Super foods: fact or fiction?

You can’t have failed to escape the press coverage over the last few years about ‘super foods’ and all of the good things that they contain. The idea is simple; these foods are supposedly healthier than their counterparts because they contain high levels of a wide variety of substances, including:

    •   Vitamins

    •   Minerals

    •   Isoflavones and flavonoids

    •   Phytoestrogens

    •   Polyphenols

    •   Antioxidants

You’re probably thinking, they all sound very fancy, but what are they and what do they do for me? Well, without getting too complicated, here’s a brief description of each and their importance.


These are a diverse range of organic compounds that the body needs to get from diet to be able to work properly. They help your body do everything from grow and repair to producing energy and boosting your defences against disease.


These are different to vitamins as they are inorganic, that is they have never been alive. The body still needs them to function and stay healthy though. They are always solids and made up a range of chemical elements. Sodium and potassium are examples of minerals, and roles include maintaining fluid balance in your body, ensuring your heart pumps effectively and building strong bones and teeth.

Isoflavones, flavonoids phytoestrogens and polyphenols

A range of compounds that you get from things that were alive, namely plants and animals, the latter containing them because they have eaten plants. These compounds have a lot in common with vitamins; in fact flavonoids up until the 1950s were often referred to as vitamin P. Today you’d probably only use that term in relation to the colour of your wee when you've taken your effervescent vitamin c tablets! 

Collectively, any nutrient that comes from a plant is called a phytonutrient.


Have you ever watched Star Wars? It's the classic battle of good versus evil, light versus dark. Inside your body there’s an interstellar war going on every day to keep you in balance. An army of Antioxidants, think of them as Jedi Knights, defend you against Free Radicals, or Darth Vader’s army, hell bent on destruction. 

As you know, your body needs oxygen to survive, that’s why we have to breathe to live. Unfortunately, oxygen is a highly reactive substance. We know this as we can see the effects it has on cars and boats over the years. As they are exposed to air and water, they begin to rust, and there is a process that occurs in your body every day known as oxidation, which is effectively internal rusting. It is one of the things that causes you to age.

This process occurs as a result of using oxygen to produce energy for life. As a consequence, free radicals are produced. These are atoms that have effectively lost an electron and as a consequence go a little bit haywire, or to use our earlier analogy, have gone over to the dark side. They search around the body looking for another electron to get back into balance and back to the light. In their efforts though they can leave behind a path of destruction.

Your antioxidant defence system come armed with spare electrons, which they donate to any free radicals that they meet, turning them back into stable atoms that function normally. Remember when Darth Vader becomes good again in Return of the Jedi? This happens in your body every day, as long as you have the right amount of antioxidants available to defend you. And this is where the notion of 'super foods' comes from, with some things that you can find on the supermarket shelves containing a wide range of these healthy substances.

It certainly cannot be argued that some foods contain a massive amount of these health-promoting goodies and it is worth having them in your diet. The truth is though that your body needs a wide range of these nutrients to function at its best; as with everything it’s about balance. You can eat tonnes of blueberries, knowing that they’re packed full of antioxidants, but if this is all you eat you won’t be getting many of the other substances that you need. Instead of thinking about super foods, focus instead on Super Diets, consuming a wide range of plant substances to give your body everything it could possibly need to stay healthy, grow and function at its best. Remember here that the word diet simply means the foods that you eat; it has absolutely nothing to do with restricting foods or calories.

How are super foods measured?

One helpful measurement is the ORAC value of a food, or the Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity. This tells you how many free radicals a food can turn back from the dark side, stabilising them and decreasing the risk of damage to your body. So which food is the Yoda or Luke Skywalker of your diet? Learn about the ORAC values of different foods here.

Below I’ve provided you with ten foods that can contribute effectively towards a Super Diet. You’ll notice that there a wide range of colours on show here and a great little rule to remember is the 'Rainbow Rule’, ensuring that your shopping trolley always contains foods that are a wide range of colours. Sorry to disappoint you here, but Skittles don’t count!

Image courtesy of Kangshutters/

1) Broccoli

Extremely rich in vitamin C, as well as good amounts of vitamin A, B6 and calcium. All dark green vegetables are a superb source of folic acid too, particularly essential for women during pregnancy

Perfect with stir-fries or traditional roast dinners

2) Blueberries

Rich in flavonoids called anthocyanins, blueberries have been shown to be   effective in reducing blood pressure and managing blood sugars to help control diabetes

Perfect as a healthy snack or in yoghurts or porridge

3) Tomatoes

High in levels of lycopene, an antioxidant that has been strongly linked with cancer prevention. Also a good source of vitamin C

A food that pretty much goes with anything, from salads to sandwiches, or even roasted and served with fish

4) Kale

Just 50 grams will give you your daily requirements of vitamin A and C, helping with your immune system, eye health and a host of other benefits

Perfect steamed with meat or fish, or as part of a warm casserole on a cold night

5) Ground cloves

Spices and herbs are packed full of antioxidants, in fact they contain more than any other food on earth. Cloves are particularly rich in manganese, a mineral important for healthy bones and skin

Perfect in game  recipes, try one of these instead of the usual Sunday roast.

6) Dark chocolate

The cocoa, or cacao plant is packed full of antioxidants and linked to heart health, blood sugar control and brain function

Opt for 70% dark chocolate and have one or two squares as a snack

7) Raspberries

Another food that provides lots of vitamin C and manganese, they are also rich in fibre for bowel health

Mix into a salad with sunflower seeds to add extra flavour, or add to porridge for additional sweetness

8) Raw ginger

Another spice packed with a massively high ORAC score, reported to help with digestive health and as an anti-inflammatory

Add one or two slices of raw ginger to hot water with lemon and honey

9) Walnuts

Rich in Omega-3 fats that are vital for energy production, brain health and in preventing inflammation

Mix with berries and take to work in small Tupperwear pots for mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks

10) Turmeric

A rich yellow-orange spice related to Ginger, rich in curcumin, an antioxidant linked to relief from stomach problems and arthritis

A great addition to curries to add vibrant colour and flavour

Hopefully this has given you some thoughts and ideas about what to put in your shopping basket next time you’re in the supermarket. Remember the rainbow rule and you’ll go a long way towards boosting your health. Also bear in mind that a healthy body is much better to able to process energy, build lean muscle to boost metabolism, and remove waste.

Focus on a healthy diet and a healthy weight is far more likely.

Balance your life, balance your scales


PS, if you’re keen to know more you can now follow me on Twitter @paulw_fitness