Surprising Superfoods

Surprising Superfoods

Move over, acai berries—these six unusual ingredients pack a powerful nutritional punch.

Photo Credit: Julie Piatt

Over the past two years, I have balanced a life of 20- to 30-hour training weeks and crazy endurance events with my career as an entertainment lawyer, my family life, and writing a book. Developing a tolerance for sleep deprivation is a big part of my personal success equation.

Nonetheless, I can’t recall the last time I got sick, missed a workout, family obligation, or professional deadline because I was too tired. And despite my advancing age, I continue to improve as an athlete—getting leaner, stronger, and faster with each successive year. How is this possible? Superfoods.

Admittedly, the term is subject to cavalier overuse. And the health benefits are frequently overblown. I get it.

But there are the “superfoods” you see in tabloid ads, and then there are superfoods. I am absolutely convinced that my steady intake of some uncommon (and other more mainstream) superfoods has played a major role in helping me break the ceiling on my physical potential.

We’ve all heard of acai, goji berries, and chia seeds. But you may be unfamiliar with some of the following foods.

Natto: Heart Health

A fermented soybean food prominent in the Japanese diet, natto is a must for anyone concerned about heart or circulatory disease. High in pyrazine and the enzyme nattokinase, blood thinners that can prevent thrombosis (blood clot formations) by essentially devouring arterial plaque, natto significantly reduces the risk of suffering a pulmonary embolism (arterial blockage) that could lead to a heart attack or stroke. Also high in vitamin K, it’s excellent in maintaining bone density.

Cordyceps (Sinensis) Extracts: Stamina

Well known for centuries in Chinese herbal medicine, Cordyceps sinensis is a parasitic fungus that grows on caterpillar larvae native to high-altitude regions of China, Nepal, and Tibet. Gross, right? But awesome when it comes to health and athletic performance. It’s pharmacologically antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, and anti-lipid (cholesterol lowering). Studies indicate that it enhances the immune system and stamina in endurance athletes through greater aerobic capacity and oxygen use. It also stabilizes blood sugar metabolism. Another plus? Increased sex drive and functionality.

Turmeric: Antioxidant, Anti-inflammatory

If you like curry or mustard, you’re already familiar with this yellow food, derived from a plant native to South India and Indonesia. What you might not know is that turmeric—due in large part to curcumin, tumeric’s primary active ingredient—is one of the most powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatories on the planet.

In the fitness context, exercise-induced physiological stress causes inflammation, which impedes muscular repair. Foods like turmeric reduce inflammation, thus expediting recovery (and circulatory health). Furthermore, some evidence suggests that people who eat diets rich in turmeric have lower rates of breast, prostate, lung, colon, and skin cancers.

Green Coffee Beans: Fat Loss

Similar to green tea and grape seed extract, organic raw (green) coffee beans have powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties effective in combating free-radical damage. Benefits in weight management are due to two active compounds, caffeine and chlorogenic acid (which is destroyed by roasting). The caffeine releases fatty acids into the bloodstream from stored body fat, while the chlorogenic acid increases the efficiency of metabolizing these fats while inhibiting sugar (glucose) absorption by the bloodstream.

Simply grind the green beans and prepare in a French press like normal coffee. Alternatively, place the ground beans in water in the sun to brew iced coffee. However, don’t expect it to taste like coffee: it doesn’t. Slightly bitter and somewhat flavorless, it can be sweetened with erythritol. It won’t give you a boost; its caffeine content is significantly lower than that of roasted beans.

Moringa (Olefiera): All-Around Superfood

Dubbed the “miracle tree,” this amazing tree is native to regions of Africa and Asia but can grow almost anywhere due to its incredible ability to extract nutrients from the soil and air. Its leaves are an all-around green superfood; with more than 90 nutrients, moringa is like a utility baseball player who can excel in every position. High in a wide array of vitamins and minerals, it is antioxidant rich (with 46 antioxidants), reduces blood glucose (important in fighting diabetes), and promotes heart health by lowering lipids, among other benefits.

Brew the powder (available in capsule and powder form) into a tea or add to juice or your morning smoothie.

Pu-erh Tea: Unique Probiotic

This tea may be the most expensive in the world, with some cakes priced at $350,000 (for 250 grams, or about half a pound). Its leaves, derived from trees that are more than 1,700 years old, are carefully harvested and aged in the Yunnan province of China. The pu-erh ceremony is an art steeped in tradition dating back millennia.

But what makes pu-erh truly unique is the process by which the leaves are fermented by microbes after they are dried. It is believed that the microbial activity provides probiotic health benefits unique to pu-erh. These include reducing arterial plaque and LDL cholesterol levels, aiding weight loss by reducing blood sugar levels, and improving the body’s ability to metabolize fat.

Less costly versions of pu-erh are available. The versions I have used provide a long-lasting, even-keeled energy. To learn more, consult your local teahouse.

Power up with Rich and Julie’s recipe for a “Green Extreme” smoothie, and check out a collection of One-Dish Wonders from their new book, The Plantpower Way: Whole Food Vegan Recipes and Guidance for the Whole Family.

Excerpted from The Plantpower Way: Whole Food Vegan Recipes and Guidance for the Whole Family, by Rich Roll and Julie Piatt. Earth Aware, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

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