Superfood Confusion

The health industry sure does love the term "Superfood" doesn't it?

The Superfood phenomenon has brought us such nutrition heroes as chia seeds, kale and goji berries. While all three of those foods are wonderful and incorporating new nutrient dense foods into your diet is an excellent thing, the whole Superfood Nation that we've created has both its pros and its cons.

Superfoods

I'm writing this article to help clear up a few things.

I want to assist you in deciphering between the helpful messages and marketing ploys, understand how to apply new nutritional knowledge to your life and point out common pitfalls.

Remember that food companies are in business to make money. 

Therefore, it will never take long for a food company to seize a marketing opportunity. As soon as a food gets labeled a "Superfood" that food can start popping up everywhere. Chefs start creating recipes featuring that food and processed food companies may try to incorporate some amount of that food into their ingredient list and then feature its inclusion prominently on the box. 

While learning how to cook with an unfamiliar food is a wonderful (and necessary) thing if someone wants to prepare a new food, one must bear in mind that "Superfoods" do not turn any dish into a magic elixir. Chia seeds are wonderful omega-3, protein-packed, fibrous little gems, and using them in a brownie batch means that your brownies may have a bit of extra nutritional value. If you are going to eat a brownie, eating a nutritionally superior brownie is a good decision, but you are still eating a brownie. A BROWNIE.  

Act accordingly.

Meaning: still treat that brownie like a dessert.

People get themselves into trouble by utilizing "Superfood" ingredients as a way to turn all of the accompanying ingredients into "Superfoods By Proxy." It doesn't work like that. The large amount of sugar in your brownies is still a large amount of sugar. Now, with that said, I think that finding ways to improve the nutritional quality of our desserts is an excellent thing. If we are able to up the protein, fiber and vitamin/mineral content of our desserts, then when we eat them, hopefully, we will be satisfied with smaller portions, our blood sugar won't spike as high and we may get some nutrition. 

Note the use of the words "AS HIGH" and "SOME" nutrition.

My point is that your souped-up brownie is still a calorie-dense, sugary, mostly nutritionally-devoid food. If you have an occasion where you want a brownie (because, yes, I'm not here to suck the fun out of life) then eating a better brownie is great. But if you were not going to indulge in a sugary treat and instead thought "but it has chia seeds so now it's a health food!" you have missed the mark. 

Adding "Superfoods" to desserts and nutritionally-devoid foodstuffs does not turn them into health foods. It just makes them SLIGHTLY better than their typical counterparts.

That is probably the most common pitfall that we make when dealing with "Superfoods" or any healthier swap situation. The confusion that a food's health value is a matter of a simple grading process where less healthy ingredients are voided by combining them with a healthy ingredient. Not so. 

The good news is that all that is required is a tweaking of how you are viewing food. 

The trick is to remember that "Superfoods" or any healthier option is simply an UPGRADE of the same thing.

Using natural sugars instead of white sugar is an excellent upgrade. AND we are still talking about sugar. Maple syrup, raw honey, dried fruit all fall under the category of natural sugars that are vastly superior to white sugar, but they have not ceased to be sugar. Snacking on dried fruit is better than snacking on cake, but both are still in the dessert category.

Let me repeat that: Dried fruit is akin to a sweetener or dessert.

If you want to sweeten your granola or eat a dessert, then adding some raisins or eating some dried figs is a great choice. But, you have still added sugar to your breakfast and eaten dessert. As long as you recognize this, and therefore adjust your future choices accordingly, then you are all good. If instead, you think you have only added "nutritional value" to your breakfast and consumed a health-food snack, you are bound to end up consuming too much sugar (and too many calories) over time, leading to blood sugar imbalances, weight gain, and other health concerns.

Viewing foods properly is key. Speaking of which...

Working out and coconut water/ sports drinks

OKAY. Listen up folks because this is another classic case of misperception.

First of all, sports drinks are sugar water. There are also some electrolytes, but mainly it's sugar water. That is the original point of them! If you are running a marathon or playing professional soccer then your body is burning fuel at a very high rate; during this INTENSE activity your body may become depleted and need additional glucose to perform at its highest level. In that situation sugar water is useful because it is easily absorbed by the body and able to be utilized as energy right away. If you are in the middle of a soccer game this is ideal. 

Unfortunately, a lot of sports drinks have a bunch of added chemicals and crap that give them crazy bright colors or make them taste fruity (you know, in a completely not-real-fruit kind of way). Therefore, coconut water has come out as a great alternative to classic sports drinks because it is lacking in these additives and BONUS has decent mineral content. If you are a professional athlete, I recommend coconut water during/after events if needed.

Most of us, however, are not exercising at that high a level.

If you are working out for an hour or less you do NOT need to consume extra calories in order to get your body through it.

And that is what you are doing by consuming either coconut water or sports drinks. Your body has a system for burning fuel. It can get you through a basic 45-60 minute workout. And your electrolytes should be fine as well. Possible exceptions involve extreme sweating situations, such as with hot yoga or working out in heat. Adding a small pinch of sea salt to your water can be a good option if you find yourself excessively sweating. 

Drink water

And before you think the sports drink companies have a solution to this issue, let me stop you. EVEN WORSE are "diet" sports drinks with less calories. That is some serious ridiculousness right there. Those "diet" sports drinks are just a marketing ploy attempting to sell sports drinks to people who work out moderately.

Hmm...people who work out moderately...sound like a LARGE demographic?

Yep, the companies thought so too. Once, they caught on that people working out to lose weight or maintain health realized that sports drinks weren't increasing their calorie burn enough to counter the calories they were now drinking, the sports drink companies decided to hit the market with "diet" versions. They contain crappy chemicals and artificial sweeteners. There is absolutely no point to them. If you are performing strenuous physical activity, you will benefit more from the regular versions (although I'd still recommend coconut water over them). If you aren't trying to maintain your peak performance during major prolonged activity, then you don't need any special drink. The best "diet" sports drink is WATER. If you want "extra energy" to get through a typical workout designed for general health or weight loss, try a B-complex vitamin. That will actually assist your body in making ATP, your cells' energy source. 

How should we incorporate "Superfoods" into our lives?

By remembering that they are just upgrades.

Eating a varied, whole foods diet is key to great health, so incorporating kale, chia seeds and goji berries into your diet is great. If you make trail mix with dried fruit or chocolate for some sweetness and want to upgrade to goji berries, great! But, don't go out and buy goji berry juice when you weren't already drinking juice because you think it is a health drink. (And you know how I feel about juice.)

Coconut water is a great upgrade to traditional sports drinks when necessary. It is also an upgrade to most fruit juice. It is NOT an upgrade to water. 

Kale is freaking wonderful! But putting some kale into chocolate chip cookies (it has happened) doesn't make them stop being cookies. Sneaking vegetables into foods that you were going to eat anyway is cool, but don't let it be an excuse to eat food you wouldn't have normally eaten. 

Allow the term "Superfood" to encourage you to try cooking with spices, such as turmeric, that you may not have previously used. Try new vegetables, new fruits, different grains. But don't throw all of your knowledge about appropriate portion size, or what a dessert is, out the window because you are using a "Superfood." 

Many of my raw desserts contain raw cacao, which is often considered a superfood. I agree. Raw cacao is great. But I still consume my raw brownie as a sweet treat. I shouldn't start eating raw brownies by the pound because they contain raw cacao. 

Understand? Excellent.

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Katie Dawn Habib

Katie Dawn Habib is a Holistic Nutrition Coach with a M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health. By combining her nutrition knowledge with a love of writing, Katie created her own website, The Hungry Gypsy, where she talks about food, nutrition, wellness and travel. On her site you can also find information about her nutrition coaching practice and join in on the conversations. Katie would like to contribute in some small way to global healing and help her clients and readers feel inspired.

Blood Sugar Regulation is Extremely Important

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • You get sugar cravings throughout the day or after meals.
  • You get extremely irritable, shaky and/or spacey if you haven't eaten recently.
  • Your diet is full of processed foods and simple carbs.
  • Your blood test from your doctor came back revealing above normal blood glucose and/or Hemoglobin A1C levels.

If you said yes to any of the above, you may have blood sugar dysregulation.

The bad news is that blood sugar dysregulation can lead to a whole host of issues such as weight gain, depression, hormonal imbalances and diabetes.  It may even be a contributing factor to PCOS, infertility and breast cancer in women.

The good news is that blood sugar issues can absolutely be addressed by diet and lifestyle habits.

via ucsf.edu

via ucsf.edu

Blood sugar imbalance is one of the few areas where even conventional medicine looks to diet and lifestyle interventions first.

What are the 3 main steps to getting blood sugar under control?

  1. Increase your intake of healthy fats, protein and fiber

  2. Remove processed carbohydrates from your diet

  3. Add regular exercise into your daily lifestyle (including strength training)

Those are the basic concepts.  Now, let me expand on those ideas a bit and help you understand how to do those three things.

I tend to find that my clients have an easier time adjusting their current food intake by focusing on ADDING first, and REMOVING second.  Usually, this approach is the most effective and successful.  Therefore, in terms of blood sugar management, this means that you want to start my making sure that you are consuming enough healthy fats, protein and fiber. How to do this?

via pushupsandcarrots.wordpress.com

via pushupsandcarrots.wordpress.com

Healthy Fats:

Avocado, Avocado Oil, Olive Oil, Coconut oil, Butter (grassfed), Ghee, Oily Fish, Fish Oil, Flax Oil, Nuts and Seeds.

Fat is key.  Thanks to the 1980's people are fat-fearful, but that really needs to go away now.  That was a fad that allowed companies to pump their foods full of salt and sugar, but market them as a health food because they were "low-fat."  Terrible.  Fat slows down the absorption of carbohydrates, limiting the glucose spike that causes blood sugar highs and lows, which can lead to diabetes.  Not to mention all of the very important fat soluble vitamins that come with healthy fats.

BTW-Yes, butter is a healthy fat.  The key is to make sure that you are getting a good quality butter- meaning grassfed.  It really does change the nutrient profile.  KerryGold is a widely available grassfed butter, or any smaller local companies that sell grassfed butter at your local healthfood store or farmer's market is great.  Coconut oil (another saturated fat and therefore sometimes demonized) is awesome.  It is a medium chain fatty acid, which means it is easily absorbed into the body.  It is also a high heat oil so you can cook with it.  Please only cook with fats that can take high heat.  Low-heat oils will oxidize and become very inflammatory.  Not good.  

Cook with: Avocado Oil, Ghee, Butter, Coconut Oil. (Save the olive oil for low heat situations.)

ALSO, when it comes to fats, organic should be the priority.  I realize that price can be an issue and therefore you will need to make the decision that is right for you and your family, but in terms of health and the chemistry of fats, organic is extremely important. Fats can store tons of fat-soluble toxins and fats are mostly absorbed directly into the lymph, which means that they enter our bodies before getting screened by the liver. The liver is our ultimate protector that tries its best to eliminate harmful substances before they enter our blood stream.  Fats often skip this first step and therefore it stands to reason that fat-soluble toxins may be even more damaging than water-soluble toxins.  (Not that those are good either, we don't want to overload our livers and cause liver disease.)

Protein

It does't have to be animal protein.  While quality animal meats (humanely raised, not pumped full of chemicals) can be a healthy source of protein, try also looking toward plant sources such as beans and legumes.  They also have the added benefit of being good sources of Fiber.  

Fiber

This is where the classic fruits, vegetables and whole grains enter the picture.  (+Beans and legumes.)  Not only do these foods contain fiber, but they also contain wonderful vitamins and minerals that help our bodies function.  Think the color of the rainbow. While whole grains are good in moderation, try to focus on vegetables more than grains.  

Remove the Junk

Once you've got a hold of including the goodies, you should feel more prepared to remove the troublemakers.  Typically, the sheer act of including more of the good stuff will crowd out some of the bad stuff, but incase there is still a bunch of processed, refined carbohydrates on your plate: time to chuck them.  They are nutrient deplete (seriously, absolutely no benefit other than containing calories) and they spike your blood sugar very high.  This spike in blood sugar (aka. blood glucose) will result in your body bringing tons of insulin onto the scene to move that bucket of sugar into your cells. Unfortunately, this process will work too well and your blood sugar level will drop too low, resulting in reactive hypoglycemia and sugar cravings.  That is why you crave sugar soon after meals.  This can be the beginning of a roller coaster ride for your body's blood sugar management team: You continue to eat processed junk spiking your blood sugar, insulin comes in and works too hard to move the sugar into cells, which causes your blood sugar to drop low enough to cause sugar cravings.  If you indulge this craving the whole things repeats itself until your body is literally worn out. The insulin receptors stop working as well, moving you into non-insulin dependent Type II diabetes.  If you continue, your body will be too tired to make insulin at all and you will have insulin-dependent Type II diabetes and require insulin injections.  Once your body loses its ability to produce its own insulin, it can never be reversed.  You will require insulin injections for the rest of your life. Not Fun.  Let's stop you from getting there.  (If you are already there, we can still vastly improve your quality of life and prevent you from other unfortunate complications of diabetes.  Never give up on your health!)

via dumbellsdepot.com

via dumbellsdepot.com

Exercise

Not only is exercise good for weight management and cardiovascular health (just to name a couple), but the physical act of contracting your muscles will move glucose (sugar) from your blood stream into your cells WITHOUT the use of insulin.  How cool is that?!  If you are heading on the path towards diabetes, or have already been diagnosed with diabetes, how important do you think it is to give the insulin in your body a break?  VERY that's how important.  Since it is the contraction of muscles that is key, strength training really is the golden boy in this scenario.  Instead of just hopping on the elliptical, throw in some strength training and you will reap the rewards!

 

I realize that was a crap ton of info, and I still feel like I only scratched the surface.  If you have any questions, thoughts, confusions, etc. please leave them in the comments section below and I will answer them/discuss them with you. 

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Katie Dawn Habib

Katie Dawn Habib is a Holistic Nutrition Coach with a M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health. By combining her nutrition knowledge with a love of writing, Katie created her own website, The Hungry Gypsy, where she talks about food, nutrition, wellness and travel. On her site you can also find information about her nutrition coaching practice and join in on the conversations. Katie would like to contribute in some small way to global healing and help her clients and readers feel inspired.