When you go to the grocery store, you’re probably looking for ingredients that will keep you healthy and foods you can easily make into healthy meals. But it might seem like you don’t have to be super strict about what ingredients you have in your kitchen, as long as you combine those ingredients in healthy ways. That’s not always true. In conjunction with a good exercise regimen, some ingredients can help you lose weight, burn fat, and build muscle. But other ingredients can make you gain weight, even if they seem pretty innocuous.
Studies have associated specific ingredients with weight gain. We all know french fries, candy bars, cookies, and pizza pack in lots of calories. And we know processed foods are less healthy than raw, minimally processed foods. But which ingredients do you need to steer clear of if, for instance, you’re making your own pizza rather than ordering one? The answer might surprise you. Read on to check out some of the common kitchen ingredients that can cause major weight gain if you misuse them when you cook or bake.
1. Artificial sweeteners
When you’re trying to lose weight, artificial sweeteners sound like a healthy option. They don’t add calories like real sugar does. So it seems like a no-brainer to swap in an artificial sweetener when you’re pouring a cup of coffee or baking a cake. But it turns out artificial sweeteners might not help if you’re trying to lose weight. Several cohort studies have found positive correlations between artificial sweeteners and weight gain. People are aware artificial sweeteners have fewer calories than sugar, so many overcompensate by consuming too many additional calories to offset the expected calorie reduction. Additionally, regular consumption of artificial sweeteners might be linked with Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. That’s a good reason to consume such sweeteners in moderation.
2. Brown sugar
Brown sugar definitely sounds like a healthier choice than white sugar, right? That might be true if you’re talking about raw sugar. But the brown sugar you buy at the grocery store is just white sugar with molasses added. Brown sugar and white sugar have approximately the same amount of calories per serving. And it’s a well-known fact that excessive sugar intake can lead to weight gain. Is brown sugar any worse than white sugar if you’re hoping to lose weight? Probably not. But it’s also not any better. So don’t deceive yourself and think brown sugar is a healthier alternative to white.
3. Coconut oil
Coconut oil sounds like a great ingredient to have on hand if you want to make healthier choices when you’re cooking or baking. But you might want to reconsider. The Mayo Clinic reports that coconut oil has a lot of medium-chain fatty acids, which don’t seem to be stored in adipose tissue as readily as long-chain fatty acids.
But coconut oil is still high in calories and saturated fat. (A single tablespoon contains 13.6 grams of fat and 117 calories.) Coconut oil has more saturated fat than lard. As the clinic explains, “Consuming too much will give you extra calories — and that can signal to your body that it’s time to store more fat. Even if the stored fat doesn’t come directly from the coconut oil, high doses of coconut oil could still indirectly contribute to the very problem you are trying to address.”
4. Gluten-free foods
Many people avoid gluten. But most don’t have a good reason to do so. In fact, going gluten-free without a medically sound reason is a dieting choice that no doctor would recommend. Whole grains don’t make us fat — but gluten-free foods can.
Everyday Health notes weight gain is a common side effect of a gluten-free diet for people with celiac disease. But that’s not only true for people with celiac (or a non-celiac gluten sensitivity). The Cleveland Clinic says gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. “Grocery and health food stores are full of gluten-free cakes, cookies, and sweet treats. These foods often are high in sugar and fat, making them dense with calories,” according to Cleveland Clinic.
Butter or margarine? That’s an age-old question. But there’s a much more straightforward answer than you might think. Harvard Medical School notes that butter, which has high levels of saturated fat, has been linked to increased heart disease risk. So you should eat margarine instead, right? Wrong — at least sometimes.
Many kinds of margarine are high in trans fats, which raise levels of bad cholesterol and lower levels of good cholesterol. “The older stick margarines that are still widely sold are high in trans fats and are worse for you than butter,” according to Harvard Medical School. You should use both butter and margarine sparingly. And if you’re using margarine, look for kinds that are low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated fat, and completely free of trans fats.
Nuts are constantly touted as a healthy snack. And they sound like they’d be a much better choice than, say, chocolate if you’re baking, right? Not necessarily. SF Gate notes that nuts are high in calories — and high-calorie diets often lead to weight gain. Eating nuts, specifically, doesn’t increase your risk for weight gain. But overindulging in nuts is deceptively easy.
Nuts are rich in protein, which can increase your calorie expenditure. And they also increase your feeling of fullness after eating a meal. You just need to be careful you aren’t eating too many nuts and setting yourself up to pack on the pounds.
There are tons of ways to cook potatoes. And you might assume you’re out of the woods if you skip the french fries and decide to roast, boil, or bake your potatoes instead. Not so fast. According to a 2011 study by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, one of the foods most strongly associated with weight gain is potatoes. The only food the researchers found was more strongly associated with weight gain than plain old potatoes? Potato chips.
8. Processed meats
Another ingredient the researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School found was associated with weight gain? Processed meats. (What are processed meats again? They’re simply meats that have been salted, cured, fermented, smoked, or otherwise modified to extend their shelf life.) Processed meats include kitchen staples, such as bacon, ham, salami, and sausage. They not only lead to weight gain, but are also linked to colorectal cancer and stomach cancer.
9. Skim milk
It might seem smart to opt for skim milk instead of whole milk or 2% if you’re trying to lose weight or maintain your current weight. But research indicates that assumption might be wrong. As Time reported in 2016, researchers “found that people who had higher levels of three different byproducts of full-fat dairy had, on average, a 46% lower risk of getting diabetes during the study period than those with lower levels.”
Another study, according to Time, found that “those who consumed the most high-fat dairy products lowered their risk of being overweight of obese by 8%.” The moral of the story? People tend to replace high-fat dairy products with sugar and carbohydrates. That can cause the weight gain you thought you’d prevent by switching to skim milk.
10. Soft drinks
Wait a minute, you might be thinking. Soft drinks aren’t really an ingredient, are they? Plenty of people drink sugary sodas on their own. But they’re also popular ingredients in some mixed drinks and punches — and it’s time to put down the Jack and Coke. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School wrote in a 2013 study that sugar-sweetened beverages promote weight gain in both children and adults. A 2010 study by some of the same researchers indicated that frequent consumption of such beverages is associated with the development of metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes.
11. Unprocessed red meats
Think you’re safe if you opt for unprocessed red meat instead of processed meats? Not necessarily. The same 2011 study that found a correlation between potato intake and weight gain also pointed a finger at unprocessed red meats. Other studies have shown meat consumption is linked to weight gain because of its high energy and fat content. So it makes sense to keep your intake of beef and pork to a minimum if you’re trying to shed a few pounds.
12. White bread
White bread might seem like an innocuous choice if you’re building a healthy sandwich with greens and lean meats. But a 2014 study found white bread consumption is correlated with a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese. Livestrong notes that white bread doesn’t have a ton of calories. But it can cause weight gain by “spurring cravings, causing you to consume more calories throughout the day.” That’s because refined grains are all starch. “Your body absorbs starchy foods relatively quickly, leading to a rapid rise in blood sugar,” according to Livestrong. “Blood-sugar levels soon crash, causing cravings — often for more refined carbohydrates, perpetuating the cycle.”