Nowadays, there is much buzz around “superfoods” and their potential benefits to our health and well-being. These so-called superfoods claim to enhance vitality, improve mood, increase libido, burn fat, and even lengthen our lifespan. Among these products are protein powders, green drinks, energy bars, sports goo, bee pollen, maca root, açai berries, and many others with names you might not have heard of or know very little about.

Exploring the potential benefits and risks of superfoods

While some of these products do have legitimate medicinal properties, such as maca root, which has a long history of use in South America to improve libido and sperm quality, many of them also have potential side effects and complications if misused. For example, maca root contains glucosinolates, which can cause thyroid problems when combined with a low-iodine diet. It can interfere with iodine uptake and suppress the thyroid gland’s function, leading to a goiter’s development.

There are three main categories where superfoods can be problematic

  1. Botanical formulas: these are used in herbal medicine and can cause severe complications if not used appropriately.
  2. Highly isolated nutrients: these nutrients lack the beneficial qualities of the whole food—for example, protein powders, which often can have side effects from the chemicals used to extract them.
  3. Superfoods with misleading information: There is a lot of misinformation and misconceptions surrounding certain foods. For instance, spirulina and brewer’s yeast contain B12 analogs called cobamides that block the uptake and absorption of actual B12.

Given the potential downsides of “trendy” superfoods, unwise use can be harmful. While some, like protein powder and spirulina, are relatively safe when used in moderation as part of a nutrient-dense diet, others can be risky. These categories of superfoods are often best used with the help of a qualified provider. However, I am a big believer in dietary superfoods for everyone. These foods are packed with micronutrients and fuel our cellular machinery, keeping us healthy and robust. In other words, they are nature’s multivitamins.

Eight dietary superfoods you can consume (or supplement) safely

  • Organ meats: Organ meats have lost their popularity over the years. However, in most traditional cultures, it is considered the most valuable part of the animal. Surprisingly, some traditional people even give their dogs muscle meat, such as steak, and keep the organs for themselves. The reason is that the organs are the most nutrient-dense part of the animal and are among the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. While fruits and vegetables are often considered the best source of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, the liver has more micronutrients than blueberries and kale – except for calcium and vitamin C.  
  • Cold-water fish: Including salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines in your diet can benefit your health. These cold-water fish contain long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which have excellent anti-inflammatory properties and help reduce cardiovascular disease risk. They are also the only significant food source of vitamin D, which is essential for our body to function. Consuming at least one pound (16 oz.) of fatty fish per week is recommended to reap their health benefits.  
  • Traditional fats: Healthy fats such as ghee, butter, coconut oil, palm oil, lard, tallow, duck fat, olive (fruit and oil), and avocados form the core structural fats in the human body. They are also the primary form of energy storage for humans. As a result, traditional fats can be consumed in generous amounts and should make up most of your calorie intake from fats. The highly saturated fats like ghee, coconut, palm, and tallow are ideal for cooking as they are more stable at higher temperatures and have a higher smoke point.  
  • Grass-fed, full-fat dairy: Presuming you tolerate them, full-fat dairy products are healthy food. They contain the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2; minerals like calcium and phosphorus; trace elements; beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus; long-chain saturated fat; and a natural trans fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA doesn’t have the harmful properties of artificial trans fats. The recommended intake for dairy varies widely based on your circumstances and goals, but 8 ounces total of yogurt, kefir, cream, sour cream, and other full-fat dairy products per day is a reasonable target.  
  • Bone broths: Bone broth is a nutrient-rich liquid that offers numerous health benefits, thanks to the amino acids and minerals it contains. Glycine, an amino acid found in bone broth, helps balance other amino acids in muscle meats and egg yolks. This balance can promote good mood and digestive function. Additionally, the body quickly absorbs the minerals in bone broth, such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulfur, and trace minerals. The use of broth for medicinal purposes dates back centuries and has been a staple in various cuisines. Your grandmother was right all along!
  • Tougher cuts of meat: Meat on the bone is a superfood as it contains beneficial collagen and glycine, which improves mood, digestion, and joint health.
  • Dark, leafy greens: Various dark leafy greens, including kale, collards, spinach, mustard greens, dandelion greens, arugula, and chard, are excellent sources of numerous vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants essential for a healthy diet. However, it would help to consume dietary fat to absorb these nutrients effectively. Hence, eating them with butter or any other type of fat is advisable. 
  • Fermented foods: Consuming fermented foods in your daily diet is vital since they have numerous health benefits. Fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, sour cream, cheese, beet kvass, and kombucha. Fermented foods aid digestion and boost the immune system, primarily in the gut (around 75%). Therefore, consuming fermented food daily is the best choice for optimal health.  

Regularly eating natural superfoods can provide you with all the nourishment, energy, and good health you need without resorting to highly processed “miracle foods” from food retailers. The best part is that many superfoods, such as organ meats and bone broths, are inexpensive and easy to make at home. However, buying organic and grass-fed animal products and organ meats whenever possible is advisable to ensure their quality. I’ve also included a few quality supplements below for those who prefer to supplement their superfoods.

Supplement options for some of the safe superfoods

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About the Author

Dr. Mark VanOtterloo is a licensed acupuncturist and Doctor of Oriental Medicine in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. He is an integrative, functional medicine practitioner specializing in chronic disease and women’s health. He uses acupuncture, tuina (medical massage), moxibustion, and herbal liniments to help patients with severe chronic conditions.

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