Six Sneaky Superfoods & What Makes Them “Super”
“Superfoods” Aren’t The Only Super Foods!
Countless foods today have been deemed “superfoods,” and who wouldn’t want to eat a food that’s SUPER?! Kale, broccoli, blueberries, eggs, salmon—you’ve probably heard that these foods (among others) are especially super. But what is a superfood exactly? How “super” are they? And what about the foods that are packed with nutrients, but just aren’t labeled as “super”—a.k.a. the sneaky superfoods?
What Are Superfoods?
The general concept behind superfoods is that they’re nutrient powerhouses, loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that have some seemingly magical qualities. They’re foods that are thought to ward off chronic diseases and help us live longer, healthier lives. Again, who wouldn’t want all of these healthy things?
But, superfood isn’t an actual, scientific term. There’s no concrete definition, nor set criteria for what makes a food “super.” Now, that’s not to say that these common superfoods aren’t amazingly healthy—they are, and they offer some impressive health benefits! But, we should be aware that “superfood” is mostly a marketing tool, used to encourage people to eat these items. It’s wonderful to eat more healthy foods, but the term superfood can be misleading.
It leads some people to believe that, because these superfoods are so healthy, we can eat them in unlimited amounts—which isn’t healthy or true for any food. And, calling some foods “super” leads people to favor those certain foods over other healthy foods. This limits diversity in our diet, and we need a variety of nutritious foods to live our healthiest lives.
If you’ve found healthy superfoods that you enjoy, great! We’re always more likely to eat healthy foods that we enjoy, which means our bodies actually reap their nutritional benefits. Superfoods are absolutely healthy—but we can’t eat them all day every day, and we can’t only eat the foods included on a simple 10 item list of superfoods. If you’re looking for healthy foods to incorporate into your diet, superfoods can be a great place to start, but don’t stop there!
So, How “Super” Are Superfoods?
Let’s take kale, for example. Kale has become wildly popular, almost like the super-est of all the superfoods. And, yes, it’s amazingly nutrient-dense, and it’s easy to sneak into recipes! A 100 gram serving (about 1 ½ cups) has:
- 10 times (1000%) the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamin K1
- 3 times (300%) the RDA for vitamin A
- 2 times (200%) the RDA for vitamin C
- significant portions of the calcium, potassium, and iron you need in a day
- cancer-fighting bioactive compounds, sulforophane and indole-3-carbinol
- powerful antioxidants, like quercetin and kaempferol, which have shown some impressive effects: blood-pressure lowering, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-cancer.
But, as healthy and “super” as kale is, eating kale alone won’t keep us healthy—anything eaten in large amounts can be dangerous. It’s not that eating tons of kale will make you gain weight, because it’s extremely low in calories. But, kale can contain thallium, a toxic metal, which can build up in the blood when we eat too much of it. Mild thallium poisoning can look like fatigue, foggy thinking, and digestive problems, while more severe poisoning can cause skin problems, heart arrhythmias, gluten sensitivity, and Lyme disease.
Now, thallium can be found in plenty of other foods (don’t go throw away your kale), and it’s hard to get into that toxic level of consumption. Eat one or two bunches of kale in a week if you like, but it’s best not to go overboard and juice an entire bunch or two bunches to drink in one day. This is just one example of a superfood that has plenty of super qualities, but isn’t super enough to keep us healthy on its own. We need balance in our diets, and we need a variety of nutrients!
The truth is, plenty of foods could be considered superfoods—you’ve just got to find the “super” in each food! Those commonly-called superfoods are great, healthy choices, but don’t limit yourself to just those foods. Let’s look at 8 sneaky “superfoods” that you might not expect, and start thinking about how you can broaden your diet to include more healthy variety:
If you love watermelon as much as I do, you’ll be happy to know that it’s a pretty darn super food with some incredible health benefits. Most watermelons are over 90% water, which makes them an awesome, hydrating snack that’s naturally sweet. Plus, watermelon has plenty of nutrients and healthy antioxidants to offer! Berries aren’t the only super fruits with serious antioxidant power…
What Makes Watermelon “Super”?
In particular, watermelon has higher levels of the phytonutrient lycopene than most other fruits and veggies. Lycopene is what gives watermelons (and tomatoes, and red grapefruits) their red color, and it acts as an antioxidant that protects our cells from damage. Lycopene in watermelon has been shown to help lower blood pressure, prevent some cancers, and act as an anti-inflammatory. Reducing inflammation can be crucial to our health, because chronic inflammation is now linked to SO many chronic diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The redder and more ripe your watermelon gets, the more lycopene it has!
But, even the white part of watermelon near the rind is worth eating because it contains the more of the amino acid citrulline. (The watermelon flesh does contain some citrulline, but not nearly as much as near the rind.) Citrulline helps to promote blood flow and can improve our circulation, which is healthy for our muscles and our hearts! The lycopene and citrulline we get from watermelon work together to protect our bodies at a cellular level, and keep things running smoothly.
Per 2 cups (10 oz/280g) cubed:
- Calories: 80
- Total Fat: 0g
- Total Carbs: 21g
- Dietary Fiber: 1g
- Sugars: 20g
- Protein: 1g
- Vitamin A: 30% of the recommended daily value (DV)!
- Vitamin C: 25% of the DV!
Watermelon Health Benefits:
- Heart Healthy: lycopene protects our cells, citrulline improves blood flow, and in combination they can help lower blood pressure.
- Anti-Inflammatory: lycopene and vitamin C can reduce inflammation, which plays a huge role in chronic diseases.
- Reduces Muscle Soreness: studies have shown that the citrulline in watermelon may help to lessen muscle soreness after a workout, likely because it promotes healthy blood flow.
- Cancer-Fighting: lycopene has been linked to a lower risk of some types of cancer—related to the digestive system and prostate.
Fiber is a major buzzword in the health world. It’s helpful for our digestion, blood sugar control, and can keep us feeling full. Many people don’t get enough fiber, but plant-based foods are a simple way to increase our fiber intake. In particular, artichokes are one of the most fiber-filled foods! They can be tough to cook, but canned varieties offer all of the same benefits without the hassle. Just be sure to choose a variety that’s canned in water, not oil!
What Makes Artichokes “Super”?
Just one artichoke heart has 10 grams of fiber! That’s almost half of your daily value.All of that fiber makes artichokes extremely low in carbs, too, with only 4 grams of net carbs. Some of the fiber in artichokes is inulin, which acts as a prebiotic and feeds our healthy gut bacteria. Artichokes also provide some magnesium, an important mineral for our bodies, which around 80% of us don’t get enough of. Without it, our muscles have to work harder to react and will tire more quickly.
Artichokes are also a great source of antioxidants, like cynarin and quercetin. These have numerous health benefits, but one of the major benefits is that they can help eliminate free radicals. Artichoke juice has also shown to be an effective anti-inflammatory!
Per 1 medium artichoke heart (120g):
- Calories: 64
- Total Fat: 0g
- Total Carbs: 14g
- Dietary Fiber: 10g
- Sugars: 1g
- Protein: 3g
- Folate: 27% of the DV!
- Vitamin K: 22% of the DV!
- Vitamin C: 15%
- Magnesium: 13%
Artichokes Health Benefits:
- Helps Control Diabetes: high fiber content can help control blood sugar levels by allowing glucose to be absorbed more slowly.
- Heart Health: cynarin is a natural remedy to help reduce cholesterol and improve blood flow.
- Slow Cancer Growth: research has shown that antioxidants in artichokes can eliminate free radicals and slow cancer cell growth
We tend to classify brighter (and greener) veggies as healthy choices, but this is what makes cauliflower so sneaky. There’s a lot of talk about broccoli (cauliflower’s cruciferous cousin) in the superfood realm, and it’s got some unbelievable health benefits. But the entire cruciferous vegetable family (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale) packs a powerful nutritional punch. Most cauliflower is white because its large leaves block sunlight and chlorophyll (which makes other veggies green) can’t develop, but cauliflower is still packed with nutrients and vitamins. In fact, it’s one of the top 25 most nutrient-dense vegetables. Plus, cauliflower is SO versatile and can be used in so many sneaky ways that you’d never guess. (Skeptical? Check out my Cauliflower 10 Crazy Ways video! That’s right—TEN different ways to use cauliflower.)
What Makes Cauliflower “Super”?
The better question is: what doesn’t make cauliflower super? Just 1 cup contains about 10% of the fiber we need in a day. It’s rich in vitamin C, which boosts our immune system and our bodies’ healing powers. It’s a great source of vitamin K1, folate, and choline—an essential nutrient for our brains and cognitive functioning. Most people associate choline with egg yolks, but you can also get around 11% of your recommended choline in just 1 cup of cooked cauliflower!
Perhaps most super of all, studies of diets rich in cauliflower (and other cruciferous veggies) have been linked to cancer prevention. This is because of cauliflower’s cancer-fighting antioxidants: glucosinolates, isothiocyanates, and sulforaphane. Both glucosinolates and isothiocyanates have been shown to slow the growth of cancer cells—particularly in lung, colon, breast, and prostate cancer. (Fun fact: Even if you’re not a fan, you make want to give Brussels sprouts another try -they contain more glucosinolates than ANY other vegetable!) Sulforaphane has loads of health benefits, including the potential to suppress cancer and even destroy damaged cells.
Per 1 cup (100g) raw cauliflower:
- Calories: 125
- Total Fat: 0g
- Total Carbs: 5g
- Dietary Fiber: 3g
- Sugars: 2g
- Protein: 2g
- Vitamin C: 77% of the DV!
- Vitamin K: 20% of the DV!
- Folate: 14%
Cauliflower Health Benefits:
- Prevent Damage by Carcinogens: researchers have observed that the army of antioxidants packed into cauliflower can potentially stop the growth of some cancers!
- Anti-Inflammatory: cauliflower actually contains some omega-3 fatty acids, which can help to reduce chronic inflammation, as well as choline and sulforaphane.
- Strong Bones: vitamin K is majorly important for our bone health!
- Brain Health: in numerous studies, choline has been associated with better memory, cognitive performance, and motor skills.
- Digestion: fiber promotes regular bowel movements and sulforaphane helps keep our gut bacteria at healthy levels.
There’s a lot of hype around almonds as a superfood—they’ve got the highest concentration of nutrients per ounce, healthy omega-6 fats, lots of magnesium, and powerful antioxidants—but walnuts have loads of their own super qualities!
What Makes Walnuts “Super”?
Walnuts have even more omega-6 fats than almonds per ounce, AND they’re the only nut that contains a significant amount of omega-3 fats. Most people have an imbalance between healthy fats—typically consuming far more omega-6s than omega-3s—so walnuts are a great source to increase your omega-3 intake. Walnuts contain a good amount of the omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which has numerous health benefits (It’s important to know, though, that ALA is a plant-based omega-3 and it doesn’t offer quite the same health benefits animal-based omega-3s, like EPA and DHA that we find in fish and fish oil.)
And, walnuts ranked second in a study comparing the antioxidant content of over 1,000 foods commonly eaten in the U.S. These antioxidants can have a range of benefits, from regulating our sleep cycle to protecting our bodies from chronic diseases. These super nuts also contain tryptophan, which can help with sleep, as well as contribute to better moods. At a basic level, walnuts are also an incredible source of vitamins and minerals—and a deliciously crunchy snack!
Per 1 ounce shelled walnut halves (28g, about 14 halves):
- Calories: 185
- Total Fat: 18g
- Omega-3: 6g
- Total Carbs: 4g
- Dietary Fiber: 2g
- Sugars: 1g
- Protein: 4g
- Vitamin B6: 12% of the DV!
- Folate: 7% of the DV!
- Copper: 50%
- Manganese: 42%
- Phosphorous: 14%
- Magnesium: 11%
- Iron: 10%
Walnuts Health Benefits:
- Brain Health: the ALA, vitamin E, and antioxidants in walnuts help to keep our brains healthy over time, maintaining our cognitive functioning and motor skills as we age.
- Improve Sleep & Mood: the tryptophan and melatonin is almonds are natural sleep enhancers, and the serotonin tryptophan produces not only makes us feel good, but it helps us to regulate our moods.
- Prevent Heart Disease: studies have shown that eating walnuts can lower bad cholesterol and reduce inflammation—two major risk factors for heart disease.
- May Prevent Some Cancers: the antioxidants and omega-3s in walnuts may help prevent the abnormal cell growth associated with cancer.
Though they may be small, oysters are mighty nutritious. Because our bodies are better at absorbing nutrients from food than supplements, the nutrients in oysters make them even better than some multivitamins! Salmon is often praised as the super-est of seafoods—packed with the healthy omega-3s EPA and DHA, B vitamins, and minerals like selenium. It’s truly an amazing fish with huge health benefits, but oysters are similarly super!
What Makes Oysters “Super”?
Oysters are low in calories, but still a great source of protein and nutrients. They’re low in fat, and the fat they do contain is mainly healthy omega-3s! Though salmon contains far more omega-3 fatty acids than oysters, salmon is not as rich in the vitamins and minerals we can get from oysters. Compared to 3.5 oz. of salmon, 3.5 oz. oysters contain more selenium, more vitamin D, and far more iron! Plus, the iron in oysters is heme iron, which is easier for our bodies to absorb and use than iron found in plant-based foods.
Perhaps most impressive is the vitamin B12 content in oysters. One serving of oysters can have 3 to 6 times the amount of B12 that you need in a day—which means just one oyster could provide all of your B12 for a day! B12 keeps our nerves functioning and can even combat cancer development. Though seafood in general is often feared because of its mercury content, oysters have one of the lowest levels of mercury compared to other forms of seafood!
Per 3.5 ounces raw oysters (100g, about 6-7 oysters):
- Calories: 68
- Total Fat:5g
- Omega-3: 7g
- Total Carbs: 4g
- Dietary Fiber: 0g
- Sugars: 0g
- Protein: 7g
- Vitamin B12: 324% of the DV!
- Vitamin D: 80% of the DV!
- Zinc: 605%
- Copper: 223%
- Selenium: 91%
- Iron: 37%
Oysters Health Benefits:
- Boost Energy: iron helps our bodies use energy more efficiently, and B12 helps our bodies convert our food into fuel!
- Lower Cholesterol: studies have linked some shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels, crab) with lowering bad cholesterol and increasing goof cholesterol!
- Reduce Cancer Risk: selenium is an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant that may reduce our risk of some cancers, and B12 is being studied as a way to lower our cancer risk.
- Brain Maintenance: vitamin B12 plays a major role in our nerves, neurotransmitters, and cognitive system, protecting our brains from degeneration (and helping us regulate our moods)!
I know, you’re probably thinking, “WHAT?! How can butter be a superfood?!?” Contrary to popular belief, butter is not inherently “bad.” Its cholesterol and high saturated fat content have often been demonized and linked to heart disease. But, current research from a number of studies has found that dietary cholesterol and natural sources of saturated fat are NOT to blame for heart disease. (Reviews of existing research actually suggest that man-made trans fats play the major role in heart disease.) Look past the old myths about saturated fat and you’ll see that grass-fed butter offers us some unique health benefits.
What Makes Grass-Fed “Super”?
Grass-fed butter (and grass-fed dairy in general) is significantly higher in nutrients than butter that comes from cows that are fed grain-based diets. It has more fatty acids, and most of that is saturated fat, but that fat is not “bad.” In fact, some studies have shown that natural saturated fats can raise levels of good cholesterol and improve our bad cholesterol—both of which are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. More research suggests that margarine (an unnatural trans fat) is associated with heart disease.
Butter from grass-fed cows has 500% more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than cows fed typical dairy-industry diets, which helps body store muscle instead of fat and may help prevent cancer. It’s also high in short- and medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that are actually converted immediately into fuel by your body and give you an energy boost. Grass-fed butter also has more vitamin K2—a form of vitamin K only found in animal products. While vitamin K1 from leafy greens can help with blood clotting, vitamin K2 helps to prevent calcium from leaching out of our bones and clogging our arteries.
Grass-Fed Butter Nutrition:
Per 1 Tbsp (14g) grass-fed salted butter:
- Calories: 100
- Total Fat: 11g
- Trans Fat: 0g
- Saturated Fat: 7g
- Total Carbs: 0g
- Dietary Fiber: 0g
- Sugars: 0g
- Protein: 0g
- Vitamin A: 10% of the DV!
Grass-Fed Butter Health Benefits:
- Anti-Inflammatory: butter is one of the few foods that contains the saturated fatty acid butyrate, which has powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
- Heart Healthy: grass-fed butter is full of natural saturated fats which can improve cholesterol, and vitamin K2 which can significantly lower the risk of dying from heart disease. (In one study, those who had higher levels of vitamin K2 intake had a 57% lower risk of dying from heart disease!)
- May Combat Cancer: CLA is thought to lower inflammation and lessen free radical damage—two factors linked to lower cancer risk.
- Burn More Fat: the CLA and MCTs in grass-fed butter help our bodies to build more muscle and burn more fat as fuel!
Embrace Healthy Variety
These are just a few of the sneakier superfoods out there! There are SO many other wholesome, healthy foods out there that offer us important nutrients. You’ve just got to find the super in those foods. The best healthy tactic is to eat a variety of foods with those super qualities!