Today’s health-conscious eaters have turned their backs on processed food products and quick fixes in favor of nature’s bounty of nutritiously superior ingredients. In this world, the Mediterranean diet—focused on whole plants, less red meat, more fish, and heart-healthy omega-3s and monounsaturated fats—has for years reigned supreme; until now. When it comes to the healthiest fresh foods, one of the richest sources on the planet is well outside the Mediterranean: It lies within Peru.
The antioxidants, phytonutrients, anti-inflammatory fats, and other naturally occurring chemicals in the Mediterranean diet have been associated with prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes; weight control; blood sugar regulation; and reduced inflammation. The Peruvian-based diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet in terms of its benefits and its range of phytonutrients, but it will expand your options for flavors and tastes with a South American flare. And fortunately, these once-obscure products are now available in mainstream American supermarkets.
Discovering the Peruvian diet has also been a personal journey for me. After spending several successful decades in the US as a dietitian working with clients in San Francisco, I returned to my birthplace and culinary roots in Peru to discover the origins of and best uses for the most incredibly potent foods on the planet. I traveled from the fertile farmlands of the Andes, where more than 3,000 kinds of potatoes and 200 species of corn are grown, to the depths of the Amazonian jungle, where thousands of extraordinary fruits, nuts, and seeds originated. I visited open markets, restaurants, humble food stands, and family kitchens, stopping to gather stories and favorite recipes and to savor dishes packed with phenomenal disease-fighting, immunity-strengthening ingredients.
The word superfood doesn’t have a scientific definition, but I use the term to describe hardworking, functional foods that far surpass basic nutritional content. They are, quite simply, the cleanest, most powerful, antioxidant-rich, anti-aging foods available on the planet. There may already be some Peruvian superfoods in your diet: Avocados and sweet potatoes are popular examples. And it turns out the Peruvian diet contains an incredible number of superfoods in varieties many North Americans may have never tasted.
When my clients experienced weight loss, improved moods, increased energy, and glowing skin after introducing these foods to their diet, I was inspired to construct a plan for health and weight management using a series of recipes centered on Peruvian superfoods. The program begins with a five-day optional smoothie reboot, featuring different-colored fruits and vegetables each day so your body receives the widest array of nutrients while revitalizing your cells. The program then moves into Peruvian-inspired meal plans: delicious, original recipes that you can mix and match to your tastes and needs, whether you are male or female, an omnivore, vegetarian or vegan, or you follow a gluten-free lifestyle.
Growing up in Lima, everything I ate was made from scratch; whole, fresh ingredients and real, wholesome foods are the true origins of the Peruvian diet. While Peruvian supermarkets, especially those in cities, are nowadays full of the usual suspects of packaged and processed foods, history still remains strong among rural Peruvians. In particular, superfoods are still widely consumed in the Andes and the Amazon—where, not coincidentally, there is a lower incidence of metabolic syndrome, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.
A real strength of the Peruvian diet is its variety. Starting in the Amazon, you will find memory-boosting foods that improve brain health; sacha inchi seeds, for example, are high in complete protein and omega-3s. Moving into the Andes, you will find quinoa, kiwicha, and kañiwa—three antioxidant-rich seeds full of protein and high in fiber. There are also many immune-boosting spices in the Peruvian diet, such as turmeric, ají, and cumin.
These are only some of the superfoods I’ve brought together to be the basis of my meal plans. From among all the Peruvian superfoods, here are five that offer maximum benefits.
>> Pichuberry Most Americans are deficient in vitamin D, so the pichuberry, which contains 39 percent of your recommended daily value of D in a mere ¾ cup, is an incredible find. The pichuberry also contains withanolides—a rare but special group of antioxidants that have been shown to suppress carcinogens and reduce oxidative stress. Rich in heart-healthy fatty acids, it also has a remarkably low glycemic index of 25, compared with 50 for blueberries. It even contains protein: 1.7 grams in just 3.5 ounces!
>> Purple Potatoes You might not consider potatoes a healthy food, but purple potatoes will change that. They offer an array of essential nutrients including complex carbohydrates, potassium, vitamin C, and folic acid. But their secret weapon is anthocyanins, which is the phytochemical responsible for their purple pigmentation. Anthocyanins have a healing effect on the liver and help reduce blood pressure; they can also help control blood sugar levels by breaking up glucose after eating.
>> Kiwicha Also called amaranth or miniquinoa, kiwicha has been shown to have strong antioxidant properties, which fight cancer and reduce cholesterol, among other healthful benefits. A recent report suggested that the plant sterols found in kiwicha oil can reduce serum cholesterol levels, including the “bad kind.” These compounds also appear to support the health of cell membranes, which may be a benefit for people with high blood pressure. Bonus: Kiwicha contains impressive amounts of protein from the concentrated amino acids.
>> Maca Dried maca powder contains more than 10 percent protein and nearly 20 amino acids, including seven essential amino acids. With high amounts of iron and calcium, maca meets the increased need for essential minerals in women. It has been also been shown to have a positive effect on energy and mood, making it a perfect pre-workout supplement. Maca also balances hormones and increases fertility and libido.
> Camu Camu The orange is the most Mediterranean of fruits, but it will need to step aside for the camu camu berry, which is one of the world’s most potent sources of vitamin C. It has more than 60 times as much as an orange per serving! Vitamin C is known to help strengthen immunity, build collagen, and repair tissue, as well as aid in the prevention of cataracts and certain cancers. Because the vitamin is naturally occurring in camu camu, studies reveal that the body better absorbs the nutrient than a tablet of the same concentration.