10 Uncommon “Superfoods” from the World of Ultra-Endurance 191 Comments
While doing research for The 4-Hour Body back in 2009, I resorted to Twitter in search of elite athletes who performed well on a vegan diet. I was repeatedly referred to Rich Roll, whom Men’s Fitness Magazine dubbed one of the “25 Fittest Men in the World.” (Sidenote: if you missed the bonus vegetarian/vegan athlete interviews from 4HB, here they are.)
Among his accomplishments:
- Two top finishes at the double Ironman-distance Ultraman World Championships
- Completing 5 Ironman-distance triathlons on 5 separate Hawaiian Islands in less than a week, a feat no one had ever even attempted.
Here’s the kicker: he did both in his mid-40′s.
But most remarkable of all, just a few short years before exploding onto the scene, Rich was a middle-aged couch potato, depressed and 50 pounds overweight. His 40th birthday present to himself was attempting to reverse course. He overhauled his diet (now 100% plant-based), used The 4-Hour Workweek as a primer to reconfigure his life, and made fitness his Mount Everest.
This original content covers the top 10 obscure superfoods Rich used to cultivate this elite performance. Even I hadn’t heard of a few…
I abused my body throughout my 20’s and 30’s with a revolving door of junk food, drugs, alcohol and pretty much anything I could find to numb my discontentment. Overhauling my diet played a crucial role in my mid-life transformation. In the most general sense, fruits and vegetables repaired my body wholesale, but there’s more to the story.
It’s important to realize that I’m not a professional athlete. Over the last 2 years, I have balanced a life of 20-30-hour training weeks and crazy endurance events with my career as an entertainment lawyer, my family life (married 10 years, father of four), and writing a book. Developing an acuity 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 “superfoods” you see in tabloid ads, snd then there are superfoods. I am absolutely convinced that my steady intake of many of the below uncommon (and other more mainstream) superfoods has played a major role in helping me break the glass ceiling on my physical potential.
We’ve all heard of acai, goji berries and chia seeds. But I’d be willing to bet most of you are unfamiliar with more than a few of these more obscure superfoods:
Heart Health. A popular 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 (blot 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. Warning: natto is a very acquired taste. In fact, it’s horrible, unless you’re a fan of strange exotic cheese. Prepare with turmeric and sea salt or alternatively sweeten with erythritol — a very low glycemic non-caloric sugar additive derived from glucose fermentation that retains 60-70% of the sweetness of table sugar. If it’s still unbearable, nattokinase is available in capsule form. I like Doctors Best (1-4 2,000 FU capsules / day).
2. Cordyceps (Sinensis) Extracts:
Stamina. Well-known for centuries in Chinese herbal medicine, Cordyceps sinensis is a parasitic dried 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. Pharmacologically anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory and anti-lipid (cholesterol lowering), studies indicate enhanced immune system functionality as well as improved stamina in endurance athletes via increased aerobic capacity and oxygen utilization as well as stabilized blood sugar metabolism. Chinese Olympic Track & Field athletes have been swearing by it for decades, and I can attest to their effectiveness. Another plus? Increased sex drive and functionality. The benefits of Cordyceps are enhanced when combined with the adaptogen rhodiola, as they are in Optygen and ShroomTech — both good recommended products.
Anti-Oxidant / Anti-Inflammatory. A plant native to South India and Indonesia, if you like curry or mustard, you’re already familiar with this yellow food. 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 anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories on the planet.
The majority of foods we eat, including low fat diets, promote arterial inflammation, which is a leading (and often underrated) cause of heart disease. In the fitness context, exercise-induced physiological stress causes inflammation, which impedes muscular repair. In a general sense, the more quickly the inflammation subsides, the more quickly one recovers from training. Foods like turmeric reduce inflammation, thus expediting recovery (and circulatory health). Extrapolated over time, an athlete on a nutritional regimen high in anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory foods such as turmeric (buttressed by a predominantly alkaline-forming diet) will in turn be able to train harder, more effectively and more efficiently in a given time period while simultaneously taking out an insurance policy against the primary culprits that foil even the most conscientious athletes — undue fatigue, overtraining and illness.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that there is some evidence to suggest that people who eat diets rich in turmeric have lower rates of breast, prostate, lung, colon and skin cancers.
Curcumin can be taken in capsule form, but it is not the most bio-available substance in extract form. Personally, I prefer to drink turmeric in a tea – 1/2 spoonful dissolved in hot water does the trick.
4. Apricot Seeds & Sprouted Mung Beans:
Cancer Cell Inhibition. Both of these foods share one thing in common: high levels of laetrile (vitamin B17), which has been found effective in arresting tumor growth. But how does it kill cancer cells without killing healthy cells? Without getting too technical, there is some evidence to support that when laetrile comes into contact with an enzyme called beta-glucosidase (which is only found in cancer cells), the laetrile is broken down, releasing “manufactured” hydrogen cyanide (HCN), which attacks the cancerous cell. Normal cells remain unaffected because of the mitochondrial enzyme rhodanase, which detoxifies the cyanide component. Cancer cells lack this enzyme.
I’m not saying laetrile is a magical cure for cancer. But it might be a cheap preventive measure.
Organic and raw apricot kernels (the seed inside the pit) are available online (try Nuts.com or iHerb.com). I blend them into my Vitamix morning smoothie. Sprout mung beans overnight (using a simple sprouting vessel) and eat over rice. Alternatively, you can make a broth with turmeric or even brew a coffee-like drink in a French Press with nutritional yeast.
[TIM: Apricot seeds kicked up the most debate of all the items on this list. I asked Rich to comment further on the safety/efficacy, and below is what he wrote.]
No doubt, the administration laetrile (the active component in apricot seeds) in extracted megadoses as an alternative cancer treatment protocol is rather controversial.
Here’s the low down as I see it:
There was a period in the 1960′s – 70′s when several doctors evangelized its use as an alternative cancer treatment protocol. Debate ensued, the FDA got involved, lawsuits were filed, and ultimately its use in megadose supplement form was banned. Laetrile (again in extracted, concentrated form) is now maligned in traditional western medicine — the word “quackery” does come up.
It’s effects have been studied. Positive impact on reducing tumor growth in cell cultures and animals has been found in certain cases but human study results are spotty at best — most of which were performed on people in advanced stages of the disease. Of course, it’s essentially impossible to quantify its impact in the preventive context.
Most of the controversy (and subsequent banning) stems from the cyanide component — and it’s effect on healthy cells in oral megadoses. When administered in huge amounts, there have been a few cases of people experiencing some side effects similar to cyanide poisoning (nausea, vomiting, headache). Further controversy is related to people like Steve McQueen, who elect alternative cancer treatments (in addition to laetrile, things like coffee enemas and the like) in lieu of (rather than in conjunction with) traditional radiation/chemo/surgical treatments.
Despite all of this, there are certainly groups and individuals out there that continue to vociferously assert it’s benefits — with purported results ranging from positive to miraculous.
What I suggest (and have been doing myself for years without any side effects whatsoever), is hardly megadosing — instead, small doses of raw apricot kernels and/or raw almonds in my daily morning blended drinks – the equivalent of 2-5 apricot kernels a day and/or 5-10 raw almonds, which also contain laetrile (as do mung beans, millet, buckwheat, etc.). Not as a cancer “treatment” but as a simple (potential) preventive measure. The kernels are, of course, legal and easily found online and raw almonds are everywhere.
I reviewed the posted article and spent the evening reading up further on the issue to make sure I wasn’t missing something. But I admit to underestimating the somewhat incendiary nature of this debate.
5. Green Coffee Beans:
Fat Loss. Similar to green tea and grape seed extract, organic raw (green) coffee beans have powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties effective in combating free radical damage. Benefits in weight management are due to two active compounds, caffeine (lower in green beans) and chlorogenic acid (which is destroyed by roasting) [TIM: Also found in my perennial fave, yerba mate]. The caffeine releases fatty acids into the bloodstream from stored body fat, while the chlorogenic acid increases efficiency of metabolizing these fats while inhibiting sugar (glucose) absorption by the blood stream.
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, try adding erythritol to sweeten. Nor will it give you a boost; its caffeine content is significantly lower than roasted beans.
There was a rumor that Starbucks was test-marketing some iced green bean elixirs, but I have yet to see it hit stores. Probably didn’t test well.
6. Elk Antler Velvet:
Testosterone Booster. Elk antler velvet isn’t just the “fuzz” growing on the animal’s antler, it’s derived from the whole cartilaginous affair, which is removed from the animal (humanely), dried and ground into a powder (predominantly in Canada and New Zealand). Due to growth proteins called Insulin-like Growth Factors (IGF-1 & IGF-2), this “velvet” creates an endogenous increase in testosterone production, increasing in the body’s ability to naturally and rapidly regenerate tissue & bone (antlers are the fastest growing animal tissue known to science – growing upwards of an inch per day).
For personal reasons, I eschew animal products from my diet, so I do not myself use elk antler velvet. Nonetheless, and from what I understand, antler removal does not harm the animal, and is in fact a humane and necessary safety precaution that helps prevent the elk from attacking each other. The extraction process is heavily regulated by the Canadian government and the USDA, so make sure your product is government certified (a precaution against bacterial infection incident to chronic wasting disease that occurs in hoofed animals). Currently most of this product is exported to China but is readily available online.
Administer in capsule or powder form, 250mg/day post-workout or before sleep.
7. Suma Root & the 4 Ginseng Blend:
Adaptogen. Adaptogens are metabolic regulators that increase the body’s ability to – for lack of a better phrase – adapt to environmental stressors, both physical and emotional. Suma is a ginseng-like adaptogen extracted from a root native to Brazil that is linked to improved immune system functionality and hormonal regulation. Combine with (American) ginseng, Ashwaganda (Indian ginseng), and Eleutherococcus (Siberian ginseng) to create a potent combination that promotes longevity and stress management — normalizing and balancing emotional and physical energy levels. Take in capsules (easily sourced online) or brew into a tea.
8. Camu Camu:
A sour lemon-sized orange-purple fruit indigenous to Amazonian lowlands, camu camu contains an impressive array of phytochemicals, bioflavonoids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals like beta-carotene and potassium. Most importantly, camu camu boasts the highest natural vitamin C density of any food on the planet — anywhere from 20-50 times the level of vitamin C in a typical orange, and scores extremely high on the “ORAC” (“oxygen radical absorbance capacity”) scale, a method of quantifying the anti-oxidant capacities of biological samples. Camu camu also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol and facilitates the uptake of serotonin. In other words, it will make you happy.
Available in supplement form, I like Navitas Naturals Organic Camu Powder. Add a teaspoon to juice or smoothie (taste is tart, a bit like orange juice itself).
9. Moringa (Olefiera):
Dubbed the “miracle tree” and the “world’s most nutritious plant species ever studied,” this amazing tree is native to regions of Africa/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 that can excel in every position. High in a wide array of vitamins and minerals it’s anti-oxidant rich (46 anti-oxidants), anti-diabetes (reduces blood glucose) and promotes heart health (lipid lowering) among other benefits.
Available in capsule and powder form, brew the powder into a tea or add to juice or your morning smoothie.
10. Pu-erh Tea:
This tea can be perhaps the most expensive in the world, with some cakes priced at $350K (for a 250g cake), its leaves derived from trees upwards of 1,700 years old. A post-fermented tea product produced in the Yunnan province of China and carefully aged, the harvesting, creation and ceremony of Pu-erh is an art steeped in preserved tradition dating back millennia.
But what makes Pu-erh truly unique is the process by which the leaves are fermented by microbes after drying and then aged. It is believed that the microbial activity in the tea provides probiotic health benefits unique Pu-erh, such as reducing arterial plaque and LDL cholesterol levels as well as aiding in weight loss by reducing blood sugar levels and improving the body’s ability to metabolize fat.
Dramatically less costly versions of Pu-erh are available [TIM: I drink this version almost every morning]; versions I have used provide a long-lasting even-keeled energy.
To learn more, I suggest you consult your local teahouse. There is nothing like a traditional Pu-erh tea ceremony administered by a tea master. It’s an extraordinary experience. If you happen to be in Los Angeles, Colin Hudon at Temple Tea in Venice is excellent.
To Test or Not to Test?
All well and good, I hear you saying. But where’s the proof? Herein lie the rub. To be sure, studies of varying legitimacy exist to substantiate the above. But large-scale, peer-reviewed research requires substantial funding. This funding is often provided by for-profit corporations that have little interest in validating natural products that cannot be protected via patents.
That said, I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Do your own research (Ray Sahelian, M.D.’s website is a good place to start). Experiment on yourself. Start conservatively, document your findings, and tweak your way to success.
Perhaps you won’t recognize yourself in the mirror a year from now.
Best of luck,
Tim: Any questions? Please ask them in the comments and Rich will jump in there with you.
Rich’s amazing story and techniques are covered in-depth in Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, which just came out this week.
Posted on May 23rd, 2012