By Nicole Catanese, Refinery29
.While the foods we reach for are often driven by what we're craving, our degree of hunger, or what happens to be in the fridge, the truth is, what you pick to pile your plate can completely alter - and affect - everything you do, say, feel, and even how you look. Because, well, we really are what we eat.
From tackling your to-do list, to maintaining a gorgeous glow or helping you unwind, we asked Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., faculty member at the New York Obesity Research Center at Columbia University and author of Why Diets Fail (out January 2014) to share what foods will help make it all happen. You'll never look at your dinner the same way again.
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Foods That Make You Prettier
Your favorite healthy breakfast can also be the antidote to less-than-stellar beauty sleep. Laced with about 11 grams of amino acids (a.k.a. protein) in about 2/3 cup, it can help reduce dark undereye circles - it's believed because it increases cell regeneration. Don't use it as a quick fix, though. Instead, plan ahead or simply eat it on the reg to gain the optimal beauty benefits. "Have it the day before a night out," suggests Avena.
Research shows that the amino acids present in the shell fix help trigger the release of sex hormones. But, this well-know aphrodisiac may do more than just boost your libido. "Oysters contain zinc, which regulates skin's oil production, therefore helping to keep skin clear and lessen breakouts," says Avena.
Red Bell Peppers
This nightshade veggie is packed with skin-protecting antioxidants, the Pac Man-like molecules that counteract the collagen-degrading and cell-damaging free radicals. Along with layering on a topical antioxidant daily, getting them from the inside out can help protect skin and keep it healthy and youthful, says Avena.
.Foods To Make You Feel Sexier
While eating celery instead of, say, bon-bons is sure going to keep you looking hot, what's possibly even more crucial is that it can give you better breath. And, better breath can make your cutie want to keep leaning in and you doing the same. "Celery makes you chew - a lot," says Avena. "The more you have to chew, the more saliva your mouth creates, which acts as a natural bacteria fighter," say Avena. They're not quite as portable and stealthy as slipping yourself a piece of gum, so crunch on some for a snack pre-date night.
You might have on a sick dress but if you feel even a smidge of fupa, you are not going to want to take it off. It may be an oldie but it's a goodie - the best way to flatten your belly fast is downing a lot of water (as in at least two large Poland Springs). "While it initially may extend your belly when you drink a lot of it, once it works its way through your body, it helps to flush out your system, mostly by stimulating your kidneys to get rid of water, which can make your stomach seem smaller," says Avena.
Okay, so this one is less for you and more for your honey: This sweet and watery snack could act like a natural Viagra - well, sort of. "Watermelon contains citrulline, which the body converts to arginine, an amino acid that boosts nitric oxide levels in the body, which can relax blood vessels in the same way a medicine like Viagra does," says Avena. Worth a shot, no?
Foods To Make You Smarter
This popular fish is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which have a long list of benefits from softening skin to keeping your heart healthy. But, studies show that it also helps boost brainpower - specifically memory, says Avena.
Cocoa And Dark Chocolate
The health benefits of dark chocolate over milk chocolate are numerous - for anything from staying slim to even keeping skin gorgeous. However, along with being an antioxidant powerhouse, it contains flavonoids - natural plant pigments that, when coupled with exercise, could increase cognitive enhancement, says Avena. And the darker, the better - look for around 80 percent dark cocoa.
Korean fermented, pickled cabbage is an acquired taste - you love it or you hate it. Luckily for those who are the former, it could be your brain's BFF. "Kimchi contains lactobacillus sakei, a lactic acid bacteria, which may enhance cognitive function by increasing neuronal cell growth in the brain," explains Avena.
.Foods To Make You Stronger
Green tea is another tried-and-true healthy diet staple. However, it is also praised for its antioxidant levels that can help keep your heart healthy and your skin glowing. You might want to drop the sugar-spiked Gatorade and use green tea as a go-to pre and post workout drink. "Green tea has catechins, particular antioxidants that may increase muscle's endurance and fat burning," says Avena.
You might only think of this ingredient as the province of body builders and getting pumped-up, but it's not just for gym rats. "Whey protein helps increase muscular hypertrophy - meaning the size - and strength as well, and more muscle means you are burning more calories when at rest, plus you are simply stronger," says Avena. It's found in the powder form, but also milk, yogurt, and cheese, and really just about every milk-based product. (Lactose-intolerant? Skip it.)
Foods To Make You More Focused
By now you are probably like, "blah-blah antioxidants are great, we get it." But seriously, they are. Not only do they reverse the damaging effects of the molecule-stealing and cell-DNA saboteurs (a.k.a. free radicals), but when in mega-doses - and just-the-right-combo like with berries (think raspberries, blueberries and blackberries)- studies show they can improve memory and motor function, possibly by helping to counteract high levels of function-inhibiting stress levels, says Avena.
"Carrots are rich in glucose, which is required by the brain to function," explains Avena. But, that doesn't mean you've got the green light to carb load when you want to ace it at work - simple carbs are converted to glucose (sugar) by the body. Instead, simply munch on some carrot sticks throughout the day, not in one sitting. "They will give your brain a steady dose," says Avena. But, keep it at around five or so a day. Carrots have more sugar than any other vegetable, around 8 grams for a standard-sized carrot. That said, the naturally occurring sugar is obviously better for you than hitting up Doughnut Plant, but no need to intentionally overdo it.
Studies show that students who ate breakfast do better than those who don't - which isn't shocking if you think about it. Food is fuel, so how is your brain supposed to work if you're starving? Avena says whole grains are a great bet (compared to a buttered bagel), but watch your portion size - eat too much and your concentration can actually decline. "Whole grains are still carbs," says Avena. "Even whole grains can affect sugar levels and promote overeating for some people."
.Foods To Make You Look Younger
Want another reason to love guac? Avocados are rich in glutathione, "a known antioxidant and detoxifier that blocks intestine absorption of certain fats that cause oxidative damage - the process that creates free radical compounds, which instigate premature aging," explains Avena. The result: All your cells, including those in your skin, are healthier. Plus, the glutathione can help recharge other antioxidants, too, for extra youth boosting. But, don't devour guac like crazy. "Try to stick to a single serving (about a quarter of an avocado) because of the high fat content," says Avena. Or, simply use a few slivers to give your salad or sandwich some anti-aging power.
Leafy Green Vegetables
We're talking the usual culprits: spinach and kale, which are laced with lutein. Ironically, it's actually a yellow coloring that is found in the leaves of plants (and also in egg yolk) that helps your skin - scientists have proven that it can help against inflammation caused by UV exposure, says Avena. Researchers at Harvard University found that mice that ate a lutein-packed diet and were exposed to UVB light were less likely to develop tumors than those that didn't eat one. And, since sunlight is the number-one cause of aging (wrinkles, lax skin, and excess pigment), you've got another good reason to eat your greens. Just don't skip the SPF - they're health foods, not miracle workers, people.
Foods To Help You Chill Out
From oranges to tangerines, lemons and mandarins, these vitamin C-rich fruits can act like a natural Xanax. "Vitamin C is helpful in combating stress, lowering blood pressure, and [lowering] levels of the stress hormone cortisol," says Avena. Now, that doesn't mean you have to remember to eat an orange every day - use a few slivers to top off a salad, or add some to your yogurt or cereal instead of the usual fruits like strawberries and bananas.
Chia has been getting a ton of hype lately as a superfood. It fills you up and manages cravings, keeps you hydrated, and may help lower blood pressure. But, Avena says there's an unsung benefit: Because chia seeds are rich in alpha-linolenic acid (a type of omega-3 fatty acid), they can help keep cortisol and adrenaline levels in check, which can make you feel more relaxed, she says. But how does one incorporate these seeds into their daily meals, you ask? Try chia seed 'pudding', a natural version of the dessert. Mix about 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder with 1 ¼ cup coconut milk (from the can), ¼ cup chia seeds, 1 tablespoon of honey (or agave or maple syrup), and a few drops of vanilla extract. Then pour them into small bowls, chill in the fridge, enjoy, and be ready to bliss out.
.Foods To Make You Feel Happier
Spinach, Soy, Turkey, And Egg Whites
While you might initially feel fantastic while eating some sweet candy, these healthier alternatives can provide real deal feel-good emotions that won't leave you lost in the downward spiral of sugar withdrawal. Each contains tryptophan (yes, the same thing that always gets the bad rap for making you pass out on Thanksgiving), which is one of the ten amino acids essential for overall health. But, tryptophan is also a precursor to serotonin, the happy chemical produced by the brain naturally, and is used in many anti-depressants to elevate mood, explains Avena. Luckily, all of the above are paired nicely together all at once, too - try an egg white and spinach omelet with soy cheese, or have a soy latte along with it.
Foods To Make You Leaner
What makes a chili pepper crazy-hot? A compound known as capsaicin. When it hits the nerves in your tongue, it sends a message to your brain that also triggers the release of pleasure hormones. Also, recent research shows that it may help increase metabolism and reduce fat tissue while also acting as a natural appetite suppressor, explains Avena. Add a few into a stir-fry or use them to spice up your turkey wrap or eggs - you don't need many to get the fat-burning payoff.
Think about it: If your energy levels are balanced and you aren't on a sugar high-and-low rollercoaster, than you're more apt to steer clear of the candy machine. The best way to do that is by eating enough protein right at the start of your day. "Oatmeal contains about seven grams of protein in a single serving and will help keep energy levels stable throughout the day," says Avena, who adds that watching portion size is still key. Oh, and don't add a ton of sugar or sweeteners (yes, even maple syrup) or you negate the health benefits.
Not like you needed another reason to hit up the Chobani pop-up store, but it could make you slimmer. "Greek yogurt contains ample amounts of protein - about 13 to 18 grams of the latter - which not only is directly beneficial to muscle endurance, it also makes you feel fuller longer," says Avena. But, don't grab the prepackaged kind with the fruit on the bottom, as that can add extra sugar. "If you do like fruit on your yogurt, just add some fresh slices on top," she says.
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