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  • Writer's pictureOrsolya Szathmari

Do You Need To Eat "Superfoods" To Be Healthy?




Are you consuming different products that are labeled as "superfoods" and coming from an exotic place instead of your neighborhood?

Why do we think that these foods from thousands of kilometers away from us are healthier or in any way better than the ones we can find at our local farmer’s market? How can it be possible that we Europeans need to import these foods from other parts of the world in order to stay healthy?


People like to believe that adding a few miraculous ingredients to their morning cereal will make them in some way more vital and energetic. True, it is much easier to do so than to change habits and skip the morning cereal for good. People like comfort and changing eating habits that are linked to traditions and emotions is very difficult.

To name a food item “super healthy” is an excellent marketing strategy. We want great health and a long life, so many of us are ready to invest lots of money and energy into buying and consuming these products, believing that they will improve our well-being.


I have to admit that I went through this period as well. I used to eat many of these “superfoods” while being convinced that I did a favour to my body and health. After experiencing some adverse effects, I started to study them more in detail. The more I looked into the subject, the more I realised that I needed to be extremely cautious with consuming these foods. So I gradually changed my view and recommendations.


What are the main concerns with these “superfoods” in general? First, there is no real definition of this word, so anybody can name a food item or ingredient so. Second, many of them are expensive and even hard to get. Third, they are not regulated in any way so it is extremely difficult to know their origin, giving us no information about possible contaminations.

The most important benefits that are attributed to many "superfoods" are their health-boosting properties. They are said to reduce heart disease, cancer or the risk of other chronic diseases, help us live longer, reduce pain and anxiety, and the list is endless.

They are claimed to be great sources of anti-oxidants, fibre, vitamins, and minerals. And they lower cholesterol, our biggest enemy of the last decades, right? How about their impact on the environment? Let’s examine these claims a bit closer.


What is the truth about antioxidants? Oxidative stress is a normal process in the human body. Pro-oxidants are substances that induce oxidative stress and antioxidants are natural or man made substances that may prevent some type of cell damages caused by oxidation. Anti-oxidants are promoted as miraculous healers to prevent and treat almost all disease.

But actually, the cancer-fighting and anti-aging properties of the exalted antioxidants have been questioned in many studies (1) (2) (3) (4) and it has been shown that taking anti-oxidant supplements is not only not beneficial but can be harmful. The problem is that the body needs free radicals to control inflammation and stopping this process is not necessarily always advantageous. Adding a huge amount of anti-oxidants can stop the natural anti-inflammatory process and make things worse causing an adverse reaction. Regarding people who do sports, anti-oxidant supplements like vitamin C and vitamin E can reduce one of the most beneficial effects of exercise, which is improving insulin sensitivity and preventing or improving type 2 diabetes (5).


How about fibre? All we hear is that we need to increase our fibre intake, the more the better. Where does this advice really come from? Do these indigestible carbohydrates improve our health in any way? The absence of a deficiency state prevents fibre from being considered an essential nutrient. Furthermore, there is no Estimated Average Requirement or Recommended Dietary Allowance for fiber. However, can it still be healthy? (6) The one and only longer randomized controlled trial (RCT) could show no statistically significant benefits of dietary fibre (7). In addition, high fibre diets are extremely harmful for people with inflammatory bowel disease or other chronic digestive problems (8).


Many “superfoods” are attached to the claim of lower cholesterol - but is it really a good idea to decrease your cholesterol level? The debate about this subject has been going on for a long time. Cholesterol is a very important substance synthesised by the liver, without it we cannot function properly. It is found in every cell and is needed for hormone production, digestion, and it makes up the building blocks of our cell membranes. There is no evidence that high cholesterol levels by themselves have a negative impact on our health. On the contrary, in case of the elderly, people with high cholesterol tend live longer, have a lower risk of CV disease, cancer, and overall mortality than people with low cholesterol (9) (10) (11).


How about vitamins and minerals? How well do vitamins and minerals actually get absorbed from plant foods? Very often not that well, because plants contain a large amount of anti-nutrients, mostly phytic acid, lectins, oxalates and saponins, as well, that interfere with the absorption of vital substances.

The bioavailability of different micro-and macro-nutrients from animal foods is significantly higher than from plant foods (12).


Environmental consequence 

It is now a general claim that eating meat is destroying our planet. But is that correct? There is plenty of evidence that raising animals in the proper way is good for the globe (13). Luckily regenerative agriculture is gaining popularity all over the world being the most powerful solution to protect and improve soil quality, biodiversity and water resources while making farming more productive and our food healthier.

People tend to believe that eating soy, coconut, avocado, quinoa and high amounts of grains would do better for the environment (14) than eating meat. In my view, local and seasonal food appropriately produced is always the best choice to protect nature (15).


Let’s have a closer look at some of these “MAGICAL FOODS”



Avocado (7)

Everybody is familiar with the health benefits of this fatty fruit. It is extremely high in monounsaturated fatty acids, high in potassium, fibre and certain vitamins, rich in water and very low in sugar. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Because of its nutritional value, avocado can be useful for people who want to lose weight and it might help with arthritic pain for others.

Avocado reduces cholesterol levels significantly, which, as we know now, is not necessarily a good thing. Avocado can be problematic for many because of allergic reactions it can cause on the skin. In some cases it can even cause severe gastrointestinal symptoms like gas, cramping, bloating, pain, constipation, or diarrhea. (16).

Did you know that avocado is not recommended for pregnant or breast-feeding women because it reduces milk production and can cause miscarriage? Adding to all this, avocado oil is very rich in estragol and enathol, and it might cause liver damage if consumed excessively.

If you care about your environment, you should look where your food is coming from and how it is produced. It's good to know that avocado production leads to soil degradation and, especially in Mexico, it has been linked to deforestation.


Ashwagandha

The claimed health benefits of Ashwagandha are endless, from reducing arthritic pain, arthritis, anxiety, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), balance, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), troubled sleeping (insomnia), tumors, tuberculosis, asthma, a skin condition marked by white patchiness (leukoderma), bronchitis, backache, fibromyalgia, menstrual problems, hiccups, Parkinson's disease, and chronic liver disease. It is also used to reduce side effects of medications which treat cancer and schizophrenia.

So what can be wrong with Ashwagandha? It belongs to the nightshade family, and it's high in glycoalkaloids. These are toxic chemical compounds that may lead to changes in the functions of biological membranes, causing leaky gut syndrome. They might also harm the blood / brain barrier and induce inflammatory and autoimmune processes in the body (17).

It might cause thyretoxicosis (18), liver damage and neurological issues as well.


Goji berry

This fruit coming from China is promoted with enormous health benefits. It is claimed to be full of anti-oxidants with anti-aging benefits, may prevent cancer growth, may help blood sugar control, may boost energy level, weight loss, lower cholesterol, and it may improve immune function in general. But are these claims true? What are the down-sides of these berries?

Like ashwagandha, goji berries also belong to the nightshade family, which we already know to be toxic. They can interact with the effect of different medications, it can elevate blood pressure, can disturb sleep, can be bad for pollen allergies, cause dizziness and digestive disorders. It has been proven many times that goji berries contain dangerous pesticides (19) (20), even the organic ones.



Chia seeds

While it is true that chia seeds are high in omega 3 fatty acid ALAs, the fact is that humans can only convert this type of omega 3 into the bioavailable DHA and EPA very poorly (21).

One big problem with chia seeds is that they have the ability to absorb up to 27 times their weight in water, so if they are not soaked properly they can cause serious swallowing and GI problems like constipation, diarrhea, excessive gas and bloating.

Another concern with chia seeds is that the vast majority of them come from China, their production is not regulated and they are heavily contaminated with pesticides.


Quinoa

Quinoa is a pseudo cereal and naturally gluten-free. Its health claims come from the fact that it is high in protein and contains all the nine essential amino acids. It is also high in fibre and some vitamins and minerals. It contains flavonoids, which are plant anti-oxidants.

Despite all these amazing claims, I don’t recommend consuming quinoa regularly. It can cause severe digestive discomfort like gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea because of its high fibre content. Quinoa is very high in saponins, which is a natural pesticide of the plant that can damage the small intestine. Most of the saponins can be removed by washing quinoa many times before cooking. Although quinoa is gluten free, it contains prolamins, which might trigger an immune response in people with celiac disease (22). Quinoa is also high in oxalates, that can cause among others kidney damage and stones, urinary tract and bladder problems, joint pain.


Green tea

The consumption of green tea has a very long history in Asia. There is likely no harm if consumed in moderate amounts, but in higher amounts it can cause different problems such as digestive issues, headache, sleeping difficulties, iron deficiency, dizziness, bleeding disorder, liver disease and high blood pressure.

Be especially aware of not taking concentrated green tea supplements. There has recently been a case reported of a man who had such serious liver damage caused by these supplements that he needed a new liver to save his life (23).


After diving deep into the subject, my recommendation is to eat local and seasonal foods on a regular basis and avoid all “superfoods” coming from thousands of kilometres away, especially in their concentrated forms as supplements. There is not enough reliable research to support their benefits, so to be on the safe side, it is best to eat the food that can be grown in our neighborhood. This way the source can be controlled and the environmental impact minimized.




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