There are foods, and then there are superfoods. Steven Pratt, M.D., a senior ophthalmologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California, has scoured the medical literature to define 14 superfoods: beans, blueberries, broccoli, oats, oranges, pumpkin, wild salmon, soy, spinach, black and green tea, tomatoes, turkey, walnuts and yogurt.
As the native Southern Californian puts it, “I became intrigued with identifying what were the most nutritionally dense foods when I observed the positive results that occurred when patients with age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in Americans, changed their diets,” he recalls. “The vision benefits came when they started eating more foods such as spinach and pumpkin, which are both high in the nutrient lutein,” he recalls. “For years, I have been studying the medical literature to identify the most nutritionally dense foods so that I can share this information with patients and the public.”
As the co-author with Kathy Matthews of the bestselling SuperFoods Rx, Dr. Pratt gives readers tools on how shopping, cooking and eating can confer health-building and even preventive medical benefits. Dubbed “the Food Dude” by Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Pratt believes, “Eating the right foods and living a balanced lifestyle is actually a form of health care that we can all enjoy on a daily basis.” Toward that end, this December, Dr. Pratt and Kathy Matthews have another book coming out, SuperFoods HealthStyle.
“The new book contains new SuperFoods and SuperSpices, such as turmeric, which is a powerful anti-oxidant, as well as cinnamon and black pepper,” says Dr. Pratt. “There’s also important peer-reviewed information on the need for sleep, exercise and stress management using techniques such as yoga and downtime,” he says.
A fundamental premise of Dr. Pratt’s work is that like intuition, good nutrition starts in the gut. Yogurt is a superfood because it contains healthy probiotic, or pro-life, bacterial cultures that enhance immunity, decrease inflammation and promote nutrient absorption. “The largest immune system in the body is in the gastrointestinal tract,” Dr. Pratt explains. “If your G.I. tract is unhealthy, you’ll never absorb the nutrients you need to have a healthy functioning body.”
Dr. Pratt recommends eating plain, organic yogurt for breakfast. Those who are especially concerned with boosting G.I. tract immunity may want to try the yogurt drink DanActive, which numbers some 12 billion probiotic bacteria per container. “At only 90 calories per serving, this is helpful for immune health and decreasing inflammation,” Dr. Pratt says.
Beans are high in fiber, protein and plant nutrients, but blueberries are mega-antioxidants that help protect vision. Antioxidants are some of the body’s strongest allies because they disarm free radicals, substances that have been implicated in accelerated aging and the development of degenerative diseases.
While research has shown that broccoli and broccoli sprouts exert tremendous antioxidant activity while inhibiting cancer cell growth, tomatoes are rich in lycopene, which helps prevent and slow the growth of prostate cancer. Oats are anti-inflammatory and effective in lowering cholesterol if eaten on a daily basis. For those who choose to consume meat, the white meat of turkey with the skin removed is a good protein source for people on low-fat and/or low sodium diets. The meat fiber is easier to digest than red meat, which makes it an excellent choice for those with digestive problems. Turkey is also a robust source of several important vitamins and nutrients such as iron, niacin, zinc, potassium, and B vitamins.
High in vitamin C, antioxidants and a constellation of other nutrients, oranges are portable, ingeniously packaged superfoods. Soy products such as tofu, soy beans, soy burgers and soy milk are the only foods that contain the compound genistein. (Studies show that genistein helps stop the growth of tumors and can lower cholesterol in those with high levels in their blood.
Walnuts merit superfood status because they are the highest nut source of omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. “It’s widely known in the medical community that most Americans are profoundly deficient in omega-3s,” says Dr. Pratt. “The heart muscle requires a daily dose of 1 gram of omega-3s. A handful of walnuts is all you need.” Conferring protection against heart disease and stroke, omega-3 has also been proven to protect against hypertension and inflammatory and auto-immune disorders. Wild salmon is an excellent source of essential fatty acids, minerals and lean protein; Dr. Pratt recommends canned Alaskan salmon because “it is caught in the wild, affordable and easy to prepare.”
In SuperFoods HealthStyle, Dr. Pratt reports that eating dark chocolate in moderation generates significant health benefits. “Dark chocolate containing 70% cocoa is high in phytonutrients (plant nutrients) that make it a natural anti-inflammatory and blood thinner; it also helps raise good cholesterol levels.”
Another ambrosial health food is honey. “Honey boosts the antioxidant ability of the blood, heightening its resistance to free radical attack,” Dr. Pratt explains. While he advises men to consume a handful of soy nuts a day for prostate cancer prevention, four cups a day of organic green or black tea are also recommended. Tea is high in polyphenols, a type of antioxidant, and much research suggests that it may help reduce cancer risk. Steeping tea for three minutes releases beneficial compounds; enjoy it with honey rather than sugar for a bigger antioxidant boost.
A rare, but powerful superfood that Dr. Pratt has yet to write about (mainly because it’s costly and hard to source) is the delicately sweet Tibetan goji berry. “This dried berry has been found in studies to benefit health and vision strength by increasing the macular pigment at the back of the eye,” says Dr. Pratt. Containing 19 amino acids, 21 trace minerals, (including zinc, germanium, calcium, selenium, phosphorus, etc. plus Vitamin C, Goji berries also contain Vitamin B1, B2, B6, Vitamin E, essential fatty acids and polysaccharides. Try goji berries in spinach salads, granola, fruit salads, etc.
While you will consume about eighty thousand meals over the course of a lifetime, Dr. Pratt would like you to consider how you can shape your health destiny for the better by choosing superfoods whenever possible. “Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and food is love,” he says. “But it also carries the power to nurture and support your health.”