If you use facebook or twitter – or watch Dr. Oz – I guarantee you’ve heard one “super food” claim or another. Acai berries, blueberries, pomegranate, garlic, red wine… all have at some point been reported to have magical health benefits above and beyond your average health food.
What is a super food?
Entering “super foods” into a Google search provides a variety of definitions. According to Wikipedia, super foods contain “essential nutrients with proven health benefits and few properties considered negative”, and per the Oxford dictionary they are “food considered especially nutritious or otherwise beneficial to health and well-being”. Basically, they are foods that are nutrient dense and have known health benefits while producing no adverse effects to the consumer. Below I’ll discuss the health claims and research surrounding a few of the more well known”super foods”.
Bananas are a good source of fiber, carbohydrates and energy, potassium, and vitamin B6. Potassium is an electrolyte, important for maintaining electrolyte balance and normal heart and muscle function and preventing muscle cramps. Vitamin B6 is involved in a number of reactions, mostly with protein metabolism, and has in some cases been associated with lower risk for certain cancers and improved sleep. One study showed that bananas were just as good as sports drinks for maintaining performance while providing healthier sugars and more vitamins and antioxidants in endurance cyclists. Bananas are a great source of carbs and energy for athletes, and make a great pre or post workout snack.
Garlic has been claimed to have a variety of health benefits including lowering LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind) and raising HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind), lowering blood pressure, reducing risk of blood clots, and helping the body fight infections. There is some evidence to support these claims but it is limited at best. In addition, there is little evidence supporting the use of garlic as a supplement, and taking garlic supplements or eating large amounts of garlic can interfere with certain heart disease medications, namely blood thinners like aspirin, and increase risk of bleeding. Garlic supplements may also decrease the effectiveness of certain immuno-suppressants and birth control.
Kale is a cruciferous green vegetable thought to be high in antioxiants, play a role in lowering cholesterol, help fight cancer, and reduce inflammation. According to a 2009 review, green vegetables like kale contain glucosinolates, which have been associated with a reduction of risk for some cancers. Kale is a healthful, nutrient packed vegetable, low in calories but high in vitamin K which reduce blot clotting, and vitamin A which helps maintain eye health, promotes cell formation and is needed for the normal forming and maintaining of heart, lung, kidney, and other organ tissues. It is also a good source of fiber, calcium, and potassium.
Acai Berries were popularized several years ago by reality TV star Lauren Conrad and is regularly marketed as a weight loss supplement in a variety of forms including juices and tablets. The acai is a dark purple berry found on acai palms, which are native to South and Central America. Claims about acai are numerous and include weight loss, help fighting heart disease, cancer prevention, improved digestion, and overall health. However, little evidence supports these claims, and in 2009 the Center for Science in the Public Interest actually issued a warning to consumers regarding internet acai berry supplement scams. In 2011, a small pilot study found that the acai berry may help improve choleterol and triglyceride levels in healthy adults, but more studies are needed before any definitive conclusions can be drawn.
Tart Cherries have been up and coming in the sports nutrition world as a recovery supplement. In fact, when I was in college we used to drink a Tart Cherry Juice with added protein after every weight lifting practice, and currently several collegiate athletic teams use tart cherry juice as a recovery beverage. Benefits are thought to come from anthocyanins, the pigment responsible for the dark red color of cherries. Research has associated anthocyanins with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and tart cherries have the highest concentration of the anthocyanins known to reduce inflammation. There is evidence that drinking tart cherry juice post workout can reduce inflammation and improve muscle recovery. In addition, one study found that drinking tart cherry concentrate may increase levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps maintain normal sleep rhythms, and improve sleep in healthy adults. It is difficult to find in the average grocery store, although you can find dried tart cherries, which make a great addition to salad or trail mix.
Red Wine is everyone’s favorite “health food”. OK it’s not really a health food. But ever since the first large scale observational study, the Framingham study, found that people who drank moderately, 1-2 glasses of red wince per day, had a lower risk of heart disease, there has been interest. Specifically, a compound called Resveratrol, found in the skins of grapes, has been isolated as the potential key compound in red wine that protects the heart. Some studies have been promising, but more research is needed to definitively conclude that resveratrol is the protective agent. In addition, the alcohol is also beneficial. Research has shown that moderate drinking of any type of alcohol (including beer and hard liquor) can help raise HDL cholesterol and reduce blood clotting. You can get resveratrol from red grapes, but there has been no study to determine if the health benefits are comparable to drinking red wine.
To Wrap it Up…
Every single food (including the wine, in moderation) mentioned above is good for you and will provide a nutritious addition to any healthful diet. Eating an adequate amount of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables has long been associated with lower cancer risk, although researchers have yet to successfully replicate that effect by supplementing individual nutrients. One study isolating beta carotene actually increased risk of cancer among the supplement group. To make a mid 90′s cartoon reference (or two), diet is much more like Captain Planet than Superman. There is no one “super” food, but the powers of quality protein, healthy fats, and plenty of nutrient rich fruits and vegetables combined will provide numerous health benefits, give you more energy, and make you a better athlete.
What are your thoughts on “super foods”?
What is the Acai Berry and Are There Health Benefits? http://www.journals.elsevierhealth.com/periodicals/yjada/article/S0002-8223%2809%2901606-X/fulltext
Effects of Açai (Euterpe oleracea Mart.) berry preparation on metabolic parameters in a healthy overweight population: a pilot study. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21569436
The impact of garlic on lipid parameters: a systematic review and meta-analysis. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19555517
E Med TV: Garlic Drug Interactions http://heart-disease.emedtv.com/garlic/garlic-drug-interactions.html
Vegetables, fruits and phytoestrogens in the prevention of diseases. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15235216
Cherry Health and Cherry Nutrition http://www.choosecherries.com/health/main.aspx
Anthocyanins – More Than Just Nature’s Colors http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1082903/
Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22038497
The Mayo Clinic: Resveratrol: Good for your heart? http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/red-wine/HB00089/