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Superfood – Plant and Food Medicine


It’s a Superfood – But Can You Digest It?

In our ultra-connected world, food travels across the world to tempt our palates and wallets.  As variety and availability of food, and information about it has become more readily available, I’ve noticed that increasing number of people have become interested in their health. In fact, healthy food has become trendy. The problem is that there’s a vast spectrum of opinion as to what constitutes ‘healthy’.

We regularly read the latest research about the wonders of a particular food. If it catches the public imagination, it becomes a ‘superfood’. And when it catches the public imagination, it very quickly catches the imagination of food manufacturers. In no time at all, it comes in more forms than you can imagine: powders to add to smoothies,  liquids ready to add to lattes, magic ingredients in protein balls, supplement capsules for the time-poor. They tell us that this latest ‘superfood’ is the ultimate elixir for vibrant health – that is, until it doesn’t seem to make a vast amount of difference, its popularity wanes, and another superfood trend rises.

We could list dozens of these superfoods, from raw cacao, chia seeds, coconut oil, avocados, kale, sweet potatoes, hemp seeds to blueberries. On and on we could go. Google the word ‘superfood’, and you could explore 282 million results.

As a nutritionist, I can tell you that from a nutritional point of view, there’s really no such thing as a ‘superfood’, even though these foods all contain valuable nutrients. Yes, “superfood” is a marketing term! As we’ve seen above, it’s used to influence food trends and help encourage people to buy more products.

However, having said that, there’s no doubt that there are foods (including those listed above) that pack a punch in the nutrient stakes. The big question is this: how does your [unique] body react to a particular food?

The answer determines whether it’s a good food for you to include in your diet. Once we’ve addressed that issue, there’s still the question of how much and how frequently you should eat it.

The bottom line is that your digestive system needs to be consulted when exploring different foods. Regardless of how ‘healthy’ a food is, if your body doesn’t cope with digesting it, you won’t actually receive the benefits you expect. Instead, toxins will build up in your body due to your inability to digest the food.

Here are three principles you can use to help determine whether you’ll benefit from a particular ‘healthy food’ or ‘superfood’, and how it might be used to best effect:

  1. Nutritional Needs and Digestibility

    You need to take into account your own particular nutritional needs. What are your personal circumstances? Are you an athlete? Pregnant? Receiving or recovering from medical treatments such as chemotherapy? Do you have a disorder such as diverticulitis, or do you have known allergies, such as to nuts? Your age also has a significant impact on your nutritional needs: teenagers and the elderly, pre- and post-menopausal women, each have different nutritional needs.

    It’s often wise to seek qualified advice to understand your needs.

  1. Food Combinations, Processing, and Preparation

    Many ‘superfoods’ were first identified because of their long-term use in a particular community or ethnic group. That group was probably identified because of its general health, low incidence of disease, and average longevity.

    However, it’s important to note that these communities usually have specific methods of processing their foods, and this can make a significant difference to the bioavailabiity of the powerful nutrients. Examples of this are fermentation, soaking, a particular method of cooking, or combination with other synergistic ingredients. Often, it can be the combination, rather than just one ‘superfood’, that packs a ‘nutritional punch’.

    Let’s take just one example: the humble tomato, which contains lycopene, a great disease-fighting antioxidant. Cooking the tomatoes and serving them with a little olive oil actually enhances the body’s ability to absorb the lycopene.

  1. Over-use

    Yes, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing! Think about turmeric, the golden superfood spice that seems to have taken over our kitchens, medicine cabinets and cafés.

    It’s very easy to over-indulge, when you consider that you can wake to a turmeric latte, take one or two curcumin supplement capsules, and perhaps have a turmeric curry for dinner. You could even snack on turmeric cashew kale chips while enjoying a refreshing turmeric kombucha. Clearly, this isn’t the way people originally used turmeric, and it’s doubtful whether such extensive use actually improves your health.

    Finally, I recommend that you approach the use of ‘superfoods’ in the same way that you would approach the use of any food. Keep your diet simple, consume a variety of foods throughout the year, and pay attention to your unique body requirements.

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