At 5-foot-9 and 197.9 pounds, the statistically “average” American man is now just a few pounds shy of being categorized as obese.
As such, millions of Americans are currently attempting to lose weight.
And when it comes to weight loss, nothing has as big of an impact as what you eat.
Physical activity only accounts for 10-30 percent of the calories we burn each day. Yet food/beverage intake accounts for 100 percent of the calories we consume. While exercise has undeniable physical, mental and emotional benefits, it’s not the silver bullet for weight loss.
“Dietary adherence is the number one predictor of fat loss,” says James Krieger, M.S. in Nutrition and Exercise science and owner of Weightology.
“Most people tend to focus too much on exercise, but it’s much more efficient to establish an energy deficit through diet and maybe use exercise as a tool for a little additional help.”
And nutrition is where many Americans stumble.
No time in human history have there been a wider number of food products available for purchase, and a huge number of them are marketed as smart, prudent choices.
Problem is, there’s often a big disconnect between marketing and reality.
The following seven foods are exactly the sort of thing many people pick when trying to “eat healthy”. But in reality, they often make losing weight exceedingly difficult.
In most people’s minds, fruit on the bottom yogurt is a healthy snack or breakfast. After all, yogurt’s healthy, right? And fruit’s healthy, right?
So yogurt with fruit in it has to be healthy!
Just one problem—the “fruit on the bottom” is often a sugar-ladened fruit syrup, not actual fruit.
Take Dannon Fruit on the Bottom Strawberry yogurt, for example.
The second ingredient in the product is sugar, as each serving contains a staggering 22 grams.
It, like every variety of Dannon Fruit on the Bottom yogurt, also contains a disappointing 0 grams of fiber per serving. For context, a cup of actual strawberries contain 3 grams of fiber, further proving there’s not much real fruit to be had here.
There’s a decent amount of protein in each serving, but the high amounts of added sugar leave you prone to overeating.
All yogurt naturally contains some sugar, but Dannon Fruit on the Bottom yogurts contain roughly twice as much as you’d find in an option like a Stonyfield Organic Whole Milk Smooth & Creamy Plain yogurt. The latter—paired with some real whole fruit—is a far healthier option.
While yogurt can be healthy, a food’s not automatically healthy just because it’s a yogurt.
For example, Greek yogurt in its natural form is a nutritional powerhouse. But take vanilla low-fat Greek yogurt and combine it with honey-roasted peanuts, peanut butter clusters and milk chocolates, as is the case in a Chobani Peanut Butter Dream Flip, and you’ve got about as much sugar as seven Starburst Fruit Chews.
The simpler your yogurt, the better.
Let’s play a game.
Can you guess these two drinks?
- Drink A: 252 calories and 43 grams of sugar per 12-ounce serving
- Drink B: 170 calories and 46 grams of sugar per 12-ounce serving
Drink A is Naked Juice Blue Machine Boosted Smoothie.
Drink B is Mountain Dew.
Now, unlike the Mountain Dew, none of the sugar in the Naked Juice technically qualifies as added sugar (at least not under current FDA guidelines).
However, the reason they’re able to pack so much “natural” sugar into a compact bottle is because of their generous usage of fruit juice and fruit “purees”. The number one ingredient in the Blue Machine Boosted Smoothie is apple juice.
Fruit juice is not healthy. For one, its missing the key ingredient that helps counteract the sugar in whole fruit—naturally occurring fiber.
Unless the juice contains pulp (and most do not), almost all of the natural fiber in whole fruit is removed or destroyed during the juice production process.
Additionally, many of the other useful nutrients found in whole fruit are destroyed or altered during processing. Sure, many varieties contain significant amounts of vitamin C, potassium and/or vitamin A, but it’s generally not enough to make up for the extreme amount of sugar. Fruit purees are not much better.
A bottle of Naked Juice Blue Machine Boosted Smoothie contains more sugar per ounce than Coca-Cola yet delivers just 3 grams of fiber (much of which comes from the ingredient “chicory root fiber” rather than real fruit).
That’s about as much fiber as you’ll find in a single banana, yet the banana contains 41 fewer grams of sugar and 210 fewer calories.
Bottled smoothies enjoy a health halo, but they often pack frightening amounts of calories and sugars that can be downed in mere minutes–which is the last thing you want if you’re trying to lose weight.
The cereal aisle is chock full of nutritionally-mediocre products masquerading as healthy options.
Most people know by now that eating a bowl of Lucky Charms or Fruity Pebbles isn’t a great way to start their day, and there’s no shortage of cereal alternatives that present themselves as superior options.
However, many of these supposed “superior” alternatives really aren’t all that much healthier than the classic colorful kids breakfast cereals.
Take Kashi’s popular line of GO cereals, for example.
They are fairly high in fiber and protein, which is good.
And yes, most GO varieties contain between 8-16 grams of whole grain per serving.
But Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Reese’s Puffs cereal also contain 12 and 11 grams of whole grains per serving, respectively. Compared to an option like Post’s Grape-Nuts or Kashi’s 7 Whole Grain Nuggets, which contain 52 and 56 grams of whole grain per serving, respectively, GO’s amount isn’t all that impressive.
And when you take a closer look at the sugar content for many Kashi GO varieties, it’s a bit disappointing.
Kashi GO Crunch, for example, contains 13 grams of sugar per 3/4 cup serving—the same amount as Reese’s Puffs Cereal. These issues are exacerbated by the fact that Americans, on average, eat 30% more cereal than the recommended serving size.
Healthy cereals do exist, but be sure to pay close attention to the nutrition facts (and the serving size) if you’re searching for one.
Or, you could start your day off with a smart option like oatmeal or steel-cut oats—perhaps paired with an all-natural nut butter and/or sliced fresh fruit.
‘Lunch Box’ Bars
A Nutri-Grain or a Chewy bar every now and then isn’t the worst thing in the world for teenagers.
After all, teens need extra calories for growth and development, and if it’s either that sort of bar or nothing, the bar is probably the better option (particularly for teen athletes, who often desperately need the fuel).
But for adults, it’s a different story. Lunch box staples like Nutri-Grain and Chewy bars are simply too high in added sugar and too low in protein and fiber to qualify as a healthy option.
They don’t pack an absurd amount of calories, but by their very design, they stand little chance of putting any sort of meaningful dent in your hunger.
Not only are they lacking in fiber and protein, but they’re also extremely lightweight. Additionally, like many of the foods on this list, they qualify as being ultra-processed.
Ultra-processed foods possess qualities that make us highly susceptible to overeating.
A small-scale trial conducted at the NIH Clinical Center examined how 20 healthy adult volunteers responded to both an ultra-processed diet and a minimally processed diet over the course of one month.
From Science Daily:
In random order for two weeks on each diet, (researchers) provided (participants) with meals made up of ultra-processed foods or meals of minimally processed foods. For example, an ultra-processed breakfast might consist of a bagel with cream cheese and turkey bacon, while the unprocessed breakfast was oatmeal with bananas, walnuts, and skim milk.
The ultra-processed and unprocessed meals had the same amounts of calories, sugars, fiber, fat, and carbohydrates, and participants could eat as much or as little as they wanted.
On the ultra-processed diet, people ate about 500 calories more per day than they did on the unprocessed diet. They also ate faster on the ultra-processed diet and gained weight, whereas they lost weight on the unprocessed diet. Participants, on average, gained 0.9 kilograms, or 2 pounds, while they were on the ultra-processed diet and lost an equivalent amount on the unprocessed diet.
Five-hundred calories per day is no small margin.
Again, the meals the participants were served had the exact same amounts of calories, sugars, fiber, fat and carbohydrates. But something about the makeup of the ultra-processed meals led participants to eat more, eat faster and gain more weight. Over time, that could result in dramatic weight gain.
Nutri-Grain and Chewy bars are essentially empty calories that often cause you to crave more food. Does that sound like the type of thing a person trying to lose weight should be eating?
Generally speaking, a snack of whole foods (say, carrots with hummus) is going to be better for you overall than any type of bar.
In many people’s eyes, salads are universally healthy.
They reason that if they grab a salad for lunch or dinner, it’s a far better choice than picking up a burger or footlong. This is not necessarily true.
While many salads are quite nutritious and can help keep you satiated, happy and energized, they are not all created equal.
Restaurant salads are notoriously deceiving. While some of them are legitimately wonderful options, many are no better than traditional fast food.
Among the worst are the full Waldorf Chicken Salad with Dijon Balsamic Vinaigrette from California Pizza Kitchen.
Said salad contains a monstrous 1,320 calories, 94 grams of fat and 55 grams of sugar. You’re honestly better off eating the Garlic Cream Fettuccine or an entire Original BBQ Chicken hand-tossed pizza from the same place.
Or how about the the Chinese Chicken Salad at The Cheesecake Factory? That’ll be 1,740 calories, 106 grams of fat and 62 grams of sugar. Down two slices of their Original Cheesecake instead and you’d actually save yourself 80 calories.
Chipotle’s salads can seem quite innocent, but are often quickly degraded by the addition of their Chipotle Honey Vinaigrette. The vinaigrette alone packs 220 calories along with more grams of sugar (12) than you’d get from a pack of fun-size pack of Skittles.
A dish isn’t healthy just because the restaurant you purchase it from decides to call it a salad.
Don’t overlook toppings or dressings as insignificant. Go grilled proteins instead of fried. Try to stick with crunchy veggies instead of wonton strips. Pick fresh fruit over dried. Look for regular nuts rather than candied.
These are the type of decisions people often ignore that can make or break the nutrition of their salad.
Trail mix packs a ton of calories into a small package.
To be fair, that was kind of the original point of it. Its origins can be traced back to an outdoorsman named Horace Kephart. Kephart, who helped plot the route of the Appalachian Trail, recommended it as a fuel source for intrepid hikers.
If you’re an athlete going going through intense training or a hiker spending multiple hours on a trail, trail mix is a convenient form of energy.
But if you’re just munching away at it while you sit at your desk, you can quickly consume a ton of unnecessary calories.
There’s a reason NFL football teams give trail mix to the players they don’t want losing weight.
While some trail mixes are certainly healthier than others, even the better ones often contain more calories than you might think. And to complicate matters, their recommend serving sizes are often laughably small.
Here’s what one serving of a popular fruit and nut trail mix (which contains peanuts, raisins, sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts, cashews and cranberries) looks like in my hand:
Most people go well above that serving size, typically downing closer to three or four servings in a sitting.
If you down four servings of the pictured mix, which doesn’t include chocolate, you’re looking at a snack which contains 560 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat and 28 grams of sugar. If you’re someone who’s looking to lose weight or simply maintain a healthy weight while being light to moderately active, those numbers are going to make things tough.
And remember, that’s for a “healthier” trail mix. Choose a trail mix that actually contains things like M&Ms, chocolate chips, marshmallows, etc., and things get markedly worse.
Translation: you probably don’t need to eat trail mix while you’re filling out excel spreadsheets.
The peak of the acai craze might’ve been a few years back, but acai bowls are still plenty trendy.
What makes an acai bowl is its base—a creamy purplish substance with a consistency not unlike frozen yogurt.
Since acai berries are grown so far away, fresh ones are rarely available in America. Instead, freeze-dried powders or purees are often used to create the base. These are mixed with a combination of ingredients such as almond milk, soy milk, nut butter, frozen fruit and fruit juice to achieve the desired consistency and taste.
This base is put in a bowl and topped with a few ingredients, such as granola, honey, nut butter, cacao nibs or fresh fruit. All of these ingredients are pretty healthy on their own, but bringing many of them together in the same dish raises a substantial issue—sugar.
An Acai Primo bowl from Jamba Juice looks healthy enough. Yet it contains the same amount of sugar and slightly more calories than a Medium Chocolate Frosty from Wendy’s.
There’s a lot of good going on in the average acai bowl. Frozen fruit, fresh fruit, nut butter, almond milk, nuts, seeds—all are common acai bowl ingredients which are also high-nutrient foods. The average acai bowl is filled with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and healthy fats.
However, many of the ingredients in an acai bowl share the same issue—they’re high in sugar. This wouldn’t be a big deal if you were using just one of the ingredients in a dish. For example, spreading peanut butter on a piece of wheat toast won’t make the snack dangerously high in sugar. But when you combine fruit juice, frozen fruit, fresh fruit, nut butter, honey and granola in the same dish, the sugar total spirals out of control.
For that reason, acai bowls should be viewed more of as a dessert than a healthy choice.
“You should really look at acai bowls as more of an occasional treat, not something you’d have as a meal,” Ilana Muhlstein, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at UCLA, told SHAPE.
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Photo Credit: huettenhoelscher/iStock