Sometimes it can seem as though there’s so much new health information out there that it’s impossible to keep up. We might know that our diet should consist of carbs, proteins, fats, and a good dose of essential vitamins and minerals. But knowing exactly which foods we should eat (not to mention how often), can be trickier to feel sure about. 

Then there’s the relatively new phenomenon of superfoods – those foods that are meant to be so healthy we should all be eating them as much as humanly possible.

But are superfoods really that good for us? Will they genuinely help us feel better, look better, and live a long and healthy life… or is the term just a marketing ploy designed to influence food trends? And if superfoods really are that nutritious, then which ones return the biggest health benefits?

Here’s everything you need to know.

What are superfoods?

First things first – what exactly is a superfood?

It’s important to understand that while some foods are much more nutritious than others, no food holds the key to preventing disease and guaranteeing good health. There’s also no exact definition of what makes a food a ‘superfood’ – at least by scientific standards.

The term ‘superfoods’ was created for marketing purposes to sell products, and while the term may seem relatively new, it originated almost a century ago. In the 1920s, an American fruit company ran a series of ads promoting the health benefits of bananas and published research that went into detail about just how healthy this tropical fruit was. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the banana became known as a ‘superfood’, and sales rocketed.

A century later, the food industry is now wise to the power of labelling food ‘super’, and between 2011 and 2015, there was a 202% global increase in sales of food marketed as ‘super’. Today, there are usually rules in place determining which foods can be labelled as a superfood. For example, in 2007 the EU banned the word ‘superfood’ from being used on labels on items that haven’t been scientifically proven to have significant health benefits.

So, while there’s no exact definition of what makes a superfood – and the term is certainly exploited by the food industry to boost sales – superfoods are generally regarded as foods that have a very high nutritional value, and are believed to help improve and maintain health.

What are the health benefits of superfoods?

While superfoods contain few calories, they’re generally packed with a high volume of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals – and it’s these nutrients that can help your body stay healthy and protect against disease.

For example, the vast majority of superfoods contain high amounts of antioxidants, which are natural molecules that help to neutralise free radicals. Free radicals can have an extremely harmful effect on our bodies, but antioxidants have the power to decrease or even reverse their effects. Due to this, antioxidants can help prevent cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases, immune deficiency, emphysema, Parkinson’s disease, and arthritis.

Because most superfoods are plant-based, they tend to contain high amounts of fibre, which can prevent diabetes and improve digestion. They also often contain healthy fats, which are believed to help prevent heart disease. And finally, superfoods are also known to help lower cholesterol, keep your organs healthy, and reduce inflammation in your body.

What are some of the best superfoods?

Like much of the available information about health, guidance around superfoods can be quite contradictory – and some of the foods that appear on certain superfoods lists are quite controversial.

For example, eggs appear on some superfood lists. But because they contain such high amounts of fat and cholesterol, advertising regulations mean that it’s almost impossible to market them as ‘healthy’. In the past, the UK government has blocked adverts that promote eating an egg for breakfast, claiming that this does not constitute a healthy diet.

Similarly, wine appears on some superfood lists – and while red wine has been shown to have health benefits, the pitfalls of drinking too much alcohol make it a more dubious contender.

So, according to science and health experts, which superfoods are best? Here’s the top pick…

1. Berries

Berries are near the top of most superfood lists. As well as being high in fibre, vitamins, and minerals, berries like açaí berries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, blackberries, and strawberries also contain anthocyanins: a group of plant compounds that have powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Antioxidants prevent inflammation, which can lower the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

Research shows that eating berries can reduce a variety of heart disease risk factors. One study of adults with metabolic syndrome (a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity) found that drinking blended strawberries for two months lowered their ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol by 11%. Other studies show that the antioxidants in berries can help fight against cancer-causing free radicals.

2. Dark green leafy vegetables

Dark green leafy veg like spinach, kale, swiss chard, and collard greens are great sources of vitamins, as well as minerals including folate, zinc, calcium, iron, magnesium, vitamin C, and fibre.

They’re also high in dietary nitrates, which can lower blood pressure and improve the function of cells lining the blood vessels – factors that play a role in heart disease. One review found that eating more leafy greens was linked with a 16% reduction in heart disease cases.

Dark green leafy veg also contains high levels of anti-inflammatory compounds called carotenoids, which may ward off certain types of cancer. There’s also research showing that dark leafy greens can lower the risk of illnesses including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. They’re also rich in vitamin K, which has been proven to help protect arteries by promoting healthy blood clotting.

3. Avocados

Avocados might currently be seen as a bit of a food fad, but they’re also nutritional powerhouses and contain high volumes of many essential nutrients including potassium, magnesium, fibre, folate, vitamin C, and vitamin E.

Studies show that avocados may help reduce inflammation, and they also contain carotenoids and tocopherols, which are linked to a reduced risk of certain types of cancer.

And of course, avocados are also a great source of healthy fats. Just like olive oil, avocados are high in monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), which has been proven to reduce blood pressure. High blood pressure is linked to cognitive decline, and studies show that people over the age of 50 who ate an avocado a day reported significant improvement in both their memory and problem-solving skills.

4. Beans and pulses

Beans and pulses include lentils, peas, chickpeas, and beans – including the soya bean. High in plant protein, beans and legumes are an excellent source of B vitamins, minerals, protein and fibre.

Studies show that beans and pulses can help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, maintain a healthy weight, and manage type 2 diabetes.

Soya bean products like tofu, tempeh, edamame beans, and soya milk are especially high in polyphenols called isoflavones, which act as antioxidants and can provide many powerful health benefits. Multiple studies link polyphenols with a decreased risk of dementia.

Soya products are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for proper brain function, maintaining a healthy heart, and strengthening joints.

5. Salmon

Salmon is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which are known for their positive effect on heart health and reducing inflammation. Other oily fish like sardines, herring, mackerel, and anchovies also contain omega-3 fatty acids – but salmon contains the highest amounts of these essential fatty acids.

One study found that eating salmon led to a decrease in diastolic blood pressure. Other studies show that the high omega-3 content in salmon can reduce the risk of abnormal heartbeats, lower cholesterol, and slow the growth of arterial plaque.

While research does suggest that including some salmon in your diet may help lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes, salmon can contain high amounts of harmful metals and environmental pollutants. For this reason, experts recommend that we eat no more than four portions of oily fish per week.

6. Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds are also rich in omega-3s, as well as being a great source of fibre and protein. They’re also packed with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which can help protect against oxidative stress (also known as a build-up of free radicals).

Walnuts are especially nutritious, and one medical review found that eating just a few servings of walnuts each week could reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol by around 16%. Walnuts are also known to be good for improving brain health. A study of women who ate nuts found that they had a better memory compared to those who didn’t, while a 2014 review concluded that nuts can improve cognition and ward off neurodegenerative diseases.

Nuts and seeds are also high in vitamin E, which protects cells from free radicals, and might improve cognition and lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Seeds like chia, flax, and hemp are also great sources of heart health-boosting nutrients, and studies show eating these seeds can improve inflammation, cholesterol, blood pressure, and triglycerides – all risk factors of heart disease.

7. Whole grains

Whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, buckwheat, barley, quinoa, bulgur wheat, and whole wheat bread are great sources of fibre, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Unlike refined grains, whole grains contain all three nutrient-rich parts of the grain – endosperm, bran, and germ – and have been shown to lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease and diabetes.

Because they contain high volumes of fibre, magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin E, and polyphenols – all of which help manage inflammation – whole grains are viewed as an anti-inflammatory food.

Due to the high amounts of fibre they contain, whole grains have also been shown to help improve health. One review of 45 studies found that eating three servings of whole grains each day was linked to a 22% lowered risk of heart disease. Other studies show that eating at least three servings of whole grains per day can lower systolic blood pressure and reduce the risk of a stroke by 25%.

8. Kefir

While yoghurt is included in some superfoods lists, not all yoghurt is created equal – and it’s kefir that’s arguably worthy of superfood status.

Kefir is a fermented milk drink that’s similar to yoghurt but thinner, and usually contains more probiotic strains. The fermentation happens when yeast and bacteria are mixed with milk, creating kefir ‘grains’. These cultures can make it easier for our guts to digest lactose, and reduce painful side effects like bloating, cramps, and gas.

Studies also show that kefir can boost the amount of good bacteria in our guts, while at the same reducing the amount of harmful bacteria. Plus, eating kefir is linked to decreased inflammation in the gut, which can further help improve digestion.

Fermented foods like kefir are also believed to strengthen your immune response. If you don’t like kefir or don’t eat dairy, you could try eating other fermented foods miso, kimchi, and sauerkraut.

Final thoughts...

While the foods on this list are all very healthy, it’s important not to get too carried away with labels, or spend too much time focusing on the latest food trends. 

Superfoods may provide many vital nutrients, but eating them alone doesn’t mean you’re eating a healthy balanced diet. Plus, eating too much of one thing can actually be harmful to your health, and stop you from getting all of the nutrients you need.

A well-balanced diet should include lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats, and legumes and nuts, while at the same time limiting the intake of salt, bad fats, and refined sugar. And of course, combining a healthy diet with getting plenty of physical activity and enough sleep is even better!

Do you make an effort to regularly eat some of the foods featured in this article? Or do you enjoy eating other superfoods that aren’t on this list? We’d love to hear about how you view superfoods and the efforts you go to to stay healthy in the comments below.