What if you could swallow a pill right before dining that would make your stomach swell like a balloon so you would feel artificially full? Well, such a pill is in the works, but I’ve got a much better solution for you—hydrophilic foods. They attract and absorb water, which makes them swell in size—in a natural process—so you naturally feel satisfied and automatically consume fewer calories. Plus, unlike a weird new diet pill or other diet gimmicks, they are full of nutrients that your body needs. And besides helping you lose or maintain weight, hydrophilic foods—because they contain digestible soluble fiber—also help control blood sugar and cholesterol.
And it’s all real food. What more could you want? Read on for our list of the top 10 hydrophilic foods, selected by registered dietician Keren Gilbert, and great tips on how to use them.
THE TOP 10 HYDROPHILIC FOODS
- Chia seeds. Chia seeds are the perfect example of a hydrophilic food, according to Gilbert. They start out as tiny, crunchy, nutty-tasting seeds (just a little bigger than poppy seeds), but each seed can absorb up to 12 times its weight in water, so they form a gel that’s filling and extremely nutrient-rich—each seed is supercharged with omega-3s and packed with antioxidants, fiber, iron, magnesium, calcium and potassium! So sprinkle a tablespoon into your smoothie for breakfast, add some to soups and porridges or even use them in place of breadcrumbs to bind meatballs. You can even make a simple and nutritious pudding by combining two tablespoons of chia seeds per cup of almond milk or other liquid, sweetening to taste and refrigerating overnight—no cooking needed.
OK, okra might be a turnoff for some people because it gets sappy—or downright slimy—when cooked, but that texture speaks volumes about its soluble fiber, which, along with a host of vitamins and minerals, turns okra into a dietary powerhouse. Gilbert suggests adding sliced okra to soups and stews, where the consistency doesn’t stand out so much and, in fact, the okra acts as a natural thickener. Also consider cooking okra at high heat (in a wok, for example), or slicing it lengthwise and grilling it—both cooking styles will reduce the vegetable’s slipperiness. As for me, I like to use it raw—sliced and tossed into salads or dressed with oil and vinegar all on its own. It’s tasty, with a good crunch, and its slight sappiness enhances the texture of the dressing.
Oatmeal is a hydrophilic food you might already be filling up on since it’s well-known for its cholesterol-controlling abilities. Just picture the way raw oats absorb water while they cook, and you’ll understand why they make Gilbert’s top-10 list of hydrophilic foods. Don’t like oatmeal? Maybe it’s because the only kind you know is rolled oats—the kind that look flattened and may have even been partially cooked before you buy them. Rolled oats can cook up mushy and without much natural flavor. Try steel-cut oats. They cook up into a hearty, pleasantly toothsome and nutty-tasting dish.
Pears are naturally full of pectin, a type of soluble fiber found in the walls of plant cells. If you’ve ever made jam, you’ve probably added pectin powder to thicken it. In addition to helping you feel full, pectin acts as a detoxifier, a gastrointestinal tract regulator and an immune system stimulant, according to Gilbert. Grab a pear for a juicy snack, or try these delicious ways to use them—add thin slices to sandwiches…toss into salads…or cut them in half, core them and either grill or roast them. To grill, simply place them, cut side down, on a lightly oiled stovetop grill until they are seared. To roast, place them, cut side down, in a baking pan, warm up a half cup of apple juice and a tablespoon or two of honey, pour the apple juice over the pears, and bake at 400°F for 30 minutes.
Like oats, barley absorbs a substantial amount of water as it cooks—and like oats, it also expands further in your stomach, providing heart-healthy nutrition and natural fullness. Americans aren’t very familiar with barley and don’t use it very much in their kitchens—which is ironic since it was one of the original foods grown by the Pilgrims and may have been eaten at the first Thanksgiving. Beyond the standard beef-barley stew (which, by the way, can be a very healthful meal!), it’s actually very easy to use and enjoy barley. Just follow cooking instructions on the package, and then use barley as the base in your favorite whole-grain salad recipe (instead of wheat berries, for example)…use it instead of small pastas in soups (it lends an earthier tone than pasta)…sauté it with some butter and sliced mushrooms, salt and pepper. You can even cook barley like risotto—barley’s soluble fiber creates the right kind of creaminess for risotto-like dishes.
- Brussels sprouts.
Serving for serving, Brussels sprouts are among the vegetables highest in soluble fiber. For a taste revelation, try tossing fresh Brussels sprouts with olive oil and salt, then roasting in the oven at 400°F for 30 to 40 minutes or until they are softened and caramelized…or shred them raw and use in slaw. You can also make an easy, delicious boiled Brussels sprouts dish. Cut the sprouts in half, then boil them with a variety of herbs such as garlic, basil, thyme, and rosemary in one part wine vinegar and one part water until they are tender. Drain, dress with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, salt, pepper and more herbs to taste. Let cool and serve at room temperature.
- Kidney beans.
Like all beans, kidney beans soak up water as they cook and keep doing it after you eat them. Gilbert especially favors kidney beans because, she says, their red color indicates a high level of disease-fighting antioxidants—the darker red, the better. Of course, they are a great addition to chilies, salads and soups such as minestrone. You might also like to partly mash a cup and a half of cooked kidney beans and mix them with olive oil, a dash of balsamic vinegar, salt, garlic and other spices to taste for a delicious bean spread served with crostini or Italian bread.
Also called garbanzo beans, these might be the single most easy and versatile food on this top-10 list. You know you can toss them onto any salad—but you don’t even need the salad. You can simply open a can of chick peas, drain, add any salad dressing and start eating—and if you like this idea, don’t miss trying them in Caesar dressing with Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. If you have a little more time, purée chickpeas with garlic, cumin, tahini, olive oil and lemon juice for a healthy, homemade hummus. For a portable snack, toss chickpeas with a bit of olive oil and your favorite spice blend, then roast until irresistibly crunchy. Or make pasta e fagiole—the Italian version of “rice and beans”—by adding cooked chickpeas and small pasta to a saucy sauté of diced onions, carrots, celery or fennel, zucchini and stewed tomatoes and their juice.
That an orange easily fits in a purse or jacket pocket makes it one of Gilbert’s favorite snacks. Besides the famous vitamin C content, oranges are packed with soluble fiber. To get the most nutritional (and weight-loss) benefit, don’t peel off all the pith—the white substance beneath the peel. It’s got loads of pectin and almost as much vitamin C as the juicy fruit it covers.
Unless you are really into baking or fancy cooking, agar (also called agar-agar) is the hydrophilic food you’re least likely to have in your pantry, but you might want to consider stocking it. It’s a gelling agent made from seaweed that has a whopping 80% soluble fiber with no fat and virtually no calories, carbs or sugar. “If you want a homemade sweet, agar is the perfect ingredient for making custards, puddings and fruit gels,” says Gilbert. And it couldn’t be easier to use—just substitute it for gelatin in recipes.
Bon appetite to your health and waistline!