“Dave, can I borrow six bucks?” my friend Chuck asked. We had met up at the gym for a quick sweat session, and on the way out he was ogling the refrigerator at the cafe. “I can’t believe how expensive this stuff is,” he said, pulling out a carton of protein shake. “What’s ‘ferric pryophosphate’ anyways?”
“Look,” I told him, snatching away the carton. “I don’t know what that is, nor would I ever recommend ‘pyridoxine hydrochloride,’ ‘sodium hexametaphosphate,’ or any of the other weird chemicals in here.” I stuck the container back in the fridge. “I’ll lend you the six bucks, but only if you spend it on a whole week’s worth of ab-building foods, instead of this overpriced chemistry set.”
While there are merits to some of the fancy supplements on the market, there’s no need to break open your piggy bank to buy your way to perfect nutrition. Nature has already created an array of muscle-building, fat-melting superfoods that won’t cost you an arm and a leg, or send you into a frenzy of Googling to figure out what it is you’re really ingesting. In fact, the very best food for abs are cheap, plentiful, natural, and come with an array of healthy side benefits as well. Here are some of my favorites, inspired by our new book, Eat This, Not That! For Abs.
Hemp Seed Nuts
Cost: $1 a serving
Similar in taste to sunflower seeds, these nuts are derived from hemp seeds, which are also used to grow cannabis. (We know what you’re thinking. The answer is no.) By weight, hemp seed nuts provide more high-quality protein—6 grams per tablespoon—than even beef or fish. Each nut is also packed with heart-healthy alphalinoleic acid. Find them in your local health-food store or in the natural-products section of your grocery store.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Enjoy straight from the bag, or sprinkle a handful on salads or in your morning oatmeal.
Cost: $1 per serving
Think of the frozen packages as the better berries for your health — and budget. Fresh berries tend to be slightly more expensive than their frozen counterparts and are prone to growing mold quickly if they aren’t prepped perfectly. Frozen fruit is also the perfect on-hand solution to squashing sweet cravings before they lead to a binge. Frozen mango is particularly good to have in the house; it boasts a sherbet-like consistency that can keep you from polishing off your pint of Ben & Jerry’s while delivering vital nutrients you’ll never find in the frozen dessert aisle.
Eat This, Not That! Tip: Frozen versions of your favorite fruits are also killer for creating weight loss smoothies. Plus, swapping out ice in favor of frozen fruit is an easy way to keep your shake from getting watered down. “Just make sure the bag does not have any added sugars, syrups and salts,” Isabel Smith, RD, cautions.
Cost: $1 per serving, with two servings per tin
These oily fish are a top source of omega-3 fats, rivaling even salmon. Plus, they’re packed with bonebuilding calcium. Research shows that omega-3s can improve everything from your cholesterol profile to your mood to your ability to ward off Alzheimer’s. Look for sardines packed in olive oil. Crown Prince Natural brand is inexpensive, but more discerning eaters may want to check Whole Foods or igourmet.com for upscale products.
Eat This, Not That! tip: You can eat them straight from the can, but for a more sophisticated approach, wrap a sardine around an almond-stuffed olive. Or you can chop sardines and stuff them inside a peppadew pepper. Peppadews are just one of the 20 Superfoods for Abs You’ve Never Heard Of!
Cost: $1 per serving
If you’re really hungry, you could eat two of these bad boys without passing the 200-calorie mark. Cottage cheese is a good addition to your diet because it’s high in protein and relatively low in calories. It’s also considered a complete protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids your body needs to function properly.
Eat This, Not That! tip: “You can also pair your own Breakstone’s individual low-fat cottage cheese with a piece of fresh fruit,” suggests Maria-Paula Carrillo, MS, RDN, LD.
Cost: $1 per pepper
Even if you eat well and exercise, constantly pulling your hair out can prevent your abs from showing. When we stress out, the body starts pumping out the hormone cortisol, which encourages the body to store cholesterol-raising fat around the midsection. The good news is that vitamin C-rich foods like peppers, broccoli and Brussels sprouts can help keep you trim. How does eating the produce squash stress? According to German researchers, the nutrient can lower levels of cortisol during stressful situations, helping those abs take center stage.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Grab a pepper and a few eggs, and get crackin’! This mighty fat-frying duo is sure to help you fit into your skinny jeans in no time. Eggs contain a metabolism-boosting nutrient called choline, and peppers are a good source of vitamin C. What does vitamin C have to do with weight loss? Getting an adequate amount of the nutrient can help fight off cortisol, a hormone that causes fat to accumulate around the midsection. Chop some peppers, add them to a hot pan with some olive oil, add in two or three eggs and scramble them up to stay slim.
Cost: $1 for a regular yogurt serving—usually a bit more for Greek, but we’ve seen Chobani on sale for a buck per 5.3 oz single serving.
Nutrient-dense Greek yogurt is as buzzed about as any pop culture icon, with some brands boasting their own pop-up shops in SoHo and YouTube spoof videos. But does it have the staying power of, say, Beyonce? All signs points to yes. Good Greek yogurts are low in sugar, high in protein and creamy enough to make you think they’re sinful, making this weight loss staple a perfect breakfast-on-the-go or snack to quell that angry 3 pm hunger.
Eat This, Not That! tip: navigating the dairy aisle is no easy task; with tons of brands offering “authentic” Greek yogurt lined up on your grocery store shelves, you may need a little help weeding out the good from the bad. That’s why we’ve rounded up the best (and worst) Greek ‘gurts: so you don’t have to stress or even read nutrition labels on your next grocery trip. Click here to discover the 11 Best Greek Yogurts for Abs!
Cost: 95 cents per serving
What does it take to become the number one tennis player in the world? A lot of practice. Nerves of steel. And, if you’re Novak Djokovic, a strict gluten-free diet that he says has played a major role in helping him attain the number one ranking. The newly crowned U.S. Open men’s singles winner and reigning Wimbledon champion reveals what he eats during a tournament, in his book Serve to Win. And honey’s one of them. “I eat two spoonfuls of honey,” he says. “Every day. I know what you’re thinking: Honey is sugar. Well, yes, it is. But your body needs sugar. In particular, it needs fructose, the sugar found in fruits, some vegetables, and especially honey. What it doesn’t need is processed sucrose, the stuff in chocolate, soda, or most energy drinks that gives you an instant sugar shot in the body, where you feel like ‘Wow!’ I don’t like ‘wow.’ ‘Wow’ is no good. If you have ‘wow’ now, that means in thirty minutes you’re going to have ‘woe.’”
Eat This, Not That! tip: If you can stretch your budget, Djokovic recommends “manuka honey, which comes from New Zealand. It is a dark honey made by bees that feed on the manuka tree (or tea tree), and has been shown to have even greater antibacterial properties than regular honey.”
Apples with the Skin On
Cost: 75 cents per red apple
An apple a day keeps the doctor away—at least if you keep the peel on. While traditional advice for saving the skin was based mainly on its fiber content (an average apple provides 4.5 grams, or nearly two servings of Metamucil), there’s a growing body of research to suggests it’s actually polyphenols in the peel—non-digestible compounds capable of doing everything from increasing sexual pleasure to reducing cholesterol—that are responsible for the apple’s doctor defense. In fact, one study showed 75 grams of apple reduced “bad” cholesterol levels by 23 percent compared to an equivalent serving of notoriously fiber-rich prunes. The health a-peel doesn’t stop there. New research suggests polyphenols can fight cancer, and promote the growth of friendly bacteria in the gut that aids weight loss.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Tart Granny Smith apples reign supreme when it comes to healthy fiber and polyphenol content, research suggests.
Cost: A mere $1.40 per pound, per whole chicken; $1.60 per pound of chicken legs—and for 2 servings per pound, that works out to 70 or 80 cents per serving!
In our Eat This, Not That! food lab, we compared all major cuts of beef, pork, poultry and alternative meats through a rigorous equation to assess their core nutritional value. The criteria? High protein-to-fat ratio; density of 10 essential nutrients commonly found in proteins; and low saturated fat concentrations and cholesterol levels. Light chicken meat won out handily over all other cuts, with chicken breast being the best you could buy. But for an almost equally healthy chicken alternative, a dark chicken leg will save you 89 cents a pound—and it scored higher in
nutritional value than all cuts of beef except for kidney and liver.
Eat This, Not That! Tip: You can also opt for frozen chicken breast, which contains almost identical nutrients at half the price as the fresh breast. In our taste tests, we found it impossible to tell the difference between fresh and frozen. Or, if you’re more of a meat eater, check out these 5 Best Cuts of Beef for Weight Loss!
Cost: 57 cents per serving
High in fiber, low in calories and full of vitamin A—pumpkin has got a lot to offer your body. Sure, you may consume enough pumpkin at Thanksgiving for an entire year, but pumpkin goes well in more than just pie. At less than $1.50 per can, it’s worth keeping a few stashed away in your pantry.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Pumpkin puree can be used in both sweet and savory dishes—bread, cookies, oatmeal, yogurt, pancakes, smoothies, stews, you name it. Just a few tablespoons are enough to help improve digestion and boost immunity.
Cost: 50 cents per serving
Recently crowned superfood numero uno, watercress may be king of the produce aisle as a nutrient powerhouse. A study report published by the Centers for Disease Control that ranked 47 fruits and vegetables by amounts of 17 disease-fighting nutrients positioned watercress at number one. Kale didn’t even make the top 10! Gram for gram this mild-tasting and flowery-looking green contains four times more beta carotene than an apple, and a whopping 238 percent of your daily recommended dose of vitamin K per 100 grams—two compounds that keep skin dewy and youthful. The beauty food is also the richest dietary source of PEITC (phenylethyl isothiocyanate), which research suggests can fight cancer. Results from a trial published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggest a daily dose of 85 grams of raw watercress (that’s about two cups) could reduce DNA damage linked to cancer by 17 percent.
Eat This, Not That! tip: A cup of watercress provides 4 calories. Yes, FOUR. So go ahead and eat the whole bag. Exposure to heat may inactivate PEITC, so it’s best to enjoy watercress raw in salads, cold-pressed juices and sandwiches. Click here to learn about the other Top 10 Greens Healthier Than Kale!
Cost: 79 cents per sweet potato
The vibrant tubers are called superfoods for good reason: They’re packed with nutrients and can help you burn fat. Sweet potatoes are high in fiber and have a low glycemic index, which means they’re absorbed slowly and keep you feeling full longer. They’re also rich in carotenoids, powerful antioxidants which help 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.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Fries don’t have to be fried to be delicious. Infuse sweet potato fries with a welcome smoky flavor by grilling them. The twist helps balance the spud’s natural sweetness. Get the recipe from Gimme Some Oven!
Whole Wheat Pasta
Cost: 57 cents per serving
You know brown is better, but do you know why? It’s because whole wheat contains three parts of the grain, all nutrient rich and fiber-filling. Also try varieties with lentils, chickpeas, black beans or quinoa. And, bonus health tip: If you’re whipping up a pasta sauce, try throwing some flax seeds in the mix, suggests Rachel Fine, MS, RD, CDN. “They’re a great source of healthy unsaturated fats, which are powerhouses for the body’s immune system,” she says. See, because our bodies are exposed to pollutants in the environment, they’re in a constant state of low-severity inflammation. Thanks to their unsaturated fat content, flax seeds help the body battle that inflammation, according to Fine.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Jovial Einkorn Rigatoni is our go-to brand. Because it has never been hybridized, Einkorn is one of the purest species of wheat out there, say its proponents. The whole grain is rich in protein and fiber, and just one serving of this pasta dishes up a quarter of the day’s phosphorus (a nutrient that’s typically only found in milk and meat) and 80 percent of the day’s manganese, an essential nutrient that helps the body process cholesterol, carbs and proteins. Don’t miss these other 10 Essential Carbs That Build Muscle!
Cost: 49 cents per serving
Six dollars per pound may not seem super cheap, but to even breach one pound of raw pumpkin seeds (also known as pepitas), you’re going to be taking home what looks like whole year’s supply. The great thing about these crunchy seeds is that you only need to consume them in small quantities to reap the health benefits. One ounce contains more than eight grams of protein and is also high in iron, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc (important for a healthy immune system).
Eat This, Not That! tip: Add into salads, oats and yogurt, or pop them in your mouth as is for a quick snack.
Cost: 43 cents per serving
It may be green and leafy, but spinach is no nutritional wallflower. This noted muscle builder is a rich source of plant-based omega-3s and folate, which help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and osteoporosis. Bonus: Folate also increases blood flow to the nether regions, helping to protect you against age-related sexual issues. And spinach is packed with lutein, a compound that fights macular degeneration. Aim for 1 cup fresh spinach or 1/2 cup cooked per day.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Make your salads with spinach; add spinach to scrambled eggs; drape it over pizza; mix it with marinara sauce and then microwave for an instant dip.
Cost: 41 cents per serving
Tuna or to-not? That is the question. As a primo source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), canned light tuna is one of the best and most affordable fish for weight loss, especially from your belly! One study in the Journal of Lipid Research showed that omega 3 fatty acid supplementation had the profound ability to turn off abdominal fat genes. And while you’ll find two types of fatty acids in cold water fish and fish oils—DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)—researchers say DHA can be 40 to 70 percent more effective than EPA at down regulating fat genes in the abdomen, preventing belly fat cells from expanding in size. But what about the mercury? Mercury levels in tuna vary by species; generally speaking, the larger and leaner the fish, the higher the mercury level. Bluefin and albacore rank among the most toxic, according to a study in Biology Letters. But canned chunk light tuna, harvested from the smallest fish, is considered a “low mercury fish” and can–and should!–be enjoyed two to three times a week (or up to 12 ounces), according to the FDA’s most recent guidelines.
Eat This, Not That! tip: “Before my morning training session, I like to have a bit of tuna,” says Dr. Sean M. Wells, DPT, PT, OCS, ATC/L, CSCS Owner and PT. “I slice heirloom tomatoes into a bowl, top them with a can of wild-caught tuna and drizzle a bit of extra virgin olive oil on top. This provides a great low-carb protein punch, essential polyunsaturated fats and a serving of raw vegetables.” And don’t go for the cheap fish! Click here to find out How Tilapia is Worse than Bacon!
Cost: 36 cents per serving
Along with other legumes, chickpeas are a new weight-loss superfood. Their high fiber and protein content increases satiety, and a number of studies have shown that people who add them to a reduced-calorie diet lose more weight and have lower cholesterol.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Chickpeas make you feel fuller longer and lower body mass by releasing cholecystokinin, an appetite-suppressing hormone. This snack’s good balance of proteins and fats make hummus a comfort food in more ways than one.
Cost: 29 cents per serving, for the good stuff
A study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found a link between the consumption of peanuts and a decreased risk for heart disease. Resist buying reduced-fat versions! The healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats found in peanuts are what provide those heart-healthy benefits. Due to its caloric density, peanuts and peanut butter should be consumed in small portions, but that modest two-tablespoon serving offers eight grams of protein on average.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Don’t sweat super-expensive almond and nut butters, if you can’t afford them. A simple serving of Smucker’s Creamy Natural Peanut Butter will get the job done. Although if you want to spluge, go for one of these 16 Best Nut Butters for Weight Loss!
Cost: 28 cents per pound
A bloated belly can make even the most toned stomach look a bit paunchy. Fight back against the gas and water retention with bananas. One study found that women who ate a banana twice daily as a pre-meal snack for 60 days reduced their belly-bloat by 50 percent! Not only does the fruit increase bloat-fighting bacteria in the stomach, it’s also a good source of potassium, which can help diminish water retention. Once you’ve kicked the bloat to the curb, you can hit the beach with confidence and show off that hard-earned body!
Cost: $2.90 per dozen, so 24 cents each
When it comes to eggs, it seems we’ve been given scrambled messages. Many of us opt for egg whites over whole eggs because word on the street is that the yellow contains too much cholesterol and raises the risk of heart disease. However, new research has found that cholesterol levels in our bodies are impacted by the types of fats in our food, not just the cholesterol content. Not to mention, yolks contain nutrients that may help lower the risk of heart disease, including protein, vitamins B12 and D, folate and riboflavin.
Eat This, Not That! Tip: What’s more, eating the whole egg can help keep you slim. In fact, they’re one of our top fatty foods that will help you lose weight. The yolk contains a nutrient called choline that boosts metabolism and turns off belly-fat genes. If the thought of eating whole eggs still makes you uneasy, try making an omelet with one whole egg, two egg whites and some chopped vegetables.
Cost: 24 cents a serving
Extra virgin olive oil may increase blood levels of serotonin, a hormone associated with satiety. Plus, olive oil is also loaded with polyphenols, antioxidants that help battle many diseases such as cancer, osteoporosis and brain deterioration.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Expensive extra-virgin, with its robust flavor, should be saved to dress salads, vegetables and cooked dishes. For cooking purposes, regular or light olive oil is sufficient.
Cost: 21 cents per serving
Quinoa, make some space at the table—there’s a new ancient grain on the block. Kamut is a grain native to the Middle East. Rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, it’s also 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 kamut reduces cholesterol, blood sugar and cytokines, which cause inflammation throughout the body, a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found. Toss it into salads or eat it as a side dish on its own.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Buy it and boil it. Or try Eden Foods Kamut and Quinoa Pasta. In addition to serving up a good amount of protein and fiber, the noodles have 20 percent of the day’s magnesium—a nutrient not normally found in pasta. Not getting enough magnesium has been linked to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and coronary heart disease. Click here t find out which other 10 Surprising Foods You Need For Abs!
Cost: 20 cents per potato
Thanks to the popularity of low-carb diets, white potatoes have been unfairly blacklisted. After taking a second look into the science, you’ll see there’s no need to be scared of the spuds—they’re actually powerful hunger tamers that can help you slim down. In an Australian study that measured the satiating index of 38 popular foods, researchers discovered that potatoes were not only more filling and satisfying than dietary demons like doughnuts and cake (no surprise there), they also ranked better than healthy picks like brown rice and oatmeal. As a result, research participants ate less on the days they consumed them. Not to mention, this root vegetable is also a good source of potassium, vitamin C and belly-filling fiber.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Ditch high-cal potato toppings like sour cream and bacon bits, and enjoy the spuds with olive oil, rosemary and fresh pepper instead.
Cost: 19 cents per serving
Aside from generally being sky-high in sugar and basement-low in protein, breakfast cereals are pricey. A 12-ounce box can run upwards of $6 for a dozen servings. By contrast, there are 30 servings in a two-pound container of Old Fashioned Quaker Oats (the silo-shaped package, not the instant packets), which rings in at under $4. Oats are high in soluble fiber and anti-inflammatory compounds, which increase satiety and have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Sprinkle a serving with cinnamon (one of the best fat-burning spices) or top it with fruit.
Cost: 19 cents per cup
A fermented Chinese tea with an earthy flavor, Pu-erh can literally shrink the size of your fat cells. To discover the brew’s fat-crusading powers, Chinese researchers divided rats into five groups and fed them varying diets over a two month period. In addition to a control group, there was a group given a high-fat diet with no tea supplementation and three additional groups that were fed a high-fat diet with varying doses of pu-erh tea extract. The researchers found that the tea significantly lowered triglyceride concentrations (potentially dangerous fat found in the blood) and belly fat in the high-fat diet groups. It’s a natural fat-blaster, along with barberry, rooibos and white tea.
How to drink it: We love Pu-erh so much, we made it part of our brand new weight-loss plan, The 7-Day Flat-Belly Tea Cleanse! Test panelists lost up to 10 pounds in just one week!
Cost: 19 cents for organic
Snack time needs some attention, too. Those of you who didn’t know popcorn was considered a “health food” have been missing out! Microwave popcorn does not qualify, unfortunately. Plain popcorn kernels are a whole grain food high in fiber and antioxidants. When air-popped, the classic snack only contains about 30 calories per cup.
Eat This Not That! tip: You can also pop kernels on the stove in coconut or olive oil for a more indulgent flavor. Sea salt, cinnamon, Parmesan cheese or herbs and spices are a healthy way to kick the flavor up a notch.
Cost: 16 cents per serving
All beans are good for your heart, but none can boost your brainpower like black beans. That’s because they’re full of anthocyanins, antioxidant compounds that have been shown to improve brain function. A daily 1/2-cup serving provides 8 grams of protein and 7.5 grams of fiber. It’s also low in calories and free of saturated fat.
Eat This, Not That! tip: Wrap black beans in a breakfast burrito; use both black beans and kidney beans in your chili; puree 1 cup black beans with 1/4 cup olive oil and roasted garlic for a healthy dip; add favas, limas, or peas to pasta dishes. OR make this Black Bean and Tomato Salsa: Dice 4 tomatoes, 1 onion, 3 cloves garlic, 2 jalapeños, 1 yellow bell pepper, and 1 mango. Mix in a can of black beans and garnish with 1/2 cup chopped cilantro and the juice of 2 limes.
Cost: 14 cents per serving
Lentils are like the Chuck Taylors of nutritional all-stars—old-school, somewhat pedestrian in style, yet hugely popular the world over. The edible pulse has been a part of the human diet for some 13,000 years—an inexpensive form of vegetarian protein and fiber touted by health experts for its ability to reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol, promote fat metabolism and dampen appetites. Lentils are a resistant starch, a slow-digesting fiber that triggers the release of acetate—a molecule in the gut that tells the brain when to stop eating. In fact, a systematic review of clinical trials on dietary pulses found that people who ate a daily serving of lentils (about 3/4 cup) felt an average 31 percent fuller compared to a control diet. And a second study found a diet rich in blood-sugar stabilizing foods like lentils could reduce disease-related inflammation by 22 percent!
Eat This, Not That! tip: Replacing meat with lentils can increase a recipe’s fiber content while lowering saturated fat. Swap four ounces of ground beef (280 calories) for a cup of cooked lentils (230 calories) in your chili, and you’ll boost fiber by 16 grams while slashing 22 grams of fat from your meal.
Cost: 11 cents per serving
The days of finding a rotten half head of lettuce at the back of your fridge can be a thing of the past — if you get to know the frozen foods section of your local supermarket. And don’t you dare feel bad for skipping the produce section in front; frozen veggies retain more nutrients than their fresh-sold counterparts because “the frozen ones are picked then immediately (or soon after) frozen,” according to Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition. “Just read the labels on frozen packages to make sure there is no added sodium, sugar, or chemicals,” she advises. Plus, frozen veggies can be used on your own schedule — without fear of waste. Adding a handful of frozen spinach or other veggies to dishes here and there is a low-calorie, nutrient-dense way to boost satiety and lose weight.
Eat This, Not That! Tip: Frozen vegetable medleys are an easy way to get more variety into your diet. Different colors of produce are natural indications that you’re getting different vitamins and minerals; the more colors you eat, the better. Next time you’re at the store, grab a bag of frozen tri-color bell peppers. Peppers are low-calorie and rich in vitamins A and C, which are important for healthy vision and vibrant, glowing skin.
Food for Abs…
Cost: 5 cents per serving
Canola, derived from the seeds of a plant in the broccoli family, has near-perfect 2.5:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. According to a study review published last year in Experimental Biology and Medicine, people who achieve a dietary ratio similar to this have been able to battle cancer, arthritis and asthma more effectively. It’s also rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid that may play a role in weight maintenance, according to a recent study.