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The right foods can fight fat

Remember hoodia, a South African desert plant with appetite-suppressing qualities? Or how about Olestra, the fat substitute that was supposed to give us a leg up for weight loss? Those products are now in the trash heap of weight-loss silver bullets.

Despite spending billions annually on weight-loss books, programs, pills and products, American waistlines continue to grow, and the expansion threatens not only our personal health but that of our environment and economy, too.

Health authorities and scientists agree it's far easier to maintain a lean body than to reattain one, so the younger we start, the better.

There are various reasons why weight loss is difficult, but the central reason is that our physiology is stacked against it. To lose weight, we have to overcome biologically driven forces that help us retain weight.

Americans are living in a time of record calorie availability. Stores are full of items that only loosely can be called foods. In fact, describing many processed edible substances as somewhere in between comestible and poison probably is more accurate.

And research is mounting that the wide array of artificial colorings, sweeteners and preservatives — paired with ubiquitous, man-made environmental chemicals — may make weight loss more difficult. Some of these substances have a new name: "obesogens."

Obesogens sound ominous, like carcinogens. We don't want substances that lead to the formation of fat — or cancer — but I don't particularly like the phrase "losing weight" either. Though losing weight is a laudable and often critically necessary goal, it's easy to shed pounds briefly without exercising by cutting calories. The problem is that merely slashing calorie intake sets up many people on the thinner-and-plumper roller coaster.

Thinning alone doesn't do a great deal to improve long-term health outcomes without exercise, which is key to altering body composition. Exercises such as interval training, weight lifting and gardening also are vital to improving markers of cardiovascular risk associated with stroke and heart attack.

Exercise is great for mood, mobility, balance and ongoing muscle and bone strength, yet it's widely known that the major reason Americans are fat is not because we're sedentary. We simply eat too much. We also eat too many of the wrong foods — processed ones. Throw in some obesogens, and we've got a hefty recipe for accumulating fat.

Despite the difficulty of weight loss, there are foods that can help us make a dent in obesity.

Some foods, such as blueberries and the spice turmeric, inhibit fat-cell formation, adipogenesis. Asian stir-fry dishes, soups, dry rubs and even smoothies can accommodate turmeric.

I suggest people eat blueberries and other deeply pigmented fruit, such as local blackberries, regularly. We can purchase them dried or frozen when not available fresh.

Many other foods and beverages, ranging from green tea to beans and seaweeds, will slow adipogenesis and accelerate lipolysis, fat burning.

Probiotics, the beneficial bacteria in cultured and fermented foods, are key weight-loss allies. They engage in the fermentation of dietary fiber in the lower digestive tract, which helps generate energy, and the production of vitamin K, a vitamin involved in blood-clotting regulation and bone health. A recent study showed women who have just given birth return more readily to their previous weight with the help of probiotics.

Though we measure foods' energy contributions by calories, we don't absorb all the calories from foods such as vegetables, nuts and fruits. Undigested fibrous matter in the colon isn't broken down by digestive enzymes, yet fibrous foods are critical to reducing chronic-disease risk.

Fiber does a lot more than promote digestive motility and regularity. It also helps maintain healthy blood-sugar levels. Foods rich in fiber are less glycemic, yet another key to managing weight. All the protective plant-chemical compounds associated with fibrous plant foods add another layer of disease-fighting potential.

Building muscle and eventually slimming down is no easy task. It requires commitments of time, cooking, working out and even reducing stress. Ask people who've succeeded, though, and you may find their inspiration and motivation is contagious.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at altmanm@sou.edu.