Why some health foods might slow your fat loss

This past week I was walking through the grocery store with my wife and I said "do you ever notice that so many "health" and "fat loss" foods are actually the kinds of foods bodybuilders will eat to gain weight"?

In essence, many of the foods advertised as healthy, all-natural etc are the kinds of foods used primarily by male bodybuilders to gain weight. It's an interesting dichotomy that a food like granola, organic trail mix or fruit drink might be reached for by both a 140lb woman looking to lean out and a 210lb man looking to gain weight.

How can this be?

Calorie Density

One interesting tidbit left out of advertising these foods is how calorie dense they are.  Sure, they advertise a variety of buzzwords like organic, paleo, gluten free, all-natural and plant-based but it says nothing about calorie content.  Which, to me is interesting, especially knowing that calorie balance is essentially THE driver of body weight.

It's pretty easy to get a consumer interested in a product if you make them feel a slight moral superiority for purchasing it; "this product is made with coconut oil". It doesn't really mean anything in the context of fat loss and if you interviewed the average consumer considering these products, you'd be hard pressed to find one who could explain why it would matter.

This is how much of the marketing is conducted on many health food products and I think it can be a slippery slope.

Let me do a quick run-down of some high-calorie and low-protein options you'd find in the health food aisle of your grocery store.

  • Granola
  • Gluten-free cereals
  • Fruit and Nut bars
  • Trail mix
  • Most fruit/juice smoothies
  • Many protein bars
  • Dairy-free yogurts alternatives

This is not to say these products are bad or cannot be eaten as part of a healthy diet, but for the average fat loss client giving up oatmeal and eggs in the morning for a gluten-free cereal, they might in fact be consuming MORE calories and LESS protein.

Protein as your guide

Now, not every single meal and snack for your entire life needs to be high-protein, that would be ridiculous.  However, consuming most meals and many snacks with a high-quality protein source not only helps with recovery, muscle gain, immune function, satiety and blood sugar control, it also points you in the right calorie direction many times.

Lets take cottage cheese for example.  I have been a proponen of Muuna cottage cheese for some time now because it's so darn good, has high protein and low calories.  A single serving of a 5.3oz containers has 120 calories, 3g fat, 4g carbs and 19g protein.  That is truly impressive. A half cup of Bear Naked Granola (not picking on them here) contains 300 calories, 30g carbs, 16g fat and 12g protein.

So, for about 2.5 times the calories you still aren't even hitting the same protein with the granola as you would the cottage cheese.  For a person who needs to control calories and still has a protein goal to hit, you can see how these food choices would impact them very differently.

When in doubt, look at the protein content of a food and see if you can justify consuming a lot of calories with very little protein.

So why would a large man looking to gain weight want to eat foods that are calorie dense but lower protein?  In a case like this, a weight-gaining athlete can probably hit their protein goal for the day in 3 meals, especially if they add a scoop of protein powder in there.  But that might not be enough calories to help them move the scale up.  So, instead of over-consuming expensive protein (if they've already met that goal), they would look to lower-protein and more calorie dense options to hit their calorie goal.

Talk to anyone who needs to eat 4,000 calories per day and you'll find that you cannot sustain that calorie intakr through turkey and sweet potatoes.  At some point you've already hit your protein goal but might need to eat an additional 1,000 calories to make your daily goal.  In this case, calorie dense granola, fruit smoothies, gluten free cereals and trail mix are great for getting a lot of calories in without a ton of food volume.

But you can see how that might not work so well for fat loss.

Making better choices

This isn't about avoiding foods like that completely, rather taking them into the context of "can I justify this calorie amount"?  Does eating foods like these exceed your calorie goals but leaves you WAY behind on your protein goals?  I've seen this reflected in dozens of food journals, mostly from women, who are trying to make good food choices but over-consuming these calorie dense "health foods" and eating marginal protein.

Remember, there are no good or bad foods, food choices and calorie content is not a morality game.  Instead it's a cost:benefit relationship.  Can you justify the cost of those calories?  What's the benefit?  An option like cottage cheese offers very little cost (low calories) but a huge benefit (high protein).  For a large male, granola offers a little cost (not exceeding protein intakes) but huge benefit (lots of calories with low food volume).

What can eb frustrating is having to convince a client that eating sweet potatoes, fruit, dairy, protein and even (gasp!) some bread here and there isn't a terrible thing.  These foods might actually (and often do) allow you to eat fewer calories while driving protein up.  An apple is about 80 calories, convince me that is going to hurt your fat loss. 

I'll wait.

Remember to also take into account, like the apple above, that not every single snack needs to be super high in protein as long as you can control calories.  So convenient foods like fruit, or raw veggies with hummus can make great choices because they are a good amount of food volume with low calorie content.

When in doubt, flip the label over and check out the calories and protein, check out the serving size.  Is the serving size miniscule (like granola) but the calorie content kind of high?  What's the protein content like?  Does it actuall fill you up or leave you wanting more?  Unfortunately a lot of these health foods are highly palatable which makes them easy to over-eat, while our good friend the apple does not.  I mean, have you ever had to say to someone "hey, I think you should slow down on how many apples you're eating"?  I think not.