Before you dismiss this Health Tip with a stifled yawn and an “Oh, sure. Just stop being a little piggy,” you should know about a study published last week in the British Medical Journal tracking the weight-gain patterns of an astonishing 124,086 men and women in the US over 24 years. In fact, if you’re among the millions who avoid glancing at their bathroom scale in the morning because you want to start your day on a positive note, this Health Tip requires your attention.
What the researchers wanted to know was simple enough: are we missing something beyond the obvious that differentiates the people who gain weight throughout their lives from those who don’t?
Just about everyone gains some weight as they get older and a lot of factors are involved. The quantity and quality of what you eat makes the biggest difference. Avoirdupois-wise, you’ll fare best with modest quantities of carefully chosen foods and by now you surely know the healthy eating good guys from the bad. You’re savvy about the risks of being a couch potato and that’s why you’re reading this Health Tip either before or after your workout.
Genetics are involved, too. Sigmund Freud was right: if you’ve run out of excuses for something you don’t like about yourself, you can always blame your parents.
A massive study
You have to admit that tracking 125,000 people for 24 years is impressive. The group consisted of health professionals (physicians and nurses) who had agreed to answer periodic questionnaires sent to them for years. The total number of enrollees was even higher–almost 300,000–but the researchers deliberately excluded those who at the start of the weight-tracking study had been diagnosed with a chronic illness like diabetes or heart/liver/kidney/lung disease. They wanted to follow the weight changes and eating habits of a vast number of essentially well adults.
Questionnaires were mailed every four years. Participants weighed themselves and then completed a section headed “Food Frequency.” And by the end of the 24 years a very interesting pattern emerged.
Participants who gained the least amount of weight were those who also reported the highest intake of flavonoid-rich foods. Flavonoids are a group of molecules that come to us from the plant world. Plants produce flavonoids for several purposes, coloring themselves to attract birds and insects for pollination, to protect themselves against diseases, and to enhance photosynthesis.
When we eat plants, flavonoids enter our bodies and do a lot of good work there. Flavonoids contain anti-aging antioxidants and have anti-cancer, anti-allergy, anti-viral, and anti-inflammatory properties as well. Obviously, it would be extremely useful if we could create our own flavonoids and not be so dependent on plants, but we’re out of luck. We need to eat our fruits and vegetables.
There are seven flavonoid subclasses, but the three you should attempt to remember are anthocyanins, flavonoid polymers (which include proanthocyanidins), and flavonols. Study participants who ate the most food containing these three were the lucky ones who gained the least amount of weight over 24 years.
Here are the flavonoid prizewinners:
- Anthocyanins Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, tomato juice, green/red peppers, red wine (easy to remember—just think “color”).
- Flavonoid polymers Green tea, apples, oranges, grapefruit.
- Flavonols Onions, peppers, celery.
There were also a lot of high-flavonoid foods that for space reasons simply weren’t included on the questionnaire. These include pomegranate, acai berries, dark chocolate, Romaine lettuce, garbanzo beans, and more. Click here and scroll down for a list along with recommendations on how to prepare them so their precious flavonoids are preserved.
If those are the foods, what’s the quantity? How much of these foods should you be eating in order to actually make a difference? It turns out, not much.
Usually a single serving a day made a difference (and it was surprising how many health professionals were not eating that single serving): an apple, a half cup of blueberries, or a cup of green tea.
However, the best strategy for keeping weight stable over your next quarter century are 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables every single day. For those of you lacking the confidence to manage this truly pathetic amount of healthful eating, consider supplementing your corn dog/elephant ear diet with concentrated flavonoids containing green tea extract, inflavonoid, and grapeseed extract.
I think you know why they’re called nutritional supplements. They’re intended to supplement your diet, not (as some of you seem to think) replace it.
David Edelberg, MD