Whether or not you're obsessed with trying the latest uber-healthy food trends, you've probably heard the buzz about maca. This pungent root veggie, cultivated in the Andes Mountains of Peru (and sometimes referred to as Peruvian ginseng), has been used traditionally for its nutritional and presumed medicinal qualities for thousands of years. Now, maca is popping up on supermarket shelves, and in energy bars, supplements, and smoothies. But before you add it to your diet, here are four things to keep in mind:
Maca is thought to have many perks
It's been heralded as a "superfood" because it contains key nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and fiber. It's also long been believed to improve fertility, boost libido, sharpen mental focus and memory, enhance endurance, reduce the symptoms of menopause, and more. But there is limited research available to back up these claims. One recent Korean review of previous research found that maca improved sperm motility and semen quality in infertile men. And a very small study on postmenopausal women suggested that maca may enhance sexual desire.
There are some safety concerns
Maca is taken as a natural treatment for hormone imbalances. But the fact that it may affect hormones could be a concern for some women. Many health professionals, including myself, advise women with hormone-sensitive conditions such as uterine fibroids, endometriosis, and certain cancers to avoid maca. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are also encouraged to steer clear of the root.
And though maca isn't labeled as a stimulant, many of my clients suspect that it triggered side effects like insomnia, racing heart rate, and stomach aches. If you’re generally sensitive to stimulants like coffee, or you have irritable bowl syndrome (IBS) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), pay attention to your body's response should you decide to give maca a try.
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It comes in powdered form
You may be able to find fresh maca at a market in Peru, but not in the United States. Exporting the root whole is illegal. You'll find it here as a powder, in capsules, or in products like Amrita’s Chocolate Maca bar or Navitas’ Maca Maple Cashews.
It’s simple to add maca to your diet
You can stir it into a pressed juice, whip it into a smoothie, or fold it into oatmeal, Greek yogurt, or pancake mix. It has a nutty flavor with a hint of butterscotch. And since there's more than one type, you can change things up by alternating the black, red, yellow, and blended varieties. Red maca, for example, is supposed to have the mildest flavor and provide the most health perks.
Just remember, a little goes a long way. So you might want to start with just a quarter to half a teaspoon. But even if maca becomes a part of your daily routine, I generally advise my clients to have no more than one teaspoon per day. And if it doesn't agree with you, don't sweat it. There are plenty of ways to upgrade your meals with other superfood add-ins.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her newest book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.