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  • Writer's pictureMy French Dietitian

8 Foods That Contribute to Weight Gain, according to Dietitians


While moderation is key in any well-rounded diet, some foods and beverages (think soda and certain breakfast cereals) have gained notoriety for their potential contribution to weight gain when consumed excessively.

In our exploration of the intricate dance between our diet and weight management, I want to share insights that can empower you to make choices that align with your well-being.

Now, I'm not here to preach about restrictions in your diet, but it's crucial to acknowledge that some foods are more prone to contribute to weight gain and do not bring much nutritional value to your body.


This article was reviewed and approved by Jean-Philippe Ricau, a Dietitian with 25+ years of experience, and co-founder of myfrenchdietitian.


A person holding a plate with a burger on it
Credit to Towfiqu barbhuiya for the photo

Enter the realm of "empty calories" – a territory we'll demystify together.


The secret sauce? Mindful monitoring of portion sizes and relishing these treats in moderation, especially if shedding a few pounds is part of your health journey.


Let's explore what empty calories are and unveil 8 foods that might throw a weight-gain party if they become regulars on your plate.



What are empty calories?


a platter of junk food

Empty calories refer to foods and beverages that provide a high number of calories but offer little to no nutritional value in terms of essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, or other beneficial nutrients. These items contribute to overall caloric intake without supplying the body with the essential elements it needs for proper functioning and health.


Eating too many empty calories can lead to weight gain, nutrient deficiencies, and an increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.


Here are some examples of foods that are high in empty calories:

  • Processed foods: These foods are often high in unhealthy fats, added sugars, and sodium. Examples include chips, cookies, cakes, and sugary cereals.

  • Sugary beverages: These beverages are a major source of empty calories in the American diet. Examples include soda, fruit juice, and sports drinks.

  • Unhealthy fats: These fats, such as saturated and trans fats, are found in processed foods, fried foods, and full-fat dairy products.



8 foods that may contribute to weight gain


1. Soda and sugary drinks


7 cans of soda
Photo credit to Jonny Caspari

Soda may be a tempting bubbly companion, but it's crucial to understand its nutritional profile. Packed with calories and added sugar, soda lacks the essential nutrients our bodies need (such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants to name a few).

Frequent consumption of sugary sodas has been linked to an increased likelihood of weight gain. Researches indicate that individuals who regularly indulge in these fizzy delights tend to gain more weight compared to those who opt for alternative beverages.

Moreover, regular soda intake is associated with a higher risk of conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and specific cancers.


As a dietitian, I advise moderation. While an occasional glass of soda is acceptable, it's wise to limit your intake and avoid making it a daily habit.


What about the sugar-free (diet) versions of soda?

Sugar-free versions of your favorite soda can certainly reduce your sugar intake but as I often emphasize, when you come across a beverage with a lengthy list of ingredients filled with unfamiliar and perplexing terms, my advice is simple: consider avoiding it altogether. Chances are that it's not good for you.


I'm also encouraging you to read a 2017 study from University of Georgia that found that high-fat foods are often the primary target when fighting obesity, but sugar-laden "diet" foods could be contributing to unwanted weight gain as well (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170425140210.htm).



Are fruit juices better or are they making me gain weight?

Fresh fruit juices, often perceived as healthy, lack the fiber found in whole fruits, and may contain as much sugar (think about how many fruits you need to make one glass of juice) and calories as sodas, leading to faster sugar absorption and potential blood sugar spikes.


Store-bought juices (industrial juices) are often processed and lack the freshness and nutritional value of whole fruits due to industrial practices.


Opting for whole fruits instead of juices is recommended for better nutrition, as fruits provide essential fiber and nutrients often lost during juicing processes.


If you are thirsty, always prefer water and herbal tea. Remember, small changes can lead to significant improvements in your overall health.




2. Candy, Cookies, Pastries and Sweets


Sweet Candies

Let me name a few:

Cookies, doughnuts, granola bars, protein bars, pies, pastries, puddings, flavored yogurt, ice cream, rice crackers, etc..


We all have a sweet tooth, and many of us enjoy indulging in some sweets from time to time.

While it's true that treats like chocolate may offer some health benefits, the downside is that they can contribute to weight gain when consumed in excess.


Candies and sweets are by definition rich in added sugars and unhealthy fats, leading to a surge in calorie intake without offering substantial nutritional value.

The rapid absorption of these sugary delights can also cause a spike in blood sugar levels, prompting the body to store excess sugar as fat, ultimately contributing to weight gain.


Furthermore, the high-calorie content of candies and sweets, coupled with their often addictive nature, can lead to overconsumption.


Unlike whole foods that provide a sense of satiety, sugary treats may not trigger the same fullness response in the brain.

This lack of satiety can result in increased overall calorie intake, potentially tipping the balance toward weight gain over time.


Therefore, while enjoying an occasional sweet treat is perfectly reasonable, moderation remains key to maintaining a healthy weight and overall well-being.


If maintaining moderation poses a challenge, consider the appeal of dark chocolate (with at least 70% cocoa) as it tends to be more amenable to controlled enjoyment. Studies indicate that dark chocolate has the remarkable ability to enhance feelings of satiety and diminish overall food consumption later in the day.



3. Breakfast cereals


Breakfast cereals with milk
photo credit: Nyana Stoica

As parents, our morning routine often involves preparing a quick and seemingly nutritious breakfast for our children, and cereals frequently find their way onto the breakfast table.

It's a common belief that we are providing a wholesome start to their day.


However, it's essential to take a closer look at the cereals we choose for our kids. Many of these options, often marketed as convenient and nutritious, can be loaded with added sugars and lack the essential nutrients found in whole grains.

These cereals undergo significant processing, robbing them of the natural fiber and vital nutrients inherent in whole grains.


As a dietitian, I encourage parents to consider the impact of refined grains on their children's health.




Fortunately, there are healthier alternatives available on the market.

Research suggests that making a switch from refined to whole grains in breakfast cereals can contribute to better weight management and an overall healthier diet.


By selecting cereals that are low in added sugars and crafted from whole grains, such as oats or wheat bran, parents can provide a more nourishing breakfast option for their children. All you have to do is to check the labels.


So, as parents, let's make informed choices to ensure our kids start their day with a balanced and nutritious breakfast.



4. Alcoholic Beverages


man pouring whiskey in glasses

Regularly drinking alcohol can contribute to weight gain for a few reasons.

When you have a drink, your body prefers to use the alcohol for energy before burning fat. So, if you're sipping on drinks often, your body might not get around to burning those stored fats.


Now, not all drinks are the same.

Some, like sweet cocktails, can add up in calories and sugars quickly.

For instance, think of a sugary cocktail like a dessert—it's delicious but packs in extra calories.

On the other hand, a glass of wine or a light beer might be a bit friendlier on the calorie count.


But hey, life is about balance. It's not about swearing off a good time; it's about finding a middle ground. Enjoy your drink, just be mindful.

Maybe lean towards options that are a bit lighter, and try to limit alcohol consumption to maximum twice a week. Keep yourself hydrated, and remember, it's not about all or nothing.


A little understanding and moderation can go a long way in keeping things in check. Cheers to making choices that work for you!



5. Processed meats, cold cut (charcuterie)


Man picking up salami from wooden board
Photo credit: Alex Guillaume

Charcuterie, which includes a variety of cured meats, can contribute to weight gain for a couple of reasons. First, many cured meats are high in fat and salt, and consuming them in excess can lead to an increased calorie intake.

Think of it like this: too much of these rich and savory meats might add up in calories over time.

Additionally, charcuterie boards often feature an assortment of cheeses, crackers, and other accompaniments. While delicious, these items can contribute to the overall calorie count and may lead to overeating if not consumed in moderation.


It's essential to enjoy charcuterie mindfully and consider balancing it with healthier options like fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.


Like many indulgent treats, the key is moderation. Enjoying a well-balanced charcuterie spread occasionally can be a delightful experience without necessarily leading to weight gain.



6. French Fries and Potato Chips


French fries

Chips and fries can contribute to weight gain due to several factors. Firstly, they are often high in calories, especially when deep-fried or commercially processed.

A typical serving of fries or a bag of chips can pack a significant calorie punch, contributing to an excess calorie intake if consumed frequently.


Secondly, both chips and fries tend to be high in unhealthy fats, particularly trans fats and saturated fats. These fats can be calorie-dense and, when consumed in excess, contribute to weight gain.


Additionally, the combination of fat and salt found in these snacks can be addictive, leading to overeating.


Moreover, these snacks are often served with condiments or paired with other high-calorie foods like burgers or fried fish, further increasing the overall calorie content of a meal.


The ease of mindless snacking on chips or fries can also contribute to consuming more calories than the body needs.


To manage weight, it's essential to enjoy these snacks in moderation and consider healthier alternatives, such as baked or air-fried options, or incorporating more nutrient-dense snacks like fresh fruits and vegetables into the diet.



7. Ready-Made Meals

Man holding 2 frozen pizza

Also known as "pre-packaged meals," or "convenience meals".


You're busy, and the idea of cooking a meal from scratch can seem daunting, taking up what feels like hours of your precious time.

So, you head to the supermarket and come across a tempting solution - lasagna, your favorite dish, conveniently packaged and ready to be microwaved.

It seems like the perfect solution for a quick and effortless dinner.


However, what you might not realize is that this convenience comes with potential consequences for your health, particularly when it comes to weight management.


Some common ready-made meals include:


  1. Frozen pizza

  2. Cordon bleu

  3. Microwaveable lasagna

  4. Instant ramen noodles

  5. Pre-packaged salads

  6. Canned soups

  7. Frozen dinners (e.g., TV dinners)

  8. Boxed macaroni and cheese

  9. Deli sandwiches

  10. Heat-and-eat curries or stews

  11. Frozen burritos


These are just a few examples.


These pre-packaged "ready-made meals" often prioritize convenience over nutritional value. They are loaded with added sugars, unhealthy fats, and high levels of sodium to enhance flavor and extend shelf life.


While the allure of a quick and easy meal is undeniable, indulging in these convenience options too frequently will contribute to unwanted weight gain and compromise your overall health.


It's essential to strike a balance between convenience and nutrition, considering alternative options that prioritize both your busy schedule and your well-being.




8. Fast food


Fried chicken wings

Let's face it, if you don't live in Asia, where flavorful street foods abound, your fast food options might be confined to the familiar choices of burgers, fried chicken, burritos, pizza, chips, chicken nuggets and other convenient yet often less nutritious offerings.


Consuming fast food frequently can contribute to weight gain due to several factors.


Firstly, many fast food items are high in calories, unhealthy fats, refined carbohydrates, and added sugars. These components, when consumed in excess, can lead to an increased caloric intake, contributing to weight gain over time.


Additionally, fast food portions are often larger than recommended serving sizes, encouraging overeating.


Furthermore, fast food tends to be low in essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which are crucial for maintaining a healthy weight and overall well-being.

Regularly relying on fast food can result in a diet lacking in nutritional balance, leaving individuals feeling less satisfied and potentially prompting them to consume more calories in an attempt to meet their nutritional needs.


To promote a healthier weight, it's essential to be mindful of your fast food choices and aim for a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-rich foods.

Balancing convenience with nutrition is key to fostering overall health and preventing unwanted weight gain.


I recommend that you cook most of your meals at home and not eat fast food more than once per week.

And if you eat out, look for restaurants with healthier options such as vegetables, soups or salads.




How to avoid foods that make you fat?


To reduce your intake of empty calories, focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. You should also limit your intake of sugary beverages and unhealthy fats.


Here are some tips for reducing your intake of empty calories:


  • Read food labels carefully: Pay attention to the amount of calories, sugar, and saturated and trans fats in packaged foods.

  • Choose water or unsweetened beverages instead of sugary drinks.

  • Choose whole grains over refined grains.

  • Limit your intake of processed meats and full-fat dairy products.

  • Cook more meals at home so you can control the ingredients.

  • Educate yourself about food, and cooking. There are plenty of free videos on Youtube.


Also, you have to realize that high-calorie foods -- high in fat, oil, and sugar -- can taste good but often cause overeating, leading to obesity and major health problems. (source: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/12/221223103438.htm)



MY CONCLUSION AS A DIETITIAN


The researchers propose that highly processed foods might not satiate hunger as effectively as less processed, fiber-rich options, potentially leading to a higher overall calorie intake.


Are there foods categorized as good or bad?

I believe so.


Can these 8 foods make you fat if you eat them too often?

Most probably.


Can we completely eliminate all so-called "bad" foods?

I don't think it's practical. But it doesn't mean that you're not doing yourself a favor if you manage to completely eliminate these foods from your life.


Many individuals ponder which foods should be outright avoided for optimal health. It's more constructive to view it not as the inherent nature of the food being bad but rather a matter of quantity.
Even if items like chips or palm oil are viewed as less than ideal for our bodies, it's crucial to consider the circumstances in which they are consumed.

As a dietitian, I consistently advise my patients against completely excluding any particular food from their diet.

While it's commonly acknowledged that processed meats are not the healthiest choice, abstaining from them entirely can be challenging.

Instead, it's advisable to moderate their consumption. The same principle applies to alcohol, which has its drawbacks, but the occasional indulgence in a glass of wine is not necessarily detrimental to health.


Rather than fixating on foods to avoid, it's more beneficial to emphasize the consumption of healthy foods in larger quantities, as part of a well-rounded diet.

This includes incorporating more vegetables for fiber, fruits for vitamins, and limiting animal proteins, considering our contemporary sedentary lifestyle doesn't demand the same level of intake as before.


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