According to experts, forbidding certain foods can backfire, thanks in part to fad diets that aren’t based in solid science, notes Milton Stokes, MPH, RD, a Connecticut-based dietitian. The real key to weight loss? Mind your p’s and q’s—watch portions and choose quality, nutrient-rich foods. Here, how five foods typically dismissed by dieters can help you slim down.
Slim-Down Effect: Contains carbohydrates, which boost brain chemicals that curb overeating
Bread is an excellent source of carbs, which your brain needs to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of comfort and satisfaction, says Nina T. Frusztajer, MD, a Boston-based physician who specializes in nutrition and is coauthor of The Serotonin Power Diet. “As your body digests carbohydrates, it releases insulin, which helps channel tryptophan—an amino acid—into the brain. Tryptophan then gets converted to serotonin,” she explains. When serotonin levels are optimal, you feel calm and happy and have fewer cravings; when they’re low, you feel depressed and irritable, making you more likely to overeat.
Breads containing whole grains are healthiest, and one serving equals one slice of bread, half an English muffin, or a small roll.
Slim-Down Effect: A high fluid content keeps you satisfied longer
Cooked pasta and rice are about 70% water—and eating fluid-rich foods keeps you fuller longer, compared with dry foods, according to research from the British Nutrition Foundation. Like bread, the carbs in pasta boost serotonin to help curb overeating. The proper portion of pasta is ½ cup cooked, or about the size of an ice-cream scoop.
Choose whole grain varieties for filling fiber, and add grilled chicken and lots of veggies to bulk up your dish even more.
Slim-Down Effect: Form resistant starch, a fiber that burns fat
These veggies may be one of our most misunderstood foods. Fried or doused in sour cream, they’re not going to help you lose weight. But when boiled or baked, a potato’s starch absorbs water and swells. Once chilled, portions of the starch crystallize into a form that resists digestion known as resistant starch. Unlike other types of fiber, resistant starch gets fermented in the large intestine, creating fatty acids that may block the body’s ability to burn carbohydrates. In their place, you burn fat.
A healthy potato serving is about the size of a fist.
Slim-Down Effect: Great source of calcium, which burns calories and fat
At about 100 calories and 5 g of fat per ounce, cheese usually tops the no-no list, but its calcium improves your ability to burn calories and fat, according to a recent research review. Not getting enough of this mineral may trigger the release of calcitriol, a hormone that causes the body to store fat. Scientists at the University of Tennessee found that people on a reduced-calorie diet who included an extra 300 to 400 mg of calcium a day lost significantly more weight than those who ate the same number of calories but with less calcium. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why, but eating calcium-rich foods is more effective than taking calcium supplements—and cheese has about 200 mg per ounce.
Just stick to 2-ounce portions, and choose light varieties to get health benefits for half the calories.
5.) Dark chocolate
Slim-Down Effect: Satisfies a common craving to prevent bingeing
Up to 97% of women experience cravings, and chocolate is the most common and “intensely” craved food, according to a recent study. Having an occasional small serving of a favorite treat is better than depriving yourself, which may lead to a binge, says Greaves. In fact, people who tried to not think about chocolate ate two-thirds more of it than people who were told to talk about it freely, British research found.
Dark varieties are more satisfying than milk chocolate, say scientists at the University of Copenhagen, but measure your portion, and be mindful when you eat. Slowly savoring one or two squares of a high-quality dark chocolate bar will satisfy a craving more than wolfing down M&M’s in front of the TV.