Superfoods: What are they really?Some groups have deemed coconut oil to be a “superfood” prior to new findings illustrating its unacceptably high saturated fat content. What are ‘superfoods’ really – and, just how beneficial are they?
According to Datin Farah, superfoods “initially, used to be just all the berries because they contain a lot of phytochemicals. Now, they claim it’s the nuts and seeds – considering that they are good sources of protein, and are low in fat. Not forgetting the vegetables and fruits, as well. I would say they are all superfoods.”
Echoing a relatively different take pertaining the term ‘superfoods’, Kar Foo opines that “for us in dietetics, we do not call any food as a ‘superfood’. When we categorise it as such, it creates a sense of discrimination. As a dietitian, we always include all foods.”
In his eyes, he would categorise (distinguish) food as ‘more healthy’ and ‘less healthy’. Breaking it down for us, Kar Foo says that “we are trying not to discriminate food. We know sometimes people are eating these foods because of a certain memory or pressure. So, as long as you take everything in moderation, it will be fine.”
There are certain foods deemed ‘healthy’ that Kar Foo would suggest to his clients. Taking oat bran for example, “for some clients with cholesterol issues, we incorporate it (oat bran) into their diet. When they increase their oat bran, it does help reducing their cholesterol. So, it is applied as and when needed.” Besides this, he also speaks of the benefits of chia seeds for weight management, due to its ability to suppress appetite.
The Malaysian Ministry of Health (MOH) has formerly published the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines 2010 that serves as a good guide to achieving the recommended daily nutrition intake, amongst other aspects. This comprehensive set of recommendations comprises 14 key messages.
Extracting the first important message, the government advocates for eating a variety of foods within your recommended intake. In the guide, they further illustrate the four characteristics that make up a healthy diet: adequate, balanced, moderate and varied.
On recommending superfoods to clients, Datin Farah finds assessing their background helpful. She says, “I could recommend anything, but can someone afford to eat berries all the time? That’s expensive!” Datin Farah also iterates that diet plans are never “one for all” – rather, they should be tailored to the individual clients.
Malaysians should not fret, as our local dark green leafy vegetables such as sawi and broccoli are also superfoods, claims Datin Farah. “I would consider our local fruits, nuts, seeds as superfoods, too. While everyone has been talking about salmon”, she continues, “truly, it’s a great fish with good oils. Sometimes, some salmons are easily available and are not that expensive – however, at times, they are.”
As salmon is not a staple Malaysian fish, Datin Farah would not expect her client to purchase it. “I would normally recommend what is more easily available to them,” she clarifies.
With a strong science support and balanced meal approach – why not?Kar Foo adds a reasonable point to that, as he advocates for “prioritising foods with strong science backing it.” Taking salmon for instance, he says, “We know that in one week, as long as you’re taking two servings of fatty fish like salmon, it helps in terms of overall health, the heart, and cholesterol. We would suggest accordingly.”
He also considers other means of tackling health issues like cholesterol. “There is also good evidence in supporting daily consumption of foods added with plant sterols or plant stanols (phytosterols) in amounts of up to 2g/day in reducing LDL cholesterol level by 10%. Then, from there, we advise accordingly. As long as there is a strong science behind it, we can recommend it to our clients," elaborates Kar Foo.
Stating that she herself finds it somehow difficult to keep pace with up-to-the-minute buzz on this topic, Datin Farah shares that, sometimes, her clients bring her up to speed on this matter, quoting kale as a new superfood addition. Datin Farah recommends that diets include some portion of superfoods – three times a week, if not daily, depending on the individual’s lifestyle.
She strongly discourages individuals who focus on consuming these types of foods and neglecting others. “There’s no point you have superfoods,” echoes Datin Farah, “and your other diet consist of high fat foods, sugar and such.”
Experts: Our body can detoxify without the need for the cold-pressed juicesWith cold-pressed juice establishments (so widely available) – springing up like mushrooms after the rain – trend-chasing Malaysians are often seen lining the shops’ footpaths to hand over wads of cash for “detoxification” and “better health”. Our experts are not exactly on the same page, however.
“Yes, it is so popular and so expensive,” expresses Datin Farah. Interestingly, she says some people believe that due to its high costs, they envisage the health benefits to be of some calibre. Many issues arise with the popularity of these juices, opines Datin Farah. “Juices are great; but, if you have diabetes, I don’t encourage you to drink juice all day long because it is fructose (a type of sugar). It is going to increase your blood sugar levels,” she advices.
Referencing the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines once more, it (Key Message 10) clearly advises to consume foods and beverages low in sugar. Scientific basis to this recommendation revolves around the development of dental caries, contributing to obesity and the possibility of displacing micronutrient-dense foods – leading to a higher risk of mineral and vitamin deficiency.
Besides raising sugar levels, Datin Farah adds, “It doesn’t sustain you from hunger pangs for long. You will feel hungry at some point. You are just taking one portion of the food group – what about the rest?”
Sharing her personal experience, Datin Farah recently came across a patient who “wants to merely drink liquids, no solid food”. Thus, in cases as such, patients request dietitians to plan out a full liquid diet plan for them.
Discouraging this type of plan, she reasons, “The body knows how to cleanse itself anyway. The body is so intelligent and that’s what the liver and kidneys do. With these juice cleanses, we might lose out on a lot of other nutrients too.”
Echoing her thoughts, Kar Foo expresses that “in science, we will normally do not believe in detox. But, if you want to ‘so-called’ detox, the best way is to make sure that we keep our liver and kidneys healthy – basically through general healthy drinks.”
“If you drink alcohol, limit it. Don’t smoke. All these bad habits need to be cut off,” he continues, “Some case studies show that (juice cleanses) don’t give enough nutrition. It mainly contains carbohydrates, a little bit of fibre, and perhaps some vitamins. So where is the healthy fat and protein? It is not complete. We should just follow a balanced diet everyday.”
Cold-pressed juices get a thumbs-up – only if a balanced diet plan is followed“I feel that if you want to have it as one meal replacement, it is fine. However, to continuously not eat anything else and drink just that – and expect miracles – it is not going to happen,” shares Datin Farah. If she had to advise on it, she would say only have it for a week; but complement it with workout routine – because “one will put on the weight again once you start eating normally”.
Tailoring each patient’s diet, Datin Farah explains that our recommended daily allowance and lifestyle varies from that of the Caucasians’. Despite some cold-pressed juices incorporate superfoods in their mix, Datin Farah isn’t condemning it completely.
“Having it once a day is fine. If you were to blend it by yourself, I would say mix fruits and vegetables for fibre and the fructose levels won’t be so high. So, the diet plan might contain one of these fruits or vegetables blend; but the rest of the plan would not be that,” she justifies.
Likewise, Kar Foo suggests that – for those who insist on carrying on with it – a few food items should be added to complete the overall food intake. “For example, if they want to do juice cleansing, they can always add in some soy milk for completion and add in low fat milk. So, they get their daily nutrition and what they want,” he advices.
If she comes across patients who still are not interested in solid foods – despite after thorough health explanations – Datin Farah simply says, “I would suggest that they follow the juice plans from the places they are getting their juices from. I would tell them I wouldn’t advice against it because I don’t want them to come back again one day and say, ‘You have given me something which is not working for me.’”
Ultimately, Kar Foo believes that these diet plans really do depend on the client(s). “If they are keen to try something – as we learn in medicine – as long as it does no harm, go ahead,” he states conclusively. MIMS
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