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In the Mood for Superfoods: Healthy Diet Essentials

While there’s no universal definition of superfoods, typically they’re nutrient-dense foods that nourish our bodies, protect our cells, and prevent us from getting sick. According to Michele Lites, RD, CSO, at Kaiser Permanente Roseville Radiation/Oncology Department, “the easiest way to pick a superfood is by the color. Vibrant hues (orange, purple, green, deep red, etc.) indicate the fruit or vegetable is rich in nutrients. While most superfoods are available year-round, shopping when they’re in season will offer the maximum flavor and nutritional  benefit.” In addition to a well-balanced diet, eating superfoods on a regular basis can help shield against heart disease, cancer, and many other chronic medical conditions, [along with] strengthening the immune system and decreasing inflammation, says Zachary Brewer, MD, a cardiac surgeon with Dignity Health Mercy Medical Group. Here are 13 healthy diet must-haves to add to your shopping cart.

“[Root] vegetables—like carrots, beets, turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips—are full of vitamins and minerals and can be the star of many dishes,” Lites says. “Let your air fryer create colorful, tasty fries; or roast [root veggies] with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper (and make extra to purée and use as the base for hearty soups).”

“Winter squash should be a staple on your table, because they’re versatile when making soups, smoothies, side dishes, and on-the-go snacks,” Lites says. “They also make great decorations because they don’t require refrigeration and can adorn a table or porch before they’re eaten. Pumpkin, acorn, butternut, Hubbard, and Delicata are just a few of the winter squash varieties that can be made into sweet or savory dishes. All contain a plethora of nutrients, including vitamins A and C, fiber, and potassium. Try adding squash to curries or stews for a unique flavor and as a potato stand-in.”

“Lentils are a plentiful source of iron and folate and contain ample amounts of protein, fiber, and magnesium. Because of their high protein content, they’re a great replacement for animal proteins. To prepare them, make a one-pot lentil soup with olive oil, garlic, onions, and turmeric (plus broth and other seasonings); and serve it with rice or your choice of bread for dipping,” Dr. Brewer says.

“Field greens (collard, mustard, and/or turnip greens) are abundant in winter gardens, offer robust flavor, and can become a hearty main dish. “Try blanched greens as an appetizer or as a sturdy wrap (similar to grape leaves used in Greek dolmas); and don’t miss out on the savory, nutrient-rich broth (pot liquor) made when the greens are boiled,” Lites says.

“Like most high-performing greens, broccoli is rich in carotenoids, which help your body rid itself of harmful compounds. It’s also the only green veggie with a high level of sulforaphane, which flushes cancer-causing chemicals from the body, making it a champion among superfoods. Other benefits? Increased heart health, possible increases in cognitive functioning, reduction in tumor growth, and improved digestion,” says Pamela Connor, functional medicine nutritionist at Connor Wellness Clinic.

Kathryn MacLean, MS, RD, in Health Food and Nutrition Services at UC Davis, suggests adding broccoli sprouts “to salads, sandwiches, wraps, stir-fries, and grain bowls; using them as a garnish on things like avocado toast; or putting a handful into smoothies with, or instead of, other greens.”

“Kale is high in vitamins A and C, iron, quercetin, and kaempferol, but low in calories. Looking for an easy way to prepare this superfood? Make chips! Drizzle the kale with olive oil, add a sprinkling of salt, and bake until it’s [crispy] for a delicious snack,” Dr. Brewer says.

“Kimchi contains probiotics—healthy bacteria that’s present in the gut. And gut health is important to overall health, since over 70% of immune cells reside there, meaning the health of your gut can be directly tied to how well you fight off infection. Kimchi can be added to eggs or put on salads or sandwiches for extra spice and crunch!” says Whitney Parkinson, MPH, RDN, at Marshall Medical Center’s Diabetes and Nutrition Education Clinic.

“Green tea is another favorite superfood of mine,” Parkinson says. “It contains flavonoids, which act as antioxidants in the body and can fight cancer and lower inflammation. I love having a hot cup of green tea or a matcha latte on a cold day. Beware of added sugar in matcha lattes, however, and always ask for the no sugar or half-sweet options.”

“With an abundance of bioactive compounds that have a variety of benefits, garlic is antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal. It’s also been shown to be anti-inflammatory, immune modulating, and neuroprotective. What’s more, it can protect against cancer, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and aid in better blood sugar regulation. It’s also rich in prebiotic fiber, which supports a healthy gut microbiota,” MacLean says. “After chopping, mincing, or crushing it, let the garlic sit for 10 minutes to allow some of its beneficial compounds to become more heat-stable. Use it to add flavor and nutritional benefit to soups, sauces, stir-fries, and other savory dishes; or incorporate raw garlic into homemade salad dressings, marinades, pesto, hummus, and other dips.”

“Ginger is one of my favorite superfoods and is often overlooked. It supports our immune system, which is imperative during cold and flu season, and aids in digestion,” Parkinson says. “I love adding raw ginger to smoothies or teas, but you can also use it as a seasoning for meats like chicken or duck.”

“Besides bringing a vibrant color to curries and other dishes, turmeric has been linked to numerous health benefits, thanks to its active ingredient of curcumin, which studies suggest can help fight inflammation, stabilize blood sugar levels, and prevent cancer cell growth,” Connor says. “Be sure to pair turmeric with black pepper, as it’s been shown to enhance curcumin absorption by up to 2,000%.”

“Chia seeds are rich in fiber (four grams per tablespoon), which helps you feel full, keeps you regular, assists with keeping cholesterol in check, and can help prevent large blood sugar spikes after meals. They’re also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for cardiovascular health and have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. In addition, they’re rich in a variety of antioxidants,” MacLean says. She recommends adding a couple tablespoons to a smoothie, oatmeal, or yogurt bowl. Another option? “Mix one tablespoon of chia seeds with three tablespoons of water and let it sit for 10 minutes to make a ‘chia egg,’ which you can use to substitute for all or some of the eggs in baked goods.”

“Water is usually not considered by most as a food; however, it is critical to survival. The FDA classifies a ‘food’ as an essential part of one’s diet that we cannot live without,” says Tracy Toms, RD, and certified diabetes educator at Dignity Health Heart and Vascular Institute of Greater Sacramento. “Bottom line: Make sure to consume adequate amounts of water instead of juice, soda, and sweetened beverages.” 

by Kourtney Jason
Photo © iMarzi -