Ask a Physician: How Super is Your Food?

Ask a Physician: Ana Núñez, MD.
Ask a Physician: Ana Núñez, MD.

There’s a buzz about “superfoods” and their role in health. What do we mean by superfoods? How are they supposed to work and what are the facts about them? To begin with, superfoods are generally unprocessed foods that include healthy fruits, vegetables, certain fish and some grains. They are viewed to have positive health benefit beyond just giving you energy to get through your day.

To understand what you gain from these foods, you first have to peer into the chemical reactions happening inside your body. As the machinery of the body does its job, it creates energy but also has the equivalent of creating pollution or leftovers that aren’t helpful.  These are called free radicals, which are chemicals that stress the body. They have negative effects on internal fat (lipids), muscle (proteins) and even DNA inside cells of the body. These free radicals cause a type of stress called oxidative stress.

Here are some tips to keep in mind about superfoods:

  • Food that is mostly, well, food – not filler (with fats or starches or sugar) is healthier than processed foods.
  • These foods don’t have a long shelf life – so you often have to plan when you will eat or use them in the near future so they don’t spoil and you end up throwing out uneaten food (and wasting money).
  • Fresh food is great – but frozen and even canned can be healthy options.
  • Some superfoods can very pricey. Try to buy them in season, when they’re less expensive, or buy them frozen.
  • Any manufacturer can put the name of superfood on their food, so unlike USDA grade, the label can be hype or real.
  • A super smoothie at the store might be convenient, but you can get a similar benefit at a lower cost by mixing frozen fruit and greek yogurt in your blender.
  • Some people don’t like to eat leafy greens, but will drink them. Try making a smoothie with leafy greens and apple juice to help non-veggie eaters to get in more Vitamin B.

What are foods that are not super? Those include fried foods, foods with lots of cream sauce or foods that are highly processed. Hoagies, for example, can be tasty, but except for a few strands of lettuce and tomatoes, wouldn’t be listed as a superfood. Neither are fried chicken or frozen, ready-to-eat meals.

Also recognize that healthy or not, all food has calories – so whether you eat them or drink them, you need to be mindful of how many calories you are taking in if you want to prevent weight gain.

Ana Núñez, MD, is the associate dean for urban health equity, education and research, and a professor in the Department of Medicine at Drexel University College of Medicine. She is also the director of the College’s Center of Excellence in Women’s Health and director of its Women’s Health Education Program. Núñez specializes in community health education and has expertise in nutrition, women’s heart health, minority health, and sex and gender medicine.

This article first ran in the Winter 2015 edition of Drexel Quarterly.