What is a “Superfood”, anyway?

This morning I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed and came across an article entitled “Vet Reveals 12 Superfoods for Your Dog”. The force with which my eyes rolled nearly knocked me over. Seriously?? It’s bad enough that humans subscribe to this nonsense but now we’re forcing it upon our dogs.  GREAT.

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So what is a superfood? You should be asking yourself this question, but the term has become so ubiquitous that you’re probably not. People assume “superfoods” are here to cure all their ailments, and that somehow by adding a “superfood” to their diet, a person automatically elevates their health to a level beyond that of the rest of us mere mortals who are simply eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, with moderate amounts of lean proteins and healthy fats. Well, I’ve got news for you: there is no scientific basis for calling something a “superfood”. YEAH. I KNOW. It’s not your fault! Here you are, a member of the general public, and every freaking listicle on the internet is trying to get you to buy spirulina powder or acai juice at $10 a serving or else face premature death at the hand of a sub-optimal diet.

So why are we so obsessed with “superfoods”? Friends, this is AMERICA. We have really really good advertisers. A friend of mine is an ad guy in LA, and he works on some really big accounts. Two of his clients? Whole Foods and Wal Mart. You know all those campaigns at Whole Foods about “Collards are the new kale”? That wasn’t thought up by a nutrition professional, it was thought up by an advertising agency. Not that collard greens are bad for you, and for the most part none of these “superfoods” are actually bad for you, but the way they’ve been presented to the public gives them a health halo that is at the very least disproportionate to their nutritional greatness and at the very most increases the cost of healthy foods to the point that access is reduced for low-income populations. Not cool.

When did this begin? I did a little sleuthing myself, thanks to Google’s “custom date range” option. (*NOTE* I couldn’t do a search of the scientific literature since the is no scientific literature about “superfoods”). In the year 1990, there are only 5 search results, 4 of which are in English, nothing of which resembles anything that we think of as “superfoods” today. By 1995, there are 18 search results, but most are unrelated to nutrition except for the mention of matcha tea. By 2005, the search results have burgeoned to 15 pages trying to sell you something, from Garden of Life’s Perfect Food Super Green to Dr. Ron’s Organ Delight both of which are powdered versions of a whole food that claim to provide you with the health benefits of eating food without actually eating food. By 2010, we arrive at a current trend: pages upon pages of listicles, brought to you by the likes of health.com and numerous magazines, along with the same sales pitches from powdered supplements. Newsflash: the people writing these articles often have ZERO background in nutrition or health at all. They are trained journalists who know how to catch your attention and keep it for the four minutes it will take you to read the list they’ve put together. This is not science. It’s advertising and keeping up with what’s trendy. Good nutrition is not always trendy. Fiber is not trendy. Nobody will ever talk to you about “The 10 best foods to make sure you poop every day”.

Unfortunately, the advertisers and journalists are VERY successful. Raise your hand if you’ve read a bunch of these articles without checking to see whether the author has any education in nutrition. (Ok, put it down now the guy in the cube next door is starting to worry). In searching the results from 1/1/2015 to today, just 4.5 months later, there were 32 pages. That’s pretty insane if you ask me. The bulk of these search results are from people writing blogs and sharing recipes, or bigger more recognizable brands (like Food Network) trying to grab a piece of the kale-quinoa-chia seed pie. If people pay attention to something as soon as you call it a “superfood”, why not use the term?

Why I think it’s WRONG: Using the term “superfood” often makes people believe that they must eat sour cherries or they must buy the product with chia seeds in it or else they’re not being healthy. It makes people think that good nutrition is as simple as including a specific food in their diet. If I could just get a dime every time someone asked me “what’s the healthiest vegetable?” I would wear a mink coat to the gym, and I live in Texas. Good nutrition is not about spending a bunch of money on a trendy pill or powder or even a specific fruit or vegetable. Being healthy is about having a good relationship with food, eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats; and indulging in those less healthy foods that make you happy in moderation. It’s about eating with people and allowing your meals to be a pleasurable experience that adds value to your life while providing your body with the nutrients it requires to function optimally. If you’re an athlete, it’s also about fueling your workouts properly so you can go out there and crush your goals.

In conclusion, save your money. Eat a balanced diet, and the next time some chick at a farmer’s market tries to sell you “superfood juice” for $15 a bottle, tell her you’re cool with the radishes, carrots, and lettuce you bought for $5 at the booth next door.

The more you know!

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3 responses to “What is a “Superfood”, anyway?

  1. I would probably be that crazy dog mom that would start cooking my dog home cooked meals every night after reading that article…. but luckily I’ve learned to not believe everything I read. I was one of those people that was talked into cutting different foods out of my diet to cure all of my problems and it NEVER has worked. Now I’m just focusing on balance and making sure I eat what I want but what I need also.

    Like

    • And that’s exactly what you should do! I don’t know if you read the “food babe” article circulating a week or so ago, but fear mongering definitely is an issue when it comes to health articles. It’s tough stuff because what could be more important than your health?!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Top 10 foods to make you poop every day | How to Eat, R.D.·

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