You’ve probably heard the term superfoods, and you probably know you should eat more of them, but you might be wondering what exactly they are. Before celebrating how incredible superfoods are, it’s important to understand a simple yet core nutrition concept: nutrient density.
Nutrient density is the ratio of calories to micronutrients—the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals that are absolutely essential to health, wellness and feeling great. Low nutrient-dense foods have a high amount of calories yet offer a very low amount of micronutrients (think pasta and ice cream). High nutrient-dense foods, such as vegetables and fruits, have a low amount of calories and a high amount of valuable micronutrients. “Superfoods” refers to foods at the very top of the nutrient density spectrum: foods with the most nutritional bang for every caloric buck.
Consistently eating nutrient-dense foods is an ideal way to promote long-lasting energy and vitality. The benefits are clear in these four popular superfoods:
Cacao. The raw form of chocolate (which grows on trees) is known as cacao. But don’t let its chocolatey deliciousness fool you: cacao is, in fact, a superfood. Packed with calcium, iron and magnesium, cacao is a mineral-rich superhero. Plus, its high ORAC value (a measure of antioxidant content) has prompted numerous research studies confirming its effectiveness in providing cardiovascular support, anti-aging and mood-support benefits. Cacao powder has the highest nutrient density of any form of chocolate and is easy to use in place of cocoa powder in drinks, desserts and baking.
Açai. A small, mild, purple Amazonian berry, açai is considered a true antioxidant powerhouse and is loaded with healthy monosaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, making it a favorite among those seeking anti-aging foods. For the highest nutrient density, and to avoid added sweeteners and fillers, use a quality, freeze-dried açai powder —just a spoonful goes a long way in smoothies, cereals and even desserts.
Hemp. Hemp is one of the earliest known plants cultivated by humans, with a recorded history of more than 12,000 years, and has been grown all around the world for food. Hemp seeds are naturally a fantastic protein source: they contain all of the essential amino acids, are highly digestible and are one of the best sources of a complete protein of all plant-based foods. Hemp also has a very well-balanced ratio of essential fatty acids (EFAs)—omegas 3, 6 and 9—which are excellent for cardiovascular health and promote a strong immune system (among many other benefits). Hemp seeds taste similar to sunflower seeds, making them a delectable addition to salads, baking and savory dishes.
Chia. Long before the era of terracotta Chia Pets, the tiny chia seed was cultivated and eaten by the ancient Aztecs, Incas and Mayans and was considered a staple food, alongside corn and beans. Chia contains eight times more omega-3s than salmon, gram for gram, and also contains dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals (especially calcium and iron) and antioxidants. Considered one of the most versatile superfoods, chia has virtually no flavor, making it easy to sprinkle a spoonful on just about any food. Chia also comes with a party trick: mix chia seeds and water in a 1:8 ratio, allow it to sit for 30 minutes and watch it swell up to create a gel, which you can then use as a base for smoothies and puddings.
Superfood Recipe: Easy Raw Brownies
Makes 24 bite-sized brownies
- In a food processor, pulse walnuts to form a coarse flour.
- With machine running, add pitted dates, cacao powder and salt, processing until a moist, crumb-like dough has formed. (Note: Depending on moisture of the dates, you may need to add a touch of water—a teaspoon at a time—to get the crumbs to “stick” when pinched together.)
- Spread crumbs into an 8×8-inch pan, sprinkle with cacao nibs and press firmly into a solid brownie layer.
- Cut into bite-sized squares.