One of the most common health and fitness goals is to burn fat. Whether you’re trying to lose that beer gut, cut hose love handles, or just trying to put the finishing touches on your physique to make that six pack really pop, everyone has some fat they want to get rid of. However, most of us can’t seem to the results we want. Even after dialing in your diet and sticking to a consistent training plan, losing fat just isn’t an easy thing to do. But the real secret to fat loss is not about lifting more weight—although that helps—it’s what you’re feeding your body.
If your goal is to get rid of that stubborn fat hanging around your midsection, then you need to stay far, far away from certain foods. Some of these might surprise you—some are touted as healthy eating staples—but any seemingly healthy food becomes a nutritional disaster when you make the wrong choices. Here, we help you make the right ones and kick your fat-burning potential into high gear.
The seemingly healthy snack often delivers a serious hit of sugar, sometimes making it no better for you than a handful of M&M’s. “Flavored yogurts, even the innocuous vanilla variety, can pack nearly 30 grams of sugar per 6 oz. serving. That’s more sugar than ice cream! Excess sugar can lead to weight gain so avoid the flavored varieties and stick with plain Greek yogurt,” says Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD, Registered Dietitian and founder of F-Factor Nutrition, a private nutrition counseling practice in Manhattan. Mix in your own berries or a small spoonful of honey to add flavor to plain varieties.
Sundays are all about treating yourself—to an afternoon spent on the couch and maybe some well-deserved brunch. However, treating yourself too often tips the scales in the wrong direction. “Looking to add a touch of sweetness to your meal? Don’t reach for pancake syrup, which is simply nutrient-devoid high fructose corn syrup mixed with preservatives and artificial colors and flavors. This highly refined sweetener causes your body to further crave sweets and sugary foods. Plus it offers none of the micronutrients, antioxidants, or phytochemicals that less refined sweeteners offer like maple syrup or honey,” says Zuckerbrot. Sorry Aunt Jemima.
Do yourself a favor and just buy brown. “White rice is stripped of filling fiber and healthy antioxidants, and much of the nutritional value. Most calories in white rice come from carbohydrates, resulting in the Asian-staple leaving you feeling hungry not long after you step away from the table. This is due to the spike in blood sugar levels and subsequent drop, which leaves you feeling tired, hungry, and wanting your next quick energy fix,” Says Zuckerbrot
A small pour of granola can add up to big repercussions in your diet. “Touted as a ‘health food,’ granola is often laced with as many as five different varieties of sugar plus added fats. This caloric breakfast food provides instant energy but results in an energy crash later and primes you to crave sweets throughout the rest of the day,” says Zuckerbrot. For the sake of your waist, it’s best to avoid this crunchy cereal all together. Though if you really have a hankering for it, break out those measuring cups! You’ll quickly find that a true one-fourth cup serving really isn’t that much food for all the sugar and calories you get.
One cup, two cup, three cup…five! While it’s important to limit caffeine intake throughout the day, you’re doing even more damage to your body by adding in cream and sugar to every cup you make. “Having a little coffee with your milk and sugar? That caffeine fix can set you back hundreds of calories and contribute to pudge if you aren’t careful. Order black coffee. Habitual “coffee with milk and sugar” drinkers are often surprised at how bitter coffee truly tastes. Recognize that adding all those accompaniments to your morning brew is like telling yourself a fruit—flavored donut is like fresh fruit. Not the same,” says Zuckerbrot. It takes some getting used to, but cutting out (at least some of) the add-ins will push you closer to your fitness goals.
How often do you see anyone with washboard abs scarfing down bagels? Yeah, didn’t think so. “Bagels are not your friend if you are trying to shed fat. One bagel has the same amount of carbohydrates found in six slices of white bread! Consuming foods high in refined carbohydrates spike insulin levels, which lead to cravings for these unhealthy foods. Also, refined grains turn into sugar, which gets converted to fat and stored in the body, helping you gain fat rather than burn it!” says Zuckerbrot. Opt for complex carbs in the morning, like oatmeal, to fuel your day and your fat burn.
Smoothies are one of those things that have the potential to be super healthy, but often take a turn for the worst. “Designed to appear healthy, smoothies are often loaded in calories, carbohydrates, and fat. Watch out for ingredients like peanut butter, ice cream, juice, full fat milk, and lots of fruit. Calories can climb quickly in these drinks, so opt for smoothies that use a protein powder or Greek yogurt as a base. Also, customize your smoothie and control the amount of added extras that can wreak havoc on your waistline and prevent you from shedding fat,” says Zuckerbrot. As with most meals or snacks, it’s always best to make your own to control portions and ingredients.
Dried fruit is more or less candy thanks to the sugar content. It’s also much easier to go overboard with dried varieties as opposed to fresh ones thanks to the physical size of the food. Picture one raisin versus one grape and you’ll get the gist of it. “Taking the water out of fruit leaves you with sugar and calories. Dried fruit is calorically dense due to natural and added sugar. Consumption can impact your weight loss efforts, as it will alter the levels of your blood sugar and thus influence sugary cravings. If you opt for dried fruit, try making your own from its fresh whole food sources,” says Zuckerbrot.
A general rule of thumb to live by: Just because it’s green, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. “Some green juices are additionally packed with hidden sugars to encourage taste. Opt for green juices that are primarily vegetable-based and limit fruit to one or two servings,” says Zuckerbrot. As with smoothies, it’s best to make your own. To cut the bitterness of the greens, opt for more lemon and ginger over sugar-filled fruit.
Twirling your spaghetti to perfection may exhaust your hands, but it won’t even come close to negating the effects it has on your body. Regular or refined pasta loses its fiber during the processing, so any nutrients the wheat may have contained initially get scrapped. Furthermore, refined grains pass through your body quickly and leave you feeling hungry shortly after you finish eating. If you’ve gotta have your pasta, go for whole grain varieties, which will digest more slowly in your body and have you feeling fuller, longer.
When compared to pancakes, bacon and poptarts, cereal may not seem so bad. However, as with most things, not all are on the same playing field. “Cereals are often perceived as a healthy way to start the day. Though this may be true, it depends heavily on your cereal of choice. Many commercial cereals are loaded with sugars and processed carbohydrates. The presence of refined sugar, carbs, and fat will leave you feeling hungry mid—morning and be detrimental to your weight loss efforts,” says Zuckerbrot.
This fizzy drink never, ever makes it onto the good list—and for good reason. “Filled with calories and sugar and completely devoid of any nutritional value, soda is the biggest empty calorie offender. Refined carbs can stop fat burn in a short period of time. After getting a blast of sugar, the body stops using fat for fuel and instead uses the sugar. So if fat loss is your goal, sugary drinks like soda are out!” says Zuckerbrot. Tossing back a can of pop is like scarfing down two candy bars. Surprise, surprise: neither will inch you closer to your goal weight.
Just because it says “diet” does not mean is has any place in your healthy diet. Regular soda is horrible for you because it has absolutely no nutritional value and is packed with sugar. Diet soda still holds zero nutritional value, but cutting out the sugar and subbing in artificial sweeteners can lead to weight gain for a whole different reason. The fake stuff messes with our body’s ability to acknowledge the connection between sweetness and calories and can lead to stronger cravings later, and as a result—greater food intake.
We’re not just talking straight from the can. “Smothered on donuts, cookies, and cupcakes, frosting may taste delicious, but will not help you shed fat. Not only is it loaded in sugar and calories, it also is one of the few foods on the shelves that still contains trans fat. These fats are not only terrible for your health (they can raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol), they also trigger inflammation, which can lead to unwanted belly fat,” says Zuckerbrot.
If ever there was a sign that something isn’t good for you, pulling out your grease-lined hand from a bag of popcorn has got to be one of them. Due to it’s high fiber and antioxidant content, popcorn can be a healthy snack when air popped or cooked on the stove with small amounts of oil, however, the microwaved or movie theater stuff offsets the health benefits. Microwave and theater popcorn is often high in sodium, fat, and butter substitutes. And the microwave bags are lined with chemicals that can have a negative effect on health.
Cabbage has to be healthy, right? Not always. Coleslaw may seem like a better side than fries or bread, but it’s actually a calorie bomb. Thanks to the mayonnaise it’s traditionally made with, a small serving can pack over 250 calories and high amounts of fat. Stick to a side salad, with the dressing on the side.
The majority of energy, protein, and granola bars are just candy bars by a different name. Many are loaded with sugar, and a surprising number contain more than 200 or 300 calories—with some up to 500! They also don’t quite satisfy hunger like a lean chicken dish or a hearty salad would for the same amount of calories. If you do like to grab a bar on the go, look for higher fiber and protein contents, 200 or fewer calories and less than 10 grams of sugar (less than five when possible)
It may have protein and calcium, but when it comes down to it, cheese is a seriously calorie-dense food. One square inch cube on average will set you back around 70 calories. One small cube? That’s about one bite, maybe two. Do your body a solid when you run into any cheese platters and turn the other way.
Foods labeled fat-free and diet can be rather misleading. One major issue is that while fruity dressings may be fat-free, they’re not sugar-free. “Fruity fat-free vinaigrette dressings have a tendency to be high in sugar. You may have taken the fat calories out, but you’ve added the calories back with sugar. I’d say you were better off with the calories from the healthy fats that were removed,” says Angela Lemond, RDN, CSP, LD, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Certain nut butters pack tons of sugar and sometimes even high fructose corn syrup. Make sure to read the label and look for varietes with just nuts (and maybe a bit of oil and salt). Plus, although nuts in general are a healthy snack, they’re still fatty and it’s key to manage portion size if you’re looking to lose weight. “Nuts, nut butters, and avocados are all great stuff, but since these healthy foods are high in fat, the calories add up fast. Remember, 1 gram of fat is 9 calories as compared to 1g of protein or carbohydrate (both 4 calories). Many people I counsel in my office are eating these good/quality foods, but their portions are too large,” says Lemond.
Processed meats have no place in your clean diet—the operative word being “processed.” Deli meats like salami are high in fat and calories. They’re also typically paired with other not-so-healthy foods like bread, cheese, and condiments when crafting a sandwich. Skip the deli counter and spring for leaner cuts of meat or fish if you want to lose the fat once and for all
Tea—specifically unsweetened varieties—can be a healthy alternative to drinks like soda or fruit juice, and definitely more exciting than water. However, sweetened iced tea is packed with sugar and contains empty calories just like soda—no amount of antioxidants can undo the damage it might do to your waistline. Order the unsweetened stuff and flavor with a squeeze of lemon instead.
Often advertised as a better-for-you alternative to butter, margarine is no such thing. It’s actually loaded with trans fat and lacking in nutrition. Stick to small amounts of olive oil where you would normally use butter.
Salad can turn from a healthy diet staple into a horrible diet disaster in a matter of sprinkles. Caesar salad’s three main staples—creamy dressing, croutons, and cheese—make this leafy dish high in calories and high in fat. Stick to salads dressed with vinaigrettes (on the side when possible) and packed with lots of fresh produce like peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers for a filling, yet body-friendly bowl.