What exactly is a ‘Superfood’? You’ve probably heard this buzzword countless times at your local Wholefoods, from friends and family, online and in ads. It has some merit as a term but is certainly both controversial and ambiguous. It can include everything from hemp oil to goji berries and even flax seed. Firstly, there is no body, group or individual that has a firm and clear definition or set of foods which can be distinctly categorized as a superfood. There are simply so many foods that fall in and out of the ‘superfood’ bucket each year and depending on who you ask. These foods range from fads to true nutritional powerhouses, so let’s take a look at what a superfood really is and some examples to help us understand the superfoods that can maximize our health for the long term.
Coming back to our question – a superfood is an edible product (typically plant based) which is heavily nutrient dense, contains a broad spectrum of nutrients and typically has one or more compounds in it which are either rare and/or highly beneficial for some aspect of human health. Nutrient density is a dietetics concept which is really a gauge of how much micronutrients a food product has in addition to its variety of nutrients. This can encompass both micronutrients – like vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, antioxidants, phytocompounds and may also include macronutrient quality – nutrients like carbohydrates, fats, proteins and their makeup. Not all fats and proteins are made equal.
What we mean by this is that some fats and proteins are much ‘healthier’ for the body – for example trans fats in many processed foods or fried foods contain compounds which are detrimental to health and can increase risk of heart disease. Omega 3 and long chain triglyceride fats however are able to improve brain health, heart function and overall, wellbeing (providing they are not over consumed). This concept extends to the type of food as a whole. Generally, colourful foods are coloured for a reason. Their colour is an adaptation of the human eye to be able to detect and desire the abundant micronutrient content in these foods. Foods like carrots, broccoli, beetroot and many other vegetables retain their highly vivid colours to appeal to us to eat them due to being packed with nutrients.
Why is hemp oil a superfood?
Some of the most nutrient dense superfoods however are actually seeds such as hemp seeds (used to produce hemp oil). Why is this? Seeds are designed by plants to contain a huge amount of energy and nutrients to allow the young plant to germinate and grow effectively. It’s a similar concept to why milk has high amounts of fat and nutrients to grow baby calves. Seeds like flax, chia and hemp seed are jam packed with extremely beneficial antioxidants, omega 3 and 6, long chain fatty acids and high amounts of vitamins. These seeds (alongside nuts) can be added to your diet in only small amounts (they’re fairly high in calories) in a variety of different ways like adding to your cereals, as flax powder, hemp oil, chia pudding and more. When it comes to superfoods, seeds really can’t be beat, and we recommend you add these three to your diet as soon as you can to reap the rich rewards for your brain and cardiovascular system.
You may have heard that antioxidants are important, but you might not realize just how important they are. Our bodies produce antioxidants but not nearly enough to counteract the amount of oxidative stress that is thrown our way in everyday modern life. Diets rich in antioxidants have been shown to reduce the risk of diseases like cardiovascular disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and arthritis. The National Cancer Institute in Australia recognizes the therapeutic potential of antioxidants for preventing the types of free radical damage that have been associated with cancer. A study published in 1998 was one of the first to document hempseed’s antioxidant properties, and hempseed was found to be a more powerful antioxidant than both vitamins C and E. This may be due to its ability to trigger the endocannabinoid system or ECS. An important function of the endocannabinoid system is in the scavenging of oxygen free radicals. Its effect on scavenging oxygen free radicals is applicable to all disease processes, meaning the ECS holds the keys for understanding and treating the extremely wide and diverse range of human disease.
So, what is a free radical? Free radicals are well-described by Dr. Andrew Weil, a world-renowned leader and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, on his personal website: they are “electronically unstable atoms or molecules capable of stripping electrons from any other molecules they meet in an effort to achieve stability.” Molecules are made up of atoms, and atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which live in a balanced state of neutrality.
How antioxidants from hemp boost health
Under normal circumstances, every cell in our body produces a certain small number of oxygen-containing substances, or by-products. This by-product is from the normal cellular processes of our body: reproduction, elimination, growth, nutrition, transport, and syntheses, in addition to the contributions made by external sources like tobacco smoke, pesticides, radiation, industrial toxins, and pollutants. The oxygen created by these natural processes are split into single atoms with unpaired electrons, called free radicals. These unstable free radicals rip through the body trying to find other electrons to pair up with.
These highly reactive radicals can start a chain reaction, like dominoes. Their chief danger comes from the damage they can do when they react with important cellular components such as DNA or the cell membrane. Cells may function poorly or die if this occurs. When left unchecked and free to develop unhindered, free radicals cause damage that can overwhelm the body. More from Dr. Weil: “By the time a free radical chain fizzles out, it may have ripped through vital components of cells like a tornado, causing extensive damage, similar to that caused by ionizing radiation.” This process causes a condition called oxidative stress, when the cells’ antioxidant system is overwhelmed by the number of free radicals. The greater the number of free radicals in your body, the more damage is likely to be done. Our bodies work hard to keep these free radicals under control, keeping us in a state of homeostasis.
According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman, board-certified family physician and president of the Nutritional Research Foundation: “The body has ways of dealing with oxidative damage; a potent system of its own antioxidants that scavenge free radicals or convert them into less dangerous forms, slowing or stopping the damage. There are also cellular systems that repair oxidative damage, and others that induce cell death if there is too much damage.”
Oxidative stress is thought to contribute to bodily aging, cancer, all inflammatory diseases (arthritis, vasculitis, glomerulonephritis, lupus erythematosus, adult respiratory diseases syndrome), ischemic diseases (heart diseases, stroke, intestinal ischemia), acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, emphysema, gastric ulcers, diabetes, hypertension and preeclampsia, neurological disorders (Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy), alcoholism, and smoking-related diseases, just to name a few. Antioxidants can help prevent this – slowing aging and keeping your skin and cells strong.
Understanding the accumulative effects and proper control of free radicals and oxidative stress, it’s no wonder that a search for nontoxic natural compounds with antioxidative properties pushes researchers to discover alternatives and ways to boost our own bodily systems. Instead of managing symptoms after disease has occurred, with a better understanding of the endocannabinoid system, we would hope to prevent disease and inflammation. Superfoods rich in antioxidants like seeds including flax, chia and hemp seed may be key to both reducing free radical damage and boosting the body’s immune response through the ECS. Of particular note is hemp oil in this category due to its high concentration of antioxidants, terpenes, flavonoids and other healthy nutrients that greatly benefit our bodies and assist in reducing free radical damage.