As we all know, "you can't out-exercise a bad diet." For this reason, people first turn to dietary changes when seeking to lose weight, but many still fail to see results. One of the biggest reasons for this is the assumption that certain foods don't contain as many calories as they actually do. Now, not all calories are created equal and some foods are clearly worse than others (high sugar content, trans fats, etc.) but if you think you're consuming 2,000 calories and the actual number is closer to 3,000, you're unlikely to see any positive results. With this in mind, here's a list of foods that will sabotage any attempt to improve body composition.
The low-fat craze began in the '80s and ever since, obesity rates have increased dramatically. The problem is that we have been programmed to correlate term "low-fat" with "healthy." The truth of the matter is that almost every low-fat product is simply laced with sugar and/or chemical artificial sweeteners in an attempt to regain the flavour that was lost with the delicious fat. Here's the thing: natural products with a high fat content aren't bad for our health. Yes, fat has more calories than sugar, but the human body has a much higher need for nutrient-rich fat than it does nutrient-devoid sugar (or chemical sweeteners). As always, portion-control is key, but you're best to stay away from highly-processed low-fat products. For dairy lovers, full-fat products are usually the best choice.
I've said it once, and I'll say it again: consuming calories through beverages is the best way to sabotage a diet. If you can stick to water, tea and black coffee, you'll cut a good deal of sugar from your diet. Pretty much every other beverage -- alcohol, juices, iced teas, double-doubles, sodas, etc. -- contain heaps of sugar and not much else. When asked how to improve one's diet, my first answer is always to stop consuming liquid calories. It's a very simple strategy that can go a very long way.
We all know that chips are unhealthy, but somehow things like pretzels and popcorn get a pass. Sure, pretzels have significantly less fat than chips, but they have a higher carbohydrate content and are equally nutritionally-devoid. Flavourless, butterless popcorn is a fine filler if you want to eat without any joy, but as soon as you go with a kind that tastes good, you're looking at anywhere from 300-600 calories per sitting with a fat content that rivals chips. Snacks should still follow the same guidelines as meals and should contain a significant amount of protein and offer some nutritional value. If it comes in a bag, it's probably not a healthy choice.
Dips, sauces and dressings
The ultimate wildcards. Whenever I dine out, I do my best to avoid mysterious concoctions: sauces and dressings on the side, please. Nothing can blow up a diet quite like these sneaky little liquids. Even dips like guacamole and hummus can pack a punch when you're unsure of the ingredients. When at home, I suggest making dips and dressings from scratch with simple, healthy ingredients, and try using spices instead of sauces. When eating out, try to limit the portion size of dips as you really don't know what you're putting in your body! As a rule of thumb, keep dips, sauces and dressings to an absolute minimum and it'll be far easier to achieve your weight loss goals.
Granola & breakfast cereals
Speaking of healthy snacks, granola may be the king of hidden calories. Marketed as a breakfast food and snack, granola is essentially a mix of low-glycemic carbs, high-glycemic carbs, and sometimes fat from nuts (with marginal protein content). The kicker is that granola is often paired with things like yogurt (see above), fruit, or even other cereal, making the lopsided carbohydrate and calorie content even greater. The only real place for granola is for endurance athletes, but for the average person eating granola for a snack (or even worse for breakfast!) is an excellent way to sabotage a diet. Most breakfast cereals aren't much better -- just make sure you check the ingredients and nutrition facts and make sure you're buying a low-sugar product. And granola bars? Not much better than grabbing a Mars bar while checking out at the grocery store.
Protein and energy bars
Staying on that same track, protein and energy bars are dangerous snacks. Energy bars, much like granola, should really only be consumed by endurance athletes. The point of these products is to provide energy, which they do through a high-carb and high-calorie content. Protein bars on the other hand are marketed as a great source of protein, which is what we want right? Unfortunately, almost all protein bars are also laced with sugar and unhealthy fats, which means their calorie content can often eclipse that of chocolate bars. The worst part is that the protein used in the majority of these products is usually very low quality, so the pros do not outweigh the cons. In general, if it comes in bar form, it is likely a poor choice for someone looking to lose weight. If you are looking for a quick protein fix, get yourself a high-quality whey protein supplement.
(Note: Don't confuse meal replacement shakes or gainer shakes for a simple whey protein shake. The tubs all look the same and they are often placed together at the supplement store. A good whey protein supplement is an excellent tool for weight-loss, but meal replacement shakes and gainer shakes are typically loaded with extra sugar and fats. Don't make this simple mistake!)
Nut butters (and nuts!)
Nuts and all-natural nut butters are healthy, but still pack a heavy caloric punch. For this reason they can certainly have a place in a healthy diet but can be dangerous for people looking to lose weight, as serving size can be hard to determine (1 tsbp of nut butter or 1 palmful of nuts is plenty!). Regular (i.e., chemical) peanut butter is laced with high fructose corn syrup and other hydrogenated fats. Not only do these unnatural nut butters have a high calorie content, but the ingredients will confuse your body and disrupt your metabolism. These types of nut butters should be avoided by everyone.
Finally, it's important to remember that the little things add up! Two sugars in your morning coffee, granola for a morning snack, a few fries off your friend's plate at lunch, a piece of candy from a colleague in the afternoon, a cocktail after a long day at work... as isolated incidents these little treats aren't much of an issue, but when they occur throughout the day you'll soon be wondering why you just can't seem to lose any weight. Make a plan, set your own personal rules, and remember to keep your eye on the ultimate goal.
For more information on nutrition and weight loss, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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