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Why This Functional Medicine Expert Wants To Rethink The Word "Superfood"

Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.
Father of Functional Medicine By Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.
Father of Functional Medicine
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. Jeff is a biochemist by training, and a lifelong educator in practice. He is widely regarded as the father of functional medicine, and served in founding roles at both the Institute for Functional Medicine and the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute. Jeff is the author of The Disease Delusion: Conquering the Causes of Chronic Illness for a Healthier, Longer, and Happier Life.
Overhead Photo of Fresh Raw Ingredients

 

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.

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The takeaway.

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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