The Health Food Trap

Cereal As a trainer who specializes in weight loss, I’ve had hundreds of conversations about diet. Specifically, people want to know which diet they should follow or which foods they should eat in order to lose weight. By now, you’d think I would be used to the way these conversations go, but I still frequently find myself surprised by the misconceptions so many people have about the food they eat.

In reality, there is just one main misconception that has several parts to it. This myth is the belief that “Healthy Food Will Help Me Lose Weight.” Foods that are labeled and marketed as healthy must be good for weight loss, right? Unfortunately, not.

In the first place, many of these foods are not all that healthy, the people selling them have just learned what kind of language and packaging to use in order to make you think they are. Foods that are “all natural” and “low fat” and “organic” may be all of those things, but that doesn’t mean that they’re healthy. In order for a food to be healthy, it needs to provide significant amounts of what your body needs, and scarce amounts of what it does not.

Next, even if a food is healthy, it won’t help you lose weight unless it is also relatively low in calories. Whole wheat bread is undeniably healthier than white bread, but it has exactly the same number of calories, making it a poor choice for weight loss.

The ideal foods for weight loss are those that are nutrient dense. A nutrient dense food is one that provides a relatively high amount of nutrients for a relatively low number of calories. They also tend to satisfy your hunger and help you feel full. By contrast, calorie dense foods contain a relatively high number of calories without providing much in the way of nutrients. Nutrient dense foods include vegetables, many fruits, legumes, many whole grains (in their whole-grain form, not their processed form), and lean sources of protein. Calorie dense foods include all fats (oils, butter, cheese, cream, fatty meats), processed carbohydrates (bread, pasta and other noodles, tortillas), and anything with added sugars listed in the first five ingredients.

Healthy fats are essential for certain cellular functions, but they are not nutrient dense, and they certainly won’t help you lose weight. These fats are needed in much smaller amounts than we typically consume, so telling yourself that you need to eat fat is kind of a lie. The exception to this is Omega-3, which is only present in a few foods most people don’t eat regularly, so it’s a good idea to take a supplement if you’re concerned about getting enough of this essential fatty acid.

When people ask me which diet or recipe book I recommend, I tell them that I have no idea, because I don’t know what kinds of food they eat. I could tell you which diet to follow or which foods to eat, but if you don’t like them, or they don’t fall within your religious or ethical constraints, or if you’re allergic or intolerant to them, then what I say won’t do you any good. When it comes to diet, the principles of weight loss are simple: Increase consumption of nutrient dense foods, decrease consumption of calorie dense foods, control portions sizes and don’t drink your calories.

Implementing these principles is admittedly a lot harder than learning them, but you’ll be off to a good start if you simply stop falling prey to that one big misconception: Healthy foods do not help you lose weight, only consuming fewer calories does.

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