The term “superfood” is a marketing term, not a medical term. It generally refers to nutrient-rich foods that may positively support health. As they are typically foods containing vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, they may be beneficial as part of a healthy weight loss diet.
As “superfood” is not a medical term, there is no standard criteria or legal definition to classify foods in that category. The food industry largely uses the term to influence food trends and sell products.
While the foods that people describe as superfoods are usually nutrient-dense, it is important to understand that no single food holds the key to good health or weight loss. Instead, people can try to incorporate nutrient-rich foods into a healthy diet plan, combined with regular exercise.
Keep reading to learn more about “superfoods,” their possible benefits, and how to include them in the diet.
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) note that there is no official definition of the term superfood. However, many of the foods that people may classify as superfoods typically contain high values of the following nutrients and constituents:
- Vitamins are substances the body needs to work normally. These include vitamins A, C, E, K, and B vitamins, such as thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and cobalamin.
- Minerals include elements essential for health such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc.
- Antioxidants are compounds that help protect against damage from free radicals, substances that play a role in the development of chronic, or ongoing, disease. Examples are vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium.
- Fiber is the non-digestible part of carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It helps with cholesterol management, bowel regulation, and promotes a feeling of fullness.
- Healthy fats are beneficial for an array of body functions, such as hormone regulation and heart health. Healthy fats include omega-3 fats and monounsaturated fat.
- Phytonutrients are substances present in plants. They are the pigments that give fruits and vegetables their vivid colors.
According to the ADA, superfoods are beneficial for general health, and they may help prevent disease. While eating any particular superfood alone will not make a person healthier, including the foods in a balanced diet is beneficial, the American Heart Association (AHA) notes.
In explaining how to eat for a healthy weight, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list foods to include in the diet. People would likely classify most of these foods as superfoods because they are plentiful in nutrients.
For example, the list include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, eggs, dairy products, and fish.
In addition to these superfoods, the CDC recommend including poultry and lean meat in the diet while avoiding foods high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat.
Sometimes when people try to cut calories to lose weight, they may abandon their efforts after some time because they feel hungry and deprived. The CDC suggest the key to sustaining weight management involves eating nutrient-dense foods that promote fullness while being low in calories. This can lead to slow, steady weight loss.
A 2014 study echoes the CDC’s advice. It notes that eating nutritious foods that satisfy the appetite is an important strategy for helping people stick to an eating plan for long-term weight management.
In other words, rather than trying to keep to a strict diet for a certain time, optimal weight loss will likely involve adapting lifestyle behaviors to include long-term changes in daily eating and exercise habits.
The ADA list these common superfoods:
Fruits are typically plentiful in nutrients. Berries, such as blueberries, are rich in vitamin K and C, as well as potassium, manganese, and fiber. Citrus fruits, such as oranges, lemons, and grapefruit contain potassium, folate, vitamin C, and fiber.
As with fruit, vegetables are also usually very nutritious. Dark green, leafy vegetables — such as spinach, kale, and collards — are sources of vitamins A, C, E, and K, along with calcium, iron, and potassium. Sweet potatoes contain fiber, potassium, and vitamins A and C.
Beans, such as navy, pinto, or kidney beans, are sources of magnesium, potassium, and fiber. They also provide as much protein as meat, but unlike meat, they do not contain saturated fat.
Omega-3 fatty acid fish
Fish containing omega-3 fatty acids includes salmon, albacore tuna, trout, and herring. This type of fat may lower the risk of heart disease and inflammation.
Whole grains include brown rice, whole oatmeal, quinoa, and whole grain barley. These foods contain fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, chromium, folate, and iron.
Nuts and seeds
Milk and yogurt
Milk products contain calcium and vitamin D. A 2016 study notes that yogurt has unique properties that may help with appetite control. The authors add that yogurt may increase the loss of body fat, reduce food intake, and increase feelings of fullness.
Here are a few tips for including superfoods in a diet:
- Eat nuts or fruit for a snack: Instead of eating chips or candy, eat some raw nuts or a piece of fruit, such as an apple, banana, or orange.
- Eat superfoods for dessert: At the end of a meal, instead of eating a sugary dessert, eat a dish of berries or chopped melon. Or try something more complex, like a parfait made of layers of yogurt, flaxseeds, and berries.
- Use beans as a meat substitute: Instead of eating meat at every lunch and dinner, use beans for a main dish.
- Look for Mediterranean diet recipes: Common superfoods are staples of the Mediterranean diet, which research suggests is associated with preventing obesity. A person may wish to look through a Mediterranean diet cookbook to get meal planning ideas.
- Supplements are an option: Various vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fats, which comprise many “superfoods” are available in supplement form.
In addition to possibly helping with weight management, “superfoods” may also promote general health. For example:
- Fruits and vegetables: Research indicates that fruits and vegetables can help protect against chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cancer.
- Fiber foods: A 2020 study states that in addition to providing a feeling of fullness, fiber foods may reduce chronic inflammation.
- Antioxidant foods: The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics note that foods high in antioxidants help protect against heart disease and certain types of cancer.
- Omega-3 fat foods: These foods provide energy and perform many functions in the heart, lungs, immune system, and hormone-producing glands, report the National Institute of Health (NIH).
Eating a diet rich in “superfoods” is unlikely to result in any harmful side effects.
However, the same is not necessarily true of taking superfood supplements. Taking supplements is unlikely to provide the same benefits as eating food. For example, while antioxidant foods may help prevent disease, evidence suggests that antioxidant supplements do not.
Another risk involved in taking supplements involves the inactive ingredients. Some individuals may have an allergy or sensitivity to them.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) note that combining or taking too many supplements can be hazardous. It is advisable to only use supplements that the FDA has approved.
Some tips for safe use of supplements include:
- Be wary of any bold health claims on a supplement.
- Note that “natural” does not always mean safe.
- Use reliable sources for information, such as the NIH and FDA.
- If using supplements, the FDA recommend choosing high-quality products that have been tested by a third party.
People should check first with a health provider before starting to use a supplement.
The CDC provide the following weight loss tips:
- Eat breakfast: Eating a morning meal helps someone avoid overeating later in the day.
- Get regular exercise: People who have lost weight and kept it from returning usually exercise regularly. The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults get 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week.
- Monitor weight: Individuals may wish to check their weight regularly. Keeping a close watch over it enables a person to adjust their diet when needed.
- Get support: A supportive network of family and friends provides encouragement and motivation.
While “superfood” is not a medical term, it generally describes nutrient-dense foods that may provide health benefits. Including them as part of a healthy diet may help people to manage their weight.
It is important to note that no one food can make people lose weight. Instead, people should incorporate “superfoods” as part of a healthy diet and combine these foods with exercise to manage weight.