It seems natural: You want to lose weight fast, so you do a diet slash-and-burn, eating less and thinking about food more. The usual result also seems pretty natural: You feel denied, so you give up. Repeat as diet fads come and go.
How to Eat More … and Still Lose Weight
The trick to eating for weight loss isn’t really so tricky: It’s as simple as eating more colorful, good-for-you fruits and vegetables.
Now we all know we’re supposed to eat fruits and veggies for their vitamins and minerals, their roughage, and powerful disease-fighting benefits. But apparently good nutrition just isn’t alluring enough for most of us. Only 20% of Americans eat as many as five pieces of fruits and veggies a day.
So maybe it’s time we turn the tables and instead look at fruits and veggies as a delicious way to “cheat” on a healthy weight loss diet. From fire-engine red bell peppers, and buttery-yellow zucchini, to juicy grapes as purple as wine, “eating enough produce seems to be one of the key elements in weight loss and weight maintenance,” says Dave Grotto, RD, LDN, dietitian and author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life.
So how does eating more food actually help you weigh less?
The Secrets of Fruits and Vegetables
The first secret of fruits and veggies is simple: they’re nutrient dense. This means that for their weight, most produce is low in calories; so you can eat a lot more when your diet is rich in veggies and fruits -- and still not consume a whole lot of calories. Just try that with chocolate!
The second secret: Satiety. All produce, from a juicy pear to a crispy bunch of red lettuce is packed with water and fiber, says Seattle dietitian Kerry Neville, MS, RD, and both of these not only keep the calories down, they make you feel fuller longer. This means you could be satisfying cravings for something sweet or crunchy every day -- and still lose weight.
Think about it. Maybe you’re in a 3 p.m. slump and want a snack to get you through to dinner. Which will fill your belly better, a palmful of potato chips with 155 calories, or three cups of whole strawberries with 138 calories? A can of sweetened cola at 136 calories, or a heaping cup of grapes with about the same number? In each case, the produce lets you eat a lot more, fills you up fast, and keeps you full longer.
The Real Fruits and Vegetables Bonus
Along with helping in a weight loss diet, don’t forget the ultimate boon when you enjoy crisp veggies and succulent fruit: You’re getting disease-fighting nutrition with all that taste, too.
A palmful of potato chips won’t reduce your risk of certain types of cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and lower blood cholesterol, but research shows that the antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals in produce like a sweet peach, handful of berries, or a bowlful of bok choy may.
Of course, to get the full benefits of fruits and vegetables -- weight loss, great taste, a reduced risk of chronic disease -- produce needs to replace at least some of the fattier, calorie-dense foods in your diet.
But what if you’re not ready to cut out your favorite cookies or forego a single chip? “Even if you change nothing else in your diet, you’re still getting the phytonutrients, chemicals, and as-yet unknown nutrients [in produce] that can help protect you from cancer, diabetes, and heart disease,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Yet, once we start snacking on fruits and veggies, most of us will gradually eat fewer calorie-rich goodies, says Gerbstadt, who adds that because produce helps fill you up and gives your body a boost, “you naturally eat less chips, cookies, and other foods that just don’t make you feel good.”
Fruits and Vegetables: Fresh, Frozen, Canned, or Dried?
So the great news is that fruits and vegetables can give weight loss a real boost. Now the question is, how should you enjoy them: fresh or frozen, canned or dried?
“All of the above,” Gerbstadt tells WebMD. Though local, seasonal produce may have a slight nutrient edge at times, "dried, canned, and frozen fruits and vegetables are usually picked just before peak ripeness and then packaged,” says Gerbstadt, “so you’re really getting very fresh food.”
Fresh and healthy -- so long as you avoid the butter sauce or drenching of cheese, say the pros.
The USDA suggests we get two cups of fruit a day, and two and a half cups of vegetables (for a 2,000 calorie diet).
- Fresh, frozen, or canned fruit and vegetables: “When you’re eating canned fruit, watch out for additions like syrup,” Neville says, “Look for fruit packed in water or juice.”
- Fruit juices: 100% fruit juice can have more calories per ounce than sweetened soda, and because a lot of its fiber is missing, it also isn’t nearly as filling as fresh fruit. Stick to whole fruits when you can.
- 100% vegetable juices: Vegetable juices usually have far fewer calories than their fruity kin, but they often pack a sodium wallop, so keep an eye on portions here as well.
In Search of the Super Food
So maybe you’re sold on fruits and vegetables as a great way to “cheat” in a healthy eating plan. Now you might be wondering, which fruits and veggies will give you the most bang for your nutrition buck?
The answer is: all of them.
“Every fruit and vegetable is a super food,” Gerbstadt says. “You can say the colorful ones have more nutrients for you but…even the ones that don’t have as much color, we’re discovering that all along they’ve had nutrients we need -- we just didn’t have the lab test yet to analyze them.”
So while one lobbying board may tout the better-for-you benefits of blueberries, and another may talk up the antioxidant power of pomegranate, in the overall scheme of things it doesn’t matter so much which fruits and vegetables you eat “it just matters that you get them inside you,” Grotto tells WebMD.
And when you head down the produce aisle next time, take a laser-sharp focus on flavor first, Grotto suggests. Buy the fruits and vegetables you really love, “because no one cares if it’ll save their life if it doesn’t taste good.”
However you find yourself enjoying those peaches and potatoes, the asparagus spears and the spinach, one thing is important: Just do it!