We all want easy fixes for weight loss, because as I’ve said many times, losing weight is hard. While there is no magic pill you can take, there are all kinds of foods you can add to your diet that will give you an edge.
Not all calories are equal. While some calories are easily stored as body fat, other calories are not only difficult to store, but they actually make it easier to get rid of stored body fat. Everyone understands that a calorie of ice cream will effect them far differently than a calorie of broccoli, but I’ve found that many people don’t know why certain foods help fight off body fat while others contribute to it.
The key to long-term weight loss is finding foods you enjoy that don’t contain calories that are easily turned into stored body fat. You can’t just eat healthy for a little while, lose some weight, and then go back to your old habits and expect the weight to stay off. To make lasting changes to your body, you need to make lasting changes to what you put in it.
Fortunately, there are a lot of healthy options that actually taste good. Healthy eating is not about deprivation and suffering, it’s about finding foods you enjoy that also happen to be good for you. I’ve also found that people don’t understand how many good foods are also good for them. Most people think healthy eating means forcing bland vegetables down their throats, but you can easily find foods you enjoy once you understand what makes them good for you.
Good things in good foods
I want to explain the qualities of certain nutrients and how they can beneficially impact your metabolism. I’ll also give a few examples of great tasting foods you can eat as a source for each. You’ll notice some foods, like nuts, will appear in multiple categories because they truly are little nutritional powerhouses that everyone should add to their diets.
Protein has many benefits beyond simple weight control, but the thermogenic effects of protein is one of the reasons why the food industry seems to be promoting added protein as the latest fad. A calorie is not a calorie, and a calorie of protein requires more effort to digest than a calorie of fat or carbohydrates. The effort required to break down protein into usable amino acids means it will not only fill you up longer (due to slow digestion), but some of the energy will be lost during digestion. Protein has also been shown to suppress appetite.
While it is helpful for losing weight or preventing weight gain, it is more expensive, and even for a carnivore like myself, nothing but meat can get a little boring. It’s good to look for high-protein sources of food, but I generally don’t suggest relying on all the processed fad snacks.
A recent study found that people tended to eat more and move less when they thought the processed food bars were “fitness snacks.” As I always say, stay away from the highly processed stuff as much as possible and just focus on real food.
Best Sources: The most complete proteins typically come from animal sources, but there are all kinds of healthy plant sources as well like nuts, beans, and quinoa (an excellent rice-like grain that contains a ton of protein and fiber). When it comes to meat, keep it lean by trimming any visible fat and try to eat meat that contains healthy fats like grass-fed beef, omega-3 rich eggs, and fish. The calcium in dairy products has also been shown to limit fat absorption which helps with weight loss. If you’re a fan of yogurt, consider greek yogurt since it typically contains about twice as much protein per serving.
Just like your body can’t digest an entire calorie of protein, it can’t completely digest plant fiber either. We’re not herbivores so we’re not very good at digesting fiber. This means a lot of the fiber you eat (and the plant sugars contained within) will simply pass through undigested. This is why I always tell people that whole fruits and vegetables are basically free calories. However, like I also mentioned in that same article, if you dump those fruits and vegetables into a juicer or blender, then you can get to all those sugars just as easily as you would in a soda.
Added fiber or fiber pulverized in a blender still offers some benefits to appetite control, but the effect is lessened. Fiber is highly absorptive to water, so it literally expands in your stomach and makes you feel fuller. We’re also learning that fiber helps change the composition of helpful bacteria within the digestive system, particularly within the large intestine. This has not only been shown to aid weight loss, but it also protects against a host of health problems including diabetes, colon cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Best Sources: Whole fruits and vegetables should be at the top of your list and the crunchier the better. Not only is this a sign of more fiber, but crunch sends a signal to the brain that helps satisfy. It’s why we like chips so much. Some of the most nutrient-rich vegetables you should add to your diet are broccoli, spinach, kale, and carrots, but quite frankly you can’t go wrong with any vegetable. As for fruit, any type of berry will be low in sugar and high in fiber to help satisfy your appetite. Fruits like grapes and cherries tend to be lower in fiber and higher in sugar so try not to overdo it. If you’re a carb fan, it’s a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth without impacting your waistline. You should also switch out simple bread, cereal, and rice for whole-grain versions, oatmeal, and brown rice to control your blood sugar and keep the appetite spikes at bay. Nuts are also high in fiber with almonds, pecans, and walnuts at the top of the list for fiber content.
I’ve found people avoid potatoes like it’s white bread or pure sugar, but they actually contain a type of carbohydrate known as resistant starch. Much like fiber, it is difficult to digest so it passes through to the large intestines where it improves the health of the good bacteria there and confers the same health benefits I mentioned above. It not only helps improve satiety, control blood sugar, and suppress appetite, but it’s theorized that only about half of the actual calories are absorbed by the body. However, there is a catch; resistant starch breaks down when heated making the sugars far easier to absorb by the body. So foods like red potatoes and slightly green bananas contain resistant starch when cold, but contain easily digestible sugars when cooked. Interestingly, even after being cooked, the starch in potatoes and beans will return to resistant starch once it is allowed to cool again. So while a side of mashed potatoes will send your blood sugar soaring, a side of cold potato salad will not.
Best Sources: Slightly green bananas contain resistant starch, but it goes away once the peel starts browning. Potatoes, yams, beans, brown rice, cashews, and corn are also excellent sources, but only when cooled so make them part of a healthy side salad instead of a hot side dish.
I’ve already written multiple articles on healthy fats, so I’ll be brief here. The basic idea I want to get across is that fat has been wrongly vilified for a long time and you shouldn’t fear fat in your diets. It is not only filling, but it is necessary for proper cellular function. In fact researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University and the Boston Children’s Hospital are asking the federal government to remove the restrictions on total fat consumption from the upcoming 2015 dietary guidelines. It has become increasingly clear to the medical community that sugar rather than fat has been the cause of our current obesity and diabetes crisis.
That said, I still recommend people limit the amount of saturated fat that they eat. Not because it causes heart disease like we previously thought, but because it makes your fat cells less likely to release stored fat. While eating fat is not unhealthy, holding too much body fat is. We are what we eat, and if you eat primarily unsaturated fat, your body is able to mobilize 50 percent more fat from fat cells. Basically, your body will be much better at providing energy from stored fat which will not only keep you leaner, but you will have more energy.
Another fat that is getting a lot of attention lately is coconut oil because it is a saturated fat that is processed differently in the body. It is known as a medium chain triglyceride (as opposed to the standard long chain in most saturated fats) and it has been shown to be processed quickly in the body for energy rather than for storage. Studies have shown that it can help with weight loss, but the claims that it improves athletic performance do not seem to be supported.
Best Sources: In general, healthy unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature verses solid like saturated fats, but some of the best plant-based sources of healthy fats are from avocados, olive oil, canola oil, and nuts, and some great animal sources come from omega-3 rich eggs, grass-fed beef and dairy, and fish like salmon, tuna, trout, sardines, and mackerel. MCT oil seems to aid in weight loss as well, so substituting some fats for coconut oil may give you an additional boost. Many people like to mix MCT oil into their coffee in the morning to provide long-term appetite control.
Healthy food doesn’t need to be bland and boring. You don’t need to be afraid to sear up some vegetables in oil or top them with salt. In fact, many of the spices you can use like garlic, cayenne pepper, and cinnamon have been shown to confer other fat-fighting and health benefits, so load your meals up with spices for extra flavor.
Many of our old beliefs on food seem to simply be based on the idea that good tasting things are bad for us and bad tasting things are good for us. While that simple statement is definitely not true, I can sum up the reality in a simple way for everyone: processed foods are bad for us, and real foods are good for us.
I get the concept that people think it’s too much hassle to cook healthy meals with real food all the time, but the majority of my meals only take minutes to prepare and about 15 to 30 minutes to cook. It takes longer to order a pizza or get in the car and drive back and forth to a fast food place. More than anything, it’s simply another habit to develop. We are creatures of habit and although people think they like a ton a variety with food, when I review someone’s food journal, they typically eat the same ten things week after week. Take the time to try a few home recipes yourself and eventually you’ll fall into the habit of cooking your favorite 10 to 20 healthy recipes all the time.