‘Superfoods” are joining “diets” as buzzwords for some of the most hyped nutrition trends running rampant across our culture, which increasingly clamors for naturally derived health benefits and weight-loss guidance.
The seed of Salvia hispanica, commonly known as chia, has been consumed by indigenous cultures of Mexico and central America for at least five centuries. Chia first burst onto the U.S. scene after Chris MacDougall touted it in his 2009 best-selling book, “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.”
In “Born to Run,” MacDougall wrote about Tarahumara Indians who carried chia seed with them on long runs in the desert mountains of northern Mexico.
Enthusiasm seemed to wane as other superfoods, much like stocks, rose and fell with media blitzes and celebrity endorsements. Many said kale was king in 2012. But now chia, which is high in fiber, protein and inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids, seems to be ready to hit new highs in 2013.
Enter ‘Dr. Bob’
A new book released today by former CBS and NBC news medical correspondent Dr. Bob Arnot may help fuel that rise.
“The Aztec Diet: Chia Power: The Superfood That Gets You Skinny and Keeps You Healthy” (Notice how the publisher got the words “diet,” “superfood” and “skinny” in there?) taps into what I prefer to call “a way of eating.” Diet should be banished from the vocabulary.
Not only does the Aztec way of eating include chia, but other much heralded super grains — quinoa, amaranth and bulghur — and lean protein sources, such as black beans, turkey and fish, along with corn and other vegetables and fruits.
Arnot, who has had a fascination with healthy diets of indigenous cultures around the world for years, seized on it after a friend placed a bag of chia on his motorcycle three years ago in the middle of winter in Vermont.
“If you look at these diets of very successful cultures, it’s all there. You don’t have to add supplements. ‘Healthy,’ by the way, is judged by low heart attack, low stroke, longevity and all of that,” says Arnot, interviewed by phone earlier this month.
“I looked at the label on this bag of chia and said, ‘Whaaat?’ There were 5 grams of fiber and 70 calories. So I started trying it myself. Chia had a quality that I hadn’t really found before: It really filled me up. I could take the chia and really just didn’t want to eat much.”
Chia seeds, as many who have experimented with them know, expand and turn gelatinous if left in liquid for a few minutes.
“When it expands in your stomach, you’ll feel full. The other thing it does is that it slows gastric emptying. Not only do you feel full, but you stay feeling full longer,” he says.
Arnot, who stays active by training for bike, skiing and stand-up paddleboard races, has remained relatively svelte throughout his adult life, but he says he was never able to go below 203 pounds on his 6-foot-4-inch frame. With chia, he was able to break into the 190s.
It compelled him to look into the Mexican and Central American diet — before the Spanish introduced beef, pork and other fatty foods into it. He also noted that the Spanish, known for meticulously taking notes, wrote that Aztec Indians lived 10-12 years longer than other people 500 years ago.
After Arnot’s personal experience with chia and the Aztec diet, he helped run some “pre-trial studies” of people who ate a prescribed Aztec diet and found that people not only lost weight but had drops in cholesterol, blood sugar and inflammation, which is increasingly linked to diabetes, heart disease and depression.
Quinoa & more
“The real trick to the Aztec diet is that a ton of people don’t like to eat a lot of fresh vegetables even though they should. Americans want to eat grains, and the ones in the diet are the best grains ever. They have every mineral imaginable.”
Arnot says one reason he thinks chia has yet to be celebrated to the degree the Aztecs, who fueled themselves on chia for years in evading Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, is that the seed is “just an ingredient.”
“Think about kale. You cook it or do something with it. Chia is odd in that it’s not really a dish. Instead, you add it to water, Gatorade or cook with it. I think people don’t know what to do with it. That’s why we have recipes for smoothies (in the book).”
Arnot’s enthusiasm for chia and the Aztec way of eating seems genuine, largely because he still seems fired up about living an active lifestyle at 64 and beyond.
“I think the vast majority of Americans surrender their youth, like they surrender their driver’s license. What they do is surrender to the wrong foods and lifestyle,” Arnot says.
“We have this paradigm that people get old. I think 95 percent of aging is just surrender. If you put yourself on an amazing diet like this one and keep moving, you’ll be surprised how young and vital you will feel.”