If I was to say to you that eating ‘superfoods’ such as blueberries and strawberries would prevent you from suffering a heart attack, would you believe me? With a strong history of heart disease in my family and a gluttonous taste for berries (I have been known to guzzle half a pound of strawberries at a single sitting), I would love it to be true!
Superfoods are purported to do lots of things – reduce the likelihood of heart disease, thwart every different type of cancer, lower blood pressure, promote longevity – even support better sleep.
But unfortunately, there is no such thing as a superfood.
Health Claims of ‘Superfoods’
The American Heart Association (who do not, by the way, promote eating so-called ‘superfoods’ in preference to a balanced diet) says on its website that ‘Berries like blueberries and strawberries have high levels of phytochemicals called flavonoids. One study showed that women who consumed more blueberries and strawberries had a lower risk of heart attack’.
Note that they don’t say that the study proved that blueberries and strawberries have the power to protect you from heart attacks – just that women who ate lots of those foods tended to have fewer heart attacks. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that many people who eat generous portions of fruit probably follow a generally healthy and balanced diet, tend to take plenty of exercise, and are perhaps more likely to avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
‘The term ‘superfood’ is really just a marketing tool, with little scientific basis to it,’ advises Cancer Research UK. Respectable dieticians and nutritionists do not even use the word.
They go on to say that when testing superfoods, scientists typically use extremely high doses of purified compounds from a food, so it would be incredibly difficult to consume enough of a superfood to notice any health benefits.
The UK’s National Health Service points out that while a nutrient found in garlic is believed to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, you’d need to eat ‘up to 28 cloves a day to match the doses used in the lab’. Well, that’s one way to get a whole coach to yourself!
Growing A Healthy Diet
As gardeners we’re in a great position to eat ourselves healthy. We can grow the food we need, prepare it in the healthiest way possible, and eat it within hours, minutes, or sometimes even seconds of harvesting it.
Lots of foods are known to be highly nutritious, and many of these can be easily grown by the home gardener: strawberries, spinach, chard and beetroot for instance. By all means grow as many of these and other fruits, nuts or vegetables as you like. Just don’t fill your garden with strawberries, eat only strawberries and expect to become magically healthier!
Let’s use a gardening analogy here. Imagine planting a fruit tree in a container and giving it a high potassium fertiliser. I mean, a REALLY high potassium fertiliser, something like a 1-1-10 NPK ratio. Now feed it all year round – not just when it’s flowering and fruiting. Oh, and don’t add additional compost. Would you expect the tree to thrive? Well, maybe it would – for a short while. But fruit trees need nitrogen too, and phosphorus, plus all manner of micronutrients, in order to grow and produce fruit successfully. Without a balanced diet, after a while the tree will inevitably sicken and ultimately die.
A Mediterranean Super Diet
People from the Mediterranean have long been envied for their good health and longevity. There’s no one factor in this; olive oil won’t make you live longer and pasta won’t cure cancer. But consuming a balanced Mediterranean-style diet, including (ideally wholegrain) pasta and bread, fruit, vegetables, some healthy vegetable or plant oils, plus a little meat, fish and dairy if you choose, while avoiding excessive consumption of foods high in fat and sugar, is undoubtedly a good model for a healthy diet.
There is also the complicated question of genetics in all of this. Italians may have simply evolved to be healthier, while Scots like me could just be more predisposed to suffering a higher risk of heart attacks. However, I’m convinced that if your diet regularly includes battered Mars Bars* and sugar-laden Irn Bru, then adopting a more balanced diet cannot fail to improve your general health!
So, in conclusion, I prescribe growing your own vegetables and eating one or two bowls of delicious homegrown, homemade soup on a weekly basis, especially during the winter. And why not? I’m basing it on as much evidence as any other so-called superfood. It may not cure your ailments or make you live longer, but I guarantee that working in the garden, growing your own food and then cooking it up into something delicious will make you feel amazing.
*For the record I have never eaten a battered Mars Bar (although I confess I am curious!). Apologies to my fellow Scots for such shameless stereotyping.