Plenty of health fads go like this: Flashy food gets a publicist, becomes famous overnight, and disappears forever. Then there are the legit healthy heroes—the less-hyped-yet-hard-working kind that go about quietly for years before finally getting their moment. And let's not forget the salad-bar staples that are forced into the spotlight when new research surfaces, highlighting yet another health benefit. Even the fittest bodies can have a hard time keeping up. Here are the ones you should get to know:
Matcha (pronounced MAH-cha), is whole-leaf green tea that's been ground into fine powder and boasts absurdly impressive health benefits. Traditionally whisked with hot water, it's Japan's veritable "cup of Joe," and serves up a host of health benefits.
Green tea has long been tagged for its metabolism-revving effects, which are largely attributed to its most active tannin, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). "There's strong evidence that EGCG has fat-burning properties,'' says integrative health specialist Susan Blum, founder of Blum Center for Health in New York. "And the amount of EGCG in matcha is at least three times greater than that in other green teas, partly because you ingest the whole leaf." This provides a great source of antioxidants as well. But that's not all: EGCG has anti-inflammatory, anti-platelet, and anti-thrombotic effects, says Blum. "In simple language, animal studies have shown it prevents the growth of tumors and prevents both atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease by making blood platelets and cholesterol less sticky," she explains. Meanwhile, the amino acid L-theanine is also thought to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can contribute to belly fat.
Sea buckthorn is a major antioxidant, packing 10 times the amount of vitamin C found in oranges, as well as a variety of healing agents including vitamins, carotenoids, flavonoids, polyphenols, and omega fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. It contains not just omega 3, 6, and 9, but the more rare omega 7, says naturopathic doctor and nutritionist Lindsey Duncan. "Omega 7 has been a hero nutrient in clinical trials because it helps rebuild connective tissue," she says. "This makes it great for athletes with any tendon or ligament issues—and suggests it could even help with cellulite."
Beets might help take your workouts to the next level. A recent study from Saint Louis University in Missouri reveals that when fit men and women ate a cup of cooked beetroot about an hour before running three miles, they achieved a pace 3 percent faster than runners who were given a pre-race placebo. The difference in speed was greatest toward the end of the run, with beet eaters finishing the last mile 5 percent faster than study subjects who didn't get the pre-run boost.
Why beets? They contain nitrates, which the body converts into nitric oxide, a powerful molecule that dilates the blood vessels, allowing more oxygen and nutrients to reach your hard-working muscles. These are the same nitrates as the dangerous ones you may have heard are found in products like deli meat and bacon, but not to worry: Something in nitrate-rich fruits and vegetables (perhaps the fiber, perhaps the antioxidants) keeps the stuff from turning carcinogenic, as it does when consumed as a preservative in cured meats.
Maca (lepidium meyenii) grows high in the Andes mountains and is fast becoming a favorite among the health-food elite due to the energetic, but natural kick it provides (it's been called Peruvian ginseng). "Maca is considered adaptogenic, which means it promotes healing and overall well-being. People who take it just report feeling better," says Beverly Hills endocrinologist Eva Cwynar. This is largely due to its hormone-balancing effect, though maca doesn't actually affect hormone levels. "The alkaloids in maca root stimulate the hypothalamus and pituitary glands to send chemical messenger hormones that enhance the function of other endocrine glands—from the adrenals to the ovaries to the testes," she says. Translation? Cwynar ticks off a litany of health benefits: More energy, improved mood, reduced anxiety, increased stamina, and an enhanced libido (hence the nickname, "nature's Viagra").
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Liz Miersch is editor-in-chief of Q, By Equinox. A former fitness editor at Self, she has written for magazines including Fitness and Details. Liz admits a newfound obsession with power yoga— specifically arm balances. Get your daily guide to fitness, life, and style at Q, a blog by Equinox.