What are super foods? Where do antioxidants come from? Are phytochemicals good or bad? These are just a few of the many questions I often get asked as a dietitian. Food companies and the media have done an excellent job of confusing the public as to which foods are healthy and which are not. Words such as super, antioxidant, and natural get thrown around without much care. But what are they and where do they come from?
Phytochemicals are compounds found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and dry beans that are thought to promote health. They include antioxidants, fiber, and the natural chemicals that give plants their flavor and color. People have known about phytochemicals for centuries even if they did not call them phytochemicals. Chewing the bark of the willow tree in ancient Greece was known to reduce pain; the compound salicin was extracted from the bark and is produced commercially today as aspirin.
As we go through our day, our bodies move from bed to kitchen to shower to work… all these activities require energy. This energy is provided by the foods we eat. As food breaks down in our stomachs and is transported through the blood to our muscles, thousands of chemical reactions take place creating ‘free radicals.’ Think back to grade school when you added vinegar to baking soda to create a flowing messy “volcano.” Unlike the volcano, we do not immediately see the end results of these reactions. Just like the volcano though, the reactions that take place inside us leave behind byproducts called free radicals that need to be cleaned up. This is where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants are molecules found in fruits and vegetables that clean up and neutralize the harmful free radicals. If left roaming free in the body, free radicals will cause inflammation and stress; which may lead to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis. The most commonly know antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin E, and lycopene. Foods high in these antioxidants are citrus fruits, dark green vegetables, nuts, and tomatoes.
Super Foods are those that contain high amounts of antioxidants and phytochemicals. They are low in fat and calories. Thanks to celebrities and companies promoting their favorite products, new super foods seem to be popping up every year or so. It started with cranberries and then moved to pomegranates and then the acai berry. There is nothing magical about these fruits by themselves. Drinking gallons of blueberry pomegranate juice will not make excess pounds fall off or protect someone from cancer. However, eating a wide variety of colorful vegetables and fruits will help promote an overall healthy body and when they replace high fat, high calorie foods they can aid in weight loss. Some diets encourage people to fast or ‘cleanse’ their bodies of toxins and free radicals by drinking special teas, juices, or other concoctions. The lack of calories in these diets is what leads to weight loss in the short term. Once the person begins eating normally again, weight will be regained quickly. Adding green tea (un-sweet) and small amounts of fruit or vegetable juice to any diet can be a good way in increase vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but will not make up for a diet high in processed foods.