Revved-up fat-burning! Rock-star libido! Trouble-free digestion! Claims surrounding the nutritional powerhouses known as superfoods are often over the top. This hype can overshadow the real benefits these foods offer — and make skeptics of many of us who could benefit from them.
While popular plant-based foods like matcha and maca aren’t cure-alls, they are typically rich in compounds that enhance fundamental nutrition, says Colorado-based integrative practitioner Robert Rountree, MD.
“A superfood is any food that’s giving you more than just basic nutrients and fiber,” he explains. “It has other health benefits. But it sets people up for disappointment if you say, ‘Take a little bit of this every day and your life is going to transform.’”
Terry Wahls, MD, a functional physician based in Iowa, encourages her patients to eat 200 different plant species each year — including superfoods — to shore up general immunity.
“Your goal is to have a wide diversity of foods that you’re eating — the highest quality you can financially manage. All that information helps add to the diversity of the microbiome and to a more healthful expression of our genes.”
Because a little goes a long way, these potent plant foods can be excellent tools for boosting nutrition and diversifying your diet.
Origin: China and Japan
Benefits: detoxification, antioxidants
Japanese Zen Buddhist monk My¯oan Eisai was among the first to extol the therapeutic benefits of matcha tea, after encountering it on a trip to China in 1187. Today, green matcha is all the rage — and its health benefits are notable.
“Matcha is a rich source of the polyphenols that are in green tea,” says Wahls. “It stimulates the enzymes involved in detoxifying compounds, sending them up to the liver, sweat glands, and kidneys.” It also contains high levels of catechins, a class of antioxidants believed to have anticancer properties.
The young tea leaves, grown and harvested in the shade to protect their beneficial phytochemicals, are ground to make matcha powder. To brew, whisk the powder with hot water or milk. The chlorophyll in the powder produces a brilliant green beverage, with a nutty, slightly bitter flavor. (Note that coffee-shop lattes may contain added sugars. Stick with whole milk or unsweetened alternatives, and avoid flavored syrups.)
Though matcha does contain a bit more caffeine than regular green tea, it also contains L-theanine, a natural calming agent — which might explain why Buddhist monks have long used matcha to stay restfully alert during meditation.
“Matcha is not for gulping and running,” says Minneapolis-based functional physician Gregory Plotnikoff, MD, MTS, FACP. He spent six years practicing medicine in Japan, where matcha is enjoyed casually and on special occasions. “The act of drinking matcha engages and awakens all of one’s senses. It can be a very mindful experience.”
Benefits: hormone regulation, energy support, adaptogen
The Incas believed that maca root, or Peruvian ginseng, could boost energy, sex drive, and fertility. Today, the turnip-like tuber is sold in powder form, with similar promises of improved stamina and reproductive health.
It’s also an antioxidant and rich in amino acids and vitamins, including B1, B2, C, and E. But can maca really help improve your mojo?
“I think maca is a bit overhyped, though some of my patients swear by it,” says Tiffany Lester, MD, medical director of Parsley Health in San Francisco. In her practice, Lester sometimes prescribes maca to aid hormonal balance for women with irregular periods and for people with low libidos. “I do consider it to be an adaptogen, as it helps hormones to naturally adapt and is more gentle than medication.”
In two small studies, men and women said their libido improved with maca; another study showed no effects. In Australia, menopausal women taking maca reported fewer hot flashes and night sweats. In another study, maca didn’t seem to affect postmenopausal women’s hormones, but it did reduce depression symptoms. Animal studies suggest it boosts sperm count.
“It’s not a magic pill, but I think it’s clearly a beneficial food,” says Rountree. “Whenever you’re talking about adaptogens, it’s usually not a miraculous effect. It’s more of a subtle feeling of more stamina and energy.”
If you want to try maca, Lester suggests adding no more than 1 teaspoon to your morning smoothie or oatmeal on alternating days: “Taking it on a daily basis is overpowering for our hormones and doesn’t give them a chance to naturally reset,” she explains. If you have diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or thyroid issues, consult with your doctor first.
Benefits: immune booster, vitamin D source, adaptogen
The reishi mushroom has long graced artwork in China and Japan and has been dubbed the “mushroom of immortality” for its purported antiaging properties. Lately, the fan-shaped fungus has been cropping up in the West in powders, teas, and capsules. While reishi won’t make you live forever, it could boost your immunity.
“Medicinal mushrooms — including reishi but also shiitake, maitake, and cordyceps — can decrease our risk for infections and viruses, improve gut immunity, lower inflammation, and increase ‘natural killer’ cells, which are a part of the immune system that gobbles up unwanted bacteria and viruses,” says Elizabeth Boham, MD, of the UltraWellness Center in Massachusetts.
Rich in minerals, reishi also contains complex sugars that might prevent cancer-cell growth. Small studies suggest it may also lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
Unlike its spongy relatives, reishi is hard and woody: “It’s more of a supplement or a bitter tea,” says Plotnikoff, who prescribes the adaptogen to some of his patients. The most palatable form might be the tasty hot-drink mixes sold as “mushroom coffee,” in which reishi is often combined with cinnamon, cocoa, and a little stevia for sweetness.
Origin: United States
Benefits: metabolism booster, brain support
Bulletproof coffee (black coffee blended with butter and MCT oil) is the drink du jour on Instagram, thanks in part to the popularity of low-carb, high-fat diets. But MCT oil may be that rare Instagram star with some solid science behind it.
“MCT oil aids in weight loss by increasing the hormone leptin, which is responsible for hunger and satiety in the body,” explains Lester, who regularly enjoys her matcha lattes with a teaspoon or two of MCT oil. “The addition of fat helps keep you satisfied until lunch.”
The name comes from the medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) that manufacturers extract from coconut and palm oil, leaving behind the long-chain triglycerides (which are harder to metabolize). Whole-fat dairy products also contain some MCTs.
Moderation is key here: Too much MCT oil can cause diarrhea. “You have to ramp up very slowly,” says Rountree, adding that he favors extra-virgin coconut oil over MCTs. There’s genetic variation in our capacity to metabolize and process saturated fats, he notes.
A tasty addition to coffee, MCT oil adds unctuous goodness to chai, golden milk, and other warm drinks, as well. Blend it into smoothies for a little extra creaminess and satiation. (Find three tasty butter-coffee recipes at “3 Ways to Make Bulletproof Coffee.”)
Origin: Central Asia
Benefits, hemp seeds: fiber, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids
Benefits, CBD oil: anti-inflammatory, antianxiety, pain relief
Hemp seeds — also called hemp hearts — are harvested from the hemp plant and pressed to produce oil. Hemp hearts contain even more protein than flaxseed (take note, vegetarians!) and all the essential amino acids, along with magnesium, fiber, iron, and the rare gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which reduces inflammation and promotes healthy hair and skin.
While hemp and its cousin, marijuana, both come from the Cannabis sativa family, hemp contains negligible THC, the psychoactive compound responsible for its euphoric effects. This means munching hemp seeds won’t make you high — but it will up your intake of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.
“We have to consume omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids to maintain healthy cell membranes,” says Wahls. “We lack the metabolic machinery to make those fats, and hemp has both of them.”
Even better, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in hemp seed oil is 4:1, which is in the optimal range for human health.
Wahls mixes hemp-seed oil with olive oil, herbs, and apple-cider vinegar or citrus juice to make “a lovely salad dressing or sauce.” You can also sprinkle the hearts on salads and grains. Do not heat.
Hemp seeds and oil do contain trace amounts of cannabidiol (CBD) — a nonpsychoactive compound that’s garnered lots of good press lately. But CBD oil, made from the whole hemp plant, contains a much more concentrated amount, and many healthcare practitioners are excited about its potential benefits.
“I can’t say enough good things about CBD oil,” says Plotnikoff, who recommends organic CBD capsules to patients with chronic pain and sleep problems, among other health concerns.
“It’s really quite helpful for anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and muscle spasms,” adds Wahls, explaining that it works on the body’s endocannabinoid (EC) system, which regulates stress hormones. The FDA recently approved a CBD-based medicine for kids with epilepsy.
“The big challenge is that when we’re using CBD for medicinal purposes, there are no real dosing guidelines yet,” says Plotnikoff. “It’s the wild, wild West of sorts.”
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean to India
Benefits: omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, laxative
The ancient Egyptians cultivated flax for many uses. The well-preserved mummies in museums are typically wrapped in linen made from flaxseed. Around 500 BC, Hippocrates pronounced the plant’s shiny, brown seed a laxative, which remains among its common therapeutic benefits today.
Flaxseed’s high fiber content — along with a gummy compound called mucilage — is what makes it effective in this context. As with chia, the fiber in ground flaxseed promotes healthy gut bacteria while also helping balance blood-sugar and insulin levels.
Rountree suggests 1 to 3 tablespoons of ground flax or chia (or a combination) per day for regularity. “Chia might have a little more fiber than flax, but flax has more of the beneficial lignans and alpha-linolenic acid [ALA].”
The ALA acid in flaxseed helps lower cholesterol levels, according to a review in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, and other research suggests that the cholesterol-lowering lignans and omega-3s in flax could decrease cancer risk.
Flaxseed is a good source of magnesium, potassium, calcium, and other nutrients — all the more reason to sprinkle ground flaxseed liberally on foods. The mildly nutty oil is delicious drizzled on salads. It’s best to enjoy it fresh instead of cooked — heat turns its good fats into harmful ones.
Though rich in omega-3 fats, flaxseed oil isn’t always an adequate substitute for fish oil, cautions Boham. “The body needs to convert the alpha-linolenic acid from flax into EPA and DHA for all their great benefits, which include lowered inflammation, proper brain development, lowered risk of heart disease, and skin health.”
Because our bodies can’t synthesize the fats in whole flaxseeds, it’s best to grind them fresh, she says. She suggests grinding one to two weeks’ worth and storing in your fridge or freezer to prevent rancidity.
Origin: Central and southern Mexico and Guatemala
Benefits: omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, antioxidants
In Nahuatl, an ancient Aztec language, the word chian means “oily.” This is fitting, as chia seeds are packed with ALA and other omega-3 fatty acids, which may reduce inflammation and promote heart health. These tiny seeds punch above their weight, nutrition-wise: In addition to omega-3 fats, they provide a little shot of protein as well as a substantial dose of fiber.
“Chia seeds regulate blood-sugar levels and aid in digestive function,” says Lester, who recommends adding the seeds to breakfast puddings each day for regularity, among other benefits.
Higher in fiber than flaxseed, chia seeds plump up, tapioca-like, when soaked. The fiber may slow digestion and lower LDL cholesterol, helping moderate blood sugar.
Chia seeds can also help you maintain good hydration, but only when they’re soaked. “It’s the opposite if you eat the seeds or ground powder on their own,” cautions Rountree. Consuming dry chia can lead to significant bloating, as can eating more than 3 tablespoons daily.
Puddings and smoothies are among the easiest — and tastiest — ways to enjoy chia. For puddings, add 3 tablespoons to 1 cup of nut milk or coconut milk and let sit 30 minutes. Stir in fresh fruit and nuts, along with a dash of vanilla extract or a spoonful of cocoa powder. For smoothies, simply add a spoonful to your go-to recipe.
This originally appeared as “The New Power-Food Generation” in the May 2019 print issue of Experience Life.