Chaya, A Super Green of The Mayan Diet : Mayan Diet Series Part I from Dr. J.E. Williams

Wednesday Apr 27 | BY |
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The levels of Chaya leaf nutrients are two to threefold greater than most edible leafy green vegetables.

Resident Medical Authority: J. E. Williams, OMD, FAAIM

I’ve been looking for dietary longevity secrets from around the world for forty years and have eaten all kinds of exotic foods, but I have yet to find a “secret sauce” that does it all. What I’ve found, however, is that traditional cultures and indigenous peoples show a strong interest in recipes that keep one fit, disease-free, and promote healthy aging.

Recently, I returned to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to see if I could find any special foods the Mayans used for vigor. After all, they built the world’s most extensive system of stone pyramids about one thousand years ago; so, they must know something.

I found several plants that fit my requirements, but Chaya or “Mexican tree spinach” is the one I found most interesting. Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius), Chayamansa in Mayan, is cultivated extensively for use as a food and medicine. It is a bush with succulent stems that exudes a milky sap when cut. The leaves are the part used for food. A Chaya bush can grow to be ten feet tall, but is usually pruned to about six feet for easier leaf harvest.

A popular leafy vegetable in Yucatan cuisines, Chaya is used like spinach, but it’s stronger tasting. The leaves must be cooked before being eaten, as the raw leaves contain a glucoside with toxic cyanide. When cooked the cyanide is volatilized as Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) so Chaya can be safely consumed. However small amounts of the raw leaf are safe to eat, and a little Chaya juice can be used to make a fresh green drink blended with orange and pineapple juice.

According to the National Institute of Nutrition in Mexico City, Chaya has the following properties:

• Improves blood circulation
• Helps digestion
• Improves vision
• Prevents varicose veins and hemorrhoids
• Lowers cholesterol
• Helps reduce weight
• Prevents coughs
• Augments calcium in the bones
• Decongests and disinfects the lungs
• Prevents anemia
• Improves memory and brain function
• Combats arthritis
• Improves glucose metabolism and prevents diabetes

Nutritional analysis has shown Chaya richer in iron than spinach and is a good source of potassium and calcium. Chaya leaf is high in protein (5.7%), and contains crude fiber (1.9%), calcium (199.4 mg/100 g), potassium (217.2 mg/100 g), iron (11.4 mg/100 g), vitamin C (164.7 mg/100 g), and carotene (0.085 mg/100 g). The levels of Chaya leaf nutrients are two to threefold greater than most edible leafy green vegetables, and like spinach it provides appreciable amounts of several essential mineral macronutrients necessary for human health.

Chaya is not yet readily available in health food stores. But, it’s easy to grown in the southern latitudes of the United States.

Remember that although it’s common practice in Mexico to use small amounts of the leaves raw in agua fresca, a tea-like cold drink don’t over consume the raw leaves. Chaya contains cyanogenic glycosides, a source of cyanide poisoning, so it should not be eaten raw. Boiling leaves for at least 5 minutes releases the cyanide and makes the leaves safe to eat.

Though Chaya may not be a miracle plant or the “secret sauce” of longevity, I rank it in the top ten green superfoods that can contribute to a plant-based diet.

We want to know your thoughts: Have you ever tried chaya?


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Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

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