What are Superfoods and Why Should I Care About Them?

By Dr. Kevin Curran of EthnoHerbalist

Superfoods are nutrient-rich foods that deliver multiple benefits to our health and well-being.
Each superfood is different, but in general, these foods contain some combination of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other beneficial phytonutrients.

At the EthnoHerbalist, we are interested in the cultural history and biology of effective medicinal plants. So, as you move through my list, you will also learn a bit about the cultural history of each superfood.

Below is an excerpt of my alphabetical list of superfoods, click here for the full list.

Açai

Açai is a small purple berry from the rainforests of South America.
Indigenous tribes living in the Amazon basin have eaten these berries for
thousands of years. The Shuar tribe, a group native to Ecuador and Peru,
used the açai berry for medicinal purposes (immune strength, vitality). We
now know that these bright colored fruits contain lots of powerful
antioxidant pigment molecules called anthocyanins. Antioxidants have
been researched in regards to fighting certain cancers, reducing
cholesterol and heart diseases. Açai also contains oleic acid, the same
healthy fat that’s found in olive oil. Try buying unsweetened açai and
working the material into a fruit smoothie.

Almonds


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Almonds have always been highly regarded by humans. In ancient Egypt,
almonds were a prized ingredient in breads served to the Pharaohs.
Explorers transported this nut along theSilk Road, from Asia into the
Europe. Soon, almonds were flourishing amidst the Mediterranean
climates of Spain and Italy. In the 1700s, Spanish missionaries
introduced almonds into California. Today, almonds are a multi-billion
dollar business in California.
In the nut world, almonds are about as superfood as it gets. They offer
generous amounts of nutrient per serving. Almonds are especially high in
protein, fiber, B vitamins, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin E, calcium, iron,
magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, thiamine, choline, and potassium. They’re
also enriched with dietary fiber and various polyunsaturated fats that
may help lower LDL cholesterol. Try switching from peanut butter to
almond butter. It’s only a few bucks more per jar and you’re getting a
much more nutritious nut.

Amaranth

Amaranth has been used as a food source for about 8,000 years. The
Aztec people of ancient Mexico ate this plant often and even incorporated
amaranth into their religious ceremonies. It’s now regarded as a
superfood grain. Amaranth is high in protein and delivers a lot of energy
per serving. More importantly for people with gluten intolerance,
amaranth is one of the gluten-free grains.
Amaranth is also high in lysine, which is an amino acid often missing from
other popular grains.

Avocado

Avocados are the gift that keep on giving. You can eat them right out of
their skin or blend them into guacamole. The superfood is native to

central Mexico and have been enjoyed in this region for the past 10,000
years. The word avocado originates from the Aztec word for
testicle, ahuacatl. Clearly, these ancient Mexicans were referencing the
oblong, pear-shape of the fruit. A cup of avocado supplies you with high
amounts of fiber, protein, folate, vitamin C, vitamin B5, vitamin B6, and
potassium. A clinical study found that eating avocados can improve the
lipid profile of both healthy people and people with high cholesterol levels.

Beets


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Beets are the large root from the beet plant, Beta vulgaris. The original
beet, called wild seabeet, grew natively along the Indian coastline. Upon
discovering its thick edible roots, many cultures began domesticating the
beet throughout the Middle East. This purple superfood vegetable is
packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help strengthen our
body. In addition, preliminary research indicates that beetroot juice can
lower blood pressure in hypertensive animals. This opens the possibility
that beets can help people battle cardiovascular diseases.

Click here to see my entire alphabetical list of superfoods.

Question:
What is so special about garlic and broccoli and colorful fruits and veggies?
Answer:
Phytochemicals

To put it simply, phytochemicals are chemicals that are naturally
produced in plants. The prefix "phyto" means plant.
Phytochemicals are a collection of different chemical compounds that
can deliver all sorts of health benefits to the humans that eat
these plants.

You may have heard of some of these chemical groups:
 carotenoids
 flavonoids
 phytosterols
 fiber


Photo by Heather Seymour on Unsplash

Garlic is packed with allicin.
Broccoli and the other cruciferous veggies are enriched with glucosinolates.
Carotenoids and flavonoids are present in many of the colorful fruits and
veggies - including carrots, grapes, and blueberries.


Photo by Gabriel Gurrola on Unsplash

These phytochemicals are not as well known as the vitamins and minerals
that are also found in plants. We are just starting to figure out the
various ways phytochemicals interact with our body. Recent studies
demonstrate that phytochemicals offer multiple health benefits to our
body:

 antioxidant activity
 anti-inflammatory
 anti-diabetic
 lower LDL cholesterol

I think this is an exciting time in nutrition science. We are starting to
sort out all the ways phytochemicals interact with our own cell biology and physiology.
To learn more, read this article I just wrote. I summarize the actions of the main phytochemical groups.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

Delicious featured image photo by Maja Petric on Unsplash


Vitamins! Why You Need Them & Where To Get Them

In Chinese medicine food is the best medicine, therefore, getting enough of all the important vitamins from what we eat is something we should all be constantly working at. It can be overwhelming and hard to remember which vitamins do what and where to get them, so this is why I wanted to have a practical list to help list which vitamins we need, why they are important and where to get them. A good way to think about getting everything you need is to "eat the rainbow" meaning eating as many brightly coloured fruits and vegetables as possible (which also tends to indicate how rich they are in antioxidants). Also, having a small child to feed has made making sure that all the meals I prepare are smashed full of as many vitamins as possible for growing bodies and minds! I hope this information is helpful and will help you to eat a healthier, more balanced diet.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin, meaning that any extra that you are getting from your diet is stored in the body. Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant, which are important for combatting free radical damage which leads to premature aging. Antioxidants also reduce inflammation in the body which helps to combat many diseases.  Because of their effect on free radicals, a diet high in antioxidants helps to combat premature aging, actually slowing the aging process. Vitamin A is important for many of the body's vital functions, and is especially important for children as it helps vision and neurological function, so make sure your babies get plenty of the foods listed below for their brain and eye health.

this image from huffingtonpost.com

Why You Need It

  • Vision
  • Immune System
  • Skin
  • Hair
  • Antioxidant (slows aging and reduces inflammation)

Sources

  • Liver
  • Fish Oils
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Dandelion Greens
  • Collard Greens
  • Beet & Turnip Greens
  • Swiss Chard
  • Bok Choi
  • Sweet Potato
  • Carrots
  • Butternut Squash
  • Pumpkin
  • Winter Squash
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Green & Red Leaf Lettuce
  • Chicory
  • Apricots
  • Prunes
  • Peaches
  • Cantaloupe
  • Sweet Red Peppers
  • Yellow Peppers
  • Red Peppers
  • Bluefin Tuna
  • Sturgeon
  • Mackerel
  • Oysters
  • Mangoes
  • Papaya

 

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin meaning any extra you consume that your body doesn't need is stored. The body produces vitamin D from cholesterol, provided there is enough UV light from our exposure to sunlight. We are also able to get vitamin D through some foods and one of its most important functions is regulating the absorption of calcium and phosphorous. The absorption of vitamin D is improved when taken with food or a source of fat, like fish oil. Several environmental factors affect our ability to get enough vitamin D, such as being somewhere with high levels of pollution, using sunscreen, spending a lot of time indoors, living in cities where tall buildings block sunlight and having darker skin (with higher levels of melanin). So, be sure to get enough sunlight (going outside is good for your health on so many levels!) and eating a diet rich in foods with vitamin D.

this image from gizmodo

Why You Need It

  • Bone Health
  • Calcium Absorption
  • Weight Management
  • Nervous System
  • Muscle Health
  • Modulation of Cell Growth
  • Immune System
  • Reduction of Inflammation

Sources

  • Sunlight
  • Sardines
  • Cod Liver Oil
  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Tuna
  • Caviar
  • Eggs
  • Raw Milk
  • Mushrooms
  • Cheese

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin meaning excess is stored in the body and not excreted in the urine. Vitamin E has many important functions in the body including being a strong antioxidant which combats free radical damage helping to prevent disease, reduce inflammation and slow the aging process. An adequate amount of vitamin E is needed for many bodily functions including the proper functioning of organs, neurological processes and the proper functioning of enzymes.

this yummy image from californiaavocado.com

Why You Need It

  • Red Blood Cells
  • Protects Against Cell Damage
  • Immune System
  • Eyesight
  • Balances Cholesterol
  • Prevents Free Radical Damage
  • Repairs Damaged Skin
  • Balances Hormones
  • Thickens Hair
  • Helps Period Symptoms

Sources

  • Sweet Potato
  • Avocado
  • Wheat Germ
  • Sunflower Seeds
  • Almonds
  • Sunflower Oil
  • Safflower Oil
  • Hazelnuts
  • Peanuts
  • Peanut Butter
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Kiwi
  • Mango
  • Tomato
  • Spinach

 

Vitamin K

Vitamin K is the last of the four fat soluble vitamins, meaning they are stored in the body and not excreted in the urine. Vitamin K is particularly important for blood clotting. Most of the vitamin K we get comes from intestinal bacteria - so the amount of vitamin K we are getting really depends on the health of our GI tract. There are two types of vitamin K that we get from our diets, vitamin K1 which is found in vegetables, and vitamin K2 which is found in dairy products and produced by bacteria in a healthy gut. Eating foods rich in vitamin K as well as making sure that you have a healthy digestive system will ensure that you are getting enough of this important vitamin.

this delicious image from eatrightontario.ca

Why You Need It

  • Blood Clotting
  • Heart Health
  • Reduce Infections
  • Oral Health
  • Improves Bone Density
  • Fights Cancer

Sources

  • Kale
  • Collard Greens
  • Turnip Greens
  • Mustard Greens
  • Beet Greens
  • Dandelion Greens
  • Swiss Chard
  • Watercress
  • Miso (Fermented Soy)
  • Prunes
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Spring Onions
  • Cucumber
  • Fer
  • Dried Basil
  • Parsley
  • Endive
  • Okra
  • Pickles
  • Kiwis
  • Peas
  • Tuna

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6, also known as pyridoxine, is part of the complex of eight B vitamins that play an important role in helping maintain a healthy metabolism, liver function, a healthy nervous system, skin and eye health and boost energy levels. Vitamin B6 also helps the body with important functions like movement, memory, blood flow and how the body uses energy. Thankfully, most people in developed nations get enough vitamin B6 from their diets, and some even consume much more than the body needs. Since the B vitamins are water soluble, any extra that you may be getting is not stored in the body and is excreted in your urine.

this yummy image from stylecraze.com

Why You Need It

  • Brain Function
  • Nerve Function
  • Red Blood Cell Production
  • Healthy Blood Vessels
  • Metabolism
  • Skin
  • Protects Eyes
  • Boosts Energy & Mood
  • Pain Management (B6 is a natural pain reliever)

Sources

  • Turkey Breast
  • Grass Fed Beef
  • Pistachio Nuts
  • Avocado
  • Blackstrap Molases
  • Sunflower Seeds
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Chicken Breast
  • Pinto Beans
  • Tuna
  • Chickpeas / Garbanzo Beans
  • Amaranth

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies in the world. Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include chronic fatigue, depression (and other mood disorders), or chronic stress that can lead to adrenal fatigue. Animal foods are the best sources of vitamin B12. Plant sources do not contain any naturally occurring B12 unless they have been synthetically fortified. For this reason, many vegetarians and vegans are deficient in vitamin B12. It is estimated that between 15-39% of people in the United States (NIH & American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) are deficient in vitamin B12. A deficiency is often difficult to diagnose as its symptoms are so common - feeling tired, depressed and unfocussed. If you have been feeling any of these symptoms, try upping your intake of vitamin B12, you may feel a huge improvement.

this delicious image from apparelmagazine.co.nz

Why You Need It

  • Benefits Nervous System
  • Benefits Mood
  • Maintains Energy Levels
  • Preserves Memory
  • Heart Health
  • Healthy Skin & Hair
  • Lowers Risk of Neurodegenerative Disease
  • Produces Red Blood Cells
  • Needed for Healthy Pregnancy
  • Aids in Digestion

Sources

  • Beef & Chicken Liver
  • Salmon
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Tuna
  • Trout
  • Yoghurt
  • Turkey
  • Raw Milk
  • Lamb

Folic Acid

Getting adequate folic acid is particularly important if you are pregnant as it helps to prevent miscarriage and neural tube defects like spina bifida (which is when the fetus's spine and back do not close during development). Folic acid is the synthetic form of B9 - also known as folate. Folate occurs naturally in many foods and since the late 90's has been added to many foods like cold cereals, breads, pastas, cookies and crackers.

this image from livingplate.com

Why You Need It

  • Needed for Copying & Synthesizing DNA
  • Producing New Cells
  • Supports the Immune System
  • Supports Healthy Nerve Function
  • Heart Health
  • Encourages Normal Fetal Development

Sources

  • Spinach
  • Beef Liver
  • Black Eyed Peas
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Mustard Greens
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Kidney Beans
  • Oranges
  • Avocado
  • Wheat Germ
  • Lentils
  • Turnip Greens
  • Okra
  • Peas
  • Collard Greens
  • Papaya
  • Strawberries
  • Grapefruit
  • Raspberries
  • Chickpeas / Garbanzo Beans
  • Black Beans
  • Navy Beans
  • Kidney Beans
  • Lima Beans
  • Cauliflower
  • Beets
  • Corn
  • Celery
  • Carrots
  • Squash

Niacin (Vitamin B3)

Niacin is a water soluble B vitamin which means it is not stored in the body and any extra is excreted in urine. Niacin helps to maintain healthy energy levels and brain function. We need to eat a steady supply of niacin to make sure we don't suffer from a deficiency.

this image from stylecraze.com

Why You Need It

  • Protects Against Cardiovascular Disease
  • Supports Cognitive Function
  • Supports the Nervous System
  • Important for Healthy Digestion
  • Healthy Skin
  • Relief of Arthritis Pain

Sources

  • Turkey Breast
  • Chicken Breast
  • Peanuts
  • Liver
  • Tuna
  • Mushrooms
  • Green Peas
  • Grass Fed Beef
  • Sunflower Seeds
  • Avocado

Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)

Riboflavin is one of eight B vitamins. The B vitamins help the body to convert food into fuel. It is important to get enough B2 in your diet as it affects how some other B vitamins like B12 and folic acid do their jobs. The complex of B vitamins also help to synthesize fats and protein. Taking the full complex of B vitamins are also helpful for helping the body to combat stress. It is also the B vitamin that makes your pee turn bright yellow so you can tell if you are getting enough - actually, the flavin in riboflavin comes from flavus - the Latin word for yellow. :) We need to acquire riboflavin from our diets, ideally every day to keep optimum healthy levels.

this image from vitaminsestore.com

Why You Need It

  • Maintains Healthy Blood Cells
  • Is an Antioxidant
  • Boosts Energy Levels
  • Protects Skin & Eye Health
  • Promotes Healthy Metabolism
  • Promotes Iron Metabolism

Sources

  • Meats
  • Organ meats
  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Soy Beans
  • Spinach
  • Beet Greens
  • Tempeh
  • Yoghurt
  • Crimini Mushrooms
  • Asparagus
  • Almonds
  • Turkey
  • Sea Vegetables
  • Collard Greens
  • Kale
  • Bok Choi
  • Green Beans
  • Swiss Chard
  • Bell Peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Shitake Mushrooms

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

Featured image photo by Jonathan Perez on Unsplash