Foods for healthy weight loss
Eating a diet that promotes weight loss doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice enjoyment and live on bland eggwhite omelettes or muffins that taste like gritty horse chaff. Weight-friendly foods can be appetising and appealing while still keeping your tastebuds interested and satisfied.
Filling your kitchen and stomach with healthy food varieties also allows you to enjoy many health bonuses including abundant energy, healthy digestion, clearer skin and a healthier heart. As you adopt the habit of making better food choices, you will not only crave these delicious foods but may discover you are needlessly depriving yourself of weight-friendly foods that appeal to your palate.
Grains and weightloss
Eating grains that are whole (with their germ and bran intact) increases their fibre content and maximises their level of nutrients, especially B group vitamins and minerals such as magnesium. Grains are an important part of any weight maintenance or weight loss diet because they provide long lasting energy and help curb appetite.
Bread and baking: Rye, spelt and wholemeal flours are all good examples of healthy grain choices, whether you’re choosing bread or baking muffins. They are low-GI carbohydrates, which means they provide a slow, sustained release of energy. They also help break down a chemical called homocysteine, which in high levels has been linked to Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
Other grains: Barley is a good source of selenium and minerals such as copper and manganese. Oats have been shown in studies to help stabilise blood sugar levels and provide lasting fullness (make sure you avoid quick-cook varieties, which are higher in natural sugar, meaning they can cause insulin levels to spike). Wheatgerm not only helps alleviate constipation but improves muscular energy and strength during exercise. And, for a sustaining snack, don’t forget about homecooked popcorn — but go easy on the salt and oil.
Rice: This is a versatile food that can be served at breakfast (brown rice, banana and milk), lunch (sushi) and dinner (basmati with curry). As well as being filling, it contains a starch called amylose, which may help prevent bowel cancer. While basmati is the lowest-GI choice, other forms of rice such as brown, long grain and wild rice are also tasty and nutritious.
Pasta and noodles: After years of bad press, these carbs are back on the menu. They are now promoted as good foods for weight loss because they are satisfying and have a low glycaemic index, so they won’t increase your blood sugar levels. Having pasta? Then think beyond spaghetti to include agnolotti, fettuccine, tagliatelle, ravioli and linguine. Cooking noodles? Mix up your choices to include udon, soba, rice vermicelli, shirataki and ramen. To increase your fibre intake, choose wholemeal varieties.
Gluten-free: With so many people eliminating gluten, previously obscure grains are becoming more popular alongside the better-known varieties such as buckwheat, millet, tapioca and brown rice flour. Amaranth, a staple food of the Aztecs, is rich in protein, calcium, magnesium and iron, while quinoa, once considered the “gold of the Incas”, is also rich in magnesium and iron. It is a complete protein, which means it contains all the essential amino acids, so is a great choice if you’re vegetarian and trying to increase your daily protein intake without eating meat.
Vegetables aid weight loss
While fruit makes for a flavoursome snack between meals, vegetables certainly pull their weight in the nutrition and weight loss stakes. They offer fibre, which fills you up and reduces your appetite, while their low kilojoule count means you can eat them in abundance without gaining weight. New guidelines from the National Health & Medical Research Council suggest we need seven serves of vegetables a day.
Aim to include as many different vegetable colours in your diet as possible to boost your range of phytonutrients. When baking, add pumpkin to a pie crust and diced tomato and olives to homebaked bread. Roast vegetables with a brush of eggwhite instead of oil, lightly mash squash or serve beans and broccoli with a little aioli.
For extra interest in salads, top with some grated carrot or beetroot and mix up your lettuces to include baby spinach leaves, rocket and watercress instead of the usual coz or iceberg. Other good vegetables choices include the following.
Leafy greens: Spinach and broccoli are high in fibre and packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants. They also contain lutein, a phytochemical that appears to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. So fill up on silver beet, watercress, rocket, chard, cabbage, bok choy and other Asian greens. Don’t forget broccolini, a hybrid of broccoli, and kai-lan, or Chinese broccoli, which is rich in vitamin C, calcium, folate and iron and is delicious steamed or in a stirfry.
Beetroot and sweet potato: Missing pasta or bread with your evening meal? Then serve up some roasted beetroot and sweet potato instead. Their sweet, rich flavour comes with a side serving of nutrients to help protect you from cancer and keep your digestive system healthy. Higher in carbs than other vegetables, they’ll help to stop you craving something sweet after dinner. Sweet potato also enjoys a low GI.
White and tan vegetables: Cauliflower, parsnips, kohlrabi, shallots, onions and mushrooms are examples of vegetables that are high in anthoxanthins and allicin. These phytonutrients help to lower blood pressure, promote (good) HDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of stroke.
Capsicum: Red, yellow and orange bell peppers are high in betacarotene, a powerful antioxidant that helps to neutralise the free radicals that contribute to conditions such as heart disease, arthritis and cancer. Their high vitamin A content also enhances lung function, meaning you will be able to exercise more efficiently, assisting with weight loss.
Protein helps weight loss
Protein helps your body build new cells. Amino acids, the building blocks we require from protein, are not stored in your body, so you need to eat some protein every day, ideally at every meal. Protein also increases your brain’s levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone that tells you when your belly is full. Aim to include a palm-sized serving of any of the following at each meal to assist weight loss.
Eggs: If you’re a fan of omelettes or a good old hard-boiled egg, you’ll be pleased to know that eggs are no longer considered a problem for cholesterol levels. They even carry the Heart Foundation’s tick of approval as a nutritious food. Always choose free-range eggs, organic if possible, as they’re more nutritious, taste better and the crowded conditions of battery hens increases the risk of salmonella from eggs.
Fish: Rich in easy-to-digest proteins, fish is a superfood for a healthy heart, brain and nervous and immune systems. Oily fish such as mackerel, sardines and tuna is packed with health-giving vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. If you buy your fish fresh, choose fish that smells sweet, not “fishy”, which indicates it is old. Fish fillets and steaks should look moist without dried or curled edges. Choose wild fish varieties instead of farmed fish, especially salmon; there are concerns it may be contaminated with PCBs, pesticides and antibiotics.
Chicken: This incredibly versatile food can be roasted, broiled, grilled or poached and combines well with a wide range of herbs and spices. Rich in the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to the brain chemical serotonin, which improves mood, chicken really is a feel-good food. As with eggs, choose free-range, organic chicken.
Soy: Tempe, tamari and miso are good soy choices because they are high in protein and have been fermented, a process that helps deactivate the phytates that occur naturally in soy but may interfere with mineral absorption.
Spirulina: The protein in spirulina is 85–95 per cent digestible. It’s also packed full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Use spirulina as a breakfast powder in a smoothie, along with some fruit, yoghurt or kefir.
Dairy and weight loss
Dairy foods are a good way to dose up on both protein and calcium, but should you go light or full-cream? A 2006 Swedish study by the National Institute of Environmental Medicine examined a group of nearly 20,000 menopausal women and found that women who had one serving of either full-fat milk or cheese per day gained less weight over a nine-year period than women who opted for low-fat dairy products or avoided dairy. The researchers hypothesised that a special type of fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) may be responsible. So if you want some full-cream milk in your tea, enjoy. For other dairy foods to enhance weight loss, consider the following.
Soft cheese: Although hard cheeses such as cheddar and Parmesan are tasty, some may be high in fat, so don’t overdo it. Instead, add some goat’s fetta to a salad, ricotta cheese to a vegetable lasagne and cottage cheese to a crispbread or sandwich.
Yoghurt: Made by fermenting milk with healthy bacteria such as lactobacillus bulgaricus, acidophilus and bifidus, yoghurt with its live cultures blitzes bad bacteria in your gut, which enhances the good bacteria, digestion and absorption of nutrients. Yoghurt is often well tolerated by people who are lactose intolerant. Studies show it can also reduce digestive problems such as bloating and constipation. When buying yoghurt, read the label to ensure it’s not packed with sugar or flavours.
Kefir: This cultured milk tastes a little like a yoghurt drink. Rich in beneficial bacteria for a healthy digestive and immune system, it makes a great addition to a morning power smoothie. Ask your local healthfood store for kefir culture and simply follow the instructions on the packet.
There are some truly mouth-watering members of the fruit world that can aid weight loss. Think succulent mangoes, juicy fresh figs, creamy and sweet papaya, aromatic stonefruit and tender, tasty berries. Fresh fruit is rich in fibre, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and low-GI carbohydrates. A piece of fruit with a handful of nuts and seeds for morning tea will keep the sugar cravings at bay later in the day. The choices are endless.
Raspberries, blueberries and strawberries: Packed with antioxidant nutrients, they’re a taste sensation when in season. Berries make a luscious mid-afternoon indulgence that’s easy on the waistline, and a punnet of blueberries or raspberries won’t set you back much more than a takeaway coffee and muffin.
Apples: Gold, red, green — these are an easy year-round choice. Throw an apple into your handbag and you’ve got a perfect energy pick-me-up for the drive home from work or from picking up the kids after school.
Pears: Whether you reach for a nashi or golden variety, who can resist a juicy pear? Generally sweeter than apples, pears are also higher in the soluble fibre pectin, which promotes a healthy digestive tract and lower cholesterol levels.
Melons: These are high in water and low in kilojoules. They are “catabolic” foods, which means they take more energy to break down and digest than you receive from eating them. Frozen watermelon is a super sweet treat for hot summer nights. It also makes a great base for dairy-free smoothies or guilt- and alcohol-free “mocktails”.
Papaya: This was named the fruit of the angels by Christopher Columbus because of its sweet taste and butter-like consistency. Rich in fibre, antioxidants and a digestive enzyme called papain, which helps with protein digestion, papaya with some full-cream yoghurt makes a healthy and delicious summer breakfast or addition to smoothies.
Bananas: These everyday fruit help replenish potassium, which is important for heart function and may drop during times of stress or after strenuous exercise.
Legumes, nuts and seeds for weight loss
While nuts and seeds are healthy, portable snacks, legumes make a nutritious addition to any meal and can aid the weight loss process. Beans may contain enzyme inhibitors or phytates, which stop you absorbing all the healthy minerals they contain. The traditional preparation technique of soaking them overnight helps to neutralise the phytates so you get more of their goodness.
Nuts: Pistachios, pecans and macadamias are not only tasty but rich sources of essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium and zinc. Almonds are high in protein and vitamin E; walnuts help to keep your heart healthy; brazil nuts are a great source of selenium; and cashews are high in magnesium, which works on the nervous system to reduce anxiety. Keep them mixed in a container for a mid-morning munch and you have one super-healthy snack. Make sure you go for raw nuts, not the oiled and salted varieties.
Legumes: This family includes beans, peas and lentils, which are perfect for adding to stews, soups and salads. Legumes are low in fat and high in potassium, folate, iron and magnesium. They’re also some of the best sources of soluble fibre for good digestion and heart health. Don’t forget to soak your legumes and beans overnight before cooking them, which not only makes them more nutritious but helps to eliminate some of the chemicals that cause their windy side-effects. Incorporate more legumes and beans into your diet by serving chickpea homous dip with vegie sticks, making a healthy spread by blending butter beans with a can of tuna and adding a small can of three-bean mix to a salad.
Seeds: The kernels of pumpkin, sesame, flax and sunflower seeds are packed with minerals and essential fatty acids and are a delicious snack eaten roasted or raw. Their abundant plant sterols bind to cholesterol in the digestive tract, helping reduce cholesterol levels in the bloodstream.
Fat and oils for weight loss
Healthy fats are needed for your body to absorb and utilise nutrients and are essential to weight loss. They also nourish every single cell in your body and leave you feeling sated after a meal. Mono-unsaturated fats are the best choice because they lower (bad) LDL levels of cholesterol and help prevent heart attack and stroke. They are found in olive, canola and peanut oils. Polyunsaturated fats are derived mostly from plant sources such as safflower, sunflower and corn oils. They contain omega-3 fatty acids, but also omega-6 fatty acids, which are less healthy, so their intake should be minimised. Fats such as hydrogenated oils and trans fats are extremely bad for cellular and heart health and should be avoided.
Remember that healthy oils still contain kilojoules, so aim to add no more than one or two tablespoons of oils to food daily. Heating can destroy some of their nutritional benefits, as can processing. Choose the virgin varieties that have been cold-pressed, as this ensures their antioxidant content has been protected. Store your oil bottles in a dark place to help preserve their freshness. As there is some emerging debate about whether mono-unsaturated fats really are better than saturated fats such as butter, the best approach is to mix up your oils so you use a wide variety. Good choices include the following.
Olive oil: This flavoursome oil is rich in antioxidants and plant sterols (phytosterols), which help to normalise cholesterol levels. By reducing inflammation and binding to bad cholesterol to prevent it oxidising, olive oil reduces artery blockage. It also protects the lining of your blood vessels, which means they are able to relax and dilate efficiently so that high blood pressure is less likely.
Sesame seeds and oil: The seeds contain lingams and phytosterols, which have a good effect on blood glucose levels. Studies suggest sesame oil may also help lower blood pressure.
Flaxseeds: Their oil has health benefits when added to salad dressings but should never be used in cooking because the heating process changes the shape of their unstable polyunsaturated fatty acids, making them less healthy.
Coconut: Even though this is a saturated fat, coconut oil contains abundant medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) which are used by your body as a fuel source and not stored as fat. Because MCFAs are easy to digest, coconut oil is perfect for anyone without a gall bladder or who has trouble digesting fats. The main MCFA found in coconut oil, auric acid, has well-documented anti-microbial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties, making coconut oil a potent immune booster. You can also cook with coconut oil at high temperatures without damaging its special health-giving properties.
Butter: A small teaspoon of butter can make a bowl of steamed vegetables more appealing and helps the absorption of nutrients and antioxidants. Butter is rich in lecithin, omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids as well as short and medium-chain fatty acids. The fatty acids in butter are also anti-microbial (palmitoleic acid) and anti-fungal (butyric acid). Because butter contains a high percentage of short and medium-chain fatty acids, a little used sparingly is not likely to be a problem for weight maintenance.
If you’re craving a sweet treat or looking for a dinner party dessert, the following are simple and nutritious but luscious.
Dark chocolate: Contains stearic acid, which is good for the heart. It also boasts flavonoids and magnesium, which help lower cholesterol. Make sure you choose a variety that is 70–90 per cent cocoa, though.
Halva: Sesame halva from the Middle East is based on tahini, one of the richest sources of calcium. It does, however, contain sugar or glucose syrup, so watch your serving size.
Maple syrup on yoghurt: Real maple syrup from the sap of the maple tree is a great source of calcium, magnesium and potassium. It also contains small amounts of zinc and iron. Drizzle over fruit and yoghurt for a guilt-free treat.
Strawberries and cream: Cream from grass-fed Jersey cows is high in vitamins D and K. Add it to juicy, ripe strawberries and enjoy the taste knowing your dessert is good for healthy bones, blood-clotting and artery health.
Serving Sense for weight loss
Use your hands as a guide to ensure that your serving portions are right.
Protein – A palm full
Vegetables – Two handfuls
Refined carbs (eg white pasta) – A fist
Complex carbs – Two fists
Nuts and cheese – Circle made by your thumb and pointer
Sarah Luck is a natural health consultant specialising in herbal and nutritional medicine.
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