Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...
You can't open a magazine or peruse a website without some article, mention or ad promoting superfoods — those foods that have high concentrations of disease-fighting nutrients that can improve your health and quality of life. Though many superfoods, such as goji berries, acai berries, mangosteen and noni, are expensive and hard to find, some of your everyday supermarket foods can supercharge your health as well — and save you some money. Here are 14 of the best superfoods to include in your diet.
Once considered an exotic fruit, the beautiful ruby red pomegranate is bursting with antioxidants and delicious sweet-tart flavor (at only about 100 calories each). Excellent for heart and brain health, pomegranate arils (seeds) can be tossed into salads, sprinkled on yogurt or ice cream, folded into muffin or pancake batter, used as a colorful garnish or simply snacked on as is. Pomegranate juice can be enjoyed as a refreshing wake-me-up, turned into a sweet syrup or transformed into a tasty trendy cocktail.
"Pomegranates are loaded with antioxidants called ellagitannins, which give the fruit its vibrant color. The juice has been suggested to reduce artery-clogging plaque, giving pomegranates 'superfood' status for heart disease and stroke prevention, along with being touted for anti-aging and cancer protective benefits," says Marci Clow, MS, RDN at Rainbow Light.
Low in calories (about 30 calories per cup) and high in health-promoting polyphenols, broccoli is considered one of the most potent nutrient-dense superfoods. Drew Parisi, a nutritionist in Silicon Valley, California, says, "A member of the cruciferous vegetable family, broccoli has powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxification benefits. These three benefits combined make broccoli an ideal cancer fighter."
Yes, studies have shown that broccoli can combat cancer and heart disease, ward off cataracts, boost the immune system and reduce the risk of birth defects. Broccoli can be eaten raw, lightly steamed or stir-fried — be sure to cook until just crisp tender to avoid dampening broccoli's nutritional power. Include chopped broccoli in grain dishes, salads or as part of omelets or quiche.
Spinach, kale, chard, beet greens, arugula and collard greens are just a few varieties of low-calorie, nutrient-packed leafy greens. A dietary staple in promoting eye health, combating cancer, boosting brain function and fighting heart disease, the variety of leafy greens gives you ample opportunity to include them in your diet. Design your salads around spinach or arugula, sauté any of the greens with garlic and olive oil for a side dish, add greens to soups and stews, and try these delicious recipes featuring leafy greens.
Clow says, "Whatever variety you pick, you can’t go wrong with piling a plate with leafy greens. Not only will you get a burst of volume without packing in calories, but greens are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients. Greens are one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat, making them protective against many chronic diseases and the aging process itself."
Nearly all nuts can be considered superfoods due to their heart-healthy unsaturated fats and other phytonutrients. Walnuts happen to be high in omega-3s, which research indicates can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and even depression. A daily handful of walnuts — which contains about 200 calories — is literally a generous handful of health. Nosh on walnuts as a snack, or incorporate them into your favorite recipes. Adding chopped walnuts to any dish will lend a delectable crunch and nutty flavor.
Clow confirms, "Walnuts are loaded with protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats (including omega-3s) and are tasty as a snack, sprinkled over yogurt or toasted and tossed in a salad. Eating one serving of nuts per day has been shown to play a role in boosting memory and easing depression and has also been linked to heart health."
Take it from someone who knows — Cheryl Forberg, New York Times bestselling author and dietitian for TV’s The Biggest Loser, says she would nominate pistachios to the top of the “weight loss superfood” list. “We keep pistachios in ample supply at The Biggest Loser ranch. Not only are they a satisfying, heart-healthy snack, they also aid weight loss. One reason: Studies suggest having to manually remove the shell helps people eat more mindfully and slows the rate at which they nosh, helping to reduce portion size and calorie intake.”
Forberg reminds us that one ounce of pistachios, or about 49 nuts, contains a host of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients the body needs to function and stay healthy, coming in at only 160 calories per serving. Pistachios even have more dietary fiber than a half cup of cooked superfood star broccoli at 3 grams. A serving of pistachios is also a rich source of healthy fats and contains 6 grams of protein, the same amount as in an ounce of soybeans.
Considered a disease-fighting superdrink, green tea — as well as black, white and red teas — is high in polyphenols and the flavonoid EGCG. Studies suggest that drinking tea every day can fight cancer, stroke and heart disease as well as boost the immune system and cognitive health. Replace your daily soft drinks with calorie-free tea, and take advantage of the many green tea-infused drinks and food products.
Dr. Melina Jampolis, author of The Doctor On Demand Diet, explains why a cup of the green brew may be just what the doctor ordered. She says green tea is "a top calorie-free beverage choice and loaded with disease-fighting polyphenols called catechins that support heart health, brain health, healthy blood sugar levels and may even boost weight loss slightly (although research has shown mixed results) by increasing metabolism and increasing fat burning, especially pre-workout. [It] also contains an amino acid called theanine, which can calm you down during stress-filled days."
While some may consider vinegar more of a condiment than a food, it doesn’t hurt to add a bottle next to the olive oil on your table. “Vinegar is one of my diet staples,” says Subway dietitian Lanette Kovachi. “Not only does red wine vinegar contain the disease-fighting antioxidant resveratrol, it also has been shown to curb hunger, control blood sugar and may even reduce body fat. Added bonus, it has a ton of flavor without calories or sodium. Keep handy homemade oil-and-vinegar dressing, and use on salads, sandwiches and as a marinade. Try plain vinegar on sautéed greens as a salt substitute.”
With all these health benefits in mind, it may not surprise you to learn that red wine vinegar has been used as a health elixir for thousands of years in folk remedies. Similar to its alcoholic friend red wine, red wine vinegar is rich in antioxidants while remaining free of sodium, cholesterol and fat. Red wine vinegar also contains acetic acid as an active ingredient, which may help to regulate the hunger hormone and control cravings.
Whole grains, including whole wheat flour, brown rice, oats, quinoa, bulgur, barley and buckwheat, are fighters against heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Contrary to popular belief, Dr. Jampolis says, "Grains are not the enemy." While she does recommend cutting back on grains if you carry weight around your midsection, "you should not cut them completely, as they are a very good source of fiber, B vitamins and key minerals. Research shows that substituting whole grains for refined grains can improve weight loss and decrease markers of inflammation."
The fiber in whole grains can lower cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar and reduce the risk of colon cancer. Additionally, whole grains provide a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals and are ultra versatile when it comes to cooking. Start your day with oatmeal or another whole grain hot or cold cereal, toss together a grain salad with crunchy vegetables for lunch, serve a side of quinoa or bulgur with dinner, and always opt for whole grain varieties of bread products. The calories, protein and fiber content vary among grains, so be sure to read labels to pick the healthiest grain for your meals.
If traditional grains aren’t doing it for you, then consider trying black rice, which Parisi calls the “new superfood” on the scene. He explains that this high-fiber whole grain stands out from all of its grainy counterparts since it contains more protein and fewer calories than white or brown rice. “The dark color is actually a dark purple pigment that signals the presence of anthocyanin antioxidants — the same antioxidants found in blueberries, but in a much higher concentration,” he adds.
As nutritionists like Parisi say, brown is good for you, and black is even better (when it comes to rice). The bran hull of black rice contains high concentrations of immune-boosting and free radical-fighting vitamin E. Eating black rice, a staple in Asian cuisine for millennia, can also provide anti-inflammatory benefits to help fight against cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Dairy may be getting a bad rap lately, but it all depends on how you eat it. According to Dr. Jampolis, there may be one tart and tangy superfood that you’re missing out on if you’re accustomed to grabbing plain yogurt in the dairy aisle. Dr. Jampolis explains that kefir is a fermented dairy drink loaded with beneficial probiotics as well as protein and calcium, known to support gut health.
She says, “The critical role of a healthy gut in overall health, not just healthy digestive function, is rapidly evolving, and more and more research suggests that a healthy gut may play an important role in immune health and may even play a role in obesity and mood disorders. [Kefir] contains far more probiotics than yogurt, along with greater probiotic diversity, which helps ensure that you reap all the potential health benefits.”
This green fruit's creamy texture and satisfying flavor can lower your risk of heart disease by reducing bad cholesterol (LDL) and increasing good cholesterol (HDL). A 5-ounce avocado has about 200 calories — most of which is good-for-you monounsaturated fat — and an abundance of vitamin E, fiber, folate, potassium and magnesium. Replace mayonnaise with avocado on your sandwich or wrap, purée into a salad dressing or drizzle for veggies, and dice up and add to fruit salads or smoothies.
"Avocados are a naturally nutrient-dense fruit and contain a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients," says Clow. "They also supply a substantial amount of monounsaturated fat, known as the 'the healthy fat,' plus a significant level of fiber, which contributes to a feeling of fullness. Avocado is also a good source of lutein, an antioxidant linked to eye health."
Protein-packed and an excellent source of heart-healthy omega-3s, salmon is a superfood you can include in your diet two to three times per week. To boot, experts say the fats in salmon can also reduce inflammation in the brain and body, helping to ward off dementia, Alzheimer's, arthritis, asthma and other inflammatory diseases. Roast salmon, and serve with a side of vegetables; cube salmon, and include it in a seafood chowder; or whip cooked salmon with goat cheese and fresh herbs for a superb party dip.
"In addition to being a great source of heart-healthy omega-3 fats, salmon is also one of the few food sources of vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for immune support and bone health and is hard to get in the winter months because we typically convert sunlight into vitamin D through our skin," Parisi says.
While all herbs and spices are concentrated sources of nutrients, cinnamon is a must-have. "Although not technically a 'food,' cinnamon is a spice which is loaded with antioxidants and has been suggested to help stabilize blood sugar, inhibit clotting and slow bacterial growth in addition to adding a nice flavor to foods," Clow qualifies.
One teaspoon of this superspice contains the same antioxidant level as a half cup of blueberries. Warm your cocoa, cider or coffee drinks with a healthy dash of cinnamon, add a bit extra to baked goods, include ground cinnamon in sauces and marinades, and use it to spice up your grain side dishes. Cinnamon is a universally loved spice and oh so easy to include in your diet.
You won't find many superfood lists that don't include this indulgent treat. Though unhealthy in excess, a small portion of dark chocolate every day is not only good for the soul, but it can actually extend your life. Studies have shown the polyphenols in dark chocolate can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. Enjoy a small piece of dark chocolate with a glass of red wine for an extra enjoyable boost of antioxidants.
"As with many others on this list, dark chocolate is a very good source of flavonoids, a type of polyphenol associated with numerous health benefits. Dark chocolate can protect your heart in several different ways and improve mood by boosting chemicals in your brain, and the type of saturated fat in dark chocolate is neutral in terms of cholesterol," Dr. Jampolis adds.