Losing weight requires a mix of eating nutritious foods, cutting calories, and being physically active, but if your kitchen is stacked with diet-sabotaging junk foods, it makes it that much harder for you to shrink your waistline. Although the foods on this list seem innocuous, many of them have empty calories and slow down your metabolism, making it harder for you to lose weight. Check out our roundup of the worst foods for weight loss and be inspired to make better choices by clearing your pantry of these 100 Unhealthiest Foods!
Okay, so you probably already know that potato chips are fattening and can often hide dangerous levels of sodium, but what’s surprising is that out of all the foods that can cause you to gain weight—soda, junk food, ice cream—the potato chip is the worst offender. According to a Harvard study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, potato chips are the food most strongly associated with weight gain over four years.
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The second food Harvard researchers found to cause the most weight gain? Potatoes. And more specifically, french fries, which were associated with an additional 3.35 pounds of weight gain. According to Walter C. Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and author of Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating, “the venerable baked potato increases levels of blood sugar and insulin more quickly and to higher levels than an equal amount of calories from pure table sugar.” Patrick J. Skerrett, co-author of the book and former editor of the Harvard Health blog, adds, “french fries do the same thing, but with an added blast of fat.”
Not only are french fries extremely caloric—a large serving of McDonald’s french fries is 510 calories—but they’re also made through a dangerous process. French fries are deep-fried and highly processed. Deep-frying carbohydrates has been shown to yield a dangerous, carcinogenic chemical compound called acrylamide, which is associated with abdominal obesity.
Fatty Red Meat
Continuing on with another of the top weight-gain-inducing foods from The New England Journal of Medicine study is red meat. The China Health and Nutrition Survey of over 16,000 participants shows that what distinguishes between meat that causes abdominal weight gain and meat that keeps your metabolism moving is how visibly fatty the cut is. So, when you’re trying to lose weight, avoid those fatty ground beef blends of 70% lean 30% fat.
Eating bacon, sausage, and hot dogs may be putting your life at risk. The same Harvard researchers associated processed meat consumption with an additional 0.93 pounds of weight gain over a 4-year period. Weight gain isn’t the only reason you should cut back on your processed meat consumption. The food has also been associated with an increased risk of diabetes, cancer, and hypertension.
Sodium is a big culprit here, not to mention the sugar…and calories…and fat…and everything else. These sweet treats are often oversized and come at the end of a decadent dinner out already, so they can add on almost a thousand extra calories (or more!) to an already over-the-top meal. Eating out at restaurants can be viewed as a treat, and if it’s dessert you’re really there for (say, the place is known for their 7-layer chocolate cake), a better way to balance your meal is to pick your dessert first. A new study found that choosing your dessert first can actually help you eat less calories overall! To balance the meal, adjust your main meal to be healthier (opting for grilled fish instead of fried fish, for example, or choosing a side salad instead of French fries), and then share the dessert you really want with a partner.
Relax, we’re not telling you can’t enjoy the occasional glass of wine or beer, but it’s no secret that overdoing it on the booze can dampen your weight-loss goals and pose risks to your health. Consuming alcohol has actually been shown to trick your body into eating more, too. In fact, the University of Liverpool found that as few as two drinks can significantly increase the amount of food we consume because it alters our perception of food and enhances how delicious they seem. Another report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that drinking alcohol can cause people to eat an extra 384 calories a day. So if you want to imbibe, be sure to take sips of water in between alcoholic drinks and try to avoid sugary cocktails.
Sugary, Refined Cereals
Sweet squares and fruity puffs do nothing to keep you healthy or shrink your waist, and many cereals pack more calorie-dense sugar into one bowl than you’ll find in a Boston Kreme Donut! Switch to something more filling if you want to lose weight, like overnight oats. According to a study in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, having oatmeal for breakfast results in greater fullness, less hunger, and fewer calories eaten at lunch compared to a serving of corn flakes, even though the calories for the two breakfasts are the same.
Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Like Soda
Many sodas are laced with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). According to researchers at Princeton University, HFCS can cause as much weight gain as regular table sugar. In an animal study, 100 percent of the rats who consumed HFCS became obese, a result not seen in other diet experiments. The study also found that rats who consumed other forms of sugar gained less weight than those who were fed HFCS, even when their overall caloric intake was the same. Swap soda for water, smoothies, tea, or coffee. For some hydration inspiration, check out the detox waters for weight loss!
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Read: Low-calorie doesn’t necessarily mean low sugar. Most diet sodas use artificial sweeteners that give your body the same reaction to refined sugar. Artificial sweeteners have been linked to excessive long-term weight gain; a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that people who drank diet soda regularly had nearly three times the amount of belly fat over a 9-year period compared to those who didn’t drink diet soda. Researchers believe that drinking these no-calorie sweeteners confuses our bodies by making us expect calories that aren’t there. The result is what they call “metabolic derangements” like poor insulin response and elevated glucose levels, which can lead to fat storage and a host of illnesses like metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Eating highly-refined, white bread should be avoided at all cost while you’re working to lose belly fat. Studies show that eating whole grains can lower visceral fat deposits in your belly, while eating refined grains leads to more. Try revamping your favorite recipes with whole wheat flour or almond flour for food that won’t sabotage your waistline.
You can’t eat chocolate and expect to lose belly fat, right? Wrong! Dark chocolate has a whole host of benefits that actually aid in weight loss. Milk chocolate, on the other hand, is a common culprit for our expanding waistlines, with sky-high calorie counts and heaps of sugar contributing to visceral fat growth. Considering that an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that the food that was associated with the highest energy density, and thus the most with weight gain, was chocolate bars, it’s probably best to leave these out of your weight loss diet.
If you’re a sucker for a packaged, salty kick, chances are that’s part of the reason why you might be struggling to lose weight. And it’s not just because salty foods are contributing to water weight. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition discovered that salt actually confuses the biological processes that tell you when you’re full.
“Our body has biological mechanisms to tell us when to stop eating, and fat activates those mechanisms in people who are sensitive to the taste of fat,” lead author Russell Keast said in a statement. “However, when salt is added to the food, those mechanisms are blunted and people end up eating more food. This can cause you to eat more fatty foods, and over time, your body adapts or becomes less sensitive to fat, leading you to eat more to get the same feelings of fullness.”
Not all soups are created equal. Especially those that are cream-based and those straight out of a can. Cream-based soups are much higher in calories and fat. And canned soups are processed goods that sneak in sodium, which causes belly bloat as well as can increase your appetite and dampen your ability to sense when you’re full, which isn’t helpful when you want to lose weight.
Famous syrup brands like Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth are made with two ingredients you should always avoid: health-harming, gut-expanding high fructose corn syrup and caramel coloring. High fructose corn syrup is an ingredient that has been directly linked with abdominal obesity, overall weight gain, impaired insulin sensitivity, and the drive to overeat. If you want to lose weight, stick with 100% pure maple syrup in moderation.
“Although juicing and juice cleanses are highly popular right now, the process used to make juice strips the most filling nutrient – fiber – from the sugary liquid,” explains Janel Funk, MS, RD, LDN. “This leaves you with a calorie-containing beverage that spikes your blood sugar, leading to a crash that leaves you hungrier,” which won’t help you with weight loss. “Studies have shown that our bodies aren’t any more satiated with the calories in juice as opposed to those from food, so stick with water for thirst and hydration and eat whole fruits and vegetables with their fiber intact,” Funk suggests.
“Traditional granola bars are often made of just sugar and hydrogenated oils and are void of protein (the stuff that fills you up),” shares Lisa Hayim, registered dietitian and founder of The Well Necessities. “They are often lower in calories than a traditional meal and do not serve as a meal replacement. The flavor is just enough to whet your appetite, but leaves you far from satiated.” Instead, if you want to lose weight, swap your granola bar out for one of the best protein bars for weight loss.
Your muffin top is aptly named: A typical blueberry muffin carries nearly 400 calories and a third of the day’s fat. Plus, many commercial muffins are also spiked with waist-widening soybean oil and trans fats, an ingredient that’s been shown to increase your risk of heart disease. Worst of all, muffins are “made almost completely of sugar,” offers Hayim. “This sugar is rapidly digested and absorbed, leaving your body starved for more.” Skipping the pastry case at Starbucks is a no-brainer if you want to lose weight.
Bagels and Croissants
“Although both of these options appear to be nice in size and satisfying, they are made up of white sugar and flour. They have [barely any] fiber or nutrients,” says Hayim. “As a result, your blood sugar leaps high and then comes crashing down, causing you to feel hungrier than before you started these treats.” And when you’re always hungry, you’re not going to get any closer to your weight loss goals.
“It’s no surprise doughnuts are made almost completely out of sugar,” says Julieanna Hever, MS, RD, CPT, a plant-based dietitian and author of The Vegiterranean Diet and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition. “Doughnuts break down into simple sugars [in the body] quickly, causing the body to release more insulin. When there is a lot of insulin, too much of the sugar enters your [fat] cells, leaving none for your blood. The result is actually a low blood sugar that makes you feel hungry shortly after consumption.”
Drive-Thru Fast Foods
Keep on driving right along if you want to lose weight. “These highly-processed foods are filled with things like preservatives, trans fats, HFCS, and salt. The reason you should care about this is because preservatives and trans fats interrupt our stomach’s ability to communicate with our brain,” explains Rebecca Lewis, RD for HelloFresh. “Satiety related hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain aren’t produced, and therefore, the brain loses its ability to recognize that we are full, so we just keep eating more.”
Refined sugar in its many forms is a major contributor to belly fat, and unfortunately, we as Americans treat it as a diet staple. While the World Health Organization recommends that we limit our sugar consumption to no more than ten percent of our total calories, researchers at UCSF point out that the average American eats three times more added sugar than the recommended daily limit. Fortunately, with increased labeling for added sugars on products, it’s easy to spot the sugar sneaking into everything from oatmeal to pasta sauce.
Just because bottled smoothies are made of fruit doesn’t make them good for you or your waistline. Many of them contain a staggeringly high sugar content—some with as much as 52 grams of sugar per bottle! Instead, opt to make your own smoothies at home, using ingredients that will jumpstart your metabolism and turn on your fat-fighting genes.
Dried fruit may seem like a responsible snack choice, but most dried fruits are sweetened and contain an average of 16 grams of sugar per ounce. This adds up quickly, especially since it flies under the radar as a “healthy” food, making it easier to eat by the handful.
Whole grain pasta, especially in moderation, can be a healthy component of your pound-dropping scheme, but refined white pasta heads straight for your midsection with a vengeance. There are two main reasons: first, refined pasta has had most of its nutrients and fiber removed, and your body processes it as it would any sugar, sending fat stores to your belly. Second, people tend to eat pasta with store-bought sauces, which are packed with additional sugar and sodium, contributing to your ever-expanding waistline.
The “beer belly” is a commonly known enemy, and indeed, studies show that drinking beer is associated with higher BMI and a larger waist circumference. But this may not be because of any magical properties that are specific to beer over other types of alcohol, besides its high calorie and carb content. In addition to the hundreds of calories having a beer or two a day can add to your diet, beer drinkers may also simply make less healthy food choices overall, adding to their expanding waistlines.
Large Coffee Drinks
While coffee actually has benefits when it comes to losing belly fat, most frozen coffee drinks are your waistline’s enemy. Some of these dairy- and sugar-heavy options from your regular coffee chain can run you as much as 600 calories per drink, or more, if you opt for the dollop of whipped cream on top! According to a 2017 study published in the journal Public Health, researchers found that nearly 70 percent of coffee consumers drink coffee with caloric add-ins (including sugar and creamers); out of those people, close to 16 percent of their daily caloric intake came from sipping on their coffee concoction. That 16 percent translates to an additional 70 calories a day that will stifle your weight loss efforts.
Cookies, like America’s favorite Oreos, are stuffed with double trouble. Not only are Oreos filled with palm oil, a fat that promotes fat-causing inflammation, they’re more addictive than both cocaine and morphine, according to a 2013 animal study. A separate study found that among all the foods out there, cookies were one of the most difficult to eat in moderation.
Once we became aware of the artery-clogging ill effects of trans fats, manufacturers switched to injecting their products with vegetable oils such as soy, corn, sunflower, safflower, or palm oil—which wasn’t much better. That’s because these vegetable oils have a high concentration of the inflammatory fat, omega-6, and are low in the anti-inflammatory fat, omega-3. In fact, Americans are eating so many vegetable-oil-laden products that the average person has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of around 20:1 when it should be 1:1. Inflammation has been connected to obesity, so inflammatory foods like soybean oil won’t do you any favors if you want to lose weight.
We may have just absolved saturated fats of their connection to heart disease, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods just yet. That’s because multiple studies have connected saturated fats with triggering white adipose tissue (fat tissue) inflammation. This white tissue is the type of fat that stores energy, rather than burns energy like brown fat cells do. And as your fat cells get bigger with greater intakes of saturated fats, they actually release pro-inflammatory agents that promote systemic inflammation and weight gain, according to a review in the journal Expert Review of Cardiovascular Therapy. According to the USDA, burgers are one of the top sources of saturated fat in the American diet along with sandwiches, contributing 19 percent of your total saturated fat consumption.
It’s no secret that pizza isn’t exactly a “diet food.” It’s high in calories, saturated fat, sodium, and refined carbohydrates, all of which contribute to increases in belly fat. Plus, Pizza is right below burgers and sandwiches for its saturated fat contribution in Americans’ diets. Pizza makes up 6 percent of your total saturated fat consumption as a percentage of calories per day. And since saturated fat consumption is tied with inflammation, it also means its likely to stifle your weight loss effots.
Whether you’re craving a burger or a steak, make sure to go for at least antibiotic-free meat, but even better is grass-fed. Grass-fed beef is the most nutritious meat option because many feeds for farm-raised cows have hormones and antibiotics that can be harmful to your health. In fact, a 2013 study in the journal Frontiers in Public Health found that antibiotics in beef can have a harmful effect on good gut bacteria. The imbalance of good and bad bacteria correlates to weight gain because it alters the way you process food.
Restaurant Foods With Trans Fats
Many restaurant and street foods use partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated vegetable oils, and they’re no friend to your waistline. “Trans fats cause inflammation in the body leading to insulin resistance and impairing the body’s ability to use glucose properly. This results in excess fat storage around the belly,” says Tina Marinaccio, MS, RD, CPT.
Speaking of processed meats, deli meats are on the “don’t eat for weight loss” list because they’re loaded with sodium and chemicals that have been linked to obesity and chronic diseases. “While the link between meat and chronic disease is fairly tenuous, the connection between processed meats and chronic disease risk is strong and consistent,” says David L. Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. “If you eat meat, it should be pure — like you want your own muscles to be. If you eat the highly processed, adulterated meats, they may pay it forward to the meat on your own bones,” Dr. Katz says. If that’s not enough to convince you to drop the Oscar Mayer, consider this review in the journal Nutrition and Cancer that established a link between processed meat and colorectal cancer.
Tea contains antioxidants like epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), catechins, and polyphenols, which have been found to help boost metabolism, block the formation of new fat cells, fend off disease, and even minimize cell damage, aging, and risk of stroke. But don’t let these facts trick you into believing that all teas are created equal; that couldn’t be any further from the truth. Not only do restaurants and coffee chains serve brews that have a fraction of the antioxidants as the kind you would brew at home, they’re also usually injected with more sugar than you’d find in a Halloween candy stash. So, essentially what you’re left with is a cup of sugar water with very few—if any—health benefits. Skip the stuff your local Dunkin’ or Applebee’s is serving up and enjoy a potent cup of detox tea at home instead.
“Granola can be a nice additive to your morning yogurt or cereal, but some kinds can be loaded with fat and added sugars and add up to 220 or more calories per 1/4 cup,” shares Jim White, RD, ACSM, and owner of Jim White Fitness Nutrition Studios. “Try a low-sugar kind or make your own homemade granola where you can put in the ingredients you want,” he suggests.
Pancakes and Waffles
White flour, salt, sugar, butter, eggs, milk. There are too many low-nutrient-density ingredients (and not nearly enough of the eggs and milk) to make pancakes anything other than big ol’ disks of empty calories. Adding chocolate chips, syrup, or more butter definitely won’t help.
Did we just crush your dreams of fried chicken and waffles? Well, if you want to lose weight, it might be worth giving up for right now. A big issue with deep-fried foods like fried chicken is that they contain high levels of inflammatory advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These are compounds that form when products are cooked at high temperatures, pasteurized, dried, smoked, fried, or grilled. Researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine found that when people cut out processed and fried foods that have high levels of AGEs, markers of inflammation in their body diminished.
All pastries are sugar and carb landmines, but cinnamon rolls may be the very worst of the lot. Consider this: A Classic Roll from Cinnabon has 880 calories, 127 grams of carbs and 58 grams of sugar—which is about what you’d find in 10 Chips Ahoy! Chewy cookies. There are so many better ways to kick off your morning.
We know that baking a pie isn’t easy—but tread carefully in the land of lattices and crumble tops. Baked desserts one of the most potent sources of trans-fat in the American diet. One 14 year study of 80,000 women found a positive correlation between heart disease and the consumption of foods containing trans fatty acids so stay away at all costs—your ticker and waistline will thank you!
The fact is that ice cream must have 10 percent milk fat for it to even be called ice cream; some varieties having as much as 16 percent. Not only is ice cream extrememly energy dense due to high levels of fat, it’s also high in sugar, which makes up the majority of its carbohydrate content. Even an “innocent” cup of vanilla ice cream still packs 267 calories, 32 grams of carbohydrates and 14 grams of fat. You’ll get a small dose of calcium but ice cream is never worth the calories for a daily weight loss diet unless it’s a once-in-a-blue-moon treat for your taste buds.
While Greek yogurt boasts plenty of satiating protein and gut-healthy probiotics, the traditional stuff is usually loaded with sugar and devoid of hunger-busting macronutrients that can help you lose weight. A study in the journal Appetite compared the satiety effects of high-, moderate- and low-protein yogurts on 24 to 28-year-old women and found that Greek yogurt had the greatest effect. Simply put, those who ate Greek yogurt felt less hungry throughout the day and were healthier for it. If you’re want to add some flavor, fiber, and texture to your Greek yogurt, toss in some fiber-rich fruit, chia or hemp seeds, and nuts.
Those packets of Equal or Sweet ‘N Low might be small, but they can lead to big weight gain and even more sweet cravings. A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that large amounts of artificial sweetener consumption are linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
If your pantry is lined with buttery, flour-based crackers (like Ritz crackers), don’t expect your waistline to decrease. That’s because these crackers are devoid of satiating, heart-healthy fiber that your body needs to work to break down, which results in spiked blood sugar and soon-after feelings of hunger. Refined grains are stripped of valuable nutrients in the refining process and takes little time for your body to digest. In fact, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that substituting whole grains for refined grains increases calorie loss by retaining calories during digestion and speeding up metabolism. So if you’re on a quest to shed a few pounds, ditch the Ritz and stock up on whole grain flax crackers.
Two tablespoons of regular cream cheese have 100 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 6 grams of saturated fat. What do you get nutritionally for all that? Not much. Cream cheese doesn’t provide a significant amount of any good-for-you nutrients; even its calcium count is lame. Plus, the fact that you mostly use cream cheese on bagels (another worst food for weight loss) is even more of an excuse to leave this out of your diet when you want to shed pounds.
Just two tablespoons of barbecue sauce have 100 calories, between 10 and 16 grams of sugar, and 22 grams of carbohydrates. That’s enough to turn a piece of grilled chicken into a delivery car of empty calories. Pass on this sugary treat if you’re trying to lose weight.
The onion ring is a great example of how everything that’s good about a vegetable can be expunged. Some say they’re even worse than French fries because onion rings have more calories, more saturated fat, more sugar, and less potassium.
This classic party food doesn’t contain a long list of ingredients, but none of those ingredients contain a high dose of nutrients. “Generally speaking, for most crackers and chips, much of the nutritional value of the grain has been removed during processing—especially when these foods are white rather than whole-wheat because the husk and outer layers of the grain have been removed. They aren’t necessarily bad but they just don’t offer much with respect to nutrients,” says Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition.
These trendy beverages are, in reality, overpriced chemical cocktails with more caffeine than coffee. They’re also often loaded with sugar and other harmful additives. Give your energy levels a boost naturally by drinking black coffee, tea, or a homemade smoothie.
Coffee can help boost your metabolism, but diluting your cup of joe with coffee creams doesn’t. These popular java companions pack empty calories and have artificial sweeteners and flavors. Even if you put just a tablespoon of coffee creamer into your morning pick-me-up each day, the sugar and calories add up. In fact, a Korean study in the journal Nutrients found that people who use sugar and creamer with their coffee have a significantly higher risk of being overweight or obese than people who take their coffee black.
Further evidence that not everything made with fruit is healthy, these classic spreads are just pieces of fruit simmered in calorie-laden sugar and devoid of satiating fiber. Add whole slices of fruit to your next slice of peanut butter toast for some nutrient-dense toppings.