If you’ve been having trouble reaching your weight loss goals or are generally confused about what to eat and what to avoid for healthy weight loss, you’re not alone.
While some people like to downplay the role that food quality plays in weight loss, the truth is that quality plays a vital role. Regular exercise and staying in a calorie deficit are also key, but your body craves the right nutrients for energy and blood sugar balance — all of which will help you reach your weight loss goals.
We’ve gathered the top foods to avoid if you’re trying to shed some pounds. Read on to find out what to steer clear from, whether you’re counting calories or not.
Food and Weight Loss: Beyond Calories-In Calories-Out
Many popular weight loss plans instruct you to consume fewer calories while expending more energy — the classic “calories-in calories-out” approach. While this concept certainly plays a role in weight loss, it’s far from the whole story.
The quality of the food you eat plays an enormous role in how well your body functions. Not just in how you feel from an energy standpoint but on a cellular level. If you’re fueling your body with high-quality foods that feed your cells and tissues the nutrients they need, everything else is able to fall into balance.
When you consume low-quality processed foods, however, you leave your body in a nutrient deficit. This will throw all of your systems off-track — including your metabolism.
Healthy foods rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and high-quality fats help combat inflammation, heart disease, insulin resistance, and weight gain. When your body is firing on all cylinders, your ability to eat moderately and expend energy in a sustained and healthy way increases[*][*][*].
Is that calories-in calories-out? Yes. But it’s also nutrients-in, clean energy out.
In addition to fueling your cells with the right nutrients, weight loss also depends on avoiding the wrong ones. Foods that have a low nutritional value and are loaded with carbohydrates will signal your body to store energy. This is one reason why so many people experience weight loss success on the ketogenic diet[*][*].
While there are plenty of foods that will fuel your body and prime you for weight loss, below are seven of the worst offenders when it comes to inhibiting your weight loss potential.
Sugar is by far the worst offender when it comes to inhibiting weight loss. Put simply, when you consume sugar, unless you’re burning off that energy immediately, it’s likely going straight towards fat storage.
This is due to the action of the hormone insulin, which has the very important role of regulating your blood sugar levels. When sugar enters your body, insulin is signaled to shuttle it into your cells and out of your blood. Since sugar doesn’t take very long to digest and absorb, your cells don’t always have an immediate use for it which means it gets stored in fat cells for later[*][*].
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But that’s not where the story ends. Due to the addictive nature of sugar, it can be hard to stop consuming it. This is why foods with added sugar like ice cream or sugary drinks often lead to overeating. You may feel satisfied for 30 minutes, or even an hour, but sooner or later, your cells are going to start craving more — and the sugar addiction rollercoaster begins[*].
2. Fast Food
The problem with fast food is not only the added sugars but the woefully low-quality ingredients that most chains use. Truly, we just don’t know where the sourcing takes place and whether that “beef” is really coming from cow meat or some other meat-like substance.
One of the reasons that fast food has become so popular is that it’s incredibly affordable. Want an entire meal for $5? No problem. Whether it’s a hamburger and french fries from your favorite drive-through, or one of those hot dogs they sell at the gas station, you can be sure that you get what you pay for.
When it comes to weight loss, these high-calorie foods not only tip the energy scales in favor of weight gain, but they don’t even nourish your body on a cellular level. Instead, you get all the calories without any of the nutrient density.
3. Low-Fat Foods
If there’s one thing that you should always keep in mind about low-fat foods, it’s this; low-fat almost always means high-carb.
When the low-fat diet trend started gaining traction in the US, the rates of obesity sky-rocketed. Why? Because when manufacturers reduce fat in their products, they increase the sugar content, so the food maintains a pleasant taste[*]. This creates foods that are low fat and low calorie but high in the one ingredient that guarantees fat storage– sugar.
To be clear, there are some foods that are naturally low-fat, like vegetables and fruits. These aren’t the “low-fat” culprits we’re talking about here. The low-fat foods to watch out for are processed foods that slap a “low-fat” label on their packages. Whether it’s cookies, ice cream, cream cheese, milk, or any other food that should naturally contain fat, if it looks like the macronutrients have been altered, that’s your red flag.
4. High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is another form of sugar, but this one deserves its own category due to its ubiquitous use in the US food supply. In fact, research shows that HFCS accounts for around 40% of the caloric sweeteners used in the US.
HFCS is metabolized a bit differently than table sugar, and evidence suggests that although sugar itself can increase fat storage, HFCS may take things up a notch by concentrating that weight around your middle[*].
Belly fat is the most dangerous type of weight gain as fat around the middle strongly correlates with diseases like cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome[*][*][*].
5. Processed Carbs
While most people find that cutting carbs out of their diet entirely is the most straightforward way to lose excess weight, a couple of modified versions of keto allow for strategic carb intake like the Targeted Keto Diet or the Cyclical Keto Diet.
With that being said, not all carbohydrates are created equally, and if weight loss is your goal, it’s vital that you avoid processed carbs and instead choose options like whole grains (brown rice, quinoa) or root veggies (sweet potato, beets).
Processed carbs include foods like white bread, white rice, cookies, pasta, pastries, and so on. These foods have been stripped of their nutrients and fiber and serve you up with a hefty dose of readily available glucose.
6. Protein Bars
Protein bars often get an undeserved “health halo” due to the fact that the word protein is right there in the name. Unfortunately, most protein bars on the market are nothing more than glorified candy bars that are packed with sugar, empty calories, and high amounts of preservatives.
Finding clean options for protein bars can be tricky, but there are a handful of suitable bars out there; you just have to scrutinize the ingredient list and nutritional panel. Some good (and keto-friendly) options are Perfect Keto Bars and Nola Bars.
If you’re looking for healthy snacks, you can also choose protein-rich options like greek yogurt, celery, and nut butter, or grass-fed jerky.
7. Low-Quality Oils
Perhaps one of the sneakiest contributors to weight gain is not the fat content of your diet but the quality of fat content of your diet.
Research shows that omega-6 fatty acids, the type that can be found in low-quality vegetable oils, prevent the transformation of your fat cells into cells that can be burned for energy. White fat cells are packed with lipids and are primarily static. On the other hand, brown fat is full of mitochondria, which make it biologically active, contributing to your overall calorie burn.
By preventing the transition of white fat to brown fat, omega-6 fatty acids create an environment where your body will hold on to stubborn weight[*].
Omega-6 fats are typically used in processed foods like potato chips and french fries and are found in low-quality oils like corn, canola, or peanut oil. In fact, many “healthy” salad dressings are made primarily with low-quality oils that contain omega-6 fats.
Another low-quality fat to watch out for is trans fat. On a nutrition label, you may see “hydrogenated fat” or “partially hydrogenated fat”, which are two terms that also mean trans fat.
Although a scant amount of trans fat occurs naturally in some foods, the vast majority of trans fat in our food supply is manmade.
The most straightforward issue with trans fat is that your body doesn’t recognize its chemical structure. Unlike cis fat that conforms to a shape that your body can work with, trans fat can get incorporated into your cells and cause dysfunction that leads to health issues like diabetes[*].
Many factors come into play with weight loss, but healthy eating is at the top of the list. Foods rich in nutrients and healthy fats and include a high fiber, and protein content support your body on a cellular and metabolic level. This sets the stage for healthy, lasting weight loss.
Sugar and high-carbohydrate foods set the stage for weight gain, so choosing to focus on natural sweeteners and low-carb foods will cut insulin out of the equation and give your body a chance to burn up your fat stores.