What Really Makes a Food Super?

There’s plenty of hype around superfoods. But what makes one food so much more powerful than another? We break it down here so you can eat nutritiously—and deliciously—with ease.

You’ve probably heard a lot about superfoods, but what does that term really mean? Put simply, a superfood is something that packs plenty of good-for-you stuff into a relatively low-calorie package. The technical term is nutrient density. A food is nutrient dense when it’s rich in micronutrients per calorie, including vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, says nutrition expert and family physician Joel Fuhrman, MD, the author of the books Eat for Health and Eat to Live. Here are a few ways to get more superfoods into every meal.

Go for greens.

Leafy greens—like kale, mustard greens, and watercress—have “the highest nutrient-to-calorie ratio,” Fuhrman says. Try to work them into your diet each day to gain the most benefits.

Eat colorfully.

Fruits and veggies get their colors from plant pigments that are actually micronutrients. Translation: Usually the deeper the color of your produce, the richer it is in nutrition. Because different colors are created by different nutrients, it’s best to eat produce in a rainbow of hues.  

Power up your salad.

Your salad bowl is the ideal place to gather a whole meal’s worth of nutrient-dense foods. Summer may be waning, but you’ll still find lots of farm-fresh produce as the seasons begin to shift. Opt for a salad that contains leafy greens, fresh veggies, fruit, and high-quality protein, like our Strawberry Poppyseed & Chicken Salad, which includes romaine topped with chicken raised without antibiotics and fresh strawberries, blueberries, and pineapple.

Host a healthy feast.

Getting the gang together for a late-summer party? Add some nutrient-dense dishes to the usual mix of hot dogs and burgers. Try homemade bean burgers, grill up veggies, or serve salads rich in whole grains, like quinoa or wheatberries.

Chose clean, whole foods.

Want to know how well your favorite foods stack up in the superfood stakes? Dr. Fuhrman has a formula called the aggregate nutrient density index (ANDI) that lets you compare foods based on how many micronutrients they contain per calorie. Even easier, follow this rule of thumb to eat more nutrient-dense foods: Choose clean (that is, without extra ingredients and preservatives) and whole (unprocessed) foods as much as possible. Simple food that tastes great? That’s what we call super!