Will superfoods help you stave off chronic diseases and health disorders?

Posted on 24-05-2022

Some people are obsessed with healthy foods in the belief they bestow greater immunity

Orthorexia is the obsession with healthy food or superfood. All of us know at least one person who is fixated on healthy food or superfoods. These people are fanatical about consuming food with health benefits. They don’t eat to stave off hunger pangs; for them, each morsel is an opportunity to enhance their immunity.

Taken to extremes, this unhealthy approach could point to an eating disorder. But most people are just content to eat healthily. Quinoa, green tea, brown rice, protein powder, kale, nuts, seeds, fish like salmon and tuna, a gluten-free diet and milk alternatives are some of what tickles their palate. No doubt these are food with benefits, but are they really superfoods? Or are they fads?

What the experts say

‘There is no such thing as superfood’

Nutritionally speaking, there is no such thing as a superfood. The term was coined from a marketing point of view and to influence the food trends, said Clinical Dietician Sushma Ghag, Aster Hospital, Mankhool, Dubai.

Though many foods can be described as super or great, the Dubai-based dietician said that no single food holds the key to good health and disease prevention.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t foods that provide vital nutrients. Berries, dark leafy greens, green tea, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds, salmon, ginger, garlic, soy, and olive oil can be given the superfood title, Ghag said. They are packed with nutrients, especially vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, with fewer calories.

In fact, there is no alternative to a healthy meal as it provides nutrients beneficial to maintaining a healthy life.

For a healthy life, try to plan meals to include all food groups in the correct quantity, said Katheeja Basheer, Clinical Dietitian, NMC Royal Hospital, Sharjah.

A healthy diet provides the body with essential nutrition, from macro and micronutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals, fluid and fibre, she added.

Unrealistic expectations from superfoods

Many people have unrealistic expectations from superfoods, believing that it is a way to protect them from chronic diseases and health problems. This could eventually lead to a poor diet that is harmful or eating an excess amount of such foods, leading to the risk of toxicity, Ghag said.

Diets are individualised and based on different factors. It is important to plan your meals in advance. “Planning and prepping your food over the weekend ensures that you will eat healthy food the rest of the week, which will lessen the chances of giving in to your craving and making unhealthy choices,” Sharjah-based dietician Katheeja Basheer said.

Highlighting the importance of making a shopping list, Katheeja said: Be conscious of what you eat, reduce processed foods, store healthy snacks like cut fruits, low-fat yoghurt, and unsalted nuts and schedule your meal. And most of all, stay hydrated and say “no, thank you” to fad foods.

Here’s a look at some health trends and fads:


What’s it?

Green tea is made from unoxidised leaves of the plant Camellia sinensis, which is also used for all other teas except herbal tea. Since green tea is one of the least processed teas, it contains more antioxidants and beneficial polyphenols.

According to Medical News Today, green tea has been used in traditional Chinese, Japanese and Indian medicine for thousands of years.

Health benefits

It is used as a dietary supplement mainly to control bleeding and heal wounds, help in digestion, improve mental health and alertness, protect against heart disease and regulate body temperature, according to a report by the US National Institutes of Health. Green tea is also reported to be useful in reducing the risk of some types of cancer.

Despite green tea’s use in traditional medicine, scientists say that the results from the studies so far have been inconsistent, and hence it doesn’t conclusively prove its health benefits, especially in fighting cancer.

Is it harmful?

An ingredient in several weight-loss products, green tea has been linked to rare instances of liver issues and is reported to interact with other medicines.

According to an NDTV report, green tea is not ideal for hydration since it’s a natural diuretic, which causes the body to lose water. Drinking excessive green tea can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, resulting in headaches, lethargy and fatigue.

But a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition said that tea rehydrates as well as water. One of the authors of the study Dr Carrie Ruxton, a nutritionist, told the BBC: "Drinking tea is actually better for you than drinking water. Water is essentially replacing fluid. Tea replaces fluids and contains antioxidants so it's got two things going for it."


What’s it?

A gluten-free diet excludes all foods that contain gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains. So all foods that use flour, such as cakes, pastries, biscuits, bread and pasta are not part of the diet. The focus is on consuming only vegetables, meat, eggs, rice, potatoes and processed gluten-free foods like gluten-free bread or pasta.

Health benefits

A gluten-free diet is a necessity for people with coeliac disease (an autoimmune disease where the consumption of gluten damages the small intestine) and people with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.

People without these disorders need not follow a gluten-free diet, but it has developed a following since some studies say that the diet helps in weight loss and improves overall health, including gastrointestinal issues, besides enhancing athletic performance. But experts insist that more research is needed to verify the claims.

Is it harmful?

A gluten-free diet is not advisable for healthy people since the foods excluded in the diet provide important vitamins and other nutrients like iron, calcium, riboflavin, thiamin, folate, niacin, and fibre, a Mayo Clinic report says.

Some of the substitute gluten-free foods tend to be processed and hence have higher fat and sugar content than the food they replace.


What are they?

Dairy milk is produced by mammals, including cows, goats, sheep and camels. According to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, cow’s milk is around 87 per cent water, and the remaining 13 per cent contains protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.

Since opinion is divided about the health benefits of milk, many people have switched to milk substitutes like soy milk, almond milk, flax milk and coconut milk. Lactose intolerance and milk protein allergy also force people to look for non-dairy alternatives.

Health benefits

Milk is a good source of essential nutrients and minerals, making it a near-complete meal. It offers a good balance of naturally occurring calories from fat, protein and nutrients like vitamin D, B12, iodine and calcium.

Soya milk is considered the best replacement for cow’s milk in terms of protein, while almond milk is low in calories and rich in monounsaturated fatty acids that help improve heart health.

Oat milk is high in fibre and vitamins, which will help reduce the risk of heart disease, and diabetes. And coconut milk reportedly can reduce inflammation and speed up the metabolism, thereby aiding weight loss.

Is it harmful?

Dairy milk alternatives have some drawbacks. Since they don’t have the nutrients found in cow’s milk, non-dairy milk is fortified with synthetic nutrients, including calcium. A common calcium alternative is calcium carbonate, which naturally occurs in the form of chalk, limestone, and marble. A 2018 study linked calcium carbonate to gastrointestinal side effects, but more research is required to confirm it.

Lots of sugar is added to most dairy alternatives to make them flavourful, although unsweetened varieties are also available. MSG or monosodium glutamate, emulsifiers to duplicate the texture and consistency of dairy milk, and oil are some of the common additives. They aren’t exactly good for health.


What are they?

Protein powders are concentrated sources of protein that come from plants (soybeans, peas, rice, potatoes, or hemp), eggs, or milk (casein or whey protein). They are used as nutritional supplements since protein helps build muscle and repair tissue. These powders can also be used for weight loss. Supplements used to build muscle contain more protein, and supplements for weight loss have relatively less protein.

Health benefits

Protein powders help athletes and gym users, who regularly lift weights, to maximise muscle gain and fat loss. They are also useful for people who are unable to meet protein needs from food, especially the elderly and vegetarians. The supplements must be used only under the supervision of nutritionists or physicians.

Is it harmful?

Protein powders may contain added sugar, calories, artificial flavouring, thickeners, vitamins, minerals and even toxic chemicals, according to a report in Harvard Health Publishing.

US dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, says the long-term effects of protein powders are not known. "There are limited data on the possible side effects of high protein intake from supplements," she adds.

A non-profit group called the Clean Label Project released a report that said, “researchers screened 134 products for 130 types of toxins and found that many protein powders contained heavy metals (lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury), bisphenol-A, pesticides, or other contaminants with links to cancer and other health conditions. Some toxins were present in significant quantities.”


What’s it?

Juice cleansing is a low-calorie diet where only fruit and vegetable juices are consumed for a short period, usually one to three days, leading to weight loss. Philadelphia-based dietician Kelly Plowe says: "Juice cleanses specifically lack fibre, which helps control your appetite and helps your body 'cleanse' itself. Any weight lost is likely to be gained back, and enjoying only juices will likely leave you feeling hungry."

Health benefits

Research on juice cleansing is limited, so the health claims are not readily accepted by nutritionists and dieticians. Since fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients, there may be some benefits in consuming juices.

It boosts the intake of vitamins, minerals, and other anti-inflammatory compounds, and some people say they feel more energetic after a juice cleanse. This could be partly because juices help reduce dehydration. Many fruits and veggies are natural detoxifiers, and some juices may improve digestion.

Is it harmful?

One of the main drawbacks of juice cleansing is that it cannot be a substitute for whole foods since juice lacks important dietary fibre. Children, women who are pregnant or nursing and people with diabetes or chronic liver, kidney, or gall bladder problems are advised against undertaking juice cleansing.

Juices made from dark, leafy greens and beets may cause kidney stones, and could lead to low blood sugar since they are low in calories. That can be dangerous for people with diabetes and hypoglycemia. Juices that are not stored properly can cause bacterial infections, so vegetables and fruits have to be washed properly before juicing.

According to Amanda Beaver, wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist, juice cleansing could result in nutrient deficiency as juice is almost devoid of protein, healthy fats and some vitamins. The lack of fibre is unhealthy for the healthy bacteria in our gut and the limited amount of protein may lead to muscle and bone loss.


What’s it?

Quinoa is an edible seed that has gained popularity due to its health benefits. The gluten-free, nutrient-dense quinoa, considered the sacred food of the Inca people hundreds of years ago, is a good source of nutrients, including folate, magnesium, zinc, and iron.

Although there are more than 120 types of quinoa, the common versions available are white, red, and black quinoa.

Health benefits

MedineNet, quoting a Harvard Public School of Health study, states that “eating a bowl of quinoa daily may reduce the chances of early death risk from cancer, heart disease, respiratory ailments, diabetes, and other chronic diseases by 17 per cent.”

Quinoa is loaded with nutrients, including fibre, protein, folate, and magnesium. It contains flavonoids with powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the body. Quinoa is low in sodium and high in calcium, potassium, and iron; the high fibre content supports gut health and helps in regulating body weight. The gluten-free grain is also a good source of protein and a smart carbohydrate choice.

Is it harmful?

Eating quinoa may cause stomachaches, itchy skin, hives, and other common symptoms of food allergies, according to Healthline, which says the symptoms are caused by the compound saponin found in the seed and its coating.

Since not enough is known about the use of quinoa during pregnancy and breastfeeding, it’s best avoided during such periods. That’s the advice from emedicinehealth.


What’s it?

Kale is a green, leafy vegetable that is rich in nutrients, offering a range of health benefits. A member of the cabbage family, kale can be eaten raw or cooked.

Although it’s been found on dinner tables since Roman times, kale has enjoyed a fresh bout of popularity following its rise in status as a superfood.

Health benefits

Kale is packed with nutrients, including vitamins A, K, B6 and C, calcium, potassium, copper and manganese. According to Medical News Today, possible benefits include helping manage blood pressure, improving digestive health, and safeguarding against cancer and type 2 diabetes.

Is it harmful?

Mayo Clinic says people should avoid or limit kale intake if they develop oxalate containing kidney stones or take certain blood thinners. People who use beta-blockers should consume high potassium foods, such as kale, in moderation, Medical News Today adds.

What’s the best option?

Among the superfoods listed here, quinoa is the best bet: it’s a complete protein. Throw some kale into the mix, and you get a large range of nutrients. But, as the dieticians said there is no magic formula. A meal that comprises all food groups will keep our bodies healthy. So don’t be swayed by the food fads.

Note: An earlier report wrongly attributed an NDTV report to Dr Carrie Ruxton. It has been rectified.