Although you may not (yet) find the word “superfood” in every dictionary, you’ll find plenty of these nutrient-packed powerhouses—ranging from the everyday to the exotic—in today’s food culture. Consider them the Clark Kents of foods, striving to wipe out health villains and chronic diseases that plague more than 100 million Americans.
“Superfoods are good for heart health, cancer prevention, and lowering your risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure,” says Eva To, a registered dietitian and nutritionist with a private practice in White Plains. These foods are loaded with powerful health-promoting properties, supplying high levels of antioxidants, healthy fats, fiber, phytochemicals, and polyphenols.
In addition to incorporating superfoods, make sure to eat a balanced diet comprising whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and protein—especially fish like wild salmon and sardines, which are high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, advises To.
Here, five fabulous superfoods—including a couple of oldies but goodies that have been dusted off and put back into rotation:
This ancient grain’s name comes from the Greek “amarantos,” meaning “one that does not wither.” Tiny but hearty, amaranth touts high amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. It’s one of the only grains that contains Vitamin C as well as the amino acid lysine (which is nonexistent or negligible in other grains). This gluten-free grain is found in many South American countries and is often popped like corn and sold as a snack. Small and crunchy, it can be gently boiled and eaten as cereal, sprinkled onto salads, or added to cookie batters or soup. In one study of patients with coronary heart disease and hypertension, those who included amaranth in their diets had a decrease of triglycerides, as well as LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and total cholesterol.
2. Dandelion Greens.
When dandelions—those pretty white puffballs that morph into yellow flowers—first came to this country, they were used mainly as a source of medicine, to treat fevers, heartburn, and liver problems.
And now the greens of the plant (which is considered a weed), similar in taste to endive or chicory, are nutrition stars. The long, jagged leaves are low in calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol, and are a good source of fiber, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper, as well as Vitamins A, B6, C, and K. Also high in flavonoids and carotene, dandelion greens can be eaten raw or cooked, and are one of the plant sources of Vitamin E, says To.
3. Fermented foods.
They’re not exactly new—they’ve been around for centuries—but foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, with their “good” bacteria and live organisms, are gaining attention as effective ways to boost your immune system and maintain gut health because of their ability to release enzymes to ease and improve digestion. The foods are especially beneficial for people on antibiotics, as “the probiotics contained in them help replenish the gut flora that the medicine kills off,” says To. “The wealth of antioxidants in kimchi have healing effects in medical conditions like cancer, diabetes, obesity, atopic dermatitis, and gastric ulcers,” says Chef Myong Feiner of Myong Gourmet. “The flavonoids and probiotics in kimchi help to maintain healthy levels of cholesterol, and strengthen the immune system.” Some popular fermented foods include beets, radishes, garlic; kefir, cultured buttermilk, and some cheeses; natto, miso, tempeh, tofu, and soy sauce. A recent study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found numerous health benefits of kimchi, a traditional fermented Korean food made with probiotic lactic acid bacteria (LAB), including anti-cancer, anti-obesity, and anti-constipation properties; the promotion of colorectal and brain health; cholesterol reduction; immune promotion; and even anti-aging and skin-health properties.
Hailed as “the new kale,” this versatile veggie is low in calories, cholesterol, and saturated fat, and is a good source of fiber, folate, protein, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, magnesium, and phosphorus, along with Vitamins K and B6. Eating just a half-cup yields 45 percent of your daily dose of Vitamin C. Because it belongs to the cruciferous family (along with Brussels sprouts and broccoli), cauliflower is thought to contain cancer-protective qualities, specifically in the colorectum, lung, prostate, and breast. “Its versatility,” says Dianne de la Veaux, executive chef and general manager of Gather at Recologie in New Rochelle, “means it can be grilled, roasted, steamed, puréed into a soup, mixed into pizza toppings, or ground into chili.”
Don’t let its teeny tiny size fool you: This poppy-seed-sized grain, ranging in color from dark reddish brown to ivory, is a powerhouse of protein and iron and is an excellent source of Vitamin C. Teff has the highest calcium content of all grains (a cup of cooked teff yields about the same amount as a half-cup of cooked spinach), and it’s gluten free to boot. Its type of dietary fiber (known as “resistant starch”) may benefit blood sugar, weight control, and colon health. With a mild, nutty flavor, teff, grown mainly in Ethiopia and Eritrea, shows its taste in many iterations: It can be ground into flour and used to make pie crusts, cookies, breads, and other baked goods (the Ethiopian sourdough bread known as injera is made from teff). It can also be eaten raw, boiled, baked, or steamed as a side dish or main course, or sprinkled atop veggies. You can even find teff wraps in stores. A study published in The International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition found teff to possess one of the highest antioxidant powers compared to other Ethiopian staple food ingredients like wheat, corn, and tapioca.