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November 7, 2019

Are Superfoods and Supplements Worth The Hype?

smoothie bowl

In our modern day and age, health does not seem to exist without using the terms supplement or superfood. They are intended to improve our health and enrich our diets with more nutrients and minerals. Mariella looks at superfood powders, protein shakes and meal replacement shakes, and explains how effective they really are and when is it just a marketing gimmick.

Superfood health powders that “will turn your health around”

Health powders such as spirulina, maca, and acai powder are flooding the market, making amazing nutritional claims. They have found their way into our smoothies, lattes, date balls, face masks…the list goes on, but how much do we really know about them and do they make THAT much difference?

I did a bit of research because I too, found myself to be mesmerized by this health powder hype.

Acai powder, for example, is advertised as a good source of fibre, calcium, vitamin A and healthy fats. It does contain these nutrients, but is it really a significant source of any of them to warrant marketing it as such? 

The truth is, it isn’t.

The thing is that in order for the product to fulfill its promises and make a significant difference to your nutrient intake, you’d have to eat bucket loads.

To break it down:

The powder is usually sold in a 100g packet (at quite a hefty cost for just some berry powder +-R120)

Nutritional values vary from brand to brand but if we look at the values per 100g of powder:

PER 100g, the powder contains about

  • 32g of fiber
  • 374 μg of Vitamin A
  • 347 μg of Calcium
  • 3 g of Omega 3

These are the nutrients that the product was advertised for.

To give you an idea of our daily requirement as per the DRIs (dietary reference intakes) (which are scientifically developed nutritional guidelines to prevent nutritional deficiencies) our daily requirements for the above nutrients are:

  • 25g of Fiber
  • 700-900μg of Vitamin A
  • 1000 mg/d Calcium
  • 0.6-1.2 % of total energy (for a 2000kcal/day diet that would equate to about 1.3-2.6g)

As you can see, if you were to eat the whole packet, you may be contributing to your nutrition, but it would be a rather expensive and unpalatable meal – going at about R120.

And the reality is, most people are only adding 1 or 2 teaspoons to their smoothie or other meals, which will not make a significant difference to their nutrition.

The really good sources of these particular nutrients (and a few others) in our diets are fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, dairy and fish. And R120 can buy quite a lot of these foods.

So, in summary, we do not require these expensive health powders to live a healthy life and get the nutrients we need because a well balanced and varied diet will give our body the nutrients it needs.

Are protein shakes really necessary to reach your fitness goals?

Another very popular group of supplements these days are protein powders and meal replacement shakes.

Especially amongst the fitness community, protein powders are something you simply cannot klap gym without. But is it really true that we won’t make all the gains if we don’t drink those shakes? 

No.

Firstly, our bodies are not able to absorb infinite amounts of protein. If we are not stimulating it, it does not need that much and if we then drink protein shakes, this will then ultimately result in unnecessary calorie intake and weight gain.

Furthermore, most protein shakes only contain whey protein. HOWEVER, we will help our body most if we consume a variety of protein sources because they are all absorbed at different rates, meaning our body will get the most out of the combination of the three. 

A couple of food examples that contain about 20g of protein which is about the same as one serving of a protein shake:

  • 2 slices of wholewheat bread with 2 eggs 
  • 1/2 cup of oats with 1 cup milk and 2 Tbsp of peanut butter
  • 1 chicken breast 

As you can see, you are able to refuel your body very well with whole foods alone. 

AND it will save you money and and you’ll be healthier because our bodies were designed to digest whole foods and not processed shakes. If you are under time pressure it may be a matter of convenience when it comes to protein shakes. In those cases it is of course better to go for the protein shake than not to take anything in at all. 

Meal replacement shakes – the best way to lose weight?

Meal replacement shakes often promise weight loss success and healthier living. Sounds good doesn’t it?

Of course it does. AND it’s so easy!? That is why so many people go for them.

BUT the problem is that meal replacement shakes are unfortunately not something that is sustainable in the long run. Yes, they will probably help you to lose weight in the short term due to your overall daily intake becoming less but can you really drink a meal replacement shake for the rest of your life? The answer is probably not. This will then result in you going back to old habits, regaining the weight and it becomes a vicious cycle of weight loss and weight gain – something that is not only frustrating but also very unhealthy.

Another reason why these meal replacement shakes are unsuccessful in the long run is because the consumer does not learn how to actually live a healthy life. The only requirement is to simply replace a meal with that shake. But in order to reap the rewards of living a wholesome, healthy life, we need to learn how to nourish our bodies correctly with whole foods along with implementing permanent, healthy lifestyle changes.

So when it comes to supplements, superfood powders, meal replacements – in general my advice is to remain critical.

Rather eat whole foods and stay skeptical of these marketing gimmicks and these ‘magical’ health powders that promise these amazing health outcomes.The claims are not always very well researched or regulated. 

Another factor to consider is that there is no governing body in South Africa that regulates what goes into products. So if you are an elite athlete, for example, you need to remain extremely cautious as the products may contain forbidden substances.

A well balanced diet, filled with colourful foods and a good variety of food groups is perhaps not the quick fix we hope for, but we know that it works. We are not in need of supplementation UNLESS we are deficient in a specific nutrient, meaning that our body does not have enough of it. But generally, these deficiencies can too be addressed simply through making a few dietary changes. And taking vitamins and minerals in excess can be dangerous too and is associated with certain toxicities.

Some easy things you can implement into your daily diet habits are the South African Food Based Dietary Guidelines. These are some simple guidelines, developed by experts using scientific evidence, to help the general population make healthy choices.

  1. Enjoy a variety of foods.
  2. Be active!
  3. Make starchy foods part of most meals.
  4. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day.
  5. Eat dry beans, split peas, lentils and soya regularly.
  6. Have milk, maas or yoghurt every day.
  7. Fish, chicken, lean meat or eggs can be eaten daily.
  8. Drink lots of clean, safe water.
  9. Use fats sparingly. Choose vegetable oils, rather than hard fats.
  10. Use sugar and foods and drinks high in sugar sparingly.
  11. Use salt and food high in salt sparingly.

As you can see, having a variety in your diet is key because different foods contain different nutrients and through eating all these different foods, you are nourishing your body with all of those nutrients. It is also the safest way to ensure you are getting the correct amounts of nutrients and are not exposing yourself to any potential toxicities.

Another good piece of advice is to read your labels and educate yourself. You will be surprised what a food product actually contains versus what it advertises to contain.

If you are unsure, ask your dietitian. We will be able to help you with your health, and ultimately, your budget too 😉 It is our job to check the facts before making any claims and recommendations.