Drastically cutting calories is no fun, and if you've ever gone on a super strict diet, you also know that it's not a great long-term weight-loss solution, either. You need to eat more, not less, if you want to fuel your way to a healthy, toned bod. The key is reaching for healthy foods. In fact, some super-nutritious fare is fair game for you to eat until your stomach's content.
Nutritionist Rania Batayneh, M.P.H., author of The One One One Diet, aptly calls these no-holds-barred options "freebie foods." Packed with antioxidants, metabolic boosters, filling fiber, and loads of flavor, they can turn even a slice of pizza into a nutritional treat. Best of all: They're foods you will actually want to stuff your face with. Finally, dieting takes a note from all-you-can-eat buffets!
Not only does this pungent bulb boost the flavor of your healthy meals, but allicin, a compound in garlic, can lower blood pressure, fight off hardening of the arteries, and reduce the risk of cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health. Also, by producing an acid that rapidly reacts with free radicals, allicin is one of the most powerful antioxidants you can eat, according to Queen's University research.
Bonus: Crushing and chopping garlic is what sets allicin free, so get out the cutting board and get to work. Once chopped, let the garlic sit for about ten minutes before cooking; too-quick heating can actually inactivate the compounds, according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.
Recipe: Homemade Roasted Garlic Spread
Cooked tomatoes are healthy tomatoes. Why? Cooking substantially raises levels of lycopene, according to one Cornell University study. Why's it matter? Lycopene is the most-efficient single free-radical fighter, and gobbles up 10+ times more oxygenated free radicals than vitamin E does, researchers say.
Bonus: Let the ruby reds simmer for at least 30 minutes and you'll get more than three times the lycopene you would if you flash cook them. While researchers haven't investigated the affects of cooking times longer than half an hour, so far the studies suggests the longer they cook, the better.
Recipe: Easy Cream of Tomato Soup
Fire up your fat burners: Daily doses of capsaicin—the compound that gives peppers their heat—can increase your sympathetic nervous system's activity to help you burn through an extra 50 calories a day, says Batayneh. That adds up to five pounds of fat lost in a single year. Plus, the spicy stuff will actually keep you from overeating other foods. A recent study from Canadian researchers found that adults who consume hot sauce go on to eat about 200 fewer calories throughout the day.
Bonus: The hotter the sauce, the more capsaicin it contains and the more intense its fat-burning ways.
Recipe: Cheesy Buffalo Brussels Bites
The cancer-fighter in a cup owes much of its rep to a little compound with a big name: epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG for short). But it turns out the antioxidant can also move the needle on your scale. That's right: Tea is powerful for weight loss. Research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the compound can increase your metabolic burn for a full 24 hours after ingestion by helping your body convert fat into energy.
Bonus: Try Teavana Gyokuro Imperial Green Tea. According to a recent Consumer Lab report, a single serving of the stuff contains 86 milligrams of EGCG. That's more than any other brews studied.
Recipe: How to Grow Your Own Tea
While a checkout line chocolate bar won't do much for your waistline, pure, unadulterated cocoa powder sure will. Research in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry shows that it's blows other chocolate products out of the water when it comes to antioxidants. Plus, cocoa—the low-fat component of the cacao bean—reduces your body's levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that can cause your trouble zones to hoard fat, and there are many more health benefits of chocolate.
Bonus: After your workout is the perfect time for a splurge. According to research in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, chocolate milk's combination of carbs and protein speed your muscles' recovery from a tough workout and actually promote muscle protein synthesis.
Recipe: Mocha Chocolate Cake
Better for more than picnics, coleslaw is a veritable health booster. Coming in at just 17 calories, one cup packs 42 percent of your RDA of vitamin C. Plus, it's loaded with sulforaphane, a chemical that ups your body's production of enzymes that fight oxidative damage. Add vinegar to the mix and you can also optimize your digestive system, improving your body's absorption and utilization of the nutrients your body craves, she says.
Bonus: Fresh is best. So when you're staring down your supermarket's selection of vinegars, reach for one that's unpasteurized, unfiltered, and organic. It's the healthiest and most nutrient-packed version.
Recipes: Chicken & Brussels Sprouts Slaw
With tomatoes, peppers, onions, lime, and garlic, how can you go wrong? All are high in nutrients and low in calories. Plus, an afternoon scoop can go a long way toward hitting your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, folate, and fiber, a combo that can promote weight gain, boost your immunity, and even lighten your mood, Batayneh says.
Bonus: Make your own for the freshest, most antioxidant-packed salsa. Glyphosate, a common herbicide, and bisphenol, a plastic-hardening chemical used in canned-food linings and other food containers, endocrine disruptors that myriad studies have called out for spurring weight gain.
Besides adding flavor, rather than fat to your meal, spices actually reduce the fatty foods' effects on your body, according to a recent Penn State study that had participants eat high-fat meals either with or without a sprinkling of spices. The result: Levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood) were about 30 percent lower in those who ate their meal with spices. Meanwhile, the antioxidant activity in their blood was 13 percent greater and their insulin response about 20 percent lower.
Bonus: According to study researchers, rosemary, oregano, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, cloves, garlic powder, and paprika have among the strongest benefit.
Recipe: Ginger Spice Smoothie
Don't just eat your greens--fill up on them. Packed with fiber, the indigestible part of the plant, and composed of 75+ percent water, leafy greens can take up valuable real estate in your gut to keep you from gorging on foods that don't make this list, she says. What's more, they are rich in nutrients such as folate, calcium, potassium, and vitamin C.
Bonus: Despite eating your tomatoes cooked, leafy greens tend to be healthiest when eaten raw, as their folate and vitamin C can leech from the plant during the cooking process, according to Cornell researchers. If you do cook your greens, however, use your steamer. The cooking method preserves the most nutrients, per one Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry study.
Bottles of vanilla and peppermint extract are good for more than taking up cabinet space. Low in calories and super-concentrated with phenolic compounds, they can smooth digestion, reduce anxiety, and curb inflammation, says Batayneh.
Bonus: Take a whiff before you eat up. According to the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, smelling strong, pleasant scents pre-meal can actually help you fill up faster. Remember, your nose and taste buds are in cahouts!
Recipe: Vanilla-Scented Palmiers