I hate the word “superfood”. It's developed a bad reputation over the years for being used to promote nutritional snake oil. Commonly labeled superfoods such as blueberries, acai berries, mangosteen, pomegranate, and noni are branded as providing incredible improvements in health due to high antioxidant levels. Most of these claims are unfounded and unproven, and these supposed superfoods don't actually provide any bang for your buck in terms of nutritional content.
It's important to avoid the fads in nutrition. What truly makes a food "super" is having outstanding nutrient density or high levels of disease-fighting compounds. Nutrient density is a comparison of nutrients to calories. The foods that have the most vitamins, minerals, and essential fats without having excessive calories are considered to be nutrient-dense.
The standard American diet is composed of foods that are calorie-rich and nutrient-poor, which explains why so many Americans are deficient in many key vitamins and minerals. It may not be flashy, but nutrients are the real key to excellent health.
Since there is only so much food you can eat in a day, you want to maximize your nutrient intake with each meal. Luckily, there are some amazing foods that are true nutritional powerhouses! By including these foods in your weekly diet, you can really begin to eliminate any deficiencies that are keeping you from optimal performance.
Oysters (and other shellfish)
Oysters are king when it comes to nutrition. Oysters are a type of bivalve (they build their own shell) that humans have likely been eating since our earliest days. All shellfish are quite nutrient-dense, and are truly the healthiest foods found in water. Oysters are loaded with vitamins D and B12. They also have impressive levels of Omega-3 fats (40% more than wild salmon) and the minerals zinc, copper, selenium, iron, and manganese.
Clams are not far behind, with similar levels of Omega-3 fats and selenium. Clams also contain vitamin C, excellent levels of iron, and they are the best source of vitamin B12.
Bivalves are quite low on the food chain, so risk of heavy metal toxicity is minimal. Unfortunately, there is risk of poisoning if the shellfish are harvested from unsafe waters that have recently experienced algal blooms. Today, oysters are routinely tested for contamination, but I would still avoid oysters caught in China, Thailand, and other areas known to have polluted waters.
Offal is another name for organ meats. It is commonly said that our ancestors prized the organs of animals because they are so rich in nutrients. The muscle meats, however, were fed to the dogs.
Because the organs are responsible for so many important tasks in the body, the majority of the nutrients are stored there. You will find massive quantities of vitamin A in organ meats, as well as B vitamins, phosphorus, copper, and iron. Liver is the most nutrient-dense of all the organs, but heart, kidneys, and sweetbreads (thymus) are also good options. Heart is a great choice for anyone concerned with heart health, as heart contains high levels of the antioxidant CoQ10.
Unfortunately, offal from conventionally raised animals is extremely low-quality. I do not recommend eating organ meats unless they come from grass-fed animals.
Sardines and Other Small Fish
If you didn't grow up eating sardines like I did, this may be the most difficult superfood for you to stomach. Sardines are a type of oily fish in the herring family. They have a strong smell, much fishier than tuna, but they are packed with nutrition and quite inexpensive. Like shellfish, they are so low on the food chain that there is little chance for heavy metal toxicity.
In one little can you can consume more calcium than a cup of milk, 300% of the daily recommended intake of vitamin B12, and almost a day's worth of selenium. They are also an excellent source of Omega-3s, iodine, vitamin D, and phosphorus.
Other small fish such as herring, anchovies, and smelt share a similar nutrition profile.
Egg Yolks and Other Eggs
If there is anything super about a chicken egg, you'll find it in the yolk. Despite decades of demonizing cholesterol, the studies now show that dietary cholesterol does not affect blood cholesterol levels.
Eggs are easily one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. This is because they contain all the nutrients that would have been necessary to create a little life. Eggs are rich in vitamins A, B, and the minerals iron, selenium, and phosphorus. They are also one of the best sources of an essential brain nutrient, the B vitamin choline. Eggs also contain two unique antioxidants, zeaxanthin and lutein, which are critically important for eye health.
Most people only think about chicken eggs when it comes to nutrition, but you will find that all eggs are highly nutritious. A very commonly overlooked superfood is fish eggs, or roe. Roe is easily the best source of Omega-3 fats, has high levels of B12, and like other seafood, is very rich in selenium and vitamin D.
Bone broth or stock is made from simmering the skin, feet, and bones of animals to release beneficial nutrients. Bone broths are incredibly nutrient-dense, containing minerals such as phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and silica, as well as many beneficial amino acids like glutamine, glycine, and proline. Broth also contains joint-protecting compounds such as collagen, glucosamine, and chondroitin sulfate. Broth is famous for its gut healing benefits, inflammation reduction, immune regulation, and benefits for the joints, skin, hair, and nails. Broth is the real reason why chicken soup is touted as such a cure-all.
You can make your own meat stock or bone broth at home or, for convenience, you can purchase bone broth powders. Bone broth you find in most stores doesn't have the same health benefits as homemade broth. Cheap manufacturers use “meat flavors” and bouillon and typically add MSG to their stocks to imitate traditional broth. Some of the benefits of bone broth can also be attained from collagen powders or gelatin.
The avocado is a unique fruit rich in healthy fats, fiber, fat-soluble vitamins, potassium, and magnesium. They have the highest protein content of any fruit as well as a high amount of soluble fiber, both of which help you feel full. They contain twice as much potassium as one banana. Avocados are also a great source of fat-soluble vitamins A, E, and K. Eating avocados regularly is associated with a healthy weight and blood sugar levels. The beneficial fats also provide improvements in skin, hair, and eyes.
This is a very easy superfood to add to your diet. Avocado pairs nicely with most meats, goes well on sandwiches and salads, and of course, there's always guacamole.
Ocean vegetation is typically more nutritious than land-based vegetation. Seaweeds are types of exible algae that are loaded with minerals such as calcium, manganese, magnesium, and iron, as well as vitamin B12. They are also the best source of iodine on the planet. Iodine has a wide variety of health benefits such as supporting proper metabolism, stimulating the immune system, and aiding in memory and mood.
Common seaweeds are nori, wakame, dulse, kombu, and arame. The most potent seaweeds are spirulina and chlorella which both boast an impressive number of health benefits. Both are very potent heavy metal detoxifiers, improve vascular health, and boost energy. They are also high in vitamin A, B1, B2, B3, B6, as well as iron and zinc.
Most seaweeds are available dried, and some are available in supplement form.
Cacao and Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate boasts an impressive mineral content, but it's real power comes from a surprisingly high amount of antioxidants. Cocoa has even more antioxidants than red wine or tea, particularly flavanols. Cocoa flavanols are shown to boost brain health by promoting blood flow. The polyphenols in dark chocolate have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood sugar.
These benefits are only found in cacao products and dark chocolate with a cacao content of 70% or more. The higher the cacao content, the more potent the health benefits. Milk chocolate has been processed through roasting, alkalizing, and adding milk and sugar. This process destroys the beneficial antioxidants, leaving the final product with little to no positive health effects at all.
Wild foods always contain more nutrients than their domesticated counterparts, and weeds are the perfect example. Weeds are the king of all plant food and easily put plants like spinach and kale to shame. You might have some nutritional powerhouses growing in your backyard right now. Dandelion is the most popular and most recognizable. It contains high levels of vitamin A, antioxidants, and is the best plant source of vitamin K. Dandelion also boasts excellent levels of magnesium, calcium, potassium, and iron.
Purslane, another common backyard weed, is the best plant source of Omega-3 fatty acids. It has six times the vitamin E of spinach and contains possibly the highest beta-carotene levels of any plant.
Lamb's quarter looks somewhat like spinach, but is much more nutritious. It is an excellent source of calcium, beta-carotene, and vitamin C.
The best part of eating weeds is that they're completely free. Try them raw in salads, blended into a pesto, or sauteed with butter.
Mushrooms are very unique among superfoods. Although most varieties possess a healthy dose of B vitamins, vitamin D (if left in the sun), copper, selenium, and potassium, their real health benefits come from other unique compounds. Mushrooms are being widely praised for their anti-cancer properties. They also contain compounds that allow them to fight many types of viruses and bacteria. Because of their high levels of B vitamins, mushrooms can also improve metabolism and combat fatigue, which makes them very beneficial for weight loss.
Some of the more potent mushrooms are reishi, shiitake, cordyceps, and maitake. These mushrooms are more concentrated in disease-fighting compounds and antioxidants and are believed to increase longevity. Reishi and cordyceps are considered to be adaptogenic, which means they boost energy and performance by lowering stress hormones.
Common mushrooms such as crimini, portabello, and shiitake mushrooms can be found in grocery stores to be used in cooking. Reishi and cordyceps can be found in supplement form.