While calorie-crushing workouts play a key part in obtaining a better reflection in the mirror, what you eat likely plays an equal part—some would argue a larger one—in honing your physique. So...what should you eat? We thought you'd never ask.
The latest science suggests that there's a grocery cart full of foods that have what it takes to alter your body for the better. So if your goal for the year ahead is to turn belly flab into tight abs, here's the ultimate shopping list to transform your physique into a showstopper.
In a child's perfect world, those bland lima beans would be illegal. But for physique-minded adults, all types of beans should be on the menu regularly. They provide a range of nutritional highlights including plant-based protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics found that a bean-heavy, fiber-rich diet is as effective as a lower-carbohydrate approach for weight loss, but far superior when it comes to improving cholesterol levels.
What's more, a University of Minnesota investigation found that subjects were just as satisfied after eating a higher-fiber bean-based meal as they were following a beef meal. Of course, a serving of beans contains far fewer calories than a serving of beef: 109 in 1/2 cup of black beans versus 246 in 3 ounces of cooked beef.
Count antipudge powers as another reason to reel in salmon. Why? Omega-3 fatty acids, of course!
A study out of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who swallowed an omega-3 supplement daily and performed cardio for little more than two hours a week (surely, you can handle that!) reduced their body-fat percentage while simultaneously lowering their heart-hampering blood triglycerides and raising HDL ("good") cholesterol numbers. When another group with the same exercise regimen was provided omega-3-poor sunflower oil instead, they shed hardly any fat.
Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and is full of satiating, high-quality protein. Together, this makes salmon an ideal food to boost your weight-loss efforts!
3. Green Tea
Green tea is an ancient beverage with modern tummy-melting powers. In a recent study out of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, participants who were provided with a caffeine-free green tea extract experienced a 25 percent higher rate of fat oxidation during exercise than those who received a placebo. The supplement group also witnessed a higher drop in body-fat levels following the month-long study.
Like salmon, this is one case where the food is every bit as good as the supp. Green tea is high in catechin-polyphenols (ECGC), which are partially responsible for the antipudge capacity. So sip green tea throughout the day as a calorie-free way to stay hydrated and rev up the fat-burning machine.
A caveat: The casein protein in milk may interact with antioxidants and polyphenols in tea and render them less potent. So sip your green tea au naturale.
4. Cauliflower, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts
Sure, these are four different plants, but we're grouping them together because they're all great, and you can use them all pretty much interchangeably.
When Harvard University researchers tracked the eating habits and body-composition changes of more than 130,000 men and women for more than two decades, they found that higher intakes of nonstarchy, lower-glycemic-index vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale were strongly associated with lower rates of weight gain.
These types of vegetables are nutrient dense and often high in fiber, meaning they can fill you up on fewer calories and won't negatively impact blood sugar levels. Higher-glycemic vegetables like potatoes, corn, and peas don't appear to have the same satiating powers.
Take full advantage of these fiber-packed vegetables by including them in at least two meals each day. In the case of cauliflower, just drizzle pieces with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and paprika, and roast them at 400 degrees for 10-15 minutes.
Blueberries possess numerous health benefits, but one you may not know about is their ability to help you uncover those abs. An investigation in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry suggests that pterostilbene, an antioxidant compound found in these blue health bombs, may help keep pudge at bay by reducing the activity of enzymes involved in fat storage, while also enhancing fat oxidation.
What's more, the aforementioned Harvard study found that, along with cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, higher intakes of berries are associated with less weight gain over the years.
Pro tip: Because they contain a higher skin-to-flesh ratio, wild blueberries are especially rich in antioxidants.
6. Greek Yogurt
All too often, people starting a fat-loss phase rid their fridge of dairy. No more! A Journal of Nutrition study determined that overweight people who exercised daily and followed a high-dairy, high-protein diet (while also keeping their calorie intake in check) lost more body fat and gained more lean body mass than people who took in the same number of calories but adhered to less protein and less dairy.
Deliciously thick Greek yogurt has the added perk of being especially rich in physique-friendly protein compared to traditional yogurt. In fact, research shows that scooping up protein-packed Greek yogurt for a snack can bolster satiety and keep you feeling full longer than a nondairy, calorie-matched alternative. For maximum effect, avoid the sugary flavors, and let plain reign!
An apple a day may not only keep the doctor away—it may also keep the flab monster at arm's length. Research out of Japan suggests that polyphenol compounds found in apples (mostly in the peel, FYI) may improve body-fat measures by altering compounds involved in fat metabolism.
These polyphenols were shown to increase levels of adiponectin, a protein that plays a major role in energy regulation, carbohydrate and fat metabolism, and insulin sensitivity.11 Low levels of adiponectin, which are observed in obese populations, are linked to insulin resistance, a pro-inflammatory environment, atherosclerosis, and high blood pressure.[12,13]
It remains to be determined how many apples a person would need to eat to witness an effect, but in the meantime, it can't hurt to work one or two into your daily fruit quota. In fact, a Harvard study found that an increased intake of apples and pears led to more weight loss in subjects, second only to berries out of all fruits examined.
If you are hunting for an ideal cheat food, look no further than chocolate. Scientists in the prestigious Archives of Internal Medicine examined chocolate and exercise habits among over 1,000 subjects. They found that those who consumed chocolate more frequently, despite the extra calories and saturated fat content, tended to have a lower BMI versus those who didn't embrace their inner Willy Wonka.
How could this be? The study authors surmised that flavonoid antioxidants in chocolate may alter metabolism in a way that reduces fat storage. Cocoa-derived epicatechin has been demonstrated to enhance fat burning and promote weight loss in rat models, suggesting it may play a similar role in humans.
As with anything, moderation is key. Rather than a candy bar (or five) per day, stick to an ounce or two of chocolate containing at least 60 percent cocoa.
9. Sprouted Bread
Sprouted breads like Ezekiel have a leg up on the competition when it comes to helping you stay pumped up rather than plumped up. A study out of The Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism discovered that sprouted bread has a lower glycemic index than regular whole-grain loaves, thus providing a slower release of its carbohydrate energy. More good news: Many sprouted brands include healthy items like seeds and nuts in their blends.
If you are trying to win the battle of the bulge, be sure to go nuts for nuts. A recent study out of Loma Linda University in California found that including tree nuts—a group that includes pistachios, almonds, pecans and hazelnuts—as part of your healthy eating plan is strongly associated with a reduced risk for obesity.
How can this be, when nuts are packed with calories? It turns out that nuts like pistachios contain a powerful mixture of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals that can keep you from turning to other higher-calorie foods with less of an impressive nutritional resume. Plus, pistachios contain the fewest calories of all nuts!
Pro tip: If you have trouble eating only a reasonable portion of nuts, turn to pistachios still in their shell. The task of shelling the nuts will help keep portions in check by forcing you to slow down your eating.
How can you enjoy your favorite burgers, tacos and meatloaf with less calorie guilt? Pack them full of low-calorie mushrooms!
An intriguing study in the Journal of Food Science found that substituting up to 80 percent of the ground beef in a meal with cooked mushrooms not only boosted the flavor intensity beyond that of the all-beef meal, but also resulted in a dish with not only significantly fewer calories, but also enhanced levels of nutrients like vitamin D, potassium, and B vitamins.
This is huge news if you're looking for places to trim your calorie intake in the hopes of trimming your waistline. So the next time you are rustling up a burger, pasta meat sauce, taco filling, or a sloppy Joe, consider swapping out some of the beef with finely chopped and sautéed mushrooms.
12. Split Peas
A mere 1/4-cup serving of split peas delivers a whopping 13 grams of fiber! Why does this matter? Fiber wages a war on fat by reducing hunger, improving blood-sugar control, and positively altering the population of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system. As a bonus, split peas also contain a laundry list of must-have vitamins and minerals an active body needs.
You may have also noticed that pea protein powder is garnering shelf space alongside whey. That's because this plant protein powder, which is often sourced from yellow split peas, contains healthy amounts of anabolic aminos, while offering an animal-friendly source of protein.
13. Hot Sauce
Turn up the heat of your meals, and you can also expect to melt away more fat. Capsaicin, the pungent compound that gives the chili peppers in hot sauces their fiery kick, is believed to be among body fat's worst enemies by cranking up metabolism and enhancing fat burning.
Capsaicin can also bolster satiety, resulting in improved calorie control. Pair your favorite with any cut of protein, eggs, veggies, and even rice!
14. Frozen Bananas
When frozen bananas are blended into protein shakes, they instantly make the drink deliciously thick and creamy, which also adds more volume to your meal and more carbs to replenish you after a tough workout.
Researchers at Purdue University compared blended drinks that were identical in calories and volume, but with different viscosities. They found that the thicker drink did a much better job at suppressing hunger than the thinner, less viscous beverage. A thicker drink likely stretches the stomach in a similar manner as solid food, and also won't leave your stomach as quickly as a thinner beverage would.
Bananas freeze very well. Just slice the peeled fruit into thirds and put them in the freezer spread out on a baking sheet. Once the chunks are frozen solid, transfer them to a zip-top bag and keep them frozen until it's time to whip up a post-gym drink in the blender.
15. Steel-Cut Oatmeal
A stomach that won't stop growling is a dieter's worse nightmare. So instead of subsisting on a bowl of unsatisfying boxed cereal for breakfast, fill your stomach with hearty oatmeal.
A 2015 study by researchers at New York's Columbia University Medical Center discovered that people who consumed oatmeal for breakfast experienced greater satiety and consumed 31 percent fewer calories at a follow-up meal compared with people who spooned up the same number of calories from corn flakes.
Oats contain a bounty of hunger-fighting soluble fiber that can help you avoid vending-machine temptation and its waistline repercussions. Processed boxed cereal? Not so much. The only downside: Taking the time to cook steel-cut oats in the morning isn't always feasible. To speed up the process, soak the oats in water overnight, which can slash cooking time by half.
16. Spaghetti Squash
Spaghetti squash is Mother Nature's low-carb answer to pasta. Once cooked, the flesh of the squash pulls apart into slightly nutty tasting, noodle-like strands, minus the excessive starchy carbohydrates and calories.
Turn to your microwave for an easy way to prepare spaghetti squash. Simply slice the squash in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds. Place the squash halves on a microwave-safe dish, flesh-side down, and cover it loosely with a paper towel. Microwave the squash on high for 8-12 minutes, or until the flesh is very tender. Let it stand for five minutes, then scrape out the squash flesh with a fork.
During the low-carb craze, potatoes were deemed public enemy number one. But it turns out that the spud may hold a secret weapon in the battle against flab: resistant starch.
Resistant starch is a uniquely bulky form of fiber that takes up space in your digestive system, leading to greater feelings of fullness. And because it resists digestion, the starch passes through your system and doesn't enter your bloodstream, so it's less likely to get socked away as body fat compared to other carbohydrates.
But there's a catch. In cooked starchy foods like potatoes, resistant starch is created during the cooling process. That's because cooking triggers starch to absorb water when it cools. To take advantage of the potato's ability (as well as that of beans, corn, lentils, whole-grain pasta, and brown rice) to infuse your diet with fat-resistant starch, eat it cold or pureed into chilled soups.
18. Ground Beef And Other Meats
Like yogurt and salmon, meat can assure your diet includes plenty of protein, which has been shown to be quite effective at promoting fat loss.
Beyond increasing lean body mass, protein can also help prevent belt-stretching weight gain due to the fact that it has a higher thermic effect than carbs and fat. Think of the thermic effect of food as the energy cost of chewing, digesting, absorbing, transporting, and storing the food you eat.
Protein's thermic effect can range from 20-35 percent, meaning that up to 35 percent of the calories it provides end up being burned up during digestion and processing. In contrast, only about 5-15 percent of the energy consumed from carbohydrates or fats are burned up to process them. So even though protein and carbohydrates have the same calories per gram, the human body stores fewer of them from the former.
19. Olive Oil
If you want to say sayonara to belly fat in 2016, it's important to make the fats you eat work harder for you. And if you have trouble keeping your hand out of the cookie jar, be sure to make olive oil a dietary fat staple.
A recent investigation by a group of white coats in Italy found that oleic acid, a main monounsaturated fat present in olive oil, can increase post-meal circulating levels of a hunger-fighting compound called oleoylethanolamide (OEA). That simple ingredient results in a lower caloric intake over the following 24-hour period. It appears that lean individuals are more sensitive to the impacts of oleic acid than overweight people are.
You can use cheaper, more refined "light" or "pure" olive oil for cooking purposes, since it has a neutral flavor and higher smoke point, but for the purposes of salad dressings, sauces, and dips, go with the extra-virgin good stuff. It has the added benefit of being richer in body-friendly antioxidants.
20. Chia Seeds
No longer just for hairy desk pets, chia seeds may help you crush hunger and cravings. That's because they are plush in soluble fiber, which can swell in your stomach when mixed with liquids to create a sense of fullness to help silence a raging case of the munchies, so you become less tempted by nutritional landmines that can derail your diet.
This is why chia seeds have become a popular way to create healthier puddings and drinks; they create a thickened product when mixed with the liquids in the recipes. Some people even create a chia gel to be used in items like pancakes and baked goods to act as a binder in lieu of eggs. In stores, you may come across both white and black chia seeds; both contain the same fiber bounty.
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