What are the best foods for weight loss?
We’re going to go in a couple of different directions here. First, we’ll zoom out a little and talk about the Macros for weight loss, then we’ll talk about some specific foods that have shown to have some weight loss benefits, and to round it out, we’ll discuss foods based on their nutrient density.
Macronutrients (macros in the lingo) are the calorie containing nutrients. Protein (4 calories per gram). Carbohydrates (4 calories per gram). Fats (9 calories per gram).
Now, if you come to me and say “Nick, i want to lose weight. You’re so smart, tell me how”. I’d say to you “Aww shucks” and then “By weight loss, I guess you mean FAT loss. Weight loss and fat loss are 2 different things. A calorie deficit without regard for your macro composition would lead to a loss of fat AND non fat tissue (largely muscle). Maintaining muscle will not only give you that toned look everyone’s searching for, but will contribute to future fat burning because it’s the most metabolically active tissue.
Protein! Protein is the micronutrient in the spotlight. To lose weight, you have to create a calorie deficit. While food intake should go down, protein should not. In most cases it should probably go up. Protein is the muscle building, muscle repairing nutrient. It’ll prevent muscle tissue break down caused by the calorie deficit, and contribute to muscle building if resistance training is implemented into the plan.
How much protein?
Protein needs can be viewed on a sliding scale. Untrained people in a non calorie deficit need less protein. Highly active (particularly resistance training) individuals and/or in a calorie deficit need more. Although it’s technically unlikely to build muscle and burn fat at the same time, the greater the calorie deficit, the higher the protein needs will be.
Protein needs are referenced in grams per kilo of lean body weight. This means knowing fat percentage and taking that away from your total body weight. This is often hard for many, so in this case using target body weight in kg is usually accurate enough.
On paper, protein needs looks like this:
- Untrained, no calorie deficit – 1.2-1.5g / Kg
- Untrained, calorie deficit – 1.5-1.8g / Kg
- Trained, no calorie deficit – 1.8-2.0g / Kg
- Trained, calorie deficit – 2.2 + g /Kg
I enter into this section reluctantly as it tends to be the realm of nutrition extremism. Essentially how much fat and carbs you consume will depend on preference and activity level/type. Studies that have compared high carb low fat (HCLF) diets vs high fat low carb (HFLC) diets, where calories and protein are equal, have shown zero difference in weight loss results. Those that show the benefits of one macro over another failed to take calories or protein into account.
Higher fat diets tend to be more satiating, and by default may increase general protein intake. Bacon has protein too. This is speculated to be the reason why it’s in the headlines as the favourable diet. Reality is, it may contribute to better results by creating a calorie deficit. Higher carb diets can be just as favourable for fat loss as long as protein is sufficient and you stay within your calorie goals. If you’re a less active individual and have been overweight for some time it’s possible there’s some existing insulin resistance. In this case a lower carbohydrate, higher fat intake may be of benefit.
Fat and Carbs are the energy providing macros. The body can use them both interchangeably for energy. Carbs are the most readily available, hence the prioritised macro, and fat is used when carbs (or the body’s short term energy stores) run out. The type of exercise you do may determine whether you favour one macronutrient over another. Higher intensity anaerobic workouts (resistance training, sprints, HIIT, dynamic sports) are more glycolytic in nature and will increase the needs for carbs. Skimping on carbs may influence performance, induce feelings of sluggishness and may impact recovery. It’s not a sure thing that fat is more favourable for longer distance endurance workouts, but we generally say that lower carb levels shouldn’t have an impact on performance.
On the whole, I suggest a balanced split between fat and carbohydrates based on preference and exercise demands. It lends to more flexibility and variety in food choice. We know that the more someone feels restricted in a diet the less likely they are to succeed. Whichever preference you have, always try to dominate your plate with high quality whole foods. This goes for all foods – Protein sources too. Living in the real world, there will be treats. By keeping at least 80% of your food intake high quality, there shouldn’t be any reason not to enjoy some of your favourite foods, guilt free. It won’t blow your weight loss goals if you keep overall calorie intake under control, and ensure that you’re remaining conscious of your protein intake.
Some foods to prioritise
Beans, Lentils and other legumes:
Legumes are great foods for weight loss for many reasons. They are high volume (bulk) for a low calorie intake, helping you feel satisfied for a lower calorie intake. They’re also the favourite food for our gut bacteria. Because a healthy gut microbiome plays a major role in blood sugar balance, and fat burning genes gene expression, it’s important to keep these guys happy. The insoluble fibre in beans binds to bile acids in the small intestine and sweeps through the gut breaking down fat molecules. These fat molecules are discarded more easily, ending up down the toilet, instead of around your waist.
Fat cells want to stay alive and keep growing. They’ll go as far as secrete a chemical that promotes their own blood supply. Cancer cells do the same thing. This is called angiogenesis. Berries are some of the best weight loss foods because they stop angiogenesis in its tracks. If a fat cell loses its blood and oxygen supply, we’re less likely to promote fat cell growth or multiplication. There are many other anti-angiogenic foods (kale, beetroot, turmeric, green tea, pumpkin, red grapes, apples), so consume a whole range of plants, and you’ll be good. I mention berries in particular because they’ve been in the research limelight recently, and have proven to be especially powerful.
Nuts and Seeds:
There are 3 good reasons why nuts and seeds are great weight loss foods.
1) They’ve been proven to keep hunger at bay for longer. It’s likely the fiber contained that has this satiating effect.
2) Nuts boost metabolism, meaning you’ll burn more energy even while sitting at your office desk. Once again, we can speculate that the fiber, as well as protein in these foods that have a higher metabolic effect.
3) They contain sterols and stanols that attach to fat droplets in the digestive tract, taking them away through the stool.
A small amount of nuts and seeds can go a long way. There is such thing as “too much of a good thing”. As most nuts are highly concentrated in fat, ensure to keep an eye on the overall calorie intake. A small handful of cashews can bring about roughly 150 calories, and they can tend to be pretty addictive. For this reason, I encourage small amounts over salads (which will help with nutrient absorption) or into your morning smoothie.
High nutrient density foods
A great weight loss and health strategy is to focus largely on foods that have a high nutrient density. This means more vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals per calorie. The most nutrient dense foods, as you’d expect, are vegetables. Some are more dense than others & we’ll outline them in a moment.
It’s hard to argue against eating highly nutrient dense foods. Yes carbs and fats are the energy providers and protein provides structure, but nutrients are what provides good overall health. They play a role in all chemical reactions in the body, reinforcing the immune system, hormone production and cognitive performance. Some phytochemicals, like those found in berries, have even shown to influence blood sugar control and fat storage mechanisms.
Some of the highest nutrient dense foods are:
Kale, Mustard Greens, Grapes, Watercress , Swiss Chard , Berries (all types), Bok Choy , Cabbage (all types) , Pomegranates, Spinach , Arugula (Roquette) , Asparagus, Lettuce (Rich coloured), Brussels Sprouts, Tomatoes, Carrots, Broccoli, Mushrooms, Bell Peppers (Capsicum).
Enjoy them in all their glory. If you shoot for a whole lot of colour on your plate, with the predominant one being green, you’re going to get a great deal of nutrition at a very low cost.
So are there really weight loss foods? Some would argue yes. I believe that no food is inherently fattening or slimming. As we’ve seen, some foods can influence mechanisms that may promote better fat oxidation, or limit fat storage, but i’m not sure i’d call them “weight loss foods”. Natural foods are hard to over consume, therefor helping you stay in a calorie deficit, and this is ultimately the goal. Protein keeps your metabolic flame burning while also being the most satiating macro. Keep your food intake varied and interesting. Adopt the dietary protocol that you can stick to for the long term, and prioritise natural over processed.
Lastly, I strongly recommend checking out this article How Do I Lose Weight where I talk (aside from the obvious) more about protein needs for weight loss and comparing food quality vs quality.