You hear a lot of hype about superfoods in news reports, magazine articles, and social media, but what are they exactly? And who says what’s a superfood? Jennifer Di Noia, Ph.D., a researcher at William Patterson University in New Jersey, recently set out to definitively answer those very questions. For the benefit of all of us who try to maintain a healthy diet, the Center For Disease Control has published the results of her research.
The study began by defining “powerhouse fruits and vegetables” as “foods most strongly associated with reduced chronic disease risk.” The foods were then classified on the basis of 17 critical nutrients that have significant impact on our health. The nutrients include potassium, fiber, protein, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, zinc and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E and K. The foods that finished in the top of the evaluation have the highest concentration of these nutrients–that is, they are the most nutrient dense.
No surprise, the top-ranked foods were cruciferous vegetables (members of the cabbage family), but the list includes other leafy greens, yellow-orange vegetables, alliums (onions and the like), citrus fruits, and berries. Below are the 25 most powerful foods, according to the study. Nearly all of them are non-starchy veggies that those following a Nutrisystem weight loss program can enjoy in almost unlimited quantities (we’ve noted the one exception), so we’ve included delicious ways for you to enjoy them. Add them to your daily diet and you are sure to feel your best, protect yourself from disease, and speed your progress to your weight loss goal.
The highest scoring food in the study, watercress has 312% of the daily recommended value of vitamin K, which is critical to bone strength and healthy brain functioning. Try this: Add peppery zip to turkey sandwiches by substituting watercress leaves for lettuce.
2. CHINESE CABBAGE
You get just 20 calories in a cup of Chinese cabbage. Try this: Chinese cabbage leaves are firm enough to use as a wrap for tuna salad, rice and beans, or ground turkey.
Leafy chard is rich in a compound known as “syringic acid,” which is believed to help regulate blood sugar and appetite. Try this: Chard leaves are tender, but hold up well to sauteing or braising.
4. BEET GREENS
The leafy tops of the red roots are not only edible, they provide 30 percent of your daily need for vitamin C. Try this: Toss beet greens with cooked pasta, garlic, and a splash of olive oil.
The dark-green leaves are one of the best vegetable sources of iron. Try this: A salad of spinach, sliced strawberries, and red onion brings together three powerful foods in one tasty lunch.
The green leaves are rich in selenium, a mineral that helps your thyroid gland function properly. Try this: Tenderize chicory leaves by blanching them in hot water for a few minutes before adding them to salads.
7. LEAF LETTUCE
Dark-green lettuces have nearly twice as much vitamin A as the paler Iceberg varieties. Try this: If you or your family likes Iceberg lettuce best, substitute healthier leaf lettuce for half of it and you still bump up the salad’s nutrient content.
While parsley is often served as a garnish, it contains a compound, myristicin, that has suppressed the formation of tumors in research animals. Try this: Include parsley in any dish with garlic and the green herb will help freshen your breath.
9. ROMAINE LETTUCE
In 2 cups of romaine, you get 32 percent of the daily allowance of folate, a B vitamin that helps your body absorb other nutrients. Try this: Cut a head of romaine in half, brush the halves with olive oil, sprinkle with pepper, and grill them face down for a few minutes to add a smoky flavor to your salad.
10. COLLARD GREENS
The classic Southern barbecue vegetable has 5 grams of protein in each cup of cooked greens. Try this: Steam chopped collards until tender, then toss them with red pepper flakes and sunflower seeds.
11. TURNIP GREENS
A cup of the leafy tops of turnip roots provides 20 percent of your RDA of calcium. Try this: Saute peppery-tasting turnip greens briefly, then stir in soy sauce, cayenne pepper, and lemon juice.
Also called chicons or Belgian endive, the pale white shoots are high in inulin, a kind of fiber that prevents constipation. Try this: Make a healthy snack by filling the crisp leaves with low-fat cheese or nut butter.
Allicin, a nutrient found in chives and other onion relatives, has been shown to help manage cholesterol and blood pressure. Try this: The frilly purple flowers add color and a hint of oniony flavor to salads.
The nutrients that give kale its deep, dark green coloring, lutein and zeaxanthin, protect your eyes from ailments such as cataracts. Try this: Baby kale, sometimes, sold as kalettes, are tender enough to eat raw.
15. DANDELION GREENS
You may think of these leaves as lawn weeds, but they contain all the essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Try this: With their lightly bitter flavor, dandelions are a tasty contrast in salads to sweet lettuces such as bibb or Boston.
16. RED PEPPER
The red varieties have over 10 times more beta-carotene and 1.5 times more vitamin C than the green types. Try this: Roasting red peppers–by holding them on a fork over a flame on your stove or grill–brings out their natural sweetness.
Calcium, magnesium, and potassium–the three key minerals that help control your blood pressure–are all abundant in arugula leaves. Try this: Arugula is a tender green that is best eaten raw, because it doesn’t hold up to cooking.
A compound in broccoli called “kaempferol” helps control inflammation. Try this: Shredded broccoli stems make a tasty alternative to cabbage in your favorite slaw recipe.
A cup of pumpkin, the recommended amount of this SmartCarb for those on a Nutrisystem weight-loss plan, has 3 grams of fiber, helping you to feel full long after you eat it. Try this: Mashed pumpkin is a delicious addition to your favorite pancake recipe, adding a serving of vegetables to breakfast.
20. BRUSSELS SPROUTS
Glucosinolates, the compound that gives the little cabbages their distinctive aroma, are powerful antioxidants, which help your body resist cancer and other diseases. Try this: Brush Brussels sprouts lightly with oil and roast them in the oven until the outer leaves are crispy.
You get a powerful punch of onion flavor from scallions with very few calories. Try this: Scatter chopped scallions on top of baked potatoes with a dollop of plain low-fat yogurt.
This relative of broccoli tastes like a combination of mild turnip and sweet apple and has 93 percent of your RDA for vitamin C in a single cup. Try this: Add slices of raw kohlrabi bulb to salads instead of radishes.
The compound sulforaphane, found in cauliflower and other members of the cabbage family, helps protect the stomach lining, reducing the incidence of irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive ailments. Try this: Sprinkle the healthy spice turmeric on a head of cauliflower before roasting it in your oven and it will come out beautifully colored and richly flavored.
Your mother was right: the beta carotene that gives the orange roots their color is essential for healthy vision. Try this: Look for yellow and purple carrots, which are just as nutritious as the orange types and they add even more appetizing color to your plate.
You may have heard that the lycopene in tomatoes helps protect you from cancer, but it is also especially healthful for your skin. Try this: You can make dried tomatoes in your oven when they are abundant in summer and enjoy their flavor all year long.