, then refrigerate it and reheat the leftovers for up to a week.

16. Kale

It seems like kale’s buzz will never die down, and for good reason. The popular leafy green provides a hearty helping of iron and calcium. Enjoy it baked into crunchy chips or sliced into thin ribbons and massaged with a mixture of oil and lemon juice for a tender salad.

17. Goji berries

These chewy, tart little berries are full of fiber, vitamin C, and naturally occurring sugars. Usually sold dried, they’re great in trail mix, yogurt parfaits, or even grain bowls.

18. Wild salmon

Salmon is full of those Omega-3 fatty acids that are so good for our bodies. You don’t need to do much to enhance salmon’s taste, Sidra Forman, a chef and writer in Washington, D.C., tells SELF: “Simple is best. Season a fillet with salt and pepper, then cook it in a hot pan with 2 teaspoons oil for one to three minutes on each side.”

19. Buckwheat pasta

Swap plain noodles for this hearty variety. Buckwheat noodles contain fiber (12 grams per cup), and a generous amount of protein too (24 grams per cup). Look for Japanese soba noodles, which are often made with a mix of buckwheat and wheat flours.

20. Blueberries

These tasty little berries have a beautiful blue hue thanks to the antioxidant anthocyanin. They also deliver 4 grams of fiber per cup, helping to keep you satisfied. Enjoy them in smoothies, salads, yogurt, oatmeal, and fruit salads.

21. Almond butter

Fat helps make food taste delicious and keep you satiated, and 1 tablespoon of almond butter has 9 grams of the stuff. Adding almond butter to your carbs can help stave off a blood sugar spike, thanks to its fat and protein (2 grams per tablespoon). Add a dollop to oatmeal for flavor, protein, and fat, or go old-school and munch on apple slices with almond butter dip.

22. Pomegranates

Pomegranate seeds deserve some time in the spotlight. In addition to being loaded with vitamins and health-promoting antioxidants, 1 cup provides 6 grams of fiber. Pop the raw ruby seeds on their own as a snack at your desk (many grocery stores sell them pre-shucked). You can also use them in salads instead of nuts.

23. Nutritional yeast

“Nutritional yeast is a great source of protein and fiber, and is also among the only vegan-friendly sources of vitamin B12,” Patricia Bannan, M.S., R.D.N., author of Eat Right When the Time Is Right, tells SELF. She likes to sprinkle this over pizza or salads in place of Parmesan cheese, but it can also be swirled into veggie soups for an extra protein boost.

24. Greek yogurt

With its trifecta of carbs, protein, and fat, Greek yogurt can keep you full and ward off hunger by keeping blood sugar levels steady. Instead of choosing the nonfat kind, go for 2% or one with whole milk. A single cup of Fage Total 2 Percent has 4.5 grams of fat and a whopping 23 grams of protein. Try using Greek yogurt instead of mayonnaise in chicken or potato salad

25. Quinoa

Quinoa is a pretty iconic superfood, and it’s as filling as it is versatile. The ancient grain contains both fiber (3 grams per 1/2 cup) and protein (4 grams per 1/2 cup), a stellar nutrient combo. Use quinoa instead of rice in stir-fries, or try one of these inventive recipes.

26. Sardines

These tiny fish are the unsung stars of the sea. With 23 grams of protein per can and a truckload of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, they’re an easy way to load up on nutrients. They’re also low in mercury and high in calcium, making them a smart fish pick for pregnant women. Use sardines in recipes you like that call for anchovies, including salads.

27. Tarragon

You can use this herb, a staple in French cooking, in marinades and salad dressings. Tarragon lends a sweet, licorice-like flavor to vegetables you might find bland, making it easier to keep your diet diverse. It’s also rich in nutrients like iron and manganese. Make a tasty dip by mixing 1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon into 4 ounces plain Greek yogurt and 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, Jacquelyn Buchanan, director of culinary development at Laura Chenel’s Chèvre, a fromagerie in Sonoma, California, tells SELF.

28. Parmesan cheese

Pasta, veggies, soup, salad—pretty much everything tastes better with a little parmesan on top. A single ounce of Parmesan contains 10 grams of protein—how’s that for a good fill-you-up option? Grate away, or snack on a 1-ounce portion with an apple or a pear.

29. Avocado

Avocados’ fat, fiber, and incredible creaminess make them a fantastic addition to breakfast, lunch, or dinner—even dessert. Try one of these inventive avocado recipes.

30. Extra-virgin olive oil

This kitchen staple is among the greatest multitaskers of all time. Olive oil is aces for sautéing or roasting veggies and proteins, or forming the base of a pasta sauce or salad dressing. It’s rich with flavor, mouthfeel, and monounsaturated fatty acids.

31. Pistachios

Jackie Newgent, R.D., culinary nutritionist and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook, tells SELF, “What makes pistachios truly exceptional is that they’re a good source of both protein and fiber, and their bright green and purple colors indicate that they’re full of antioxidants.” She and Sarah-Jane Bedwell, R.D., L.D.N., host of Cooking With Sarah-Jane, recommend seeking out Wonderful pistachios because they’re easy to find at supermarkets nationwide, and are lightly flavored with natural ingredients like salt and pepper.

32. Brussels sprouts

“Previously considered a stinking rose, brussels sprouts have had a renaissance in recent years and are one of the hottest (and healthiest) vegetables,” Edwina Clark, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., tells SELF. It’s true—walk into just about any restaurant, and odds are you’ll find some kind of sprouts offering on the menu. And that’s great because, well, they’re great for you. Each serving is packed with vitamin C and fiber.33

33. Sorghum

This ancient grain is one of the few that’s gluten-free, says Newgent. In addition to that, it’s also packed with iron, which is something to keep in mind if you don’t eat meat! If you can’t find the grain itself, Newgent says you can try it out in Kind’s Popped Dark Chocolate With Sea Salt Healthy Grains Bars.

34. Halibut

Clark considers halibut a superfood because it’s filled with Omega-3 fatty acids, protein, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, and many other nutrients. And it’s easier to find and less expensive than many other types of fish.

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