2017 has been hailed the year of the “superfood”, a golden group of varying produce claiming to slow aging, promote weight loss and much more. But do so called superfoods really reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke?

The truth, says US nutrition expert Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD, is there are no standard criteria or approved list of super foods. In fact, many so-called “super” foods are good for your heart and your overall health when incorporated into a heart-healthy diet that’s balanced in lean protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat milk and dairy products. This diet also should include nuts, seeds and legumes, fish and liquid vegetable oils.

Kris-Etherton, who is also Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at The Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, adds that “Eating ‘superfoods’ won’t harm you. Most are very healthy,” Kris-Etherton said. “As a registered dietician, I’d like to see people eat more of the super foods like whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, fish, fatty fish and all fruits and veggies.”
But are they really ‘super’? Most myths about superfoods are perpetuated by marketing efforts, said Kris-Etherton, which is why most nutrition experts prefer not to use the term.

“A lot of people have unrealistic expectations about these foods, thinking they’ll be protected from chronic diseases and health problems,” she said. “They may eat one or two of these nutrient-dense foods on top of a poor diet.”

Eating too much of one type of food may prevent you from getting the nutrients you need, Kris-Etherton says.

In addition to essential vitamins and nutrients, many fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds provide phytochemicals — chemical compounds found in plants — that may help reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, the build-up of fatty deposits in artery walls.

Research has shown that bioactive compounds in dark chocolate may have health benefits, but watch out for ingredients like sugar and fat that up the calories. “Don’t eat so much dark chocolate that you overshoot your daily calorie goal and gain weight,” advises Kris-Etherton.

Same with wine. The potential health benefits of wine don’t justify overindulging in the alcohol or the calories, Kris-Etherton cautions. 

The facts on Superfoods:

SALMON is a fatty fish that’s low in saturated fat and high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can decrease the risk of abnormal heartbeats, reduce triglycerides (the chemical form of fats in most foods and in your body) and slow the growth of plaque in the arteries.

TURKEY is a leaner substitute for beef that can be grilled, roasted or ground.

NUTS, LEGUMES and SEEDS are good sources of protein and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats when eaten in moderation. Choices include unsalted almonds, peanuts, pistachios and walnuts.

BERRIES like blueberries and strawberries have high levels of phytochemicals called flavonoids. One study showed that women who consumed more blueberries and strawberries had a lower risk of heart attack.

SOY PRODUCTS like tofu, soy butter and soy nuts are high in polyunsaturated fat, fiber, vitamins and minerals but low in saturated fat. They could replace other high-fat proteins in the diet, although it’s unknown exactly how soy affects heart disease risk factors.

PUMPKIN is low in calories, high in fibre and high in vitamin A.

KALE provides vitamins A and C, potassium and phytochemicals.

LOW-FAT or NONFAT YOGURT, which provides calcium, vitamin D and protein, can be a good substitute for sour cream in recipes.

DARK CHOCOLATE is high in flavonoids, but fat and calories too! Treat yourself in moderation to avoid weight gain.

RED WINE in moderation may have some health benefits, but high alcohol consumption can have negative effects on health, such as increased triglyceride levels, high blood pressure, and liver damage. The Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council states “For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury”.

www.heart.org and www.nhmrc.gov.au