There’s a crybaby in your gut. It’s called ghrelin, otherwise known as the “I’m hungry” hormone. When your stomach is empty—or thinks it is—it secretes ghrelin, which causes hunger by sending signals to the brain, urging it on to a search-and-destroy mission aimed at any nearby bag of Doritos. Your belly’s babysitter: Leptin, an appetite suppressor that signals to your brain when you’re full and tells it to stop eating. But just as we can develop an insensitivity to another food-related hormone, insulin, so too can we become inured to the power of leptin, researchers say. The result: your hunger doesn’t shut off naturally, and you continue to eat even when you’re full. That’s where natural remedies that reduce ghrelin come in.
The same factors that lead to insulin resistance—high-sugar, high-calorie foods lacking in protein and fiber—can also cause our brain’s appetite-suppression mechanisms to go awry. But, fortunately, some foods have the opposite effect, improving our hunger management not just in the short-term, but over the long haul as well. To whittle your middle down to a flat belly, eat more of these nine best foods that turn off the appetite tap fast, and keep it off for hours.
Breakfast is no longer considered a nutritional make-or-break, but waking up to a protein-rich meal can set your fat-burning pace for your entire day. In a study of 21 men published in the journal Nutrition Research, half were fed a breakfast of bagels while half ate eggs. The egg group were observed to have a lower response to ghrelin, were less hungry three hours later and consumed fewer calories for the next 24 hours! Bonus: Egg yolks contain choline, a nutrient with powerful fat-burning properties that make for a delicious Zero Belly omelet.
Ghrelin is suppressed when your stomach is full, so eating satiating high-fiber foods is a no-brainer when you’re trying to reduce ghrelin levels. Leafy greens are an excellent choice but don’t overlook the humble artichoke, which contains almost twice as much fiber as kale (10.3 g per medium artichoke, or 40% of the daily fiber the average woman needs). Artichokes are also one of the foods highest in the prebiotic inulin, which feeds your good gut bacteria, a.k.a. probiotics. (When your gut health goes awry, so do your leptin and ghrelin levels.) Other foods high in inulin that reduce ghrelin: Garlic, onions, leeks, and bananas.
According to research published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, eating oatmeal results in greater feelings of satiety than cold breakfast cereal. Why? The belly-filling power of insoluble fiber. By tucking into a bowl, you also trigger your gut to produce butyrate, a fatty acid that reduces inflammation throughout the body. In a Canadian study, researchers discovered that those whose diets were supplemented with insoluble fiber had lower levels of ghrelin. So make yourself a decadent breakfast: Cook up some quick oats, then toss in some dark chocolate shavings, some berries, some nuts, and a dash of cinnamon.
White potatoes are the New Jersey of carbs: not nearly as bad as their reputation. The Snookification: frying or buttering the spuds. The Springsteenian response: boiling and chilling. In fact, plain boiled potatoes are the most filling food there is, according to the Satiety Index of Common Foods, an Australian study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. To maximize their flat-belly benefits, throw ‘em in the refrigerator and make a potato salad. The cooling process will crystallize the tubers into resistant starch, which takes longer to break down in your intestine, producing fat-burning butyrate and delaying hunger pangs.
Fish has a ton of flat-belly benefits—it’s high in omega-3 acids, which reduce inflammation throughout the body and allow leptin to communicate efficiently with the brain—and halibut is especially great. The Satiety Index of Common Foods ranks halibut the #2 most filling food (bested only by those boiled potatoes). The study’s authors attribute that to halibut’s high protein content and levels of tryptophan; the latter produces serotonin, one of the hormones that curbs hunger. Halibut is also one of the best sources for methionine, a nutrient that reverses the genes for insulin resistance and obesity.
Resolve to do more prying. Oysters are one of the best food sources of zinc, a mineral that works with leptin to regulate appetite. Research shows that overweight people tend to have higher levels of leptin and lower levels of zinc than slimmer folk. A study published in the journal Life Sciences found that taking zinc supplements could increase leptin production in obese men by 142 percent! A half-dozen oysters only have 43 calories but provide 21 percent of your RDA of iron—deficiencies of which have been linked to a significant increase in fat gene expression.
Made from the leaves of the “red bush” plant, rooibos tea is grown exclusively in the small Cederberg region of South Africa. What makes it a flat-belly star: A flavonoid called Aspalathin. According to research, the compound can reduce stress hormones that trigger hunger and fat storage and are linked to hypertension, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.
Apples are an excellent source of hunger-busting fiber, so don’t feel constrained by the whole “one-a-day” thing. A study at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that for every additional 10 grams of soluble fiber eaten per day, a study subject’s belly fat was reduced by 3.7 percent over five years. And a study at the University of Western Australia found that the Pink Lady variety ranked among the highest level of antioxidant flavonoids of any apple, making them tops in fighting inflammation and protecting heart health. Other stars: Red Delicious, Northern Spy, Cortland, Mutsu, Macintosh.
Apple Cider Vinegar
White vinegar’s sassier cousin is composed mostly of acetic acid, which has been shown to delay gastric emptying and slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream, according to a study published in the journal BMC Gastroenterology. One study among pre-diabetics found the addition of 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to a high-carb meal reduced the subsequent rise in blood sugar by 34 percent! ACV is a key ingredient in our Zero Belly vinaigrette. Mix up a batch and you’ll have enough delicious, additive-free dressing for a week.