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Certain foods merit the label 'super'

Published March 03. 2012 09:01AM

If you immerse yourself in the ocean of presently available health and fitness information, you'll find the waters something other than smooth. The Internet and all the technology it has spawned not only delivers research results faster than ever before, but it has also sired what Marco Bertamini of the University of Liverpool and Mangus Munafo of the University of Bristol call in the January issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science "bite-size science," a trend towards smaller research papers based on fewer studies.

This turbulence creates such waves in the ocean that there's only one one thing you can do: surf and try to survive.

Take the issue of vitamin supplementation, for example. After mostly favorable research helped create an America that, according to a 2009 New York Times article, spends $23 billion annually in recent years on vitamin pills, research published last fall suggested that much of that money is wasted.

One study published on October 10 last year in the Archives of Internal Medicine did more than show the use of vitamin supplementation was ineffective; it suggested the practice was downright dangerous.

Analysis of a study of 38,772 women and its follow-up found that the use of multivitamins, B6, folic acid, magnesium, zinc, copper, and iron were all associated with an increased risk of mortality. While the study was not designed to determine if the supplementation was the cause of the increased risk, even the chance that supplementation could create the opposite of what it's designed to produce is noteworthy and alarming especially when a second major study showed a similar correlation between vitamin E use and the incidence of prostate cancer just two days later.

While the debate over whether or not vitamin supplementation ultimately helps or hurts your health could never be decided in an 800-word column, this much can: the vitamins, minerals, and other related elements linked to optimal health, primarily phytochemicals, can never harm you if you ingest them in their natural forms in foods. In fact, that's how the term "super foods" those chock-full of the aforementioned health help arose.

At least that's what study after study shows.

One of these most recent studies compared the benefits of the best stuff found in broccoli when eaten or taken in pill form. The Oregon State University research first published online by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, for instance, found that the body absorbs five times as much sulforaphane, the phytochemical known to have cancer-killing qualities, when it's ingested in raw or lightly cooked broccoli as opposed to pill form.

Earlier research performed at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to determine the efficacy of the epigenetic diet found that broccoli, along with other super foods like Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, fava beans, grapes, green tea and soy beans can suppress the genetic aberrations that cause diseases like cancer.

A surprise entrant in the "super foods" category is the potato. That's because most American eat its deep-fried versions, potato chips and French fries, which do little to help health.

But eating a plain baked potato is a prudent dietary move, especially when consumed in conjunction with a food that's high in protein. And research published last fall specifically shows consuming purple potatoes cooked in a microwave helps reduce high blood pressure.

In the study, overweight and obese patients either ate 6 to 8 small purple potatoes or an equivalent amount of calories in biscuits daily for four weeks. At the conclusion, the group who consumed the purple potatoes had not only lowered their blood pressure, but also increased the level of antioxidants in their blood and urine.

After four weeks, the groups swapped foods. Now those who had been eating the biscuits ate the purple potatoes. Four weeks later, the results were virtually the same.

Overall, diastolic blood pressure went down by 4.3 percent and systolic by 3.5 percent. The researchers believe the reductions would be similar with more common forms of potatoes.

This summer, research performed at the Salk Institute's Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory found out why strawberries could be seen as "super." They have ample amounts of fisetin, a flavanoid that does many helpful things in the body, including battle the complications brought on by diabetes, such as kidney disease.

While this study was performed on lab mice, the researchers estimate that a human eating 37 strawberries would receive enough fisetin to get the same results.

Finally, in the same way that vitamin supplementation has been associated to an increased rate of mortality, eating the cruciferous vegetables cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are some examples has been associated with a lower death risk.

By analyzing 134,000 questionnaires completed for the Shanghai Men's Health Study and the Shanghai Women's Health Study, researchers from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine found that those who ate the most cruciferous vegetables had a 22 percent lower risk of dying when compared to the group that ate the least.

The same group was 31 percent less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, as well.

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