Why This Functional Medicine Expert Wants To Rethink The Word "Superfood"
Blueberries, avocados, pomegranates. Are these really "superfoods"? The more I study nutrition, the more I wonder about this label and how well it's actually serving us as healthy eaters.
Sure, blueberries, avocados, and pomegranates are healthy ingredients worth incorporating into your diet, but is that enough to call them "super"? Maybe I'm splitting hairs, but to me, a superfood should be much more than an ingredient with high levels of select key compounds, like the antioxidants in a blueberry.
We miss the larger point when we think this way, with ingredients and their compounds left in isolation. To me, a superfood should deliver on a greater promise. It should paint a fuller picture. In fact, a superfood should be so nutritious that you could almost live off it.
In this way, a real superfood creates its own super-diet through the complete nutrition it delivers. Would blueberries alone create a super-diet for you?
Superfood vs. super ingredient: What's the difference?
As I thought about this article, I remembered my time visiting the mindbodygreen offices, where all of the conference rooms are named after those delightful superfoods we all know and love. The last thing I want to do is disparage these ingredients or discourage anyone from incorporating them into their diet.
But I do want to propose a higher standard. Maybe it's time to up the ante, just like our heightened focus on immunity over the past year has me pushing for better thinking around a different buzzword: resilience.
What if a superfood was actually super nutritious? What if it offered a complete nutritional solution? A much smaller, more esoteric list of super-ingredients fits this bill—things like organ meats or cold-water fatty fish, maybe some yeasts. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this higher standard of superfood makes me think of my favorite new ingredient, Himalayan Tartary buckwheat, the fruit seed (not grain) that we've been bringing back to market at Big Bold Health. Every time I send samples of this ancient plant to our lab, I'm floored by the results.
Let's talk a bit about what I consider completeness. In my opinion, a true superfood should cover all the bases, and that's what a plant like Himalayan Tartary buckwheat does. It's gluten-free, grain-free, high in complete proteins, and has prebiotic fibers for a healthy microbiome. It also has a balanced mix of vitamins and minerals, including key flavonoids for immunity, like rutin and quercetin. This is how I've come to think of superfoods, as nature's delivery mechanism for the right balance of macronutrients and a powerhouse blend of micro- and phytonutrients.
So I'll ask again, could you live off blueberries alone? Hardly. From my perspective, so many of today's common superfoods have a lot of one good thing, or even a few, but they miss out on the bigger picture. Key vitamins are missing. The calories are imbalanced, or the glycemic index is off.
I think it's time we start asking more from our superfoods. There's a real difference between a super-ingredient of some isolated nutritional value and the more complete, sustaining benefits of a true superfood. Let's keep talking about the latter.
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Jeff Bland, Ph.D. is the founder of Big Bold Health, a company on a mission to transform the way people think about one of nature’s greatest innovations — the immune system. Through Big Bold Health, Jeff is advocating for the power of immuno-rejuvenation to enhance immunity at a global level, often through the rediscovery of ancient food crops and superfoods. To get there, Jeff is building a network of small farms and suppliers throughout the US that take a clear stance on regenerative agriculture, environmental stewardship, and planetary health.
Jeff’s career in health spans more than 40 years. A nutritional biochemist by training, he began in academia as a university professor, where he was profoundly influenced by a sabbatical spent working with two-time Nobel Laureate, Dr. Linus Pauling. Jeff then spent three decades in the nutritional products industry, where he served as the Chief Science Officer at Metagenics, and worked alongside other pioneers to establish standards for evidence-based formulations, quality ingredient sourcing, and ethical manufacturing practices that stand to this day.
A lifelong educator, Jeff has traveled the world many times over in his role as the “father of functional medicine.” In 1991, he and his wife, Susan, founded The Institute for Functional Medicine. This organization has grown to become the global leader in functional medicine education. Hundreds of thousands of healthcare professionals have now participated in IFM programs, and this collective knowledge has positively impacted the lives of patients all over the world. In 2012, Jeff founded another educational nonprofit called the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute. This organization has become well-known as the host of Jeff’s signature annual conference, the Thought Leaders Consortium.
Jeff is the author of The Disease Delusion: Conquering the Causes of Chronic Illness for a Healthier, Longer, and Happier Life, among countless additional books and research papers.