Aging is a natural process, but of course we intervene in it all the time, for better or worse. Medicine is now capable of keeping us alive longer than ever before, but we undo many of those benefits by eating badly. Just as poor nutrition can contribute to disease and premature aging, good food plays a key role in fighting the aging process.
No food can smooth out your wrinkles and lift your face. But a healthy diet in general, and certain "power foods" in particular, can fight inflammation, strengthen your immune system, improve your circulation and major organ function, and extend your memory. For 2014 I'd like to introduce you to seven "superfoods" from my native Peru. By superfoods I mean hardworking functional foods that far exceed basic nutritional content. They are antioxidant rich, nutrition-packed, organ- and immune-system supporting, and, for all these reasons, anti-aging. Moreover, I think you'll feel their effects fast.
For nearly a decade I've been noticing a pattern at my nutrition practice. I'd see a client who wanted to change their relationship to food, give them a healthy diet to follow, and schedule a follow-up appointment in a week or so. I began to notice that at the follow-up, they'd tell me how energized they felt -- that they were no longer tired all the time, they were able to stay awake at their desk, they just felt good. I'm not the only person who's seen these results - in her book Younger Next Week: Your Ultimate Rx to Reverse the Clock, Boost Energy and Look and Feel Younger in 7 Days, Elisa Zied, registered dietitian, talks about the ways that the wrong food can sap your strength and make you feel tired. And as she points out, "We all sink into less than healthful coping habits some of the time." Maybe the end of the year was such a time for you, as for so many of us. But as Elisa also points out, and I myself have observed, you can turn this around in as little as one week of healthy eating. That energy you'll feel is your body finding the support it needs.
The basics of a healthy diet are familiar at this point -- stay away from foods that are processed or high in fat and/or sugar, eat plenty of fruits and veggies, and eat foods from across the color spectrum. But if you're looking for some new power foods to pack into your diet in 2014, I have seven recommendations. These are seven superfoods from my own Peruvian culture, and all are now available in the U.S.
1. Maca: A starch usually sold in a powder or gelatinized version, Maca is Peru's hidden secret. It is high in calcium, iron, vitamin-C, and essential amino acids (1, 2, 3), which would make it a superfood on its own -- but as the Incas knew, maca has extraordinary rejuvenative powers. While in Peru to research superfoods for my latest book project, Peruvian Power Foods, I spoke with many locals from the Andes. The story that struck me most was the tale of maca. According to the tale, the Incas gave it to their soldiers to fortify them before battles to increase their energy but were careful to stop once the battle was over, as Maca increased both libido and erectile function. While this potency was a risk for keeping order among the ranks of the conquering Incas, it can be a benefit for the modern man as he ages or for anyone who wants to improve their energy.
2. Pichuberry: Also known as the scientific name Physalis Peruviana. I would like to declare this the superfruit of 2014. According to the nutrition food label for pichuberries, this fruit is so rich in Vitamin-D that 3/4 cup will give you 39 percent of your daily value. While the sunlight is a known source of vitamin D, adding pichuberries to one's diet can help meet the requirement without causing skin damage -- (and that will age you, to be sure). Not only that, but pichuberry contains rare phytochemicals called withanolides (5, 6) that have been demonstrated to slow the growth of tumors. It is anti-inflammatory (7), vitamin-rich (8).
3. Kiwicha: Also known to the United States as amaranth, this antioxidant- and protein-packed seed is what I like to refer to as quinoa's little sister. Many studies have shown that kiwicha lowers LDL, or "bad cholesterol," protecting your cardiovascular system and helping you manage your blood pressure, both key aspects of aging. Toast it quickly in a pan and it "pops," puffing up to a perfect consistency for breakfast cereals or energy bars.
4. Camu camu: This tropical berry is the single most potent source of vitamin C on the planet. Ounce for ounce, it has 50 times the vitamin C of an orange. Vitamin C will, of course, provide immune system support, but it also supports the collagen in your skin, fighting those wrinkles (not to mention glaucoma).
5. Purple potatoes: These spuds are not just a colorful novelty. Once reserved for Peru's kings to eat, their bright color comes from anthocyanin, a phytochemical that acts as an antioxidant absorbed directly into your bloodstream after eating. There it helps lower your blood pressure and slow down signs of aging.
6. Sacha inchi: Often called the Inca peanut, this is actually a seed that can be eaten whole or pressed into oil. Either way it is at once low in saturated fats and rich in omega-3 fatty acids -- in fact it has the most omega-3s of any seed on the planet. This makes sacha inchi memory food, supporting cognitive function as you age.
7. Sweet potatoes: Most Americans see sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving and then forget about them for the rest of the year. But the orange color of the potatoes comes from beta-carotene, which supports eye health and protects against oxidative damage more broadly -- it's even associated with preventing the damage associated with cancers and cardiovascular disease. It lowers the risk of heart attacks in men. And there's no reason to gum up these potatoes with marshmallows, sugar, or butter. They're delicious in stews, or simply roasted.
Aging is the single most natural thing we do. But there's no need to do it any faster than you have to. No one of these superfoods -- nor yet any single food -- is a silver bullet to good health. But all of them pack a punch far above their weight in terms of overall health benefits, and can help support your body's systems for years to come.