If, like many midlife women, you’re growing wiser but also wider, you can blame it all on estrogen (as usual). With estrogen levels in decline, your body becomes much more likely to store extra fat around the middle. Unfortunately, big waists endanger more than your ability to look fabulous in jeans.
“Belly fat becomes a serious issue at midlife—it increases heart disease risk by raising blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides and inflammation,” says Nieca Goldberg, MD, director of New York University’s Women’s Heart Center and author of Dr. Nieca Goldberg’s Complete Guide to Women’s Health.
But the latest research suggests that a smaller waistline could be as close as your local supermarket. “Evidence is mounting that certain foods and nutrients can affect how body weight is distributed,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. For reasons that are not completely clear, certain kinds of proteins, fats, vitamins and antioxidants appear to fend off belly fat. Below, five game-changing foods to add to your shopping list.
1. Hot Tomatoes! Antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables can help slim your middle. Research published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that people who ate higher amounts of carotenoids, betacarotene, alphacarotene and lycopene had smaller waists as well as less visceral and subcutaneous fat. Tomatoes contain all of these antioxidants, and they become particularly potent when cooked: Heating tomatoes spikes lycopene content and makes it easier for the body to absorb the nutrient, according to a study led by Rui Hai Liu, MD, associate professor of food science at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. Fresh produce has long been favored over processed because certain components, like vitamin C, break down when cooked. “The research dispels the popular notion that processed fruits and vegetables have lower nutritional value than fresh produce,” Liu has said.
Use it: Toss fresh cherry tomatoes with herb-infused olive oil and roast, or grill beefsteak tomatoes and make ALT’s (avocado, lettuce, tomato) on whole grain bread. “To assure optimal flavor, texture, and nutritional value when buying fresh tomatoes, select those that have never been refrigerated and wait until they’re fully-ripe before cooking them,” says Jackie Newgent, RD, author of Big Green Cookbook. For a healthy balance, aim for three cups of veggies per day and include tomatoes about three times a week. And seek out organically grown if you can. Compared to conventional, they’ve been found to pack nearly 100 percent more antioxidants and rate higher for flavor, texture and juiciness.
2. Supercharged Mushrooms Mushrooms are the only plant-based food that naturally contains vitamin D. But what is now sending their “sunshine vitamin” quotient into the stratosphere is a new and unique kind of processing: Once harvested, Sun-Bella mushrooms are exposed to ultraviolet light. The net result is that a three-ounce serving of this new but widely available brand supplies 100 percent of your daily value of D. Why does this matter? Preliminary evidence from the University of Minnesota suggests that if you don’t have enough D in your bloodstream, it may be more difficult to lose weight, especially fat. Plus, insufficient levels of D have been linked with obesity and abdominal fat, notes Dave Grotto, RD, author of Optimal Life Foods.
Use it: Swap chopped mushrooms for ground beef on taco night or use two grilled Portabella mushrooms as a “bun” for a turkey burger. Better yet, make it your burger substitute. Trading a 4-ounce Portabella mushroom for 3 ounces of 93 percent lean ground turkey once a week, without making any other changes, would save 6,136 calories and 104 grams of artery clogging fat per year. “Portabellas have the highest level of ergothioneine, a powerful antioxidant unique to fungi that provides protection against the free radical damage that can contribute to aging and heart disease,” says Grotto. For a vitamin D boost, look for Sun-Bella, one brand that pre-treats mushrooms to a healthy dose of the sun’s rays.
3. Fiber-Packed Raspberries Raspberries clock in with about 50 percent higher antioxidant activity than strawberries; preliminary evidence suggests that one of the antioxidants, known as raspberry ketone, could be a belly buster. A study on animals at Ehime University School of Medicine, in Japan, found that raspberry ketones, which are responsible for the berries’ aroma, prevented an increase in overall body and visceral fat when the animals were overfed. Bonus: “Anthocyanins, another antioxidant in raspberries, are believed to reduce blood sugar after starchy meals, which may help control appetite,” Grotto says. Additionally, raspberries are high in fiber: They contain eight grams per cup. Previous research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that for every gram of fiber we eat, we eliminate approximately seven calories.
Use it: Warm unsweetened, frozen berries in the microwave and sprinkle in cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Spoon the sauce over a whole grain waffle in place of syrup and garnish with pistachios, or swirl warmed raspberries into cooked oats along with slivered almonds. For a portable snack, try organic freeze dried versions available at Whole Foods or http://www.justtomatoes.com. Toss them in a baggie with dry cereal and unsalted nuts, fold them into yogurt, or add them to muffin or brownie batter. “Fresh, dried or frozen, the nutrition content is practically the same, which means you can enjoy them all year long,” says Grotto. His favorite tip: let frozen raspberries stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes to thaw, then eat them straight from the bag.
4. Comeback Kid: Coconut Oil For the past decade or so, this oil has been unpopular because of its high saturated fat content. But new research says this much-maligned ingredient may be a boon to women trying to lose their belly fat. In Brazil, a recent study of women who ate a balanced diet and walked for 50 minutes a day showed that body mass index decreased in those who ate soybean oil and those who ate coconut oil, but only the latter group had a decrease in waist circumference. Coconut oil eaters also had a higher level of “good” HDL, which helps clear cholesterol deposits from arteries, and lower LDL to HDL ratios. In another study, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, medium chain fatty acids, the type found in coconut oil, reduced body weight, body fat, waist circumference and visceral fat in women who had high triglycerides. “Saturated fats from animal sources such as whole-milk cheese and fatty meats tend to promote blocked, hardened arteries, but the saturated fats in coconut and other vegetable oils, which have another chemical struc-ture, do not. It’s this chemical structure that may account for the different effects on the body,” Gerbstadt says
Use it: It’s perfect for pan searing seafood or tofu or as a sesame or peanut oil alternative in stir frys. Look for virgin coconut oil, which is produced from fresh coconuts rather than dried. It’s considered the highest quality coconut oil and retains more of the flavor and aroma from this decadent fruit. Virgin also boasts more antioxidant capacity compared to refined, bleached and deodorized coconut oil, particularly phenolic compounds, which have been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. “Just be sure to use any healthy fat in moderation to keep calories from getting out of control,” says Gerbstadt. That means no more than 1 tablespoon of any oil at a given meal, about 120 calories worth. Also, don’t switch to coconut oil exclusively. Overusing it can cause you miss out on the unique nutrients and antioxidants found in other options like olive, almond and flaxseed oils.
5 The Right Protein: Alaska Pollock This affordable, readily available white fish is similar in look and flavor to cod and haddock. In Japan, where Alaska pollock is commonly consumed as surimi (here, we call it imitation crabmeat), scientists studied the effects of various proteins on belly fat accumulation by feeding rats high-fat diets that contained either casein (milk protein), Alaska pollock, yellowfin tuna or chicken. Scientists don’t know why, but Alaska pollock was a more potent inhibitor of visceral fat accumulation than the other protein types, even without a reduction in total calories. Blood insulin levels, a marker for heart disease risk, were significantly lower, and the animals also had higher levels of adiponectin, a hormone produced by fat cells that’s linked to a reduced risk of obesity and breast cancer. More points in favor of this Pacific catch: It is not being overfished, and it’s low in mercury.
Use it: Crust pollock with a combo of ground almonds, whole grain bread crumbs and herbs and oven bake it, or use it as the base for fish stew, chowder or fish tacos. “Make it even safer by removing the skin, since that’s where contaminants, like PCBs, concentrate,” says Newgent. Since fish is so delicate, this culinary nutritionist advises only buying it from markets you trust, where the fish is properly chilled and kept on thick bed of fresh ice, preferably under a cover or in a case. When it’s fresh, fish shouldn’t smell fishy, the eyes should look clear and the flesh should be shiny, firm, and spring back when pressed. “You can even microwave it, which I call micro-roasting,” says Newgent. A 6-ounce fillet will take about 4-5 minutes on high, covered with parchment paper.
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