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8 Surprising Foods That Make You Gain Weight

French fries and pizza aren’t the only dishes that can cause you to pack on the pounds

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Have you ever found yourself staring longingly at a piece of fried chicken but then thinking, If I eat this, it’s going straight to my belly and thighs?

You’re not entirely wrong. Eating too much of any type of food — whether carbohydrates, fat or protein — can make you gain weight. But while your body uses mostly carbs and protein for energy, foods that are high in saturated fat, like that fried chicken, make a beeline for your adipose (fat) tissue.

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“Unless you need that fat right now in this moment, it’s going to get stored,” says Melanie Murphy Richter, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian. “It is true that excess fat has a direct line to your belly, and to other places where you hold fat in your adipose tissue.”

It’s no surprise that certain foods are notorious for making us gain weight (we’re looking at you, burgers, french fries and milkshakes). Other foods seem healthy, until the scale tells us otherwise.

Have you fallen into any of these food traps? Here are eight foods with hidden calories, sugars and fats.

1. Fat-free or low-fat cookies and muffins

Something labeled fat-free or low-fat certainly can’t make you gain weight! That’s what food manufacturers would like you to believe.

Back in the 1950s, the average American diet was heavy on meat and potatoes. As heart disease rates soared, researchers began connecting the dots between a diet high in saturated fat and heart disease.

Food manufacturers responded by producing lots of low-fat foods. “The problem is that fat is what makes food taste good,” says Richter. What did food companies replace the fat with? Sugar. Eventually, your body turns the excess sugar you can’t use for energy into fat. Thanks in part to packaged foods, American adults now eat an average of 17 teaspoons of sugar a day, which is more than two to three times the 9 teaspoons a day for men and 6 teaspoons daily for women that the American Heart Association recommends.

While your total calories matter, “avoiding simple sugars is most important to prevent weight gain,” says Felix Spiegel, M.D., a bariatric surgeon with Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston, Texas. Researchers point to sugar as a major contributor to obesity. It’s also been linked to other health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer, says Richter.

2. Yogurt

Even if it’s labeled “fat-free,” yogurt is a sneaky source of added sugar. A 6-ounce container of chocolate nonfat yogurt contains 25 grams of sugar — more than an entire day’s worth for women. This doesn’t mean yogurt is unhealthy. Not only does it have protein and calcium, many yogurts have bacteria that are great for your gut health.

So rather than eat flavored yogurts that are packed with sugars, go for plain Greek yogurt and stir in fruit or a bit of honey. Yes, honey is a type of sugar as well, but it has numerous health benefits. Just don’t overdo it: One teaspoon of honey has about 6 grams of sugar.

3. White bagels

This breakfast staple, especially in the white or plain form, is just one example of a simple carbohydrate — foods our bodies digest quickly, sending a rush of sugar into our bloodstream. Muffins, cookies, white bread and cereal are other types of simple carbs.

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Why do these foods cause weight gain? “One is the calories. If you’re eating more calories, you’ll gain weight,” says Adam Goldstein, M.D., director of the University of North Carolina Weight Management Program in Chapel Hill. A large bagel packs more than 360 calories. Add a schmear of cream cheese at 100 calories, and you’ve already consumed nearly a quarter of your daily allotment if you’re on a 2,000-calorie diet. The second reason is the quick-digesting nature of simple carbs. You’ll get hungry again quickly after you eat them, and then you’ll want to eat more, says Goldstein. If you do need a bagel fix, look for one made from whole wheat or whole grains and consider having just half, with fresh fruit on the side.

4. Red meat

Before you order a side of bacon to accompany your eggs or dig into a T-bone steak, consider this: A study that followed the diet and exercise habits of more than 120,000 people for up to 20 years linked processed and red meat to one pound of weight gain every four years (in addition to weight gain from other foods). Meat is particularly problematic for putting on pounds because it contains protein and saturated fat, both of which promote weight gain.

That’s not the only bad news about meat. “Too much animal protein has also been scientifically linked to inflammation in the body, which can also cause weight gain,” Richter says. While the occasional lean steak or burger is probably OK to eat, meat should be a sideshow to your diet and not the main attraction, she adds.

5. Fried fish

Fish like salmon, tuna and shrimp are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, low in saturated fat and high in protein. This protein source is generally good for you; that is, until you dredge your fish in flour and fry it in hot oil. Deep frying adds calories and unhealthy fat, even when you do it as part of an otherwise healthy diet. So rather than fry fish, you can bake, broil or grill it to get the numerous health benefits.

6. Plant-based dairy foods

Avoiding dairy is fine, especially if you’re lactose-intolerant, but you need to use caution with plant-based substitutes like cashew, almond or coconut yogurt, ice cream and milk. “My patients are trying to make healthy swaps. They think they’re doing the right thing, but they’re just trading one evil for another,” Richter says.

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Because plant-based foods don’t have the same texture and flavor as dairy, manufacturers add sugar to compensate. Richter advises looking for the unsweetened versions of plant-based dairy products to cut down on added sugar.

7. Sodas and other sugary drinks

It might be easy to connect the contents of your plate with the higher numbers on your scale, but what’s in your glass also factors into your weight-loss struggles.

Regular sodas are loaded with sugar. So are premade coffee drinks. When you order your Starbucks coffee with extra cream and lots of sugar, “now it’s basically like a chocolate bar,” says Richter. Even diet soft drinks are linked to weight gain, possibly by making you crave more sugary, high-calorie foods.

Some drinks hide under the guise of healthfulness, like kombucha. It seems like a healthy beverage option — after all, it’s made with fermented tea. In reality, “it has a ton of added sugar in it,” says Richter. Many fruit and vegetable juice drinks also contain lots of sugar. If you are watching your weight, eat an orange or an apple instead of drinking orange or apple juice.  

Alcoholic drinks are double offenders, especially mixed drinks. A piña colada packs a whopping 245 calories and 31 grams of sugar. Alcohol also promotes inflammation, which contributes to weight gain.

8. Nuts, avocado and olive oil

These foods constitute a whole different type of fat — the mono- and polyunsaturated kinds that are rich in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties. They’re good for your health and therefore worthy of eating.

But because they’re high in calories per ounce, you’ll want to eat these healthy fats in moderation to avoid weight gain, says Spiegel. That means one tablespoon of peanut butter or a handful of nuts — not the whole jar.

Look at your whole diet

Eating a high-fat or sugary food once in a while isn’t going to lead to weight gain. It’s more about the quality of your diet as a whole, says Dr. Goldstein. “We don’t want people to restrict, thinking, I can’t have this,” he adds. “You can have almost anything you want, in moderation.”

Eating more of the foods that won’t make you gain weight, like nonstarchy vegetables and berries, will leave less room for foods higher in calories, saturated fat and added sugar. Remember that your diet should be not only healthy, but also sustainable. “That’s the real key,” says Goldstein. “Anyone can lose weight. The question is, can anyone keep weight off?"

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