What you eat can help boost healing and impact how you feel. But, do superfoods really have extraordinary health benefits?
From salmon and avocados to goji berries, kale and chia seeds, foods from around the world are often advertised as remedies—or even referred to as superfoods. But do they offer exceptional health benefits, or are they just healthy foods with good marketing?
Simply put, a “superfood” is a catch-all term for highly nutritious foods. There is no official, scientific definition, no set nutritional criteria and no approved list of what foods qualify as superfoods.
Stacy Kennedy, a registered dietitian and senior clinical nutritionist at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center, explains that superfoods get billed as having exceptional powers, but cautions they aren’t magic.
"If we peel away the term and look at what they are, you see fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and other plant-based herbs from all over the world," she said. "Superfoods, per se, do not have enough scientific evidence and research to support the claims we think we hear."
Superfoods and Your Diet
For cancer survivors and those in treatment, nutrition plays a significant role in healing and strengthening your immune system. Experts agree eating a balanced diet can benefit your overall health. They recommend a diet with lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and avoiding heavily processed foods.
“Ignore the hype,” Kennedy said. “Be sure to speak with your care team about the role that some of these superfoods might have for you. Find out if it’s safe and effective.”
Your care team will let you know which foods are right for you and make sure they don’t interact dangerously with any medication or treatment you’re receiving.
Eating one or two superfoods here and there isn’t as beneficial as eating an overall healthy diet. A healthy diet can:
- Reduce your risk of heart disease
- Improve your weight management
- Help control inflammation
- Boost your energy levels
Ideally, you want to include a variety of nutrient-rich foods throughout the day to help ensure you get adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Nutritionists also warn against replacing superfoods with dietary supplements. Most supplements contain high doses of a nutrient, which can do more harm than good.
For example, beta-carotene supplements can increase risks of lung and prostate cancers. However, this adverse effect is not known to happen when eating foods high in beta-carotene.
Foods for a Healthy Balanced Diet
Based on your dietary needs and personal tastes, you may want to consider including some of these foods into your diet.
Before trying any new food, it’s best to talk to your healthcare team. Your doctor or dietician can provide guidance on what’s safe to eat during treatment and can help you create a custom meal plan.
Healthy foods worth considering include:
- Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy and other cruciferous vegetables are considered to be key components of a healthy diet rich in vitamins and fiber.
- Legumes: Beans, lentils and peas are a part of the legume class of vegetables. They provide a variety of vital nutrients including protein, fiber and iron.
- Spinach: This leafy green vegetable not only has antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, it also supports bone health.
- Salmon: A variety of fish, including salmon, are high in anti-inflammatory omega fatty acids.
- Avocados: Beyond their rich flavor, avocados are an excellent source of heart-healthy monosaturated fatty acids. The smooth, creamy texture makes avocados easy to eat if you have mouth sores or sensitive gums.
- Berries: These fruits have some of the highest concentrations of antioxidants as well as cancer-fighting phytochemicals. Cherries, blueberries and cranberries can all be counted to provide nutritional benefit.