Diet and disease have been linked since the beginning of time, when plants were cultivated not only for food but also as remedies for a host of ailments.
Fortunately, we’ve progressed since the days of foraging in the woods for salad ingredients with the risk of discovering that—D’oh! That one’s poisonous. But ironically, for all we’ve learned, we continue to eat foods that are killing us slowly. In fact, chronic illnesses brought on by obesity—including (but not limited to) cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease—account for an estimated 120,000 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
But there’s a silver lining: Every time we eat, we make a choice: to feed disease and weight gain, or to fight illness and fuel weight loss. Here’s a roundup of life-saving foods that do the latter:
A scoop of guacamole is one of the most effective hunger-squashers known to man. In a study published in Nutrition Journal, participants who ate half a fresh avocado with lunch reported a 40% decreased desire to eat for hours afterward. And thanks to their mono and polyunsaturated fats, avocados can help lower cholesterol levels and decrease risk for heart disease when consumed in place of saturated or trans fats.
Get the benefits: Add slices of avocados to sandwiches or tacos, or throw some guac on top of toast or eggs. At only 60 calories, a 2 Tablespoon serving of guacamole can provide the same benefits as avocados with even more of a flavor punch. Just be sure when buying store-bought guac that avocados actually made it into the box (many are made without the real fruit)! We love Wholly Guacamole.
Bananas don’t just look like smiles; we promote them because they contain folate, a nutrient that may fight depression by helping serotonin, the feel-good chemical, enter the brain faster. Studies have shown an elevated incidence of folate deficiency in 50% of patients with depression, and some doctors recommend increasing folate intake if you’re taking anti-depressants, to boost their effects. But that’s not the only reason you should reach for the yellow fruit: Bananas have 12 milligrams of choline, a fat-blasting B vitamin that acts directly on the genes that cause fat storage in the stomach.
Get the benefits: Bananas are super versatile. You can eat them plain, smear them with almond butter, throw them into overnight oats or use them to sweeten your protein shakes.
There’s a genetic basis to Alzheimer’s, and if the disease runs in your family, it’s especially important to make changes to your lifestyle to minimize your risk. Just adding more blueberries to your diet can help. Rich in antioxidants that give them their purple or deep-red color, the berries protect cells from damage by changing the way neurons in the brain communicate and reducing the accumulation of protein clumps most frequently seen in Alzheimer’s. In one study, older adults who supplemented with blueberry juice for just 12 weeks scored higher on memory tests than those receiving a placebo. And bonus: the powerful berries can also help you stay lean for life. A University of Michigan animal study found that eating blueberries can help you burn that stubborn belly fat by turning on your get-lean genes. After a 90-day trial, the rats fed a blueberry-enriched diet showed significantly reduced abdominal belly fat than the control group.
(And to discover more wasit-whitteling foods, check out these 30 Foods That Melt Love Handles)
Get the benefits: Believe it or not, studies suggest frozen blueberries are actually nutritionally superior to fresh varieties, and contain more antioxidants. But sorry, pie lovers, science isn’t on your side: A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that antioxidant levels in blueberries dropped by 10 to 21 percent when baked.
Strawberries are a dietary triple threat: They’re a flavorful way to sate sweet cravings, they’re packed with polyphenols, which can help you burn fat and even stop it from forming, and they’re chock full of ellagitannins, phytochemicals that may slow the growth of cervical and colon cancer cells.
Get the benefits: Nosh on them solo, throw them into a fruit salad or Greek yogurt or add the sweet red berry to your morning oatmeal along with chia seeds, almonds and vanilla extract.
A study at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that for every 10-gram increase in soluble fiber eaten per day, visceral fat (that’s dangerous belly fat) was reduced by 3.7 percent over five years. Participants who paired their apple-a-day habit with 30 minutes of exercise two to four times per week saw a 7.4 percent decrease in the rate of visceral fat accumulation over the same time period. And that’s not all: A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that women who regularly ate apples were found to have a 13 to 22 percent lower risk of coronary disease than those who didn’t nosh on the fruit. We have the heart-health boosting flavonoid quercetin and their high soluble fiber content to thank for its powerful health-improving properties.
Get the benefits: A medium-sized apple, at about 100 calories and 4.5 grams of fiber per fruit, is one of the best snack options for anyone looking to slim down. If you don’t like how the fruit tastes plain, chop it up and add it to your oatmeal along with some cinnamon or smear it with some peanut butter. Not sure if your go-to PB is a waist-friendly pick? Check out our exclusive report: The 36 Top Peanut Butters—Ranked! to find out!
Though the link isn’t clear, studies show that people with the most vitamin C in their systems have the lowest incidence of diabetes. But before you reach for that orange to stay healthy, consider this: Guava provides 600% of the day’s vitamin C in just one cup! A small round orange, on the other hand, packs just 85%. What’s more, with 4 grams per cup, guava packs more satiating protein than any other fruit in the supermarket, making it a must eat for anyone trying to lose weight.
Get the benefits: Simply slice and eat—or if you’re feeling adventurous, toss the fruit into a salad or slip slices into a detox water with some fresh strawberries for a healthy—yet flavorful—alternative to soda.
It may not look like anything special, but grapefruits are mighty as can be! They’ve been shown to keep everything from wrinkles and belly fat to cancer and high blood pressure at bay—and it’s all thanks to their high vitamin C and lycopene content. Experts say that lycopene, a powerful phytonutrient, can decrease the risk of bladder, lung, prostate, skin, and stomach cancers, and reduce the risk of heart disease. And a study in the journal Metabolism found the eating half a grapefruit before meals may help reduce visceral (belly) fat and lower cholesterol levels.
Get the benefits: Consider having half of a grapefruit before your morning oatmeal, and slicing a few segments to a starter salad.
This sweet, Peruvian fruit is a chock full of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals. It’s also a potent source beta-carotene, a flavonoid that has strong antioxidant and anti-cancer properties.
Get the benefits: Use the fruit to make a dessert-style smoothie. Here’s how: Blend a few segments of lucuma with a frozen banana, 1 medjool date, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, a ½ cup of almond milk and a ½ cup of ice.
Grapes are packed with resveratrol, a potent antioxidant that offers protection against cardiovascular disease. Just make sure you pick up the red ones. Red grapes contain far more resveratrol than the green variety, and they’re filled with compounds called anthocyanins, that calm the action of fat-storage genes. And for more ways to lose weight—fast, check out these 42 Ways to Lose 5 Inches of Belly Fat.
Get the benefits: Nosh on grapes solo as a snack or use them to make a fruit salad.
Not only is it delicious, but sipping on green tea has been proven to whittle your waist and ward off disease. What makes green tea so powerful? It’s packed with catechins, oxidative damage and belly-fat crusaders that blast adipose tissue by revving the metabolism and increasing the release of fat from fat cells. Studies have found an association between sipping green tea and a reduced risk for several cancers, including, bladder, breast, colon, esophageal, lung and skin. But that’s not all — according to Harvard researchers, the antioxidants in green tea may also lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase levels of HDL (good) cholesterol.
Get the benefits: Your body absorbs the nutrients in green tea most effectively when you drink it at least four hours after your last meal, making it a perfect breakfast every morning. To boost the benefits further, squeeze a lemon wedge into your mug. The fruit helps preserve the tea’s mighty polyphenol antioxidants. And for more ways to lose weight and improve your health with green tea, pick up a copy of The 17-Day Green Tea Diet today!
Derived from the Japanese tencha leaf and then stone ground into a bright-green fine powder, matcha literally means “powdered tea,” and it’s a superfood not to be missed. Research shows the concentration of the catechin epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) in matcha to be 137 times greater than the amount you’ll find in most store-bought green tea. Studies have shown the compound can simultaneously boost the breakdown of fat and block the formation of new fat cells, particularly in the belly. One study found men who drank green tea containing 136 mg EGCG—what you’ll find in a single 4 gram serving of matcha—lost twice as much weight than a placebo group, and four times as much belly fat over the course of 3 months. Need one more reason for tea time? A single serving sneaks in 4 grams of protein—that’s more than an egg white! No wonder it’s one of the very best weight loss teas of all time!
Get the benefits: You can prepare the powder as a traditional tea drink as the zen monks have done since 1191 A.D., or enjoy the superfood 2015-style in lattes, iced drinks and smoothies. Looking for some healthy recipes? Check out these 8 Recipes Using Matcha Green Tea.
Spinach is like that guy. The captain of every Varsity sport, the Homecoming King, the Prom King and the Valedictorian. He can do it all, and now researchers say he can cure liver disease—a complex illness caused by poor diet, excess alcohol and inflammation. Your liver’s primarily role is to detox; when it’s not working properly, the liver gets “fatty,” toxins build up in your system and you get very ill. Studies suggest spinach can be particularly cleansing, as it’s rich in vitamin E and two compounds called “betaine” and “choline” that work together to turn off fat storage genes in the liver. One study found steamed spinach to be 13 percent more effective at lowering fatty acid levels in the liver than a pharmaceutical drug while another research study suggests that adding leafy vegetables to one’s diet can improve fatty acid profiles in just four weeks.
Get the benefits: It’s hard to eat too much spinach, so stock up on a few bags at the beginning of the week and challenge yourself to sneak it into every meal. A handful in your smoothies? You’ll never taste it! A ½ cup inside your whole grain pita? It will hardly alter the taste.
Tomatoes are packed with the antioxidant lycopene, which studies show can decrease your risk of bladder, lung, prostate, skin, and stomach cancers, as well as reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. Just one cup of the sun-dried version will lend you 7 grams of fiber, ¾ of your recommended daily allowance (RDA)of potassium—which is essential for heart health and tissue repair—and 50% of your RDA of vitamin C, the superstar antioxidant that prevents DNA damage. They’re also rich in vitamins A and K, and metabolism-revving potassium! And speaking of your metabolism, speed it up with the help of these 55 Best-Ever Ways to Boost Your Metabolism.
Get the benefits: Use them as a pizza topping, a tangy addition to salads, or snack on them right out of the bag.
Beets and Beet Greens
You may already know that beets can help improve your athletic performance, but did you know they can help protect the heart, too? It’s true! The secret weapon: Nitrates, a natural chemical that increases endurance, reduces the amount of oxygen needed during exercise and lowers blood pressure and protects the heart by de-stiffening arterial walls. To get the most out of the beets in your kitchen, hold onto the beet greens and eat those too. A scant cup of the bitter green serves up nearly 5 grams of belly-flattening fiber—that’s more than you’ll find in a bowl of Quaker Oats! Researchers at the University of Leeds found that risk of cardiovascular disease was significantly lower for every 7 grams of fiber consumed.
Get the benefits: Try beet greens in stir frys and throw beetroots into salads or sandwiches to reap the benefits.
Packed with free-radical-scavenging chlorogenic acid, eggplant is good for more than just parmigiana. The shiny, purple veggie is also packed with powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins that provide neuroprotective benefits like bolstering short-term memory and reducing mood-killing inflammation.
Get the benefits: Eggplant is the perfect base for meatless dishes and makes a tasty addition to turkey burgers, sandwiches, seafood risottos, and pasta dishes.
Watercress may also be the closest thing yet to a true anti-aging food. Gram for gram this mild-tasting and flowery-looking green contains four times more beta carotene than an apple, and a whopping 238 percent of your daily recommended dose of vitamin K per 100 grams—two compounds that keep skin dewy and youthful. The beauty food is also the richest dietary source of PEITC (phenylethyl isothiocyanate), which research suggests can fight cancer. Results from an eight-week trial published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggest daily supplementation of 85 grams of raw watercress (that’s about two cups) could reduce DMA damage linked to cancer by 17 percent.
Get the benefits: Exposure to heat may inactivate PEITC, so it’s best to enjoy watercress raw in salads, cold-pressed juices, and sandwiches.
If cancer is a giant, complex circuit board, broccoli is like the big red OFF switch. The average American eats over 4 pounds of the flowery vegetable a year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. And that’s a good thing because there’s significant evidence of the value of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli in cancer prevention. In fact, clinical trials show eating steamed broccoli just a few times a week can lower rates of prostate, breast, lung and skin cancers. Researchers attribute the anti-cancer properties primarily to sulforaphane, a compound that works on a genetic level to effectively “switch off” cancer genes, leading to the targeted death of cancer cells and slowing of disease progression. One study found men who ate three or more half-cup servings of broccoli per week had a 41 percent decreased risk for prostate cancer compared to men who ate fewer than one serving per week.
Get the benefits: Freezing broccoli renders the enzyme almost useless; so does boiling it. But the good news is that new research shows you can revive—and nearly double—Mr. Broccoli’s anti-cancer qualities by introducing him to a hottie! That is to say, pair broccoli that was frozen and then gently steamed (2-3 mins in the microwave) with a spicy food that also contains myrosinase—like mustard, horseradish, wasabi, or peppery arugula.
Despite conventional wisdom, not all white foods deserve to go on the naughty list. Take cauliflower, for example. It’s filled to two cancer-fighting compounds: glucosinolates and isothiocyanates, which reduce inflammation that can lead to prostate cancer.
Get the benefits: Grated cauliflower can take the place of rice, mashed cauliflower can stand in for mashed potatoes and tiny florets can sub for noodles in mac-and-cheese. The cruciferous vegetable also tastes great baked in the oven with some olive oil, rosemary and black pepper.
This Peruvian root plant, which is small and round and looks a little like a turnip, is rich in amino acids, phytonutrients, and a number of vitamins and minerals, says registered Manuel Villacorta. Maca also aids adrenal function, meaning it can pump up your energy levels while reducing stress, a condition that can lead to heart problems and diabetes.
Get the benefits: Powdered maca may be easier to find (and easier to add to your diet) than the plant itself. Its flavor is similar to toasted oats, making it a tasty addition to smoothies, chia seed pudding and fresh-pressed juices. Just don’t add it to anything hot, because it will lose all its health-protective benefits.
Kale contains a type of phytonutrient that appears to lessen the occurrence of a wide variety of cancers, including breast and ovarian. Though scientists are still studying why this happens, they believe the phytonutrients in kale trigger the liver to produce enzymes that neutralize potentially cancer-causing substances.
Get the benefits: Add kale to smoothies, salads, sandwiches and stir-fries. Alternatively, use the veggie to make a crispy snack by sprinkling a bunch with olive oil, salt and pepper and baking in the oven on 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. Wash ‘em down with one of these 50 Best Detox Waters for Fat Burning and Weight Loss.
Spices & Fats
One study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that subjects who ate coconut oil lost overall weight and belly fat faster than a group consuming the same amount of olive oil. The secret is in coconut’s medium chain triglycerides. Unlike the long-chain fatty acids in most oils, coconut oil is broken down immediately for use rather than stored and has been found to speed up the metabolism. That’s right—your body has trouble storing the calories in coconut oil and revs up its metabolism to burn them instead.
Get the benefits: Coconut oil’s high smoke point makes it great for just about every dish from eggs to stir-frys, and a delicious substitute for butter when baking.
Turmeric may be the single most powerful anti-inflammatory food in nature’s arsenal, thanks to its unique active phytochemical, curcumin. The main yellow bioactive component of turmeric, curcumin has been shown to have a wide spectrum of biological actions including as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticarcinogenic and anticancer agent. According to a study in the International Journal of Cancer, curcumin’s anticancer effect in human breast cancer cells is mainly mediated through induction of cancer cell death as well as the promotion of the expression of a tumor suppressor gene.
Get the benefits: Turmeric is the only edible source of curcumin, so you want to sneak it into your diet as much as possible. Although the spice is typical of curries, it’s not to be confused with curry powder—a blend of spices that includes turmeric. Look for turmeric from Alleppey, which has twice the curcumin than turmeric from Madras. The raw spice is rather harsh, so it’s best enjoyed cooked in dishes like stir-frys and stews, or as a seasoning for meat, poultry and fish.
Yes, you WOULD like pepper on that. Whenever the waiter cracks that pepper grinder, he releases piperine, a powerful compound found in black pepper that has been used for centuries in Eastern medicine to treat multiple health conditions, including inflammation and digestive troubles. But recent animal studies have found that piperine may also have the profound ability to interfere with the formation of new fat cells—a reaction known as adipogenesis, resulting in a decrease in waist size, body fat, and cholesterol levels. To learn about more foods that will help whittle your middle, check out these 25 Best Foods for a Toned Body.
Get the benefits: Pepper tastes good on basically everything that’s savory. Sprinkle the stuff onto your food whenever you get the chance.
Proteins, Seeds, and Nuts
Chia and Flax Seeds
One of the hallmarks of a balanced diet is to have a good ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3s. A 4:1 ratio would be ideal, but the modern American diet is more like 20:1. That leads to inflammation, which can trigger weight gain. But while eating a serving of salmon every day isn’t exactly convenient, sprinkling these two seeds—among the most highly concentrated sources of omega-3s in the food world—is as easy a diet upgrade as you can get. Animal studies suggest a chia-rich diet can lower harmful LDL cholesterol and protect the heart, and a recent study in the journal Hypertension found that daily consumption of flaxseed-fortified bakery products reduced blood pressure in patients with peripheral artery disease.
Get the benefits: Best absorbed when ground, flax adds delicious nuttiness to oats, cereal, smoothies and baked goods. Chia seeds fair well in smoothies, salads, cereals, pancakes or even desserts.
Of all the nuts at the bar to go home with, which will prove best for your heart? The walnut, researchers say. Ironically, or perhaps Mother Nature’s way of giving us a hint, heart-shaped walnuts are brimming in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids that can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease—an umbrella term that refers to a number of deadly complications (including heart attack and stroke) that amount for about 600,000 deaths in the United States per year. The most comprehensive review of clinical trials on nut consumption in relation to cardiovascular disease showed consuming just one ounce of walnuts five or more times a week—about a handful every day—can slash heart disease risk by nearly 40 percent. And a recent study showed two ounces a day was enough to significantly improve blood flow to and from the heart in just 8 weeks, without causing weight gain.
Get the benefits: A recent study that analyzed the health benefits of different parts of the walnut—the skin, the “meat” and the oil—found most of the heart-healthy benefits come from the oil. You can release walnuts’ volatile oils by roasting them in a dry pan over medium heat until fragrant. And give walnut oil a try—a finishing oil that’s delicious in mixed into salad dressings or drizzled (with a teaspoon!) on pasta dishes.
When it comes to healthy snack foods, almonds and walnuts are always on the A-list, but pumpkin seeds, a.k.a. pepitas, are an underrated winner. One half-cup serving has 20% more protein than an egg, and is high in iron, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and immune-system-boosting zinc.
Get the benefits: Add pumpkin seeds to salads, oats and yogurt, or grab a handful as a high protein snack.
Not just the prettiest bean of the bunch, each gem-like kidney bean can be considered an effective blood-sugar control pill—and a particularly good defense against type 2 diabetes, a life-altering disease that radically changes the way your body manages blood sugar. The main reason beans are so good at preventing—and treating—the obesity-related disease is their rich fiber content. Kidney beans pack the biggest dietary wallop; just a half cup of beans provides 14 grams—more than 3 servings of oatmeal! And it’s not just run-of-the-mill fiber, but a special form called “resistant starch.” This type takes longer to digest than other fibers, making it a very “low glycemic” carbohydrate that helps prevent blood sugar spikes. In fact, a recent study found diabetics who ate one cup of beans every day for 3 months saw better improvements in fasting blood sugar, cholesterol and even body weight than a group who ate one cup of equally-fibrous whole-wheat products. And a longer study that followed more than 64,000 women for 4 years found that high intake of beans was associated with a 38 percent decreased risk of diabetes.
Get the benefits: Any increase in beans and dietary pulses (like lentils) is a healthy choice. If you’re serious about diabetes prevention, one cup a day should be your goal. Dried beans tend to be slightly higher in fiber and slightly lower on the glycemic index; for convenience, though, canned varieties are usually fine, just check the label for additives like sugar and rinse your beans thoroughly before enjoying.
Wild salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids, which the body cannot produce by itself. These fatty acids reduce inflammation, improve circulation, increase the ratio of good to bad cholesterol, and may slash cancer risk. Salmon is also a rich source of vitamins D and B and selenium, a nutrient that helps prevent cell damage.
Get the benefits: Whatever you do, avoid farmed salmon—it’s filled with inflamatory omega-6 and lacks the high levels of vitamin D that make salmon such a superfood star! And to ensure your wild salmon’s taste is a solid 10, whip up this Green Tea Poached Salmon recipe, courtesy of the Zero Belly Cookbook!
Grains and Beans
For about the price of a bottle of water, you can boil up a massive pot of soup- and salad-ready lentils. A pound-size bag has 11 grams of fiber and 10 grams of protein in each of its 13 servings. It’s also one of the world’s richest sources of folate, a B vitamin that helps form oxygen-carrying red blood cells and promotes communication between nerves cells. But that’s not all: Their high fiber content makes them extremely satiating, and studies have shown that they speed fat loss: Spanish researchers found that people whose diets included four weekly servings of legumes lost more weight and improved their cholesterol more than people who didn’t.
Get the benefits: Eat them on their own as a side or simmer them into a number of all-season soups. And for more weight loss hacks, check out these 40 Ways to Lose Weight in 4 Seconds.
Sprouted Whole Grain Bread
Not all breads are carb bombs waiting to shatter your weight loss goals. This nutrient-dense, protein-rich bread is loaded with folate-filled lentils and good-for-you sprouted grains and seeds like millet and barley, a primo source of the cholesterol-lowering fiber beta-glucan.
Get the benefits: Swap your go-to bread for slices of sprouted whole grain.
This nutty-flavored gluten-free grain may be small, but it packs a mighty nutritional punch! It’s loaded with fiber, essential amino acids, bone-building calcium and de-stressing vitamin C—a nutrient not typically found in grains. And the less stress you have in your life, the better it is for your belly. The reason: When you’re under stress, the hormone cortisol gathers up all the extra fat in your blood stream and stores them right in your belly. Then it sends out a signal: “Hey, need more lipids here. Go eat something.” More stress leads to more belly fat, even if actual calories consumed remain the same.
Get the benefits: To reap teff’s benefits, trade your morning oatmeal in for a protein-packed teff porridge. Combine a half cup of teff with one a half cups of water and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan. Let it come to a boil before turning the heat down to low and letting it simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and top with apples, cinnamon and a dollop of natural peanut butter (his smart spread has arginine, an amino acid that helps keep blood vessels healthy.)
This versatile, gluten-free seed is loaded with protein and all nine essential amino acids that the body needs for growth and energy. It’s also a good source of potassium, fiber, iron and magnesium, which may help control Type 2 diabetes by keeping blood sugar levels stable.
Get the benefits: Use quinoa as a base for a hot breakfast cereal in lieu of oatmeal, add it to soups and salads or make a creative snack by popping the seeds over the stove like popcorn.
Oats are a rich source of magnesium, a nutrient that regulates blood-sugar levels and helps boost lipolysis, a process by which the body releases fat from its stores. But that’s not all it can do: Oats contain a special type of fiber that lowers cholesterol and keeps heart disease at bay. The mighty breakfast food has also been shown to help prevent breast cancer, according to an International Journal of Epidemiology report. And speaking of breakfast favorites, be sure to check out these 50 Best Breakfast Foods for Weight Loss—Ranked.
Get the benefits: Whip up one of these 50 Best Overnight Oats Recipes or replace your all-purpose flour with homemade oat flour by grinding oats in a food processor. It’s a healthy, filling substitution for any cookie or pancake recipe.
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