For the hottest new healthy bites, look to how our ancestors ate.
When it comes to health food, everything old is new again. And experts say that can be a good thing: "What is long familiar to humans implies what we’re adapted to," says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. Here are five age-old staples (think kimchi, kombucha, and chia seeds) that have recently become up-and-coming new culinary trends—plus, how these popular superfoods can benefit your body, from lowering your risk of disease to improving your digestive health to keeping you slim.
Some scholars say the fermented tea was born circa 220 B.C. in China, where it was sipped for detoxification and dubbed the “tea of immortality.” Kombucha is bursting with good-for-you probiotics—the bacteria thrive during fermentation. FYI: Some kombucha drinks may contain more sugar than you bargained for, so look for brands that have 5 grams or fewer per serving, says Elizabeth Boham, MD, medical director of the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Mass.
The fermented cabbage dish is popping up on menus nationwide, with one analysis estimating that it’s offered on 1 in 50 menus at U.S. restaurants. Kimchi delivers a nutritional triple whammy: It’s made from a fiber-packed veggie, loaded with antioxidant-rich spices and, most importantly, teeming with gut-friendly probiotics. "Research has shown how the balance of microbes in your system can impact immunity, so eating probiotics is an important part of digestive health," says Janet Helm, RD, a Chicago-based nutritionist and author of the blog Nutrition Unplugged. Studies have found that eating kimchi can help ward off constipation and obesity and even strengthen the immune system.
Aztec warriors are said to have scarfed down spoonfuls of the energy-boosting seeds before heading into battle. Today, you can find them in everything from Greek yogurt to tea to fruit-infused squeeze packs. Chia seeds are rich in a form of omega-3 fatty acids that may help improve cholesterol and high blood pressure and lower the risk of heart disease. They also have 11 grams of fiber per ounce, so eating them can help curb your appetite—and keep extra pounds away.
Our ancestors began carbo-loading about 75,000 years ago. We call the grains they ate (such as quinoa, Kamut, and freekeh) "ancient" because they’ve remained largely unchanged over the last several hundred years, unlike modern types of wheat, which have been crossbred. Most ancient grains are nutritional powerhouses, boasting calcium (teff has the most of any grain), fiber (barley is full of it), and an amino acid called lysine, which among other things helps your body burn fat (amaranth is a top source). While "ancient grains" is a marketing term, not a scientific one, it does denote healthy whole, unrefined grains.