A blue bowl filled with a lentil and carrot salad
Photo: Nata Vkusidey/Getty Images

No food is a superfood. But some foods, studies have shown, are more conducive to maintaining a healthy weight than others.

It’s not just baby carrots and celery sticks, either. Thanks to their nutritional makeup, even hearty, nutrient-dense foods such as nuts and whole grains can help you with your weight-loss goals. 

What’s more, these same foods are among the best for fighting diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Try including one or more of them in your meals every day.

Nuts

In a large study published in 2017 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Harvard University researchers found that those who ate 5 or more ounces of nuts per week had a lower body mass index than those who never or rarely ate them. Nut eaters also had a 14 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 20 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease during the study period.

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Adding nuts to your diet may also help ward off the gradual weight gain that often occurs with age. People who increased their intake of nuts by just half an ounce a day gained less weight over a 24-year period than those who didn’t eat nuts, according to a large study of men and women published in 2019 in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention, & Health.

Consuming any type of nut was associated with a 3 percent reduced risk of becoming obese. Looking at specific types of nuts, the researchers found some differences, though. Eating tree nuts (such as almonds or cashews) was linked to an 11 percent lower risk, and eating walnuts to a 15 percent lower risk. (Increasing peanut butter intake, however, wasn’t correlated with obesity risk.)

Nuts are highly satisfying, says Emilio Ros, MD, PhD, director of the Lipid Clinic and senior consultant at the Endocrinology and Nutrition Service at Hospital Clínic in Barcelona, Spain, in an editorial accompanying the 2017 study. They also supply fiber and protein, which help keep you full. Their satisfaction factor may partly explain why past studies have found that despite being high in fat, nuts might help you lose weight.

But aren’t nuts high in calories? Yes, but not as high as you think. In a series of papers published in the past decade by the Department of Agriculture, scientists found that for almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and, most recently, cashews, people don’t actually absorb as many calories as are listed on nutrition labels, according to David Baer, PhD, research leader in the Food Components and Health Laboratory at the USDA.

For example, there are about 170 calories in an ounce of almonds, but Baer’s research shows that people retain only about 129 calories, or about three-quarters of the total. 

Other research has shown that nuts are linked with many other health benefits, such as a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and cancer. 

How to use them: Grab a handful for an afternoon snack, toss them into a salad, sprinkle them over cooked vegetables, or crush them and use to coat lean pork or poultry. An ounce is about 23 almonds, 18 cashews, or 14 walnut halves. Opt for unsalted nuts to keep your sodium intake down.

Whole Grains

In a 2017 study published in the American Clinical Journal of Nutrition, 81 volunteers agreed to eat only the food provided by researchers at Tufts University.

For six weeks, half followed a typical American diet that included refined grains, such as white bread, white pasta, and white rice. The other half ate an identical diet—except whole grains replaced refined grains.

The researchers monitored the participants’ metabolic rate and measured the weight and calorie count of their stool. Those on the whole-grain diet had an uptick in their resting metabolism—the number of calories the body burns at rest—and excreted more calories than those eating refined grains, according to Phil Karl, PhD, nutrition scientist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and the study’s lead author. 

“This may mean people were absorbing a little less carbs, protein, and fat from the diet,” Karl says.

He cautions that whole grains are “only one piece of a puzzle,” when it comes to weight loss. But this study provides evidence that they may work for you, rather than against you, if you’re trying for a healthy weight.

Healthy eating means frequently choosing combinations of better-for-you foods and in appropriate quantities,” Karl says—and whole grains are proved to be a better-for-you food. 

How to use them: Ideally you want to eat them in their natural state—barley, brown rice, bulgur, farro, oats, quinoa, or wheat berries, for instance—as a side dish, in soup, or as a breakfast cereal. In the Tufts study, participants ate whole-grain bread, cereals, pastas, and tortillas.

Bonus: Popcorn counts as a whole grain. Just remember to go light on the salt and butter. 

Beans and Lentils

Adding pulses (aka beans and lentils) to your diet could help you lose weight and reduce body fat, according to a 2016 analysis of 21 studies. The research team from the University of Toronto found that eating pulses led to weight loss, even in people who weren’t trying to lose weight.

Among the 940 overweight or obese adults in the study, those who ate about a daily serving of pulses—from about half a cup to around a cup and a half—weighed on average about three-quarters of a pound less than those who didn’t: a “small but significant” difference, according to the scientists.

Another analysis from 2014 found that those who added pulses to meals felt about 30 percent fuller compared with people who ate meals without them.

How to use them: Add to salads, soups, tacos, even smoothies. And consider combining whole grains and beans in soups, as a side dish, or even as a main course. For example, switch up the classic rice and beans combo by using brown rice, or combine chickpeas, bulgur, and veggies to make a grain bowl.

Berries

Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are low in calories and high in fiber, so they help you feel full on less. A cup of whole strawberries, for instance, has just 46 calories; a cup of blueberries has 84.

But a 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal suggests that the weight-loss benefits go beyond simple calorie counting. That’s because berries are rich in flavonoids—a group of antioxidant compounds found in the pigment of many plant foods.

In the study, researchers tracked 120,000 men and women for 24 years. They reported on their weight every two years and their eating habits every four years. The study found that those who ate the most flavonoids were better able to maintain their weight as they got older. Anthocyanins, the type of flavonoids in berries, appeared to have the most powerful effect.

Flavonoids provide other perks, including a reduced risk of heart disease and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

How to use them: Stir into plain yogurt for breakfast or for an after-dinner treat, or buy them frozen to use in a smoothie.