Imagine a group of scientists in a food laboratory on a dark and stormy night. "Eureka!" one cries out. "I've created the superfood that will end disease as we know it!"
Soon, the food additive is being blended into everything, from cookies to fast-food burgers, as scientists are certain it will help us all live longer and healthier.
Now, imagine that years later, we discover the superfood is, in fact, a monster food—an additive so toxic that, over time, it wildly increases our risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, and obesity. And—Ay, caramba!—it's already inside us all!
Sound like a made-for-TBS movie? It's not. It's the story of trans fat, a dangerous, man-made lipid that was believed to be healthier than regular fats. We bought the lie until the mid-'90s, when a study in the American Journal of Public Health indicted trans fats for no fewer than 30,000 annual deaths. The worst part: They're still in our food today!
My point: Understanding the nuances of nutrition is hard—so hard that even the scientists are constantly making mistakes. That's why the best way to lose weight is to ignore trends and instead focus on healthy eating strategies. Following are the 20 best fat-fighting habits known to man. Commit them to your daily routine and you're guaranteed to drop excess pounds.
Experts have gone back and forth on whether eating late leads to weight gain, but a recent study published in the journal Obesity found a solid link. Northwestern University researchers looked at the eating and sleeping patterns of 52 adults and found that those who regularly ate after 8 p.m. ingested the most calories and carried the most body fat. An easy-to-follow rule of thumb: Stop eating three hours before you hit the sack. Then, while you sleep, your body is better primed to burn fat instead of creating more. (Search: The best times to eat for weight loss
Stepping on the scale can be disheartening, particularly after an indulgent weekend ("I gained five pounds since Friday?!"). But it's best to face your fears, because as it turns out, weighing yourself regularly can actually help you stay slim. Scientists at the University of Minnesota discovered that people who got on the scale every day lost twice as much weight as those who weighed themselves less often. The assumption: Monitoring your weight keeps your mind on your health and prevents weight denial.
Researchers at the University of Buffalo discovered that people who ate macaroni and cheese every day took in significantly fewer calories than those who ate the cheese-covered noodles only once a week. The reason: The novelty of new foods drives us to consume more, so by removing the novelty, we feel fuller, faster. I'm not suggesting you choose one meal and eat it every day for the rest of your life, but the more routines you establish, the more your belly will shrink. Start with lunch. If you find yourself scratching your head every day when the clock strikes noon, you'll end up eating impulsively and taking in more calories. Instead, pick something healthy, like a soup-and-salad combo, and eat it every day.
Once you've established a healthy routine, you need to establish a reward system. Think of those pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail. It's a trip known best for being rife with danger, but it was also rife with sluggish tedium. Early American settlers wouldn't have completed the journey without the proverbial promise of milk and honey at the end, and neither will you stay the course of a repetitive diet without something more closely resembling literal milk and honey. A great way to stick to a low-calorie diet without breaking down into rebellious binge-mode is to reward yourself with a small dessert every day. (We've got you covered with The Best and Worst Desserts in America.) Pick a food you love, and at the end of every day, reward yourself with a portion of about 200 calories. But remember—you only get the reward if you deserve it.
One Canadian study found that being exposed to nutrition and exercise advice led people to make smarter diet and lifestyle choices. To ensure you stay focused on maintaining a healthy weight, subscribe to a health-related magazine or frequent a nutrition-focused blog. Another simple way to eat great and still lose a ton of weight: 100 Best fitness tips you'll ever follow.
A study from the American Journal of Epidemiology found that people who skipped breakfast were 4.5 times more likely to be obese. They don't call it the most important meal of the day for nothin'—eating a nutritious morning meal jumpstarts your metabolism and prevents you from overindulging throughout the day. For optimal weight-loss results, choose a breakfast dish with a healthy balance of protein and fiber, like eggs with fruit and whole-wheat toast.
Snacking sometimes gets a bad rap, but planning nutritious snacks throughout your day can actually keep you skinny. A recent study released by the Nutrition Journal found that consuming low-sugar, high-protein snacks promotes weight loss. The reason: Healthy snacking keeps your blood-sugar from spiking, preventing hunger pangs, cravings, and body fat storage. An ideal snack choice? Nuts. The balance of protein, fiber, and healthy fats is sure to keep you satisfied between meals.
Almost 60 percent of your body is water, which makes it vital to every important metabolic process. In one study of 173 overweight women, those who added 1 liter of daily water to their diets lost five extra pounds over the course of a year, and if you time it right, the effects can be even greater. When researchers from Virginia Tech had subjects drink two glasses of water before each meal, they found that those subjects lost 30 percent more body fat over 12 weeks. That said, making beverage blunders is one of the easiest ways to gain belly fat--as the average American drinks 450 sugar-loaded calories a day. Replace half of what you drink with water and you'll save 23 pounds per year!
A study from the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing found that diners consume more calories when they order combo meals because they end up with more food than they want or need. Our stay-skinny advice: Resist the temptation of the almighty "value" meal and order a la carte items, like a modestly sized burger and a non-fried side dish. You'll save both calories and cash.
Choosing nutrient-rich whole grains over processed, white flour-based products can play a major role in keeping you lean. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers discovered that obese participants who added whole grains to their diets lost more belly fat than those who did not. One of the key weight-loss benefits of whole grains: Their healthy dose of fiber helps slow digestion, keeping you fuller longer. But don't be fooled by "made with whole grain" labels. True whole grain products will list whole grains first on their ingredients list (think "whole wheat" flour instead of "enriched" or "bleached" flour).
A 1999 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that eating spicy foods may promote weight loss. Research participants who ate a spicy appetizer before a meal ate significantly less than those who consumed a non-spicy app. The explanation: A chemical compound called capsaicin, found in chili peppers, acts as an appetite suppressant. Capsaicin has also been shown to boost metabolism and fight inflammation. The take away: Routinely adding spicy ingredients like cayenne or red pepper to your meals is an easy, flavorful way to stay slim.
Getting a good night's sleep has been linked to a host of major health benefits, not the least of which is maintaining healthy body weight. In a study from Harvard University, participants who slept for fewer than six hours or more than eight hours each night gained significantly more weight than those who slept for six to eight hours. Lack of sleep has been shown to increase appetite, lower willpower, and bolster cravings for high-calorie foods. That might be why you find it so hard to resist those doughnuts in the break room.
A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that dealing with work-, finance-, or relationship-related stress can lead to weight gain. When you stress, your body releases cortisol, a hormone that promotes abdominal fat storage. If you find yourself overwhelmed in your work or personal life, try incorporating stress-reducing activities into your day. Join a yoga class or go for a jog, and when you start to feel stress coming on, pause and take deep breaths.
Most of us are aware that formal exercise is a key component in maintaining a healthy weight, but simple choices like taking the stairs can be just as important if you want to stay trim. One Mayo Clinic study found that participants who unconsciously moved more throughout the day were able to maintain their weight much easier than those who were more sedentary—even though both groups exercised the same amount. Make the most of daily motion by also walking to lunch, parking at the back of the lot, or skipping email in favor of short walks to deliver messages to coworkers. (As a bonus, you'll make your face more recognizable around the office.)
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that chewing more and eating slowly caused participants to ingest fewer calories. According to the study's researchers, the increase in chewing simultaneously lowered levels of appetite-stimulating hormones and increased levels of appetite-suppressing hormones. One way to make sure you chew your food thoroughly: Stop to eat. Eating on the go—in your car, for example—can lead you to quickly inhale a ton of calories before your body has time to let you know it's full.
Taking a walk after dinner can help you lose weight, and not just because walking burns calories. According to one Mayo Clinic study, light, post-meal exercise—like walking—can lower your blood sugar and prevent your body from storing fat. Don't have time for a walk, you say? Not a problem. As long as you keep moving after you eat, you will reap similar benefits. Even doing the dishes or completing other household tasks can help.
A great way to ensure you make nutritious food choices: Surround yourself with healthy options. Don't use convenience as an excuse for a shameful diet. Keep fresh fruit on your kitchen counter, store healthy snacks like nuts (or anything from this must-have list of the 50 Best Snack Foods in America) in your desk at work, keep pre-washed, pre-cut vegetables in your fridge—whatever you have to do to make the healthiest choice the easiest choice, do it! You won't feel deprived or hungry as the pounds are dropping away.)
A 2006 study in the International Journal of Obesity found that laughing for 15 minutes each day can help you burn 10 to 40 calories, depending on your body size and the intensity of your laughter. This adds up to about one to four pounds of fat lost per year. That may not sound like much, but there's also been plenty of research linking happy people to all-around healthier lifestyles, and you, my friend, have an excuse to make the The Colbert Report part of your daily diet routine.
A study in Nutrition Metabolism found that dieting participants who increased their protein intake to 30 percent of their overall diet ate roughly 450 fewer calories throughout the day and lost about 11 pounds over the course of 12 weeks. Eating protein increases lean muscle mass, which keeps your metabolism running on high—even when you're resting. Protein also keeps you full, making you less likely to overeat. For maximum health and weight-loss benefits, aim to include protein in all of your meals and snacks. The best options? Lean protein sources like fish, eggs, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, and legumes.
With laptops, smartphones, and iPods aplenty, we've become accustomed to round-the-clock entertainment. But your mealtime may be one time of day we should fight our addiction to amusement. Researchers at the University of Birmingham found that diners who were distracted at mealtime consumed significantly more unhealthy snack foods later on than those who paid close attention to what they ate. One possible explanation: When you don't pay attention to the meal you're eating, your brain doesn't fully register the experience. That leaves you less satisfied and more vulnerable to overeating.
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