By Taylor Winkel, First Mile Care DPP Coach and Registered Dietitian

The First Mile Care Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) teaches participants to eat healthy, well-balanced meals in order to prevent long term complications associated with health problems including — but not limited to — prediabetes and hypertension. 

While well-balanced meals take into account the portioning of fruit, vegetables, protein, and starches/grains, superfoods have become a popular topic in the last decade. How do superfoods fit into the DPP?

Defining the indefinable

A superfood — also known as a power food, or even as a superfruit — is a nutrient-dense food beneficial for health and well-being. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition is “a food that is rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fiber, or fatty acids) considered beneficial to a person’s health.”

Typically, a food is considered a superfood when it can offer maximum health benefits for minimal calories. Its benefits should go beyond what its nutritional value is, such as being linked to disease prevention. You will often see superfoods high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, healthy fats, phytochemicals and/or flavonoids — without high fat and sugar content. Berries are considered a superfood because they are packed with antioxidants which help fight disease and defend our cells. 

For example, the current superfood du jour is quinoa, a nutrient-dense seed that has twice as much protein as brown rice. It is a “complete” protein, which means it offers all nine essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Quinoa is naturally gluten-free. It is low on the glycemic index, meaning it won’t spike blood sugar. It is high in manganese, copper, phosphorus, and magnesium which together provide support for your bones, collagen, blood sugar control, and sustained energy. It is also high in fiber, folate, and zinc, providing support for the digestive system as well as the brain and immune system. Moreover, quinoa has phytonutrients, providing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.

By contrast, brown rice is not a complete protein like quinoa, and it is also lower in other minerals. While it is high in manganese and fiber, it has only half as much protein as quinoa. However, brown rice is a good source of selenium which is important for thyroid and immune health. So while quinoa is considered a superfood, brown rice also contributes to a healthy diet. Variety is key to receiving a full spectrum of nutrients.

Buyer beware

Confused that there is no established minimum amount of nutrients or antioxidants in a superfood? That’s OK. Superfoods should be incorporated into a balanced menu when possible, but you don’t need to be hyper-focused on them. If you are “eating the rainbow” and choosing healthy food across all food groups, you are likely eating a healthy diet already. 

Surprisingly, there are not yet official criteria or benchmarks for what constitutes a superfood in the U.S. Unlike claims such as “organic” and “healthy,” the term “superfood” is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That means it’s basically defined by consumer food trends driven by smart company marketing. It can be what the companies and manufacturers want it to be. In fact, according to the University of California Davis, the term was first used in 1918 in the United Fruit Company’s strategy to increase banana consumption.

Therefore, when in the grocery store, you’d be wise to remember that the superfood label can be an exercise in corporate branding that often provides an excuse for a higher price — rather like the equally unregulated term “natural.” For that reason, you won’t see superfood on food labels in the European Union without a specific, authorized, associated health benefit.

Here are a few examples of popular foods that could be considered superfoods — they have passionate advocates as well as critics.

  • Fruits: apples, açaí berries, avocado, bananas, blueberries, goji berries, pomegranate (including seeds), tomatoes , watermelon
  • Vegetables: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, seaweed, spinach, sweet potatoes
  • Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, soybeans (including tofu and tempeh)
  • Grains, Seeds & Nuts: buckwheat noodles, oats, quinoa, chia seeds, flax seeds, pistachios, walnuts
  • Herbs: garlic; ginger; green tea; tarragon
  • Animal Protein: eggs, yogurt, halibut, salmon

Though superfoods have a lot to offer and can help you reach optimal nutrition, it isn’t necessary to obsess over them. The key to achieving a healthy diet is variety and moderation, which is why First Mile Care coaches advocate well-balanced meals such as outlined in the USDA MyPlate dietary guide.

To learn more about how you can benefit from the First Mile Care Diabetes Prevention Program, take the prediabetes risk test and get started today!