Yes, they’re packed with nutrients, but be sure to factor in your meds and health concerns
Once primarily used to sprout “fur” on clay statutes, chia seeds now are the “Superfood of the Aztecs.” Grown in Mexico and South America, they’re proof that good things come in small packages.
“It’s the size of a speck but it’s nutrient-dense and loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and protein,” says V. Capaldi, aka PaleoBoss Lady, who has a blog devoted to the Paleo lifestyle, which focuses on lean proteins, fruits and vegetables. The former Delaware resident now lives in Venice Beach, Calif.
Chia seeds are gluten-free and low calorie, she says, and they have a strong antioxidant that supports bone health.
The seeds are among a growing group of nutritional marvels that fall under the label “Superfoods,” a buzzword in health magazines. The group includes avocados, blueberries, kale and broccoli. They’re typically whole, unprocessed foods that provide multiple benefits.
But do they really deliver the goods? And can too much superfood be super bad?
Packing a Punch
Compared to other foods, particularly processed products, superfoods provide “more bang for the buck,” says Beverly Dennett, a personal trainer and nutrition coach based in North Wilmington. Many contain antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals, says Beth Kelly, a dietitian with the Kenny Family ShopRite stores in Delaware.
But because the FDA doesn’t regulate the term, marketers can use it however they wish. “Everything has a marketing element to it these days. However, there is some pretty decent science on nutrients and antioxidants,” says Dr. Deb Laino of Wilmington, who recently became a certified nutritionist. Best known as a sexual and relationship counselor, Laino recently finished the recipe book, Sex in the Kitchen, which showcases superfoods.
Many consumers up their intake of a certain superfood to tackle health concerns, such as a heart issue, or to prevent one. However, research isn’t conclusive in some areas. Claims that acai berries might provide anti-aging benefits and help with weight loss, for instance, are unsubstantiated at this point. Yet we do know that the berries are high in nutrient-rich flavonoids and antioxidants, which can block the cell damage that may cause cancer.
Listen and Learn
Depending on the condition, a superfood could hurt rather than help. Food sensitivities and allergies are factors, as are medications.
For instance, people with allergies to sesame seeds could also be allergic to chia seeds, Kelly notes. The seeds are reportedly good for lowering blood pressure. However, if you’re on blood pressure medication or blood thinners, consult a professional before sprinkling them in smoothies and soups.
It’s always important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about how any food can affect your medication. Those who take anticoagulants, for example, must watch their intake of vitamin K, which is found in the dark, leafy greens that often top the superfoods list.
People with kidney disease should monitor their potassium levels. That means superfoods such as coconut water and sweet potatoes—both high in potassium—could present issues. Prone to kidney stones? Avoid superfoods high in oxalates, such as beets, spinach and chocolate.
There are other reasons to become informed. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and kale are great sources of vitamin C, nutrients, and phytochemicals. They’re also loaded with fiber.
Loading up on cruciferous vegetables too quickly could present problems for those with certain digestive conditions. “Someone who starts eating a lot of cruciferous vegetables can experience bloating, cramping and gas,” Dennett says.
No matter how fabulous a food seems, make sure you can tolerate it. Many people have reactions to tomatoes, chocolate and wheatgrass, Laino says. “Go on how you feel after you eat them, and if a reaction happens, you may want to have an allergy test.”
Listen to Your Body
Adding a superfood won’t make up for a diet of mostly fast-food meals. Nor should you focus on one or two to the exclusion of other fruits and vegetables. “The truth be told, it is better to have a varied diet rich in vegetables and fruit,” Dennett says. Kelly concurs. Diversity, she says, ensures a range of beneficial nutrients.
If you incorporate superfoods into your diet, consider it a lifestyle change and not a restriction, and don’t feel the need to conform to the routine, Capaldi says. It’s OK to eat spinach for breakfast.
“How we eat should be a reflection of how we live,” she says. “Everybody is different, and our energy needs vary, based on life and living. Overall health is an individual variable, and the responsibility each of us has is to engage in a discussion with our body to figure out what diet works best for our lifestyle and our physical being.”
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Capaldi usually eats one a day—if not more. “Omega-3s, baby!” she says. “We all need them, and these are filled with good fat.” Kelly agrees. “They’re a great plant-based fat replacement for butter and other saturated fats.” A mono-saturated fat, avocados are also full of antioxidants and fiber.
Current research is focusing on the berry’s role in improving cardiovascular health, brain health, insulin response and cancer prevention, Kelly says. We do know that blueberries are rich in fiber, which is good for digestive and heart health.
Rich in antioxidants, dark chocolate is the way to go. Capaldi only eats 100 percent cacao. “It’s a welcome treat,” she says. Those watching their weight should consider the portion size, says Kelly, who recommends chocolate that’s 70 percent cacao or more for the high flavonoids.
Capaldi is a big fan. “The benefits of coconut oil are amazing,” she says. “The oil is perfect for supporting a high-fat, low-carb lifestyle. It works well at high temps. In addition, it’s great for your skin, and it’s an anti-inflammatory.”
Cooks love the oil’s high smoke point, Laino says. “You can cook with it, moisturize with it, use it for sexual lubrication, and oil pull with it – and the list goes on.” (Oil pulling involves swishing the oil, an antibacterial, in your mouth for a short time to “pull” out bacteria.) Coconut also reportedly helps with weight loss, the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and heart health. Research is still in the early stages, Kelly says.
Remember, it’s a saturated fat—up to 87 percent—although it is a plant-based one. “Switching out butter for coconut oil may be a great swap, but don’t throw out your olive oil,” Kelly says. She recommends variety.
Some athletes favor coconut water over neon-colored sports drinks. “It’s great after a sweat-filled workout,” Capaldi says. Coconut water is high in potassium and contains some sodium and natural sugars. (The weight-conscious should buy unflavored varieties for the lowest calories and sugar count.) The taste is not for everyone. “My family tried fresh coconut water and no one liked it,” Dennett says. “None of us are doing heavy training, so regular water works fine.”
Collards, kale, and Swiss chard are nutrient-dense and high in vitamin K. Kale is also a good source of calcium, potassium, and fiber. Spinach is an excellent source of vitamins A and K, as well as folate, vitamin C, potassium, and iron.