Six food groups hold the "power" to help you lose weight and turn back the clock.
Piling your plate with fruits and vegetables is a no-brainer when it comes to weight loss — they're low in calories, high in nutrients, and filling — but the latest studies show that certain ones can provide surprising anti-aging benefits.
There's buzz about blueberries, for instance, for their memory-boosting potential. But berries of all hues are antioxidant-rich, reports Navindra P. Seeram, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy in Kingston. That means they combat free radicals, molecules that can cause widespread cell damage and are linked to chronic inflammation. Unlike the inflammation that occurs when you sprain an ankle or strain a muscle, the type that contributes to aging is persistent, and thought to be at the root of most chronic diseases, from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes to Alzheimer's, arthritis, and osteoporosis. Berries' beauty bonus: They're chock-full of vitamin C, another potent antioxidant that may help keep your complexion looking smooth by fighting those pesky (skin-damaging) free radicals.
To keep your vision sharp, set your sights on spinach and other dark leafy greens. These veggies are prime sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, plant pigments that protect your eyes from the harmful effects of ultraviolet light. Leafy greens are also rich in vitamin K, a nutrient that plays a role in reducing bone loss and preventing fractures.
This key dietary component becomes even more critical starting in the 40s, when muscle mass begins to decline by up to 1 percent a year. That drop slows metabolism, which makes the pounds pile on more easily. The double whammy consequence: Added weight puts your health at risk, and down the road, diminished muscle mass can throw off your balance (upping chances of a fall), sap your strength, and even threaten your ability to recover from an illness or accident.
To hang on to your metabolism-boosting muscle — and keep you feeling full after meals (another protein plus) — experts recommend eating eggs, beans, and seafood. And don't forget protein-rich dairy: Minerals (primarily calcium, phosphorus, and potassium) in fat-free milk and yogurt as well as low-fat cheeses help to keep blood pressure healthy, pudge in check, and bones strong. News flash: Calcium can't build bone if you're not getting enough protein, and current recommendations — about five ounces a day for a 145-pound woman — are too low, says Robert P. Heaney, M.D., professor of medicine at Creighton University in Omaha.
Another reason to spoon up some yogurt: Eating at least 1/4 cup every day led to a 60 percent lower risk of gum disease and a 50 percent lower risk of tooth loss in a Japanese study published in the Journal of Periodontology. The effect is thought to be linked to the probiotics in yogurt, but not in most other dairy.
3. Omega-3-Rich Fish
Fatty acids in seafood help quench the flames of chronic inflammation. In addition, "there's very good new data suggesting that omega-3 fats from fish act on an area of the brain that leads to improved mood and attitude among healthy people," says Artemis P. Simopoulos, M.D., author of The Omega Diet. These improvements in outlook lead to feeling healthier and more vigorous, she explains. The omega-3s in fatty fish like salmon and tuna have the most potent anti-inflammatory effects. But it's smart to consume omega-3s from plant sources, like walnuts and flaxseed, too — especially if you're not fond of fish.
4. Whole Grains
A 2008 review of these diet-friendly foods — which include whole wheat, oats, and brown rice, and the bread, cereal, and other edibles made from them — concluded that a meal plan loaded with whole grains helps you stay slim, thanks, in part, to fiber's role in appetite control. Their low rankings on the glycemic index (a system that rates the effect of different carbohydrates on blood sugar levels) may also play a role.
A raft of research has also shown that whole grains offer protection against diabetes, heart disease, stroke, colon cancer, high blood pressure, and gum disease. These benefits are tied to the array of vitamins, minerals, plant chemicals, and again, fiber that work together to promote health. (That's why refined grains, which filter out these nutrients during manufacturing, and add some back later in the process, don't offer the same advantages.)
It's an anti-aging bonanza: Being active maintains muscle mass, boosts metabolism, and keeps your heart and lungs primed, among other benefits. Now, a recent study has found that running, in particular, promotes a long, independent life. Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine followed a group of runners and non-runners for 21 years and found that elderly runners put off age-related disabilities for 16 years beyond their non-running counterparts. Runners also lived longer: 19 years into the study, only 15 percent of them had died compared with 34 percent of the non-runners. And the active ones were less likely to die from heart disease, stroke, cancer,and neurological conditions. While this study examined running, 30 minutes of more moderate aerobic activity, five days a week, will keep you healthy, according to recently released guidelines from the American Heart Association and American College of Sports Medicine. What should also be on your fitness agenda: strength training twice a week to maintain muscle and keep your metabolism humming.
6. Red Wine and Other Drinks
What other diet recommends red wine? Ours does because the ruby beverage's resveratrol is a potent antioxidant, inflammation damper, and artery protector. Plus, animal research suggests that high amounts of resveratrol may counteract cell death in the heart and brain, which could mean this compound has even greater potential to prolong your life. Limit yourself to one five-ounce glass a day; more could be harmful.
If you're not a wine drinker, no worries: Put on the coffeemaker or the kettle instead. Coffee appears to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and Parkinson's disease, and evidence suggests that java drinkers have a lower chance of dying from heart disease. Some of the benefit may come from caffeine, but coffee also contains chlorogenic acids, antioxidants that might also play a protective role. Drinking tea may lower your risk of heart attacks, strengthen your immune system, protect tooth enamel, and help fight memory loss associated with aging. Choose green, black, white, or oolong — their leaves all come from the camellia sinensis, or tea plant. And their polyphenols (antioxidants), fluoride, and caffeine — which are thought to contribute to these health benefits — are largely missing from herbal brews.
Two Secret Age-Defying Treats
They seem like diet no-no's because of their calorie load, but dark chocolate and a handful (not a canful) of nuts have longevity and weight-loss benefits.
This just in: Nuts give you a surprising diet edge. A recent study found that despite being a high-fat, high-cal food, they don't promote weight gain. The reason: People find nuts filling and after eating them, offset some of the calories by eating less later on. Best of all, up to 20 percent of the calories in nuts don't get absorbed.
Craving something sweet? Dip into dark chocolate. The latest evidence suggests that cocoa flavanols (more predominant in dark chocolate than milky versions) may lower inflammation, keep blood pressure in check, prevent platelets from clotting (which could, in turn, prevent strokes and heart attacks), and boost brain power.
By Samantha B. Cassetty, M.S., R.D. and Delia Hammock, M.S., R.D