Weight loss is tricky—you know you need to eat “healthy” foods and ditch the refined carbs and sugar, but it’s a challenge to know what food is actually good for you or not, and some foods that have that “health halo” can actually cost you a couple hundred calories and several grams of sugar.
At the end of the day, it’s important for you to create a caloric deficit to actually lose weight.
“And not all calories are created equal, where for the same amount of calories, foods high in fat and sugar are calorie-dense without a lot of nutrients whereas foods high in protein and fiber are a lot more filling,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
So, if you’re waking up and thinking that acai bowl topped with fruit and superfoods like avocado, nut butter, shredded coconut, and all the good stuff is going to help you lose weight, you might want to think again. Consider the portion sizes, the number of sugary items (yes, fruit is healthy, but it still has sugar!), and how many calories you’re really eating in one sitting first.
Here are 20 foods you think are always healthy, but can be your weight loss enemy, depending on a few factors. And to make sure you’re staying on the right track, check out these 21 Best Healthy Cooking Hacks of All Time.
Acai bowls are packed with fresh, bright fruit, but can pack in 500-800 calories along with a few day’s worth of sugar depending on what you add to it.
“It’s very difficult to find nutrition info on the ones you buy in a shop so if you really enjoy them, stick to a smaller size with the acai base, fresh fruit and a protein source such as powder or some nuts,” Harris-Pincus suggests.
Sushi can (surprisingly) be hit or miss depending on what you choose.
“Watch out for anything labeled ‘spicy’ or ‘crunchy’ and anything with aioli or other drizzled sauces,” says Harris-Pincus. “For example, a spicy tuna roll has around 100 calories more than a regular tuna roll sans the spicy mayo.” Tempura crunchies and sweet or mayo-based sauces also add a lot of calories to what would otherwise be a lean and protein-rich meal.
“Focus on seafood with veggies and broth-based soups and if you love it, choose one higher calorie item to round out your order,” Harris-Pincus says.
“Coconut oil wears a health halo and has become a go-to food in the wellness space. Newsflash: coconut oil has approximately 120 calories per tablespoon,” says Harris-Pincus. Many paleo and keto recipes are drenched in this high saturated fat oil, which can easily derail your success if overdone. Treat coconut oil for what it is, which is something to be used sparingly.
Looking for more helpful tips? Your ultimate restaurant and supermarket survival guide is here!
Sugar-free doesn’t mean healthy or calorie-free.
“For example, using sugar-free chocolate chips for baking may save a few calories, but not a significant amount so portion size is key. And anyone who has ever overdone it on sugar-free candy will attest that the sugar alcohols used such as sorbitol can cause major GI distress,” explains Harris-Pincus.
Keto ice cream may be low carb, but it’s super high in fat and calories, and it’s often higher in calories than regular ice cream!
“One leading brand of keto ice cream packs 210 calories per 1/2 cup while an equally popular brand of regular, standard vanilla ice cream has 127 calories per 1/2 cup,” she says. When it comes to the science of weight loss, total intake of calories are often more important than carbs, she adds.
Gluten-free bread is lauded as healthier than wheat bread for those who think going gluten-free is the way to lose weight. However, gluten-free bread is often higher in calories and lower in fiber, and gluten-free grains that go into bread are processed and lack some important nutrients like B vitamins, Harris-Pincus explains.
“Unless you have a medical reason to avoid gluten, ditching it will not help you to magically lose weight other than forcing you to avoid high-calorie foods that contain it like pizza or pastries,” she says.
Agave is just another fancy-sounding sugar. It is no different than eating regular table sugar except for very minor nutrient differences, so the calories are similar.
“Plus, anyone with irritable bowel syndrome might find agave difficult to tolerate in larger amounts because it is high in FODMAPs, particularly fructose which is difficult to tolerate for many with IBS,” says Harris-Pincus.
Ordering a wrap versus a sandwich isn’t going to make it any healthier.
“People are often confused when it comes to choosing sandwich fixings. Although wraps appear thin which many perceive as having fewer calories, a traditional wrap clocks in at twice the calories of two standard slices of bread,” says Harris-Pincus.
If wraps are your thing, make them at home or look for lower calorie and lower carb wraps with 70-110 calories each that are high in fiber to fill you up. And if you have to order one out, cut off the ends where all the extra is folded up but not filled and you will save some extra calories.
If you snack on these on the regular you may want to reevaluate, especially since some “energy” bars contain enough calories to be a meal replacement versus just a snack.
“Not all bars are created equal, so it’s important to read the ingredient label and to get a sense for how many calories are in it. I say anything over 250 [calories] is getting into meal replacement territory,” says Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD.
These drinks that you’d typically find at a Starbucks or coffee shop really fall more into the treat category because they have a lot of added sugar and extra calories.
“When trying to lose weight, I would treat these more as a once in a while treat versus an everyday coffee drink,” says Michalczyk. Instead, opt for lower sugar coffee drinks or black coffee. If you can’t drink black coffee cold turkey, try slowly decreasing the amount of sugar in your coffee.
Here is another instance where reading food labels is super important.
“Some processed snacks contain added sugar, fat, and calories, which can definitely add up. Opt for whole foods based snacks like apples and almonds, banana and nut butter, hummus and carrots, etc. when you can to replace something like a bag of chips every day,” says Michalczyk.
These are usually packed with extra sugar and calories, not really allowing for that skinnier drink you might’ve been hoping for. You’re much better off making a drink yourself from scratch, says Michalczyk.
“When trying to lose weight look for spirits that are lower in calories and sugar,” she says. And be sure to ditch the sweet mixers, using soda water or sparkling water instead.
“Portions tend to be extra-large plus even seemingly healthy dishes at restaurants and fast food places can be packed with fat and extra calories,” says Michalczyk. Eat home if you can and if you do eat out, look for places that list nutrition or ask for dressing on the side, along with better toppings. (No croutons and dried fruit!)
While there are some sensible options out there when it comes to frozen pizza, most pack a ton of extra calories, fat, and sodium per portion.
“This is another product that I would definitely read labels for, compare different brands and even try to make my own pizza at home so that I could make it healthier with extra veggies,” says Michalczyk.
“Smoothies can be awesome for adding more nutrition to your diet; however, premade smoothies or smoothies from fast food places can pack nearly as many calories as a meal and added sugars,” says Michalczyk. Some may not even be made with real fruit!
“I say make them at home instead with a combination of protein, fat, greens, and healthy carbs,” she adds. Try out any of these fat-burning smoothie recipes nutritionists always drink.
Granola can be a good snack, but not all granolas are made the same or have the same nutrition.
“Most on the shelf contain extra sugar and are high in calories which can sabotage your weight loss journey,” says Michalczyk. “Plus the serving size is often way smaller than the portion that we actually eat,” she adds. Look for granolas that are lower in sugar and higher in protein.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that diet soda contains no calories since research has tied diet soda consumption to weight gain, where those consuming diet soda were more likely to have high blood sugar and high blood pressure than people did not drink it.
Most pre-packaged desserts, even those that are keto, are simply high in calories.
“I say make a treat at home where you can use healthier ingredients and less sugar when trying to lose weight while keeping calories in check,” says Michalczyk.
When it doubt, go for the homemade route!
While you can enjoy some dried mango or dates on occasion, dried fruit is super high in sugar, and it’s hard to consider the serving size when it tastes so good and you’re just digging into the bag.
Think of trail mix, for example. You can easily eat up to three servings at once! Instead, eat dried fruit sparingly and go for fresh fruit instead.
You may think fat-free dressing is healthier for a salad than a thick creamy or oil-based one, but going with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon or a thicker, Greek yogurt-based or avocado-based dressing is actually better for you.
Fat-free dressing is higher in sugar, to compensate for lack of fat, says Harris-Pincus, and it won’t fill you up as well. Instead, go for full-fat, but use a forkful or two.