When my nose is running, my rational inner scientist is drowned out by coughing, and I start to wonder about wonder foods. I’ve had a head cold all week, which means I’ve been craving one food: my dad’s chicken noodle soup. Academics and old wives have both contemplated the health benefits of the dish for years. As it turns out, scientists are still pretty divided over whether this food folk medicine is actually effective at reducing inflammation and mitigating the symptoms of the common cold.
The concept of wonder foods is not restricted to the bedridden, though. Much of U.S. society accepts the notion that certain foods have the power to help you lose weight, bulk up muscle, ward off cancer or slow the effects of aging. Whatever your ailment or desire, there seems to be a wonder food to help.
Consider acai berries, kelp and garlic, among others. To be sure, these foods have definite health benefits. Acai berries and blueberries are both loaded with antioxidants, which are thought to delay aging and improve memory by combating cellular free radicals. Garlic has compounds containing sulfur that can help regulate blood pressure and improve aspects of the cardiovascular system. Kelp and other sea vegetables provide a broad range of nutrients, including iodine and vitamin K, and they serve as an important source of bio-available iron and calcium.
But there’s something fishy about changing my diet to start guzzling down handfuls of seaweed because of its purported health benefits.
To understand our fixation on wonder foods — and the risks of this mindset — it’s useful to think back to the beginnings of this infatuation. John Swartzberg, a professor of public health at the University of California, Berkeley, believes our obsession with food additives originated in the now-infamous story of scurvy in the British Navy. The realization that limes and other citrus could prevent the vitamin C deficiency initiated a newfound faith in dietary supplements. Perhaps isolated ingredients could prevent diseases. From these initial realizations about undernutrition and dietary deficiencies, nutritionists then moved onto the concept of overnutrition. This led to the low-fat era and the vilification of fast foods and cholesterol. More recently, nutrition studies have investigated what nutrients to avoid and, finally, which to include.
To some extent, this obsession with certain wonder foods and nutrients has its benefits. Sailors are no longer suffering from scurvy, and we’ve largely eliminated diseases associated with vitamin and nutrient deficiencies in the developed world. But this reductionist approach to eating can blind us of the need for a balanced diet.
It is useful to contemplate various foods’ nutritional values and to understand the health implications of our eating behaviors, but focusing on one wonder food as a magical panacea can be dangerous. I’m pretty sure eating a diet consisting solely of seaweed — or even seaweed, chocolate and acai berries — would not keep my body in balance for very long.
Even focusing on less-flashy wonder foods like kale can be damaging. Kale is loaded with nutrients and well deserving of its place at the top of the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index. However, eating a handful of kale will not, in fact, counter the negative effects of, say, eating an entire cheesecake by yourself, which one Daily staffer suggested to me.
I’m as big a fan of kale and leafy greens as any young foodie, but I realize that kale is much better when treated as a single component of a more holistic, integrated diet. It tastes better, too. Kale is delicious in white bean stews, stir-fried with onions and mushrooms or smothered in lemon juice and tossed as a salad.
So maybe we should not focus our attention on wonder foods, but instead return to a more balanced, culturally appropriate diet. This week, that might mean avoiding the blueberries and making myself a steaming bowl of vegetarian noodle soup. If wonder foods by themselves can’t save me, research suggests the combination of vegetables in chicken noodle might at least make me feel psychosomatically better.
Jenny really likes kale. Send her your favorite kale recipe at jrempel “at” stanford “dot” edu.