These good carbs will fill you up—and help whittle your waist. Seriously. You know that scene in The Exorcist, where the priest quotes the Bible and the possessed girl’s head turns a full 360 degrees? That’s sort of what happens whenever I mention the word “carbs” to friends who are watching their weight. They practically start to shake, panic and writhe when I recommend they might want to add some starch to their diet, or double down on some sugar-rich fruit. For too long, we’ve been obsessed with cutting carbs and doubling down on protein. And yes, I’ve been touting the metabolism-boosting power of protein for years.
But in reality, most of the vitamins and other micronutrients we need to shut down our fat genes—not to mention the fiber necessary to keep our bellies healthy and full—are found in carbs. You just have to be judicious. If you hear the word “carbs” and think Cheetos, cane sugar and white bread, you’re not thinking about the right things. Here are some carbohydrate-rich foods you should be investing in.
BEST CARBS FOR A ZERO BELLY
Because it: Boosts fat burn
Packed with nutrients, this bread has sprouted seeds and grains like barley and millet. It’s been shown to help vitamins and minerals be absorbed more readily, which can counteract belly-fat storage by reducing levels of the stress hormones that cause your body to hoard flab.
Because it: Slows digestion
A starch that’ll give you abs? Not only are boiled potatoes a filling food in their warm state — they top the satiety index — when you refrigerate and eat them cold, they turn into something called resistant starch. True to its name, it resists digestion, promoting fat oxidation and burning fat around your belly.
Because it: Slims your waist
Another grain that’s high in belly-slimming fiber, wheat brain is a sweet, nutty addition to baked goods and cereals. To start your day with fat-blasting energy, you can eat it hot in place of your morning oats.
Because it: Pumps you up
A green that builds muscle? One cup of steamed spinach has as much protein as a medium hard-boiled egg, which will boost muscle recovery. The leafy green is also rich in thylakoids, which has been shown to reduce cravings and stimulate weight loss.
Because they: Control blood sugar
The king of slow carbs (meaning they’re digested slowly and keep you feeling fuller and energized longer), sweet potatoes are loaded with fiber, nutrients and can help you burn fat. The magic ingredient here are carotenoids, antioxidants which stabilize blood-sugar levels and lower insulin resistance, which prevents calories from being converted into fat. And their high vitamin profile (including A, C and B6) give you more energy to burn at the gym.
Because they: Activate your fat-burning genes
A cup of blueberries has 21 grams of carbs, but they couldn’t be better for you. Not only are they loaded with polyphenols—chemical compounds that prevent fat from forming—they actively burn belly fat, spot-reducing it! A University of Michigan study found that rats that ate blueberry powder as part of their meals lost belly fat and had lower cholesterol, even when they ate a high-fat diet. It’s theorized that the catechins in blueberries activate the fat-burning gene in belly-fat cells. In another study at Tufts University, people who regularly consumed catechins increased their belly-fat loss by 77%. Additionally, blueberries may be muscle builders. Their skins are rich in ursolic acid, a chemical which researchers at the University of Iowa found prevents muscle breakdown in lab animals.
Because they: Burn fat as fuel
High in fiber and low in fat, beans are a resistant starch, meaning that they “resist” digestion, sticking around the digestive tract and helping you feel fuller longer. But their fat-burning power goes way beyond that: Beans are high in the chemical butyrate, which encourages the body to burn fat as fuel. According to a study at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, beans are rich in soluble fiber and can lessen the accumulation of body fat: For each 10 grams of soluble fiber that study subjects added to their diet, they lost 3.7% of belly fat in a year! A bonus: Resistant starch protects the colon from DNA damage; people who eat beans daily have been shown to have a 20% lower risk of colon cancer.
Because they: Reduce your hunger hormones
Your go-to breakfast should always be oatmeal. Research in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found results in greater feelings of satiety than breakfast cereal. The magic word here again is butyrate, a fatty acid that reduces inflammation throughout the body. A Canadian study concluded that diets high in insoluble fiber create high levels of ghrelin, a hormone that reduces hunger. Plus, they’re quick-and-easy meal.
Because it: Shuts off belly fat genes
Tired of hearing about quinoa? Stay with us—research continues to show that the grain’s ab-carving potential can’t be overstated. Eating whole grains has been shown to be a shortcut to belly-fat loss, and quinoa is at the head of the class. It’s a complete protein, meaning that it contains the complete chain of amino acids that are necessary for muscle building and fat loss.
It’s also high in the amino acid lysine, which helps you burn fat and maintain healthy bones and skin. According to a study published in the journal Food Chemistry, quinoa has the highest level of betaine, a chemical that revs your metabolism and actually shuts down the genes that encourage belly fat to hang around. If you find yourself needing some variety, don’t turn back to brown rice—look to quinoa’s good-carb cousins such as bulgur and barley.
Because it: Suppresses appetite
With 6 grams of fiber per cup — a quarter of your recommended daily allowance — this superpowered grain can not only keep you fuller longer, it quells inflammation, lowers blood sugar and has been linked to lower cholesterol.
Because it: Boosts fat burn
This sweet veggie is packed with vitamin C, which aids muscle formation and can boost the fat-burning effects of exercise. Plus, one cup contains 33% of your RDA of satisfying, belly-slimming fiber.
WHOLE WHEAT PASTA
Because it: Fills You Up
Not all pasta is evil. If it’s whole wheat — meaning it contains all three parts of the grain — it contains a good amount of fiber, which will keep you sated and prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes, which lead to cravings for more carbs.
WHOLE WHEAT BREAD
Because it: Prevents overeating
If you’re going for abs, you’re already sending the restaurant bread basket back. But don’t shrink from whole-wheat bread completely. As with whole-wheat pasta, you’re getting all three parts of the grain, with fiber to increase satiety and prevent overeating. Just be careful—most breads in the sandwich aisle are filled with high fructose corn syrup or a blend of whole and enriched wheats. It’s worth splurging on the pricier stuff, often found in the freezer section.
Because they: Burn belly fat
Lentils, chickpeas, peas and beans — they’re all magic bullets for belly-fat loss. In one four-week Spanish study, researchers found that eating a calorie-restricted diet that includes four weekly servings of legumes aids weight loss more effectively than an equivalent diet that doesn’t include them. Those who consumed the legume-rich diet also saw improvements in their “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and systolic blood pressure.
Because it: Builds muscle
Chocolate milk is the ideal pre- and post-workout drink. Why? Scientists have determined that they ideal amount of protein to build muscle is 10 to 20 grams. One glass of chocolate milk contains 8. So drink one before and after the gym, and you’re set. More muscle means a speedier metabolism and greater fat burn.
Because it: Soothes inflammation
This ancient grain native to the Middle East is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, high in protein while low in calories. A half-cup serving has 30% more protein than regular wheat (six grams), with only 140 calories! Eating it as a side dish or tossed in salads could help reduce cholesterol, blood sugar and cytokines, which cause inflammation throughout the body, a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found.
Because they: Banish bloat
When you’re feeling paunchy, belly fat isn’t always to blame. Zero Belly Enemy #2 is bloating. Bananas are the cure. The fruit replenishes good bacteria in the gut that fights bloat; they’re also rich in potassium, which reduces water retention. One study found that women who ate a banana as a pre-meal snack for 60 days reduced belly bloat by 50 percent!
Because it: Prevents weight gain
Another superpowered sibling to quinoa, this grain is a complete protein and high in fiber. It also has four times the calcium and twice as much iron as its more popular counterpart. That benefits your belly because diets high in those nutrients have been associated with lower body weight and reduced weight gain over time.
Because they: Whittle your waist
Not only are they rich in belly-filling fiber, apples have a waist-slimming superpower. Seek out the Pink Lady variety. A study at the University of Western Australia found that they have the most fat-burning antioxidant flavonoids of any apple.
Because it: Squashes hunger
Work this grain into your breakfast bowl and dinner side dishes and your belly will be glad you did. It’s packed with good monounsaturated fats, which reduce inflammation; calcium, which promotes satiety, and appetite-squelching magnesium.
Because they: Burn belly fat
Tart cherries pack a serious punch when it comes to fat reduction. A University of Michigan study found that rats fed tart cherries burned 9 percent more belly fat than rats that ate a standard diet. Why? Their phytonutrients seem to switch off fat genes!
Because it: Fights belly fat storage
Crunch away on this cruciferous vegetable: Broccoli has a near-magic nutrient called sulforaphane, which increases testosterone and keeps belly fat from hanging around.
You know quinoa is revered for its health benefits, but buckwheat is just as powerful and deserves space on your dinner plate. Like quinoa, it’s a complete source of filling, muscle-building protein, and is high in magnesium and fiber, two waist-whittling nutrients that slow digestion and lower blood sugar.