May. 22. 2020
Superfoods
Written By:
McKel (Hill) Kooienga
McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of NS and Creator of The Method Membership

Superfoods can be a fun way to add a boost of nutrients or the Flavor Factor to your meals.

While they’re not necessary to eat healthfully and you don’t need to run out and buy all of the fancy super powders thinking they’ll transform your health and wellbeing, it is always fun to try new foods or to add a little something to your day that can give you extra nutrients. That’s exactly what superfoods can do for you!

In this article, I’ll share what superfoods are, when you should use them, and eight common superfoods that you could try if you’re ready to play with adding some to your life.

What Are Superfoods?

A superfood is a food that’s particularly rich in compounds like antioxidants, fiber, or fatty acids, that are especially beneficial to one’s health. Pretty broad, right? Well, it all comes down to the claimed health-boosting properties that food has and nourishing benefits you might gain from it.

Spinach and kale could be considered superfoods thanks to their abundance of vitamins and minerals and all the health-promoting pay-offs you get from eating them. The same goes for a green juice that’s filled with superfoods. Also, things like adaptogens — aka medicinal mushrooms, herbs, and spices often used in Eastern medicine — can be considered superfoods and ones we’ve used in plenty of recipes on Nutrition Stripped too.

When you view food as a tool for your health that helps prevent chronic disease, keeps your mind sharp, sustains your immune system or gives you more energy, then you want to consume the foods that give you the most bang for your buck — the foods that provide a bunch of these advantages in one bite.

So, what are some of the most popular superfoods right now? Read on for three trendy, but effective superfoods and common ways to find them.

Do You Need Superfoods and When Should You Use Them?

First and foremost, we always start with the foundations of nutrition. If you aren’t eating well consistently, a superfood isn’t going to magically make you healthy. I share a simple approach to nutrition and how you can make sure you’re getting the nutrients and balance you need at every meal in my free guide for creating healthy eating habits, so be sure to grab that if you haven’t already!

Think of superfoods as a way to enhance the flavor or add a boost of nutrients to your already healthy, balanced meal.

You don’t need to eat superfoods to have a healthy lifestyle. Superfoods can be pricey and even inaccessible to many, but if it’s something you want to explore, it can be a fun way to try new foods and give your meal a little something extra.

8 Common Superfoods You Can Try First

Some superfoods come in their straight-from-nature form (for instance, kale or other greens), while others are available in a more convenient capacity, like a powder or liquid form. Here, some of the more recent superfoods that have been rising in popularity, plus what they do and how to use them.

Keep in mind, just as other supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, neither are these powders. That means that manufacturers can make claims on their labels and bottles that the government doesn’t double-check and the amount of each ingredient can vary from bottle to bottle. Make sure you check the source of where your powder and do some research on the brand. Looking for third-party labels like Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) is also a good idea.

1. MCT Oil/Powder

MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides, which is a type of fat. You’ll find MCTs in coconuts and coconut oil, and while you can buy it in oil form, you’ll also find it as a powder. Your body can more easily digest MCTs thanks to its shorter chemical chain.

One of the biggest benefits of MCT is that it can help increase satiety and decrease food intake, which may lead to weight loss, according to research (1). They’ve also been shown to help improve gut microbiota, leading to promising results for energy burn and metabolic health (this is especially beneficial for obese individuals) (2).

Of course, MCT won’t be your magic weight-loss trick. It’s a good complement to a healthy, plant-based diet, but not a cure-all for shedding pounds or solving all health problems.

How to use MCT Powder:

You can get too much MCT in your diet—it is fat, so don’t go overboard with consumption. Try to stick to about one to two tablespoons max per day. Easily throw it in a smoothie or a cup of coffee in the morning, to give your drink a dose of healthy fats to keep you full.

MCT powder or oil is a great superfood to try if you enjoy tea or coffee lattes because it can be added right into them. Here are a few of my favorite recipes!

2. Nutritional Yeast

If you’ve been following me — either on Instagram or in my recipes, you know I’m a big fan of nutritional yeast! Nutritional yeast has a strong flavor and the taste is similar to rich, sharp cheddar cheese, so it’s the perfect flavor factor in so many recipes to get that cheesy taste even if you don’t eat dairy. This is what makes it so popular in vegetarian and vegan lifestyles!

Nutritional yeast is commonly referred to as a “superfood” because it contains heaps of B vitamins, protein, and fiber in a very small volume.

This is a great superfood to try and start with because it goes into so many plant-based recipes and can be topped onto dishes really easily without much effort.

How To Use Nutritional Yeast:
Use nutritional yeast sprinkled on anything and everything! It’s great on Foundational Five to nourish bowls, rice, potatoes, popcorn, and roasted veggies. You can also mix it into sauces and dressings for a boost of nutrition too!

If you’re looking for a couple of specific recipes to try with it, here are some simple ones that are staples for me!

3. Cacao Nibs

Cacao nibs are small, crushed cocoa beans packed with an abundance of nutritional benefits.

In contrast to the majority of chocolate products out there, cacao nibs are naturally very low in sugar. Just as our other superfoods, cacao nibs are naturally packed with antioxidants that help fight off free radicals that would otherwise cause damage to our bodies. They also have a surprising amount of fiber and fats which make them a great meal component to increase satiety.

Additionally, cocoa flavonoids have been shown to decrease inflammation.

How To Use Cacao Nibs: 
Cacao nibs can be eaten as-is or ground into a thick paste to be used in chocolates. You can add cacao nibs to smoothies and desserts for a boost of rich, slightly bitter chocolate flavor and crunch. You can also use cacao nibs in truffles, muffins, cakes, and bread!

4. Goji Berries

Goji berries have earned the title as a superfood because of their great nutrient density and antioxidant content.

If you’ve never had a goji berry before, they taste like a raisin and cranberry have been mixed together!

Goji berries are packed with fiber to help keep you full and sustain energy all day long. They’re also praised as a potent source of antioxidants – zeaxanthin, for example, is responsible for the goji berry’s bright red, orange color. Their antioxidants help protect the body from free radicals that we may be exposed to. The consumption of goji berries has also been associated with increased testosterone, energy, stamina, and quality of sleep.

How To Use Goji Berries:
Use as you would any dried fruit! Enjoy them in oatmeal, porridge, salads, or smoothies. They’re also great to add a bit of a sweet taste to trail mixes or desserts!

5. Spirulina

Spirulina is a blue-green micro-algae grown and harvested from very alkaline water sources.

Spirulina provides an array of health benefits. It has anti-inflammatory properties from antioxidants, it can boost immune function, protect the liver, reduce allergic reactions, improve muscle endurance, improve oxidative stress, reduce oral cancer, and may also help fight infections and antibiotic-related illnesses. It does it all!

Spirulina is also packed (almost 80% protein by dry weight) of protein, which is essential for rebuilding muscle tissue after workouts, maintaining lean body mass (especially if you’re on a weight/fat loss plan), and essential for a host of other metabolic processes in the bod

How To Use Spirulina:
Spirulina can be added to smoothies, desserts, fresh juices, or water for a boost of nutrition. It also adds a beautiful aqua blue color to the recipe when used!

6. Adaptogens

Adaptogens include a range of products, like medicinal mushrooms (more on those below), herbs, and spices. Often used in Eastern medicine, they’ve become much more mainstream in Western culture over the past few years. These foods offer plenty of health-promoting benefits, including potential disease prevention and treatment. One study also showed that adaptogens can help your body deal with stress better, which can usually wreak havoc on your body (3). This might also lead to improved longevity.

Besides mushrooms, a popular and well-known adaptogen is turmeric. Turmeric, in particular, has shown promising health benefits, like combating Alzheimer’s disease (4). Other, lesser-known adaptogens include ashwagandha, Rhodiola, holy basil, Asian ginseng, and Schisandra. Most adaptogens are most commonly used as an anti-inflammatory, which can help ward off anything from disease to pain.

How to Use Adaptogens:

Because most adaptogens are spices or herbs, you can toss them into smoothies, salads, coffee, or other beverages pretty easily.

7. Maca

Maca is an adaptogenic root vegetable (from the cruciferous family) grown in Peru.

Maca benefits include hormonal balance, stamina, anxiety and depression reduction, physical strength, endurance, and mental focus or clarity. Maca has also been said to enhance fertility and libido. Although at times the scientific evidence for the claims regarding maca’s health benefits is not significantly supported, the pure mineral and vitamin-rich content justify this root to be a “superfood”.

How To Use Maca:
Maca is a fine powder that can be added to anything from breakfast oatmeal, granola, and cereals to desserts, smoothies, and baked goods. The powder is easily mixed into anything you choose and you don’t need a large volume to get the desired taste!

8. Mushrooms

Technically mushrooms can go in the adaptogens category, but they deserve a call-out on their own, too. These come in many forms, from whole food, dried versions, to a powder and in different types, such as reishi, shiitake, chaga, maitake, king oyster, or cordyceps. The benefits from mushrooms are interesting and deserve more research on their claims from helping reduce certain types of cancer to improving heart health.

Although research still needs to be done, some of these mushrooms may help improve immunity to improving heart health to reducing common colds and certain types of cancer. Most of these benefits come from mushrooms’ anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Some research shows that mushrooms provide all of these health-enhancing benefits because they protect against oxidative stress, and they may help strengthen mitochondria or the powerhouses that provide our body’s cells with energy (5). (To read more about individual mushrooms and their benefits, check out this mushroom tonic, complete with a guide to mushrooms.)

How to Mushrooms:

You’ll gain the benefits of mushrooms just by cooking them up on their own, but you can also find these in a powder form, making it easy to add them to things like smoothies.  As with adaptogens, you likely can’t overdose on medicinal mushroom powders, but stick to serving recommendations.

Superfood Dust and Elixirs

Dusts and elixirs sound like far-out, almost fairytale-like products, but really they’re just a combination of a few different superfoods. Dusts and elixirs are more broad terms for powders or liquids that could include any of the above items, along with things like greens or individual vitamins and minerals.

Following the same principles as supplements, you want to read the labels of pre-made dusts and elixirs carefully, and do your research before buying. Make sure they’re not sneaking in added sugar or too many ingredients you don’t recognize. When you find one you like, try adding to a smoothie bowl (like this delicious recipe) or opt to whip up your own elixir, like a green juice.

There’s not strong enough studies or science behind most of the dusts and elixirs out there, although some have health benefits associated with them and most of it’s because of their nutrient makeup — but before we can say “this helps with that,” use a bit skeptically for the marketing claims, but you can still enjoy them along the way.

Whole foods are always the best way to get in the nutrient-density. While superfood supplements shouldn’t have serious side effects, it’s best to keep them to one serving or one meal a day, making sure if you’re going for powdered or liquid forms of food, you’re also eating whole food sources as a compliment. The health pay-offs look promising for all the ingredients mentioned, but they’re not the only source of nutrients you need.

Always feel free to experiment with different foods and ingredients, and try new recipes frequently, but don’t be afraid to stick with what makes you feel best, too. It’s all about finding the foods that make you happy, strong, and healthy.

References:
  1. R.KinsellaT.MaherM.E.Clegg. (2017, October.) Coconut oil has less satiating properties than medium-chain triglyceride oil.
  2. Sabri Ahmed Rial, Antony D. Karelis, Karl-F. Bergeron, and Catherine Mounier. (2016, May.) Gut Microbiota and Metabolic Health: The Potential Beneficial Effects of a Medium Chain Triglyceride Diet in Obese Individuals.
  3. Alexander Panossian and Georg Wikman. (2010, January.) Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity.
  4. Ahmed T, Gilani AH. (2014, April.) Therapeutic potential of turmeric in Alzheimer’s disease: curcumin or curcuminoids?
  5. Maja Kozarski, Anita Klaus, Dragica Jakovljevic, Nina Todorovic, Jovana Vunduk, Predrag Petrović, Miomir Niksic, Miroslav M. Vrvic, and Leo van Griensven. (2015) Antioxidants of Edible Mushrooms.