Elite Trainer, Andy Vincent, reveals (and explains) one of his PT pet hates, the magical power of the so-called “superfoods”.
The food industry loves a buzzword. And, increasingly, those buzzwords revolve around health. Healthy eating is big business – why do you think everything is labeled as high protein these days? But while protein content is objective, there is no official definition of a “superfood” and the EU has thankfully banned health claims on packaging, unless they are supported by scientific evidence.
However, that hasn’t stopped many food brands from funding research to help promote the health benefits of their product. For example, if you see a headline proclaiming the health benefits of bacon, chances are the research was funded by some strange organization like the British Bacon Council. They’re susceptible to bias, basically.
The idea that there are ingredients that vastly outperform other foods, and can somehow stave off cancer, heart disease and other major health concerns is misleading – if not a complete lie.
Sadly, some people want to believe that eating a certain fruit or vegetable containing an antioxidant or essential fatty acid is a health panacea that can offset the effects of their Dominoes or their missed spin session.
The problem is that most research on superfoods tests chemicals and extracts in concentrations not found in the food in its natural state. In short: they’re good for you, yes, but to curb cancer you’d have to eat them by the wheelbarrow full.
The main foods, though, that have been elevated to superfood status in recent years are those rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants are chemicals thought to protect us against the harmful effects of free radicals, which are chemicals naturally produced in every living cell and known to cause cell damage – linked to ageing and disease development.
However, evidence about this and other health benefits of antioxidants is inconclusive. A review of the research into this topic in 2011 by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found no evidence that the antioxidant action on free radicals observed in the lab was of any benefit to human health. Sorry to burst your bubble.
A deeper look into your favourite superfoods
Top of the superfood league is, of course, the mighty blueberry. The listed benefits are improved heart health, blood pressure, reduced cancer risk and improved memory. Lofty claims. And while blueberries are a great food choice, research into most of these is inconclusive.
One study in 2012 conducted on 93,000 women found that participants who ate three or more portions of blueberries a week had a 32% lower risk of a heart attack compared with those who ate berries once a month or less. However, the study could not prove that these fruits definitely caused the lower risk.
Green tea is another ingredient alleged to have a wide range of health benefits, including: weight loss, reduced cholesterol, reduced cardiovascular disease risk, as well as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease prevention. The leaves contain B vitamins, folate, manganese, potassium, magnesium, caffeine and other antioxidants. Studies into a compound in green tea leaves called herceptin have also proven promising for cancer research. Human trails into herceptin are even planned.
The fat loss benefits of green tea are due to the antioxidants catechin and also the caffeine content. However, the dosages of catechin required to produce such effects are far greater than that of the tea we drink. Not even the thirstiest gym-goer could benefit directly.
Garlic was actually the subject of some really robust, evidence-based research that suggests it may be effective against high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cholesterol and colds. However, once again it was strong garlic extract that was tested instead of fresh. Your excuse to gorge on garlic bread doesn’t hold up, I’m afraid.
So what should you eat?
All the foods listed under the superfood label are excellent choices for your weekly shop. The point here is not to put you off healthy ingredients, but to realise that, like with a magic health pill, there is no one ingredient that can guarantee you a long healthy life. It is, instead, about consistency.
You should be consuming plenty of these not-actually-superfoods as well as all other whole food ingredients. What you should be thinking about more with food is, is it ‘Nutrient Dense” (filled with vitamins and minerals) or is it “Calorie Dense”. If you consuming mainly nutrient dense foods you will be on the right path for nutrition plan success. No one food is going to beat a major illness or disease. However, consistently making good lifestyle choices can most definitely have a positive effect.
And finally, the power of coffee
The only food / drink / supplement that I think is worth considering for super status is coffee or, more importantly, caffeine. The effects of caffeine on the human body are probably one of the most researched and there is plenty of evidence to support caffeine’s ability to improve strength, endurance and to aid fat loss. Does that make it a superfood, no. Maybe a superdrink instead.