Diet-busting foods

Also known as: Obesity - diet-busting foods and Overweight - diet-busting foods


Diet-busting foods work against you if you are watching your weight. They taste good and go down easy, but are low in nutrition and high in calories. Many of these foods leave you feeling hungry because they are low in fiber or protein. In general, diet-busting foods should make up a very small portion of your overall diet.

Worst Offenders

High-fat foods. Most high-fat foods have a lot of calories but little nutrition. Many of these diet-busting foods are made with unhealthy saturated or trans fats. These types of fats are solid at room temperature. For instance, the fat in cheese and butter is solid. By contrast, heart-healthy olive oil is a liquid fat. Still, you should always control your portions, because too much of any fat can lead to weight gain.

High-fat foods include:

  • Fatty cuts of meat, such as sausage, bacon, and ribs
  • Anything with full-fat cheese, such as pizza, burritos, and mac and cheese
  • Fried foods
  • Whole-fat dairy foods
  • Foods prepared in cream, such as creamy sauces and soups

Refined grains. Unlike diet-boosting whole grains, most of the nutrients and fiber have been stripped away from these grains in the refining process. As a result, they leave you hungry.

Refined grains include:

  • White bread
  • Pasta made with white flour
  • White rice

High-calorie drinks. Sweetened beverages come loaded in calories that stick around long after the drink is gone.

  • Soda. A 16-ounce can of sugary soda has almost as many calories as a cookie.
  • Fruit juice. Most fruit juice is high in sugar and low in fruit. Look for 100% fruit juice with no added corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, or syrup. Watch your serving size, because 100% juices are still high in calories. They often do not have as many nutrients as the whole fruit they are squeezed from. A better option is to eat a piece of fruit. The added fiber and bulk will help you feel fuller.
  • Sports and energy drinks. Many of these drinks are high in sugar and calories. Energy drinks also have a lot of caffeine. Unless you exercise hard enough to sweat for an hour or more, you are better off drinking water. Or choose low-calorie versions of these drinks.
  • Coffee drinks. Coffee is low in calories on its own. But once you add high-fat milk, sugary flavorings, and whipped cream, you might as well call it dessert.

Baked goods. High in fat, sugar, and refined grains, pastries and baked desserts are diet-busters on every level. Limit these foods to the occasional treat and make sure you watch your portion sizes. These include:

  • Donuts
  • Muffins
  • Scones
  • Cake
  • Cookies
  • Brownies

They Seem Healthy, But They Are Not

Exercise bars. These bars may have earned their healthy reputation because they are sold to give you energy for exercise. But most of them are more like candy bars: low in fiber, and high in sugar, fat, and calories. Unless you need some quick energy in the middle of a race or training session, look for a healthier way to refuel.

Cream-based soups. The advice to make a meal of soup and salad can backfire if your cup of soup has the calorie and fat profile of a hamburger. Creamy soups like mushroom bisque and many chowders have around 400 calories in one cup. Broth-based soups like minestrone have around 100 calories.

Creamy salad dressing. Ranch, peppercorn, and blue cheese dressings can turn a healthy salad into a high-fat meal. But you do not need to go totally nonfat. Instead, use a spoonful of dressing made with healthy fats such as avocados, olive oil, or yogurt. If you do choose to indulge in a creamy dressing, measure it out carefully and limit your portions to no more than 1 to 2 tbsp.

Sugar-free foods. If a food that is usually made with sugar is labeled sugar-free, check the calories on the nutrition label. Often, extra fat and salt are added to make up for the lack of sugar.

Potatoes. Whether a potato is diet-busting or diet-boosting depends on how you cook it. A baked potato has about 120 calories. You can top it with broccoli and drizzle it with olive oil. But once you fry a potato or turn it into hash browns, the calories more than double and unhealthy fats go through the roof.

Healthy in Small Amounts

Nuts. High in fiber, nuts are a tasty way to eat heart-healthy fat. But nuts are also high in calories. One cup of chopped nuts can contain more than 700 calories. To get a dose of protein and heart-healthy fat, limit yourself to a tbsp. of peanut butter or a small handful of unsalted nuts like almonds or walnuts.

Dried fruit. The drying process takes away the water and a lot of the volume, making dried fruit higher in calories and sugar than a similar portion size of fresh fruit. A cup of dried figs has 371 calories and 71 grams of sugar. Compare that to two large fresh figs, which have a total of 94 calories and 20 grams of sugar. Portion control is the key to eating dried fruit without busting your diet.

Granola. This is another food best eaten in small portions. A cup of granola can range from 343 calories in a low-fat version you buy in the store, to 597 calories in a cup of homemade granola. Many commercial versions have added sugar and fat. Like dried fruit and nuts, granola is packed with fiber and nutrients. Read labels, pay attention to serving sizes, watch the calorie count, and eat granola in small amounts. A half cup or less can dress up a bowl of nonfat yogurt or make a delicious topping for fresh fruit.


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Mozaffarian D, Hao T, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Hu FB. Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men. N Engl J Med. 2011;364:2392-2404. PMID: 21696306

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 - 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Accessed January 15, 2016.

USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory. Food Composition Database. Accessed February 20, 2014.

Review date:
December 07, 2016
Reviewed by:
Emily Wax, RD, The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Brooklyn, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 01/18/2016.
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