8 Best Superfoods To Boost Your Mood & Energy Levels (Plus, How To Use Them)
Liz Robins is a wellness writer and content strategist with a B.S. in Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. She's a contributor and former contributing editor for Organic Spa Magazine, and has covered health and spa stories for many outlets, including Deepak Chopra's JIYO.
In our always-on, overstimulating world, it's easy to end up feeling run-down. It's why so many of us are always looking for ways to boost our energy levels. If this sounds familiar, it might be time to add beneficial superfoods to your diet.
Superfoods are especially rich in nutrients and other health-promoting compounds—vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and more. Many of them have long been revered for their nourishing and medicinal effects, and the latest research is helping us to understand why. Ready to give them a try? Here are the best superfoods to eat to boost your mood and energy:
1. Maca powder
Maca hails from the highlands of Peru and has been used traditionally by Peruvian people as both food and medicine. Its radish-like root is typically dried and ground into a powder that has a caramel, or malty, flavor. You can find it online, in health food stores, and even in some supermarkets. The three varieties (yellow, black, and red) have unique effects on the body, but yellow maca (which yields a light brown powder) is the most popular.
Health benefits of maca powder.
This superfood is a complete protein and rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, and other essential vitamins and minerals. It provides an energy boost, but it's not a stimulant (like caffeine), so it won't leave you jittery and anxious.
Maca is an adaptogen, meaning that it adapts to what the body needs and has a balancing effect. As a result, it helps to maintain equilibrium and balance stress levels. It may alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety as well.
As an adaptogen, maca may also help with hormone balance. Research has found that it can reduce hot flashes and night sweats in postmenopausal women. It can also help manage PMS symptoms. This superfood has a reputation as an aphrodisiac and fertility enhancer, too, and studies have demonstrated that it improves male libido and increases blood levels of pituitary hormones in women.
The black variety of maca has been shown to increase sperm count, and research suggests that the rare red maca offers protection against prostate cancer and supports bone health. In other words, there are plenty of reasons to experiment with adding maca to your supplement regimen or diet.
How to use it.
There's no shortage of easy ways to add maca to your diet, thanks to its powder form and mild, pleasant flavor. Cooler days call for hot maca, a warming, delicious drink you can make at home with maca powder, nut milk, and a hint of natural sweetener. Or start your day off energized with a generous sprinkle of maca in your morning coffee.
Another idea: Try adding a scoop of maca powder to homemade granola, smoothies, energy balls, cookie dough—the options are virtually endless. One to two tablespoons is a typical serving size, but it's best to start with just ¼ teaspoon to ½ teaspoon every other day so you don't overwhelm your digestive system. Though you may want to avoid maca before bed—it can be stimulating to some people.
2. Cacao powder
Cacao (or cocoa) powder is a by-product of the dried, fermented seed from the fruit of the cocoa tree. It's what gives chocolate its distinctive taste, although cacao itself isn't naturally sweet.
The ancient Maya of Central America are considered the first people to consume cocoa, which they called kakawa ("Food of the Gods"). This superfood was also revered in Mesoamerican society, where it was used medicinally in more than 150 ways before eventually making its way to Europe in the mid-1500s. Today you can find pure, unsweetened cacao powder in health food and grocery stores, as well as online.
Health benefits of cacao powder.
Cacao is high in minerals, flavonoids, and other health-promoting antioxidants, and cacao powder in particular is high in insoluble fiber associated with reduced diabetes risk. Research has shown that cacao can help protect the aging brain, protect nerves from inflammation and injury, and help lower blood pressure and heart disease risk.
One of the most common medicinal uses of cacao over the past 500 years has been stimulating the nervous system. Theobromine in cacao has a stimulant effect that's gentler than that of caffeine (of which it also contains a small amount). It's one option if you're trying to cut back on caffeine but still need an energy lift.
Chocolate's reputation as a feel-good food is likely related to cacao's high magnesium content, which plays a role in both relaxation and energy production. Cacao also contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid associated with emotional well-being and relief from anxiety. And it boasts anandamide (aka the "bliss molecule"), a fat that binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain to produce a pleasant feeling akin to that associated with CBD oil. The melt-in-your-mouth sensation and irresistible taste of chocolate surely have something to do with it, too (at least, that's how we felt).
How to use it.
Alas, your average chocolate bar isn't potent enough to deliver all that cacao has to offer. But don't despair—there are plenty of decadent yet healthy ways to incorporate cacao into your diet.
Namely, this naturally sweetened vegan chocolate mousse, which gets its creaminess and healthy fats from avocado. And this blackberry lemon cacao fudge is sure to satisfy, with a healthy dose of both cacao powder and cacao butter. Try this superfood in other desserts and smoothies too; it's a perfect complement to nutrient-rich nut butters and pairs well with fruit.
3. Goji berries
These vibrant, sweet, and tangy berries have a history in China, where they're cultivated, dried, and typically enjoyed in soups and herbal tea. Long a part of traditional Chinese medicine, goji berries are also used to make tinctures, wine, and juice. You need not go to Asia to find goji berries today; their superfruit status has landed them in supermarkets, health food shops and online stores.
Health benefits of goji berries.
Goji berries are high in vitamins, trace minerals, polysaccharides and antioxidants, including carotenoids responsible for their distinctive orange-red color and many of their health benefits. They're also a source of carbohydrates for energy and amino acids to help meet the body's protein needs.
Historically, goji berries have been consumed to increase longevity and benefit the liver, kidneys, and vision. These tasty little gems are also taken for purported anti-aging and anticancer effects, along with improved immunity. In terms of this superfood's effect on mood, a recent study demonstrated that goji berry extract can alleviate low-level anxiety and depression (in animals, at least; more research is needed to determine whether it's effective in humans).
How to use it.
Goji berry juice is refreshing and easy to make by simply blending berries and coconut water. Alternatively, you can toss goji berries in your trail mix or oatmeal to kick-start your day, or add them to chocolate desserts. This tantalizing four-ingredient carob and goji berry bark recipe is a real winner too. Goji berries make colorful, nutrient-dense additions to salads, smoothie bowls, and muffins as well.
4. Chia seeds
These tiny yet mighty seeds of the Salvia hispanica L. plant were cultivated, eaten, and used as folk medicine in Central and South America as far back as 3500 B.C. They were also given as an offering to the Aztec gods in religious rituals. Today you can buy black and white varieties in health food stores, supermarkets, and online.
Health benefits of chia seeds.
Oil-rich chia seeds are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, including omega-3 fatty acids associated with preventing heart disease. Chia seeds show promise in treating diabetes, high blood pressure, inflammation, depression, anxiety, and more, but additional studies are needed.
Made up of 20% protein, chia seeds are considered a complete protein because they deliver all nine of the essential amino acids that the body can't produce. And there's more good news: Their high fiber content can help you stay regular and might keep you feeling full longer, staving off hunger between meals.
How to use them.
Add chia seeds to smoothies, cereal, and juices for a fiber and nutrient boost. They absorb about 10 times their weight in water and develop a gelatinous texture when soaked—perfect for chia seed pudding and this vegan egg replacement (but we recommend not eating them dry, as they soak up the saliva and can make it hard to swallow). Sprinkle a small amount of seeds in your oatmeal, salad dressings, and sauces for healthy thickening.
Coconuts come from a type of palm tree grown primarily in tropical regions including Polynesia and Asia. This iconic fruit is adored worldwide for its refreshing water and slightly nutty-flavored, fat-rich flesh—along with a bevy of products made from these. Look for whole coconuts and related products in health food stores, supermarkets, and online.
Health benefits of coconut.
The water of young, green coconuts is high in potassium and other electrolytes that help the body replenish those lost during moderate exercise. In fact, coconut water contains significantly more potassium than popular sports drinks (take that, muscle cramps!). This all-natural alternative is lower in sugar. Keep in mind, though, that longer, more strenuous workouts may require more that sugar and sodium be replaced afterward.
Coconut meat, or flesh, is rich in saturated fat (more on that below) and insoluble fiber, which helps move food through your digestive system to keep you regular. The flesh provides minerals including manganese and potassium, too. Coconut milk, cream, oil, and butter are all made from the flesh.
Coconut oil is extracted from mature coconut flesh, and health experts still don't agree on whether it's healthy to consume or not. Stoking the debate was a well-publicized report released by the American Heart Association in 2017 that advised against using coconut oil due to its high saturated fat content. The authors cited research linking coconut oil intake with increased LDL cholesterol (often referred to as the "bad" variety) and total cholesterol—two variables long regarded as risk factors for heart disease.
There's no doubt that coconut oil is high in saturated fat, but not all experts agree that it's likely to increase heart disease risk. "The studies the AHA cites do not link eating more coconut oil to heart disease; they link it to increasing cholesterol numbers," says Will Cole, D.C., a functional medicine practitioner. "Studies have found that there might be no association between high total cholesterol and heart attack and stroke risk."
The type of saturated fat in coconut is also important to consider. "Coconut oil is unusual in that it contains medium-chain triglycerides that are well proven to speed metabolism and assist in fat loss," says Sara Gottfried, M.D., a hormone expert and bestselling author. Indeed, some studies suggest that coconut oil might help burn fat. And healthy fats in the morning can help wake your brain up, says Cole.
Until more research adds clarity, coconut oil is probably best consumed in small amounts as part of a healthy diet. The exception? More might be helpful if you're following a ketogenic diet, according to Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, who often prescribes higher amounts for patients seeking therapeutic benefits.
How to use it.
Unlike olive oil and some other plant oils, coconut oil is stable at high temperatures, so it's a good choice for high-heat cooking (like in stir-fries, curries, and so on). Coconut butter is a creamy spread that's delicious on toast and can stand in for dairy butter in baked goods. Coconut cream or milk (the canned kind used for cooking, not the thinner variety in cartons) is delicious in curries, complementing the spiciness with its richness and subtly sweet flavor.
One of the easiest ways to up your coconut intake is to add unsweetened, dried, and shredded coconut meat to oatmeal, granola, and trail mix. Feeling ambitious? Cook up a coconut cream and raspberry tart or some coconut crepes with coconut yogurt and berries. A turmeric golden latte made with coconut milk and oil is another tasty option to fortify body and mind. Then again, nothing beats sipping the water (and spooning out the flesh) of a fresh coconut beneath a palm tree on a tropical isle, if you ask me.
Commonly called blue-green algae, spirulina is actually a type of bacteria that grows in saltwater lakes and some freshwater ones. It's been used as food in Africa and Mexico for centuries. Once harvested, spirulina is freeze-dried and sold as a blue-green powder available at health food and online stores.
Health benefits of spirulina.
Spirulina is incredibly nutrient-dense. It boasts several minerals (especially iron), vitamins (beta-carotene and several B vitamins, for starters), antioxidants, protein and gamma-linoleic acid, a beneficial fatty acid. It's an excellent source of vitamin B12 for vegetarians and vegans since not many plant foods contain high levels. Spirulina is also considered a complete protein and is very easy to digest.
The antioxidant C-phycocyanin lends blue-green algae its unique color and scavenges free radicals to keep them from damaging the body's cells and DNA. Free-radical damage increases the risk of cancer and other diseases, so we need enough antioxidants to help defend us.
Your heart might benefit from spirulina too. In various studies, it decreased triglycerides, blood pressure, and LDL cholesterol levels, all considered risk factors for cardiovascular disease when levels are elevated. And some athletes swear by spirulina, asserting that it helps increase speed, energy, endurance, and mental ability (though limited research supports the endurance claim).
How to use it.
7. Hemp seeds and oil
Originating in Central Asia, the herb known as hemp was cultivated for fiber in China as far back as 2800 B.C. These days, the nutrient-rich seeds and hemp seed oil are increasingly popular in the West. You can find raw hulled hemp seeds (or hemp hearts), hemp oil, and hemp milk online and in health food stores.
Health benefits of hemp seeds and oil.
Hemp seeds are a great source of vitamin E, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and other minerals. They're high in fiber and protein, too, containing 10 grams of protein in just 3 tablespoons—more than chia or flaxseeds.
Adding to their attributes are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, essential for heart and brain health, immune system support, energy production, and more. Hemp seeds also contain beneficial fats that you won't find in most popular nuts and seeds.
The seeds are pressed to make hemp seed oil, which (no surprise) is nutrient-rich too. Bear in mind that hemp seed oil is different from the wildly popular CBD oil, which comes from another part of the hemp plant rich in medicinal compounds called cannabinoids. Hemp milk—an excellent source of protein, minerals, and healthy fats—is also made from the seeds.
How to use them.
Hulled hemp seeds or hemp hearts can be eaten raw and are easy to add to a wide range of foods. Sprinkle hemp seeds in smoothies or on yogurt, oatmeal, and salads. Or dip fresh veggies into this hemp hummus. You can make your own hemp milk or buy it by the carton to add to coffee, cereal, smoothies, and baked goods. For salads, grilled veggies, and savory dishes, hemp oil is the perfect finishing touch to drizzle on before serving.
8. Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
Flaxseed has been cultivated since civilization began and its Latin name, Linum usitatissimum, means "very useful." It's primarily grown in Canada, China, India, Ethiopia, and the U.S., where colonists introduced it and used the plant's fiber for clothing.
Flaxseed has been used medicinally for thousands of years in ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine). Hippocrates mentioned its medicinal use in his writing, and medieval medicinal-herb books from Asia and Europe reference it as well. Today you can buy whole flaxseeds, flax meal (ground-up seeds), and flaxseed oil in supermarkets, health food stores, and online.
Health benefits of flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
Flaxseeds and oil are high in fiber, protein, heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), and antioxidants called lignans. The seeds are richer in the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) than any other plant food (aside from perhaps seaweed), and their three-to-one ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is ideal for good health. The fatty-acid content of flaxseeds helps explain their ability to improve triglyceride levels and blood pressure in patients with coronary artery disease.
These super seeds and oil help balance estrogen in the body, thanks to their phytoestrogenic lignans (plant estrogens)—and balanced estrogen levels help protect against breast cancer. Flaxseeds have even been found to alleviate menopausal symptoms and osteoporosis.
As if those benefits weren't already enough, flaxseeds offer prostate-cancer protection, according to research studying the effects on tumor-growth rate in men with prostate cancer. They may also help protect against diabetes, arthritis, and neurological and autoimmune neurological disorders.
How to use it.
Ground flaxseeds are more beneficial than the whole seeds because the hull in the whole form is hard and can't be digested. You can either buy flax meal or purchase whole seeds and use a spice or coffee grinder to make flax meal as you need it. (Store any extra in the fridge or freezer.)
Like so many superfoods, ground flaxseeds are a nourishing addition to smoothies, oatmeal, and baked goods. Case in point: this vegan quick pumpkin flax bread. Not to mention, it's so easy to make flax eggs to use in baking. To replace one regular egg, combine 3 tablespoons of water with 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseeds, then let it sit for 15 minutes to thicken before adding to your recipe.
You can add flaxseeds to meatballs and other ground beef recipes too. Their mild flavor means you probably won't even taste the difference. And don't forget about flaxseed oil. Smoothies, salads, soups, and other dishes become even more nutrient-rich with a healthy drizzle of the potent stuff.
Of course, these aren't the only superfoods out there. Acai, bee products (honey, propolis, and others), aloe vera, wheatgrass, and seaweed are just a few of the many others you'll find. But the ones covered here have the most energy- and mood-boosting power to help you make the most of your day, every day.
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