Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is supposed to have once said “let food be thy medicine”. In other words, one of the principles of Greek medicine was that a varied, balanced diet constitutes a crucial foundation for good health. One aspect of diet that has been debated extensively in recent years is the matter of so-called “superfoods”. These are certain fruits, vegetables, seaweeds, cereals and drinks that are supposed to have extraordinary quantities of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. In fact, it is sometimes said that foods such as chia seeds, maca root and spirulina seaweed have “a powerful effect on health”. Are these foods really so special? Can they really provide such great benefits?
Nutritionists certainly seem to agree that many of the foods which receive the name of “superfoods” do have excellent properties. However, and this is important, they should never be our only source of energy or vitamins. That is to say, the rule still applies: what is healthy is a diverse, balanced diet. Sara Martínez, lecturer in the Department of Pharmacy, Biotechnology and Nutrition at the European University, says that “taking superfoods should be balanced by eating traditional produce, since sometimes they are poor in, or even completely lack, some essential nutrients.” She adds: “Although they have a composition that is rich in what are known as functional ingredients, which favour the smooth running of the organism, it is clear that they neither cure illnesses nor save lives.”
This same idea is expanded on by Mar Larrosa, principal researcher at the European University: “The term ‘superfood’ is an indicator more of a marketing strategy than of an exceptional nutritional composition. Chia seeds, quinoa and goji berries do not offer nutritional components that are any different from the ones offered by beans, rice, a salmon steak or a portion of strawberries. If you like these foods and you want to include them in your diet then fine, since they are healthy foods, but you should not think that they are going to give your health an extra boost.”
Similarly, professor Helios Pareja, a researcher at the Universidad Europea School of Physical Activity and Physical Therapy, wrote a review stating that of all the supplements and vitamins available and commonly taken by athletes of all levels, only nitrate, caffeine, creatine, proteins, and polyunsaturated fats have proven to improve strength and increase muscle mass without harming health.
As you were: a healthy, balanced diet
As Mar Larrosa explains, it is therefore essential to underline the fact that the ideal diet is made up of foods that are rich in fibre (vegetables, fruit, beans, pulses and wholegrain cereals). Fermented foods (yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha…), as long as they have not been sterilized, are beneficial because of the bacteria in them as well as for the compounds they contain that originate during fermentation (such as, for example, lactic acid). Such foods, and ingredients rich in polyphenols like cocoa, improve the intestinal microbiota.
Mar Larrosa has dedicated much time to studying exactly that, the intestinal microbiota, which is the trillions of microorganisms that live in symbiosis in our intestine. This plays a key role in the health of humans since, at a structural level, it strengthens our intestinal barrier and, at a metabolic level, our immune system. For that reason, it is directly and indirectly related to illnesses such as colon cancer, inflammatory intestinal diseases, allergies and asthma, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and others. That is why, says the lecturer, “it is important to look after our intestinal flora and to prevent imbalances.”
In order to do this, food is one of the most important external factors, since the bacteria of the intestine feed on the food we eat. So, depending on what we eat, certain kinds of bacteria flourish. A healthy diet based on pulses, vegetable and fruit, which are rich in fibre and polyphenols, will give us a healthy microbiota, while a diet abundant in sugars and fats will result in an imbalanced microbiota.
Sport is a positive influence on our health
In the same way, it is thought that physical exercise can contribute to caring for our intestinal microbiota. As Larrosa explains, “there is still much to study, but the research available indicates that exercise increases the diversity of the microbiota; that is to say, it increases the heterogeneity of microorganisms, which is a benefit for our health.”
Therefore, as the specialists have shown, in order to care for our health we do not need to resort to superfoods or exotic diets. We just have to maintain a natural balance in our food and do regular exercise. Above all, it is crucial to remember that superfoods are not the magic ingredient for either preventing illnesses or curing them.