5 Food Synergy Secrets for Weight Loss

Healthy food habits that can give you a weight loss edge.

6 min read

We've all heard over and over again how overweight Americans are. How could a country that seems obsessed with being thin, that spends billions a year on fad diets and dieting products, get itself in this situation? The answer, of course, is that fad diets and quick weight loss tricks don't work in the long run. While we'd all like to see the pounds melt away overnight, the real secret to weight loss is to make changes in our eating and exercise habits that will serve us well for the rest of our lives. It's not a sexy message, I know, but it's the truth.

However, there are certain healthy food habits that just might give you a slight weight loss edge. Some foods and beverages have what's called food synergy. What that means is that certain components in these foods and drinks (like minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals, fiber, and fats) interact with each other to boost health benefits. And sometimes, those benefits may include aiding weight loss.

Here are five eating habits I found while writing my new book Food Synergy that really seem to help put the weight loss odds in your favor.

1. Go for Whole Grains. Whole grains have plenty of nutritional synergy between their different components. And they just might be part of America's weight loss solution.

One study shows that women who ate three or more servings of whole-grain foods a day had significantly lower BMIs (body mass indexes) than those eating less than one serving a day. (This was found in men too, but the link was more significant in women.) Another study shows that women whose diets included the most whole grains were half as likely to gain a lot of weight over a 12-year period as another group that ate the least whole grains. And some research on oats, one of the most illustrious of whole grains, has shown they slow the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine -- and thus may help you feel fuller longer.

For all of you "apple" body types out there (those who tend to gain weight around the middle), eating more whole grains may actually lead to less VAT fat (visceral adipose tissue). This is the type of abdominal fat that's most dangerous to health. A recent study of 50 men and women who were following reduced-calorie weight loss programs seems to bear out this link. Half the study participants ate whole grains instead of refined grains for 12 weeks; the other half avoided whole-grain foods altogether. The result? The whole-grain group lost more abdominal body fat than those who avoided whole grains.

2. Load Up on Fruits and Vegetables. What do fruits and vegetables have that typical fast food and junk food does not have? More water, fiber, and key nutrients -- but fewer calories. This makes them one of the best ways to lower your diet's "energy density" (that is, to eat more food that is low in calories in relation to its volume) and increase "nutrient density" (to add foods that are high in nutrients in relation to volume).

Eating a less calorie dense diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables helps make meals more satisfying, while cutting calories. A recent study indicated that eating more fruits and veggies along with cutting down on fat is a particularly smart strategy. In the study, Penn State University researchers divided obese women into two groups. One group was given counseling on reducing fat intake. The other got counseling on reducing fat intake plus increasing water-rich foods (mainly by eating fruits and vegetables). Both groups then made their own choices about how much to eat. Although both lost significant amounts of weight, the group that was counseled to reduce fat and add fruits and veggies lost an average of 3 pounds more. Perhaps most importantly, this group reported less hunger.

3.Eat Vegetarian Meals More Often. People following vegetarian diets tend to weigh less than meat-eaters, according to one review study. The researchers, who looked at data from 87 studies, found that the body weight of vegetarians is, on average, 3% to 20% lower than that of meat-eaters.

Switching to a low-fat vegan diet (one that includes no animal products) could result in a loss of about a pound a week, even without extra exercise or limits on calories, says study author Neal Barnard, MD, founder of the advocacy group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

But even going partially meatless can help. Women who are semi-vegetarian (who may include poultry and fish in their diets, but no red meat) or lacto-vegetarian (those who include milk products in their diets) had a lower risk of overweight and obesity, compared with omnivorous women, according to a Swedish study.

4. Include Low-Fat Dairy or Soy Milk in Your Diet. A healthy diet that includes 2-3 servings a day of low-fat or nonfat dairy may help promote weight loss, perhaps even in the midsection. High-calcium, low-calorie diets have been shown to help reduce body fat and preserve muscle mass, but some experts suspect that other components in dairy foods may also contribute to this effect.

In recent studies of people following similar low-fat diets -- one with calcium from dairy products and the other from calcium supplements -- those taking the supplements tended to lose LESS weight and body fat than the dairy-drinking group. Could food synergy be at work here?

Researcher Judith Lukaszuk, PhD, RD, from Northern Illinois University, wondered if this weight loss effect was due to the milk protein, or whether any source of protein fortified with calcium would have a similar result. She and colleagues tested the weight loss effects of lite soy milk and skim milk on 14 overweight or obese women who followed an 8-week, reduced-calorie diet. One group consumed 3 cups of lite soy milk per day; the other consumed the same amount of skim milk. The preliminary study showed that both groups lost similar amounts of weight and body fat, and also had similar decreases in waist size.

Other research has suggested there is synergy between two components found in most low-fat dairy foods -- calcium and vitamin D -- when it comes to helping reduce the risk of colon cancer, preserve bone mass, and ease symptoms of PMS as part of a low-fat diet.

The lite soy milk used in Lukaszuk's study contains both of these nutrients as well. Since it's not clear exactly what caused the weight loss benefits seen in her study, she says, it's possible that it has something to do with synergy between calcium and vitamin D.

5. Drink Green Tea. Some research indicates that green tea may trigger weight loss by stimulating the body to burn calories and mildly decrease body fat, possibly through catechins, a type of phytochemical. The phytochemicals in tea have a half-life of a few hours, so have one cup now, and another later in the day to get the biggest benefit. When deciding which green tea to buy (there are some great flavored options on the market), remember your nose always knows. If a tea bag smells delicious, that's how it will usually taste when brewed.

Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.