When you’re making an effort to change the way you eat and achieve a weight loss goal, stalls and plateaus can be incredibly frustrating. If the needle on the scale is at a standstill though you’re eating healthier, part of the reason could be that “healthy” doesn’t always equal “low calorie” — and even “zero calorie” may not help with weight loss.
“Learning new ways to eat and move can be a process of trial and error,” says Raymond Plodkowski, MD, an endocrinologist at Scripps Clinic Center for Weight Management. “But metabolic science can offer a lot of guidance for people who are serious about taking control of their weight.”
1. Diet soda
“We are learning more about the metabolic effects of artificial sweeteners in soda all the time — most of it not so good,” says Dr. Plodkowski. It turns out that tasting something sweet, even if it contains no sugar, may trick the body into releasing insulin as a digestive response, even when there is nothing for it to metabolize. And that insulin can make your body hungrier for other foods and store calories as fat, even though diet soda itself has no calories.
A recent study correlated metabolic syndrome with the frequent consumption of beverages sweetened with sucralose, aspartame or saccharine. Metabolic syndrome is a combination of abdominal fat, high cholesterol and elevated blood sugar that has been definitively linked with heart disease and diabetes. Instead of reaching for drinks that may cause metabolism mayhem, try sparkling water with a squeeze of citrus — or just plain water.
2. The wrong kinds of fruit
Whole fresh fruits can be diet-friendly because in addition to nutrients, they fill you up with water and fiber. Strip away those two factors, though, and the culprit behind your weight loss stall could be too much of a good thing — in the wrong form.
Lots of fresh fruit juice blended with a protein or vitamin boost may sound like a perfect snack. But sugar and portion size still matter. “Commercial smoothies that are made solely from fruits and full-fat bases can pack more than 500 calories into a large cup,” says Dr. Plodkowski. The vast majority of calories in smoothies come from fructose — a form of sugar. Bananas are especially calorie-heavy. So a blended orange-mango-banana sweet treat may be no more virtuous a choice than a chocolate shake. If you do indulge on occasion, stick to a small-sized drink, and opt for a balance of fruit and vegetable juices (which are lower in calories per ounce).
The process of drying fruit creates a concentrated sweet treat, but ounce for ounce, there are typically two to three times as many calories in dried vs. fresh fruit. If you pop a handful of raisins or figs to reduce a craving for sweets, you may be adding serious calories to your daily bottom line. That’s especially problematic when dried fruits are mixed into commercial granola, which can be packed with added sugar and fats. Just a cup can approach nearly 400 calories — a third of a whole day’s calorie allowance for some dieters. If you’re looking for a healthy alternative, freeze grapes in a container for a low-cal, mouth-popping snack.
3. Packaged “diet” snacks
One rule of thumb about healthy food is the less processed it is, the better. This especially applies to non-essential “low fat” or “sugar-free” snack foods like cookies, crackers and chips. The problem isn’t just that these foods are empty calories; the hard truth is that if something is low in sugar, it’s probably high in fat; and if it’s low in fat, it’s probably stuffed with salt or sweeteners. “Fresh fruits, vegetables and plain Greek yogurt are always healthier than manufactured snacks,” says Dr. Plodkowski. “Their moisture content can help you feel fuller faster.”
4. Hummus and other vegetable dips/spreads
Beware of commercial and restaurant vegetable spreads, which may be chock-full of added oils and unhealthy fats. Artichoke-spinach dip may sound healthy until you realize it can pack 50 calories into one tablespoon, or a whopping 400 calories for a half-cup serving — and that doesn’t factor in chips or bread. If you crave spreadable dips, you can better control ingredients if you make them at home using low-fat recipes. And as always, portion size is key.
The next time you’re out for lunch, don’t automatically assume a wrap is a healthier choice than a sandwich. The super-sized flour wrappers used at most establishments actually make it possible to stuff in more fillings, dressings and calories than plain old sandwich bread. And the wraps themselves clock in at about 350 calories or more.