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Food Allies in the Weight War: Spices, Tea, and Fish
Seafood and spices offer metabolic rewards; Fish and other highly satiating foods seen as strong appetite suppressors 08/28/2006 by Craig Weatherby


A raft of new research—and some largely forgotten but highly significant findings from the 1990's—offers intriguing insights concerning the ever-popular subject of weight control, with all of the findings putting fish in a very good light.

We should say up front that there are no magic bullets.

The only truly effective way to manage your weight is to limit the size of portions served and consumed, and to pick foods according to their nutritional and health value and ability to satiate.


The satiety index: fish and other high-protein foods curb hunger

In 1995, researchers at the University of Sydney, Australia led by Dr. Suzanna Holt published a landmark study called “A satiety index of common foods”.
Dr. Holt's team gave calorie-identical servings of 38 foods (one food at a time) to groups of 11-13 subjects.
The foods covered the range, and were classified as fruits, bakery products, snack foods, carbohydrate-rich foods, protein-rich foods, or breakfast cereals (Holt SH et al 1995).
The participants' own perceptions of their degree of satiety (fullness and hunger-satisfaction) following consumption of each food were obtained every 15 min for two hours.
Two hours after finishing each test food, they were free to consume as much as they wanted of any of a group of standard foods and drinks.
The researchers measured the amounts of freely available food eaten after each calorie-identical satiety test, to provide an objective measure of how satiating the test food had really been.
And indeed, the amounts of food the participants ate after each two-hour test period corresponded closely to the satiety ratings, thus confirming the accuracy of these subjective perceptions. (In other words, the participants ate the smallest amounts of "optional" food after eating the foods that received the highest satiety ratings.)
When the study was over, it was clear that the foods with the highest “satiety index” scores were the densest, the tastiest, and the highest in protein, fiber, and water.
In contrast, the foods with the highest amounts of fat or refined carbohydrates — snacks, desserts, breads, cereals, and cheese — received the lowest satiety scores and were the least effective at reducing subsequent food consumption.
Because of the strong relation Dr. Holt's team found between a food's degree of satiety and it's density (weight in relation to volume), many researchers now recommend choosing relatively heavy foods with relatively few calories: a calculation that eliminates most foods that are high in fat.
These favored, satiating foods are said to possess a low “caloric density”: a concept that nutritionist Barbara Rolls, Ph.D. popularized in her best-selling diet book, Volumetrics.
As it happens, protein is denser than carbohydrate and both of these macronutrients are denser than fat, which is much lighter than either by volume and contains more than twice the calories per gram (Protein and carbs contain four calories per gram while fat contains nine).
There seem to be two exceptions to the “fat-is-fattening” rule: omega-3s from fish and the monounsaturated fats in avocadoes and olive oil. See “Seafood seen as slimming”, below: we'll address olive oil in a future issue of Vital Choices.
Fish, fruits, beef, fiber, and beans earn high satiety scores

So which foods ranked the highest for satiety? The surprise winner in Dr. Holt's study was boiled potatoes, whose score was seven times higher than the lowest satiety score, for croissants.

But fish (ling cod), fruits, oatmeal, beans and beef were nestled together near potatoes at the top of the satiety scale. Fruits and oatmeal probably ranked high because they are high in water and fiber, while fish, beans, and beef likely earned very high scores because they are dense and high in protein.

We should note that vegetables were not included in the test, probably because the researchers assumed that such high-fiber, high-water foods would be filling, and because very few people overeat their vegetables. Still, it is unfortunate that none were among the 38 foods tested.

The high satiety-index score that boiled potatoes received seems surprising in light of the popular hypothesis that sugary, starchy, “high-glycemic” foods like bread, pastries, and potatoes spur overeating.


A food's glycemic index or GI is a measure of how much it raises blood sugar (glucose) levels, and a food's insulin index is a measure of how much it raises blood levels of insulin.


Many observers have hypothesized that high-glycemic carbohydrate foods (e.g., pastries, potatoes, standard cereals, white bread) cause overeating, and that they do so because they stimulate a rapid spike in blood sugar and a subsequent spike in insulin levels: an effect that drives blood sugar levels low and creates a craving for more carbs.


Dr. Holt's team conducted a follow-up study designed specifically to test the hypothesis that high-GI diets cause obesity. It was structured similarly to her team's satiety study, and seemed to demolish the idea that high-glycemic foods spur overeating (Holt SH et al 1996). And this time, her group included leading glycemic-index research Dr. Jennifer Brand-Miller.

In the end, no significant correlation was seen between a food's glycemic-index score and its satiety-index score, or between a food's insulin-index score and its satiety-index score.

Dr. Holt's findings were confirmed by the results of two recent clinical trials, which failed to support the hypothesis that high-GI diets cause obesity (Raatz SK et al 2005 and Lang V et al 2004). However, high-GI diets may promote diabetes, so it makes sense to go easy on pastries, junk snacks, white bread, soda, and sweets.


Chilies, pepper, ginger, and tea may help control weight

A new evidence review from Holland supports previous research indicating that spicy foods that make you feel warm—especially chilies, black pepper, and ginger—may accelerate calorie burning.

Hot spices probably work their magic by suppressing appetite, and via the metabolic process known as thermogenesis, which means “creation of heat.”

Thermogenesis is the process that turns the energy in food (measured as calories) into body heat, instead of storing it as body fat (adipose tissue) or sugar stored in the brain and muscles (glycogen).

When we eat any kind of food, the body undergoes an increase in oxygen consumption and metabolic rate. But in this context, we are concerned with the extraordinarily high levels of food-induced thermogenesis needed to prompt burning of body fat.


While all foods induce thermogenesis, ones that produce the extraordinary levels of thermogenesis required to burn stored body fat are referred to as “thermogenic”.

First among these foods are red (chili) and black pepper, but green tea appears to offer strong competition in the thermogenesis department.


Chili peppers and chili powders (cayenne)

The compound that makes chili peppers hot is capsaicin: a potent anti-inflammatory substance that does four things dear to any dieter's heart:

  • Stimulates thermogenesis.
  • Suppresses appetite.
  • Raises metabolic rate and stimulates release of adrenaline, thus increasing your body's propensity to burn stored body fat and sugars (glycogen).
  • Inhibits rises in blood sugar for a half-hour after it is consumed. This curbs the tendency toward an over-release of insulin, which would lead to low blood sugar and a craving for carbohydrates.

During the 1990's a Japanese-Canadian research team conducted a series of clinical trials, whose results showed that, consumed in relatively hefty doses, capsaicin tends to reduce the amount of calories consumed at a meal (Yoshioka M et al 1991, 1995, 1998, 2001, 2004).


Their findings indicate that calorie consumption is reduced by capsaicin whether it obtained by eating chili products, or swallowed in capsule form. But their research also indicates that it takes a hefty dose to reduce calorie consumption at a meal.


Unfortunately, the results of one study suggest that capsaicin produces no significant thermogenic effect in obese women, probably because of abnormalities in the response of their sympathetic nervous system that may be responsible in part for their obesity (Matsumoto T et al 2000 and 2001).


Black pepper

Results published last year suggest that plain black pepper may be an unsung ally in the battle of the bulge. Researchers from the National Cancer Institute found that the spicy component in pepper, called piperine, activates “vanilloid” receptors in the brain and other parts of the nervous system.
And the extent of this effect indicates that black pepper boosts calorie-burning (thermogenesis) rates even higher than the capsaicin in chilies can (Szallasi A 2005, McNamara FN et al 2005).


Green tea

Research conducted in the early 1980's showed that the caffeine in tea and coffee raise metabolic rate substantially.

But later findings from human trials indicate that the catechin-class antioxidant polyphenols in tea also play an important role. Those experiments showed that green tea extracts rich in polyphenols stimulate thermogenesis in people's body fat much more than can be explained by their caffeine content (Dulloo AG et al 1999 and 2000).

Judging by the results of another study in rats, fresh and dried ginger alike appear to boost thermogenesis (Eldershaw TP et al 1992).

Of the two major classes of compounds in ginger—gingerols and shaogols—it looks like the former are the most effective.
However, this was an animal study, and the researchers introduced the ginger directly into tissues, so these results would need to be confirmed in humans using dietary ginger.


Seafood seen as slimming: omega-3s and protein get the credit

It looks like diets high in fish can aid weight control for two distinctly different reasons.

First, a series of studies published over the past few years indicate that the long-chain marine omega-3s abundant only in fish (EPA and DHA) aid weight control efforts in at least seven ways:

  1. Stimulate secretion of leptin, a hormone that decreases appetite and promotes the burning of body fat.
  2. Enable burning of dietary fats by helping move fatty acids into body cells for burning as fuel.
  3. Encourage the body to store dietary carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, rather than as hard-to-lose body fat.
  4. Dampen inflammation, which is known to promote weight gain.
  5. Enhance blood-sugar control by increasing our insulin-producing cells' sensitivity to sugar.
  6. Flip off genetic switches (nuclear transcription factors) that promote inflammation and storage of food as body fat.
  7. Help the body transport glucose from blood to cells by increasing the fluidity of cell membranes.
Another reason fish aids weight control is that of the three macronutrients required to sustain life—protein, carbohydrates, and fats—protein appears to be the most satiating. That is, protein seems to quench hunger faster than the other two, and fish are very rich in it.
In 1996, researchers at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul decided to determine if high-protein versions of a food would be more satiating than otherwise identical lower-protein versions, and whether these protein-content differences would affect hunger levels following a meal (Vandewater K, Vickers Z, 1996).


The subjects ate either a high-protein or a low-protein version of strawberry yogurt or a sandwich, and rated their craving for the foods before and after.

Their decreases in hunger after the high-protein versions of the test meals were eaten were significantly greater than their decreases in hunger after eating low-protein test meals.

And we now know more about why protein may be more “filling” than fats or carbohydrates.


Last year, we reported the findings of scientists at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) in Lyon, France, who fed one group of rats a 50-percent-protein diet enriched with soy and milk protein (casein).
Rates in a second group were fed a high-starch/low-protein diet that contained only 17 percent protein. Both diets contained foods highly appealing to rodents, so taste preference was not considered a significant factor (Mithieux G et al 2005).

By the end of just one week, rats on the protein-rich regimen had consumed 15 percent less food than those in the high-starch group and had gained significantly less weight.


The high-protein diet significantly increased the activity of genes involved in glucose production in the animals' small intestines. Unsurprisingly, this led to increased synthesis of glucose: an effect signaled to the brain from the liver that led the rodents to eat less.


Together with the new insights into the weight-control benefits of omega-3s, these encouraging findings on protein suggest that the ideal food for weight loss is a protein high in omega-3 fatty acids… salmon, anyone?



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