Superheroes of the food world, “superfoods” feature a high density of nutrients. These nutrients, including protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals, nourish us on a cellular level. While healthy fats and protein bolster our cellular walls or membranes, vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals called phytonutrients help to protect and repair our cells from damage. Read on to learn what to eat to benefit our cells and how to maximize the nutrients we glean from the food we eat.
Reach for fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, or specific vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage, according to the NIH. Antioxidant-rich foods, such as blueberries and watercress, protect our DNA from damage and help reduce inflammation, explains Robin Foroutan, MS, RDN, HHC, integrative medicine dietitian and spokesperson, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Balancing inflammation is critical to overall health because most diseases involve chronic, out-of-control inflammation.”
For instance, polyphenols (found in red grapes, tea and extra virgin olive oil) benefit the lining of the digestive tract, the primary location of our immune system. Meanwhile, alpha lipoic acid (in spinach, carrots and Brussels sprouts), bolsters the mitochondria, the metabolic engines of cells that turn food energy into chemical energy.
Antioxidants also help detect and fix cellular damage. Specifically, zinc (in asparagus, spinach and mushrooms) is a component of many enzymes involved in DNA repair. Meanwhile, indole-3-carbinol (in broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage) and genistein (in soy beans) can increase the level of protein that repairs damaged DNA, says Lindsay Malone, RD, manager of nutrition and health coaching, Center for Functional Medicine, Cleveland Clinic.
Maximize those nutrients
Since each type of produce features a different set of nutrients and different nutrients benefit the body in different ways, it’s ideal to go for variety at the salad bar. “[Fruits and vegetables] each have their own nutritional powerhouse characteristics and health benefits,” says Michael Smith, M.D., chief medical director, WebMD.
For the sweetest flavor and highest nutrient count, consume fruits and vegetables when ripe. Since finding produce in this state isn’t always so easy, try frozen. Not only is the latter convenient, it also tends to feature fruits and vegetables frozen at their peak. If you’d rather pick up fresh, though, shop at a local farm or consider planting your own garden.
For maximum freshness, wash and cut fruits and vegetables right before using. “The more you cut them in advance, the air, light, and heat will start to break them down,” says Malone. “It’s convenient to buy things pre-cut, but you should use them very quickly to maximize nutrient density.”
When deciding how to prepare produce, Smith counsels eating superfoods “as freshly and plainly as possible,” adding that “a bowl of blueberries covered with sugar would not be a superfood.” Since many nutrients are water-soluble, these beneficial substances will leach into the cooking water when simmering or boiling. For nutrients that are fat-soluble, the same process will occur when frying in a lot of fat. In contrast, steaming is ideal—especially if the steamer basket does not come in contact with the water underneath.
For a superfood lunch, Malone often opts for a salad featuring robust greens, brightly-hued vegetables, an extra virgin olive oil-based vinaigrette, and chicken, fish or organic hard-boiled eggs. For breakfast, she whips up a smoothie from frozen organic berries, plant-based protein powder, nut butter and organic unsweetened coconut or nut milk. In general, with solid foods, says Malone, take the time to chew well. Doing so “gets digestion started off on the right foot so your body can digest and absorb all of the nutrients in the food.”
Whole foods or supplements?
In general, nutrients are in their most bioavailable forms in whole foods, as opposed to in pills. “Getting superfoods in food form [as opposed to in supplements] is better by far,” says Smith. “Many of these foods are ‘super’ because of the combination of nutritional characteristics, such as the vitamins and minerals, fiber, healthy fats and antioxidants they contain.”
However, if you aren’t able to consume a large enough volume of whole foods to derive sufficient nutrient content, feel free to try powdered fruits and vegetables or supplements, suggests Malone. Just remember to consider the products’ nutrient quantities in conjunction with your diet to ensure you are not ingesting too much of a micronutrient, such as calcium. And, be cautious. “Due to less regulation on supplements compared to drugs, we just can’t be sure of the quality and the purity,” says Smith. “My perspective is people should eat superfoods to avoid having to take pills.”
Unfortunately, certain foods can contribute to cellular harm, says Foroutan. Charred items, particularly meats, form a compound called heterocyclic amines, which can negatively impact cellular membranes or DNA, says Malone. Similarly, when heated above their smoking point, oils begin to break down and cause damage, she continues. So, since the smoking point of extra virgin olive oil ranges between 350-410 degrees F, for example, try not to heat it above that temperature. That’s why fats with higher smoking points, such as avocado oil, are often healthier choices when cooking. Sugary foods and drinks, saturated fats, and “white” carbs (such as white bread) also contribute to inflammation, says Smith.
Aim for balance and overall health
Even if you limit yourself to healthful foods, though, point out Malone and Smith, you can cause problems by overeating. “When you over-eat, it’s like you’re speeding up a conveyor belt and burning out mitochondria,” Malone says. “Not all superfoods should be eaten with reckless abandon,” Smith echoes. Conversely, if you do not eat enough, “cellular structures and repair functions become compromised,” adds Malone.
All that said, “by itself, any given superfood is unlikely to heal anything,” says Smith. Remember to pursue a healthy lifestyle overall, with mostly nutritious foods and movement.
Feed your cells
We are what we eat, for better or worse. Although the thought is sobering, it’s also empowering. When we sit down to eat a meal, we are impacting our health. In short, we’re feeding not only our senses, but also our cells.
Photo credit: Heather Gill, Unsplash