Reader question: What’s the deal with superfoods?

 

Hello, I have an overweight friend who follows a particular program where she drinks a shake for her meal. The shake she is drinking has about 70 different superfoods including goji berry, yacon root, chlorella, and so forth. I tried to read some references to understand the evidence for some superfoods, but it was a bit difficult to interpret. I would greatly appreciate if you could expand on this topic.

– Worried in Surrey

 

I think it’s helpful to start with the following two statements:

(1) If your diet is a reasonable mix of mostly unprocessed foods, the specifics of what you are eating do not matter.

(2) If your diet is not a reasonable mix of mostly unprocessed foods, you should change your diet.

Let’s consider superfoods in the context of each of these statements, starting with (1).

If your diet is a reasonable mix of mostly unprocessed foods and the specifics of what you are eating do not matter, then going out of your way to include particular foods is a waste of time and money.

Of course, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with eating superfoods. I eat a lot of things that are often classified as superfoods: blueberries, almonds, kale, etc.

But it’s important to distinguish between eating these things as actual foods and consuming them in large quantities and high concentration as supplements. The idea behind supplements is that more is better (see graph below). But that’s not really how it works. In fact, many chemicals that are perfectly healthy in actual food can in fact be dangerous when taken as supplements.

Salt is a great example. There are few chemicals in the body that are more important than salt. If you don’t eat enough of it, you will be in serious trouble. But no one would suggest that it is generally a good idea to take salt supplements, because consuming more salt than you need isn’t helpful and may, in fact, be harmful.

The same argument applies to any other chemical. I’m not aware of any supplement that has been shown (in reproducible, robust studies) to have benefits for someone who is generally healthy and already eating a reasonable diet.

Now on to statement (2). If your diet is not a reasonable mix of mostly unprocessed foods, then you may be short on certain chemicals that are important. In that case, supplementing your diet with those chemicals (or their precursors) may help.

But that is a very inefficient way to solve the problem. You’ll never be able to know exactly which aspects of your diet are lacking and, thus, you’ll never be able to properly compensate (because, remember, too much of some chemicals can be just as bad as too little).

A much better idea is to start eating a diet that is a reasonable mix of unprocessed foods. Then you don’t have to think about the details at all.

Of course, in a processed-food world, that is easier said than done. But it’s worth trying because, ultimately, it is the only reliable way to stay lean and healthy.