In 2017 when Jayita Mitra was in New York, she found that her friends who went to the gym had started drinking coconut water instead of protein shakes after their workouts. The ones who took supplements had started mixing their protein powders with coconut water instead of water or milk. That was also the time when people there had begun to switch to coconut oil for their daily cooking and were even adding a spoonful of it in their daily coffee, making it “Bulletproof.”
Shortly before that, the world was going gaga about the magic powers of chia seeds, which shot to fame following the success of Christopher McDougall’s book Born To Run. McDougall had highlighted how some of the best ultra-runners in the world—who hailed from a Mexican tribe—would eat chia seeds as their prime source of nutrition between runs. And then there was the whole craze about goji berries, which are incredibly hard to get and expensive. 2021 was all about protein, and there was an explosion of protein-infused snacks with even chips and ice-creams cashing in. Above all, we are all familiar with the idea of milk as a superfood since we were kids—a myth that has endured time, trends and science.
So, do superfoods that can address all your nutrition needs really exist? Does any single food, magically, make you fitter and healthier? Most certainly not, say nutritionists, doctors and fitness experts alike. The reason “superfoods” exist is because of an annual convention that takes place in Las Vegas. According to the founder of a Mumbai-based nutrition company who has attended plenty of these conventions, it is in Vegas that the food industry comes together and collectively decides what the next “superfood,” will be.
“Superfood” is used as a marketing term to create an association of health benefits with an ingredient or food, explains Manasa Rajan, holistic health coach and the head of food products at EatFit. “The idea of a quick fix has always been an attractive one especially when compared to a change in habits and doing things that require consistency over a long period of time. This is where the demand for ‘superfoods’ comes from and it also makes us believe that one food alone can be health shifter for us,” says Rajan.
Seema Singh, chief clinical nutritionist at Fortis Hospital in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj, agrees with Rajan’s take. “Good marketing has created the hype for superfoods coming from other countries like berries, hazelnuts, broccoli, olive oil,” she says. Just one food would never make you fit or healthy as it cannot address the human body’s nutritional needs, adds Singh. She goes on to say that a good mix of food groups gives us the variety of nutrients necessary to keep us healthy. Nutritionist and coach Shannon Beer goes on to say that terms like “superfoods” need to be made redundant and this is possible only through better knowledge and information.
However, there are foods that are better than others because they are nutrient-dense. “Certain foods have more nutrients per calorie compared to others, but not in the way that one food alone can transform our health or meet certain health goals. It is a consistent quality of nutrition and consistency over a period of time can make us truly healthy,” says Rajan. Singh categorises almonds, walnuts, amla, spinach, curd, tomatoes, mustard oil and coconut oil under this category of nutrient dense foods that are locally produced in India.
The best approach to eating healthy is to have a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, says Rajan. “Make them a significant portion of your diet. Eat whole foods (unrefined or less processed) and keep meat or dairy to a minimum. Nutrient-dense foods like seeds, dark greens and berries should be added to your daily diet to boost the overall nutrient density of the largely plant-rich whole food diet,” she advises.
However, merely focusing on food wouldn’t help. One requires a lifestyle change too to see real change. Rajan cites the example of managing Type-2 diabetes. “It can certainly be achieved by a shift in food habits, exercise, stress management… but a lot of folks focus only on specific ‘superfood’ solutions like bitter gourd (karela) juice or methi seeds soaked in water. These foods are helpful, no doubt, but can’t work to reverse the disease without a dietary and lifestyle shift,” she says. So, forget about superfoods and focus on wholesome, nutrient-dense food and an active lifestyle if you really want to be fit and healthy. There are no shortcuts here.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.