What makes a food „super“? If you believe what you see in the grocery store, superfoods are everywhere these days: goji berries, acai juice, wheatgrass, seaweed—many of them exotic ingredients pitched with promises of weight loss, smoother skin, an energy boost, or even a healthier heart. But despite the marketing, there’s little to no proof that the food fad of the moment will improve your health. Most people will do best with a diet that derives nutrients from a variety of whole food sources.
Still, there are some foods that deserve the superlative treatment because they have been scientifically shown to contain high amounts of the good stuff—like vitamins, minerals, and proteins. The following five are all proven sources of nutrients your body needs, no gimmicky mumbo jumbo required.
If vegetables were judged solely on looks, deep purple-red beets would be a perennial favorite. The root veggies’ jewel-toned flesh is popular with restaurant chefs because it adds excitement to a dish. „They’re beautiful [and] they dress up a plate, and you know we eat with our eyes,“ says Joan Salge-Blake, MS, RD, LDN, a clinical associate professor at Boston University and author of Nutrition & You: Core Concepts to Good Health. Buy firm beets with the greens intact (they’re edible, too, and keep the bulb fresh) and they’ll last a week in the refrigerator. When you’re ready to cook them, wash the bulbs under water to remove dirt—but keep the skin on. After you bake and cool the beets, you can rub or peel the skin right off.
Why They’re Worth It: Beets are high in vitamin C and folate. Plus, they’re a great source of the antioxidant lipoic acid. „Recent research shows it can be helpful in healing nerve damage in people with diabetes,“ says Salge-Blake.
How to Cook: The easiest way to cook beets is to roast them in the oven, which brings out the vegetable’s natural sweetness. To roast, cut the greens from the bulb, leaving about an inch of stem. After washing, place the beets in a baking pan and add 1/4 of an inch of water. Cover with aluminum foil, and roast at 400 to 450 degrees until you can easily insert a knife in the beet. Once the beets are cool, peel the skin away. (Beets tend to bleed, and the juice can stain, so use caution.) Slice roasted beets and put them in a salad. Or cut them into cubes and toss with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, dill, and crumbled goat cheese, as Ryan Hutmacher, chef and owner of Centered Chef Food Studios in Chicago, does. He also likes to incorporate beets into traditional foods. „If somebody doesn’t like beets, you can introduce beets to people through pancakes,“ Hutmacher says. Shred roasted beets finely with a grater (or use a food processor), then add to the batter.
If you’ve given salmon and tuna a try, why not taste sardines? For starters, sardines are an environmentally sound alternative to overfished salmon and have lower mercury levels than larger fish like tuna. You can buy the small, silver-fleshed fish fresh, but if you don’t plan to eat them soon, opt for canned.
Why They’re Worth It: Like other fatty fish (such as salmon), sardines contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. „[You] want to be having two fish meals per week because that’s going to lower your risk for heart disease,“ says Salge-Blake. Sardines are also high in protein, so they’re a great add-on to veggie-heavy dishes. When it comes to canned sardines, you can pick between those packed in water and those in oil. The only difference: Oil adds more calories. (Some sardines are packaged in mustard, with lemon or chili peppers, or in tomato sauce, which might add additional calories; check the label.)
How to Cook: Sardines are cheap and versatile. The most adventurous eat them whole—head and all. You can remove the head, scale and gut the fish, then grill or barbecue it as a main dish. Some canned sardines are already scaled and deboned. For a simple meal, clean the sardines and toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Bake the fish for 10 to 12 minutes in a 350-degree oven. When done, the sardines will be crispy and perfect as a salad topper. If you’re new to sardines, Hutmacher recommends „hiding“ them: Mince the fish and add them to pasta sauce, stews, or three-bean soup. „It’s going to add a really nice depth of flavor to that sauce,“ he says.
You could mistake brussels sprouts for mini heads of cabbage, but the tiny green globes are really a close relative. Pick sprouts that are about an inch thick, bright green, and firm—and skip those that are yellow, squishy, or wilted. Stored in the refrigerator, your sprouts will last a couple of weeks, says Hutmacher. When you’re ready to eat, peel back the first few leaves, which can be wilted or damaged, then soak them in cold water to remove any residue or dirt before cooking.
Why They’re Worth It: Brussels sprouts are low in sodium and cholesterol free. „They are a good source of fiber,“ says Salge-Blake. „And we also have some studies to show vegetables in the cruciferous family have phytochemicals [plant compounds that have protective health benefits] in them.“
How to Cook: You may remember the boiled brussels sprouts Mom used to make, but there are tastier ways to enjoy the veggie. Hutmacher loves to roast his sprouts with olive oil. First, boil the brussels sprouts in water for 15 to 20 minutes to soften the hard heads. Then roast them with olive oil and salt and pepper at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. Roasting and adding fat in the form of olive oil will help cut through the vegetable’s bitterness. Add zip by topping the sprouts with lemon slices before baking. Hutmacher also uses brussels sprouts in place of lettuce to create a nutrient-packed salad. To make your own, chop your raw sprouts into thin strips, then toss them with pomegranate seeds, shaved fennel, toasted pine nuts, crumbled feta cheese, and a vinaigrette dressing made of lemon juice, Dijon mustard, olive oil, and herbs like parsley. If you do opt for boiling, be careful not to overcook; you’ll lose water-soluble vitamins. Salge-Blake’s rule: Cook them with only a small amount of water, until they’re tender—and no longer.
If you’ve ever carved a jack-o’-lantern, you’ve most likely baked or toasted pumpkin seeds. But there’s no need to wait till October to enjoy the nutrient-packed seeds. The bagged variety (pick a low-sodium kind, either with or without shells) is just as nutritious as home cooked.
Why They’re Worth It: Pumpkin seeds are a good source of fiber, vitamin K, and iron. Plus, they’re loaded with protein, so they’re the perfect addition to vegetarian dishes. „This could be a good way of having a meatless meal,“ says Salge-Blake.
How to Cook: You can snack on a handful of pumpkin seeds between meals—just don’t eat the whole pack at once; a 6-ounce bag can have more than 500 calories, 30 grams of fat, and 90 grams of carbs. Or add them to your morning cereal or oatmeal, as Salge-Blake suggests. Hutmacher uses a Mexican technique to incorporate pumpkin seeds in his meals: Start by toasting the pumpkin seeds. Next, add chicken or vegetable broth, and let the mixture come to a boil. Add thyme, garlic, and sesame seeds to the mix, then blend it all until it’s emulsified. Hutmacher uses this mixture (which is a bit runnier than hummus) as a sauce for fish or poultry.
The dark green vegetable looks something like lettuce with its ruffled leaves, but, just like brussels sprouts, it’s a member of the cabbage family. Fresh kale is coarse with dark leaves. Avoid bunches that are yellow or brown and have a rubbery texture. Kale will last three to five days in the refrigerator if you store it loosely in a plastic bag. Before you cook the leaves, rinse them and trim off the thick stems. And keep in mind: Two cups of raw kale will cook down to about a cup’s worth.
Why It’s Worth It: Like its cousin broccoli, kale is packed with vitamin C. (Two cups have twice as much vitamin C as a medium orange.) It’s also a good source of vitamin A (beta carotene), calcium, and potassium, which has been shown to lower high blood pressure.
How to Cook: You can eat kale raw, in place of lettuce in a salad, but the classic cooking method is braising. Hutmacher chops his kale into strips (smaller pieces cook faster) and adds it to a pan of turkey bacon sautéed in olive oil with onion, celery, and carrots. To cut the kale’s bitter flavor, he adds lemon juice or cider vinegar to the mix, then steams the kale in the broth. Once the kale has stewed in the covered pan for half an hour (the kale will look dark and wilted), he removes the lid and lets the liquid reduce. That’s when Hutmacher grabs a big serving, spoons sauce over the kale, and digs in. Another option? „I like stir-frying it,“ says Salge-Blake. She cooks it in olive oil with garlic and then uses it as a bed for grilled scallops or chicken.
The main reason to add some superfoods to your meals? The nutritional benefit. „There isn’t one perfect vegetable that has everything. There isn’t a perfect food,“ says Salge-Blake. „The more variety in your diet, the more chance you’re going to consume all the nutrients your body needs.“ And remember, there’s no need to spend half your paycheck on mysterious fruit drinks from South America. The best superfoods can all be found close to home.