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10 'Healthy' Foods That Can Sabotage Weight Loss

If you are choosing these items over others, take a closer look

By Maureen Callahan

The older you get, the trickier it is to shed weight, even when you’re cleaning up eating habits and focusing on healthier food choices. Why won’t the scale budge? We asked dietitians from three of the country’s most highly respected weight loss centers to share 10 seemingly "healthy" foods that frequently sabotage dieting efforts for middle-aged weight watchers:

1. Store-Bought Smoothies

A lot of trendy “green drinks” and smoothies deliver solely carbohydrate calories — fruit juice, fruit and maybe a few leafy greens, says Jamie Leskowicz,, a dietitian at Columbia University Medical Center’s Weight Control Center. Flooding the body with all those simple carbs can turn the dial up on hunger rather than tame it.

Better strategy for dieters: Making smoothies at home lets you keep calories in check and balance that beverage by adding protein and fat to quench appetite, says Leskowicz.

Her healthy smoothie recipe: “Use one to two fruit servings, maximum. Add some protein with Greek yogurt, skim milk or a protein powder. Then mix in a little bit of a healthy fat, say a tablespoon of nut butter or chia seeds.”

2. Hummus

Chickpeas. Tahini. Lemon juice. Garlic. Olive oil. The recipe for this Middle Eastern dip reads like an A-plus food report card. “But a serving size is two tablespoons,” says Leskowicz. And if you aren’t paying attention, it’s easy to eat half the container. Depending on the container size, that amounts to about 245 to 350 calories.

Better strategy for dieters: Measure portions, keeping in mind that two tablespoons nets you about 70 calories for most hummus; fat-free varieties average around half that amount.

3. Yogurt Shop Soft-Serve

Trendy serve-yourself shops entice dieters with fat-free options. “But it’s not necessarily a low-calorie food just because it’s fat-free,” says Leskowicz.

Sure, a four-ounce serving (one half a cup) averages anywhere from 100 to 150 calories. But the mammoth size cups that shops put out encourage triple or quadruple that amount. And most of those calories come from pure sugar; count on at least five teaspoons of sugar per each half-cup portion.

Diet-friendly strategy: Low-carb options often have half the carbs, but serving yourself still makes it easy to overdo. Instead, Leskowicz recommends buying pre-portioned ice cream or yogurt treats, preferably ones made with healthy ingredients like whole fruits, healthy fats and very little added sugar.

4. Trail Mixes

Endless varieties of trail mix exist, all with a base of oats and nuts, with all kinds of extras thrown in, everything from mini peanut butter cups to pretzels. “So while they may contain some really nutritious ingredients, they can also contain way too much sugar and fat,” says Leskowicz. “And it’s easy to overdo it on portion size.”

Diet-friendly strategy: Look for trail mixes without added sugars and stick to portion size by putting one serving in a zip-top plastic bag. Better yet, pair a serving of trail mix with low-fat Greek yogurt to dramatically boost the amount of appetite-taming protein.

5. Guacamole

“I’ve noticed people change their eating habits to include healthy foods like avocados, hummus and nuts and they’re not losing weight,” says Andrea Spivack a dietitian at Albert J. Stunkard Weight Management Program at the University of Pennsylvania. "Their lipid panels or health numbers are improving, but the scale doesn't budge."

Barring metabolic issues or a thyroid problem, the reason they’re not losing weight, she says, is too big a portion of these good-for-you foods. With avocados in the form of guacamole, the problem is too much fat, albeit a healthy fat.

Better diet strategy: Spivack suggests mixing equal amounts of guacamole and fat-free Greek yogurt for a skinnier dip. That one change adds protein, increases calcium and dramatically cuts fat and calories. It also tastes surprisingly good.

6. Baked Chips

“People justify eating more when something is baked,” says Spivack. “But the calories in baked snacks add up.” Oven Baked Lays Potato Chips have just 120 calories per one-ounce serving, but most sandwich shops offer up a large single-serve bag, which is 1.5 ounces, or 180 calories. Open up a bulk bag, and the chip calories escalate even further.

Better diet strategy: Measure out a single one-ounce portion of chips and stick to it. Or snack on raw vegetables for a more nutrient-dense, low-calorie snack.


7. Sports Beverages

Gorgeous packaging and added nutrients or antioxidants help sell adults on sport drinks as better bets than soft drinks. But they tend to obscure the fact these drinks are just another vehicle for sugar and caffeine.

“I work in Philly and I see lots of people in the city walking around drinking these beverages,” says Spivack. “But they’re not doing a hard workout.”

Better Diet Strategy: Plain water with a slice of lemon or bottled water with natural fruit flavors. No calories. No sugar. And plenty of what the body needs — unadorned liquid H0.

8. Wine

“I think people really underestimate how much wine they drink,” says Spivack. Most wine glasses hold two or three servings of wine, so instead of 120 calories for the typical five-ounce pour, you’re netting 250 to 370 calories. Also, alcohol can lower inhibitions and promote overeating.

Better Diet Strategy: Spivack suggests pouring five ounces of water in your wine glass to see what one serving actually looks like. Stick with that portion.

9. Dark Chocolate

Despite the health glow that surrounds dark chocolate, many bars and dipped chocolate snacks are surprisingly high in sugar and calories. Five Dove Dark Promise squares weigh in with about five teaspoons (19 grams) of sugar. A similar size serving of dark chocolate Acai flavored candy or chocolate covered raisins hover close to two tablespoons (23g and 26g, respectively) of sugar.

But the real problem with these sugary dark chocolate indulgences is what they unleash in dieters. “They’re such trigger foods,” says Elisabetta Politi, nutrition director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center of Duke University. “I don’t know about you, but if I start eating chocolate-covered raisins, it’s hard to stop."

Best Strategy for Dieters: Stick to bars without added flavorings (like mint) or dried fruits, and work up to the darkest chocolates, 70 to 85 percent cocoa content, without extra add-ins. As cocoa levels soar over 80 percent, sugar content can drop to as low as five grams (a little over one teaspoon) per serving, helping keep cravings in check.

10. Honey-Roasted Nuts

“Nuts are so healthy, but covering them in honey or maple syrup adds sugar and calories,” says Politi. “I don’t think people need to become paranoid about sugar,” she says, but it helps to be aware of which sugars are naturally in a food and which ones food companies are adding.

“At our Center, meals are prepared from scratch with minimal added sugar and about 1,500 to 2,000mg sodium, “ says Politi. And no one complains about being hungry. “When you’re not eating added sugars and overdoing it on salt, the appetite self-regulates and you lose weight.”

Better Diet Strategy: Opt for unsalted nuts and measure out a single one-ounce serving, usually three to four tablespoons.


Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the diet book review series. She is a two-time James Beard Award winner. Read More
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