The Myth That Healthy Foods Automatically Causes Weight Loss

Although there are some people that blog and lose weight using a set program like NutriSystem or Jenny Craig, it seems that the majority of folks I read lose weight, or have lost weight, using foods they prepare themselves.

I love the fact that I see so many bloggers and friends I know striving to make healthy choices. I see delicious vegetables, tempting salads, fabulous healthy main dishes, and little tastes of desserts now and then.

I also notice that some of you who are eating mainly healthy foods seem to be having trouble getting that scale to move on down.

There is a temptation in weight loss world to automatically apply this equation to weight loss.

Eating healthy = Losing weight

In my opinion, for what it is worth, I believe that equation is a myth.

Simply eating healthy, less processed foods, will not automatically lead to weight loss. Why? Because it is absolutely possible to eat too many calories from healthy foods. And if you are trying to lose a few pounds, or even maintain your weight, too many calories, whether from healthy or unhealthy foods, can frustrate your weight management efforts.

The Magic of Portions

Foods that are unprocessed or lightly processed definitely have a positive effect on your health and are better for your body than foods with a ton of sodium, added sugars, and the chemicals that make up so many processed foods. However, as you read labels and make healthy choices, it’s vital that you not forget one thing.

Portion control. These two words have been one of the keys to me maintaining my weight for all these years. I always pay attention to portion sizes, whether I’m having a fancy salad, a grilled chicken entree, and especially desserts or other calorie dense food. It is very easy for me to overeat any food, but while most of us know that eating huge desserts can frustrate our weight management efforts, it is easy to forget that we need to be aware of portion sizes with all the foods we eat.

Now granted it would take a lot of salad to throw off your calories for the day, but it wouldn’t take a lot of extra whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, nuts, low-fat cheese, oils, Greek yogurt, dried fruits, hummus, or other such calorie dense healthy food.

I’ve been out to dinner with friends who point out that they are going to have one of the “healthier “entrees from the menu. But oftentimes, the healthy entree is still way too large in terms of portions. I am always interested to see what they will do. Most of the time they eat the entire thing because it is healthy. I’ve seen it happen not only in restaurants, but in my own house. We will have someone over for dinner and I’ll make a healthy meal as usual. Even if my friend is trying to lose weight she will load up her plate and eat it all.

It’s almost like a healthy food trap waiting to happen. Healthy food still has calories, and I believe it is important to remember to apply portion control to all the foods we eat to ensure we are not only getting the right balance of calories and nutrients, but also to help meet our weight management goals.

As you walk your journey, you may find your weight loss stalling or see the scale creeping up. If this is your place right now, the first thing I’d look at is your portion sizes. It is so easy to let a few larger servings of healthy or unhealthy foods into our diets, and those 200 or 300 calories a day can make a difference in our weight over time.

Do you think there is the assumption that healthy foods always equal weight loss? Do you have to watch your portion sizes?  Diane

28 thoughts on “The Myth That Healthy Foods Automatically Causes Weight Loss

  1. Mannie says:

    This is so true. Also I’ve read a few weight loss bloggers who say “I’m eating healthy, why aren’t I losing weight?”. The reality is that if you want to lose weight, you’re going to be hungry for at least some of the day. Protein can offset that, of course, and if you’re trying a low carb diet, you may feel even less hunger.

    The opposite can occur, the perfect example is the McDonalds diet (Google Soso Whaley) and Twinkie diet (Mark Haub) who ate “unhealthy” food and lost weight.

    Weight loss is a learning process. If you’ve lost weight you probably didn’t suddenly start off perfectly and continued that way to goal. You lost a bit then gained then figured out what you were doing wrong then continued losing. I’m hoping that these people who aren’t losing are at the start of their losing process.

  2. Susan says:

    Yep I really do have to watch portion sizes plus keep track of calories daily if I want to maintain my weight loss. It never gets easier or goes away I have to stay vigilant. I keep a hand written food diary and add up the calories and check the % of fat, protein, carbs if I am trying to shed a few pounds due to weight creeping up.

  3. Sheri ~ The Motivational Girl says:

    Amen!!! I fell into that trap for 2 years! As you know I lost my weight with Nutrisystem, and I am losing the 12 pounds I gained on Maintenance with it. What it teaches me that I completely forgot is portion control! Oh my gosh, you should see the dinner plate they give you. Might be the length of my hand. 😉

    I love healthy food, and I love the experience I am learning. Now when I am back to where I want to be I have to remember it! Excellent article as usual!

  4. Emergefit says:

    I have always suggested to weight-loss clients that the two most important words in their new lives are “portion control”. Without a supreme commitment to this mind-set, weight-loss is simply a fantasy.

  5. KarenJ says:

    Yes Diane, you really hit the nail on the head! In October, 2010, I went to see a nutritionist because I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t losing weight. He put me on a gluten free, dairy free, low-glycemic diet and I lost 18 pounds over the course of the next two years. The only thing was, I really needed to lose more and the scale just stuck (I had stopped seeing the nutritionist by this time because I felt I knew what kind of diet I needed to eat). Then, the scale started inching upwards. I met these people who had been on the Take Shape for Life program (Medifast) and went on that program at the end of July. I have lost 10 1/2 pounds so far with just a few to go. The reason was not so much the program itself, but he portion control. I cut my calories by about 400 a day and started losing weight again. That old adage that says you have to eat at least 1200 calories a day is bunk! There are some people, and I happen to be one of them, that MAINTAIN at 1200 calories a day! Unfortunate for me to be a small person post menopause. My body just doesn’t need that many calories. I’ve had to relearn how to eat again choosing satisfying, highly nutritious foods with lower calorie counts. It’s important to eat healthy but it’s also important to realize that you will not lose weight if you don’t create a calorie deficit.

  6. Jody - Fit at 54 says:

    I AM WITH YOU!!!! I do portion control! You can always gain weight if you eat too much of any food.. more than you burn off… yu can’t out train a bad diet & same with just too much food in general….

  7. Marc says:

    Interesting post Diane:) I’ve never heard an obese person say, “I’m fat because of too much broccoli.” I love broccoli. I usually eat it at least 4 times per week, and have 2 to 3 servings with a meal. But it wasn’t the broccoli that made me fat. It was all the other calories from high carb foods combined with all the butt in chair time. I say portion control applies to starchy foods like potatoes, corn, breads, any creams or milk, sugars, meats and fruits. Vegetables like broccoli, celery, cabbage, brussel spouts, cauliflower are rich in nutrients and high in fiber. They should be all you can eat foods. I can’t believe that over consumption of these leads to obesity.

  8. Babbalou says:

    There have been many times when I’ve looked at photos of meals eaten on a weightloss blog or read comments by dieters and though, “Wow! Eating like that is exactly how I GAINED weight, good luck if you can lose eating like that!” And sometimes it turns out their experience is the same as mine, and all the healthy meals they’re eating do result in weight gain. For me it’s carbs that must be controlled and result in weight gain. There are a lot of folks who believe going vegetarian will automatically result in weight loss, but I struggle with portion control with rice and beans types of foods and so I gain. And I do well on low carb, with unlimited meat and cream permitted, because I rarely want to eat more than 3-5 ounces of meat or fish at a meal and dislike food that tastes “greasy” so don’t like much cream, except a bit in my coffee. I absolutely believe that portion control matters, although I don’t worry about portion sizes with non-starchy vegetables. I think the more green salad, spinach, celery, etc. I eat the less room I have for the more caloric foods. Eating primarily vegetables, even if you add a little olive oil to roast them in or as part of a dressing in a salad for me results in weight loss or maintenance, depending on the quantity of other foods I eat. And I do have to limit the amount of fruit I eat, I’m wondering how the unlimited fruit allowed on Weight Watchers is working for people like me who find blood sugar levels affect their ability to lose weight.

  9. vickie says:

    very good post, very good point.

    Eating portions, eating at meal time, keeping my percentages in line continue to be key points for me in maintenance.

    The programs which provide a list of FREE FOODS are not helping people’s long term life style. In my opinion, we need to be accountable for every bite that goes in our mouth to loose and then maintain long term. This does not mean we have to track, but it does mean we have to have some system for keeping total/balance.

  10. Alice says:

    I think it is a huge change to lifestyle to implement portion control. Every relationship with food must be altered. The size of foods purchased, prepared, presented, stored, and eaten all matter. The serving utensils, plates, pots, pans, glasses, cups need to be considered. Even appliances are over-sized. I recently bought some collector glasses from the 60’s – they are 8 oz. tumblers, the normal size for a drink 40 years ago! I remember the Mrs Piggly-Wiggly story where she used successfully smaller plates to reduce portions.

  11. Taryl says:

    I do have to watch it on portions to actually lose weight wit any significant speed, though logging my calories effectively does the same thing. Total calorie amount, even with healthy food, is a more reliable litmus for me than portions, especially with energy dense foods. But whether it is exchange plans/portions, calorie counting, or nutrient control like low carb diets, they all achieve the same end of reducing consumption to lose weight. Some use slightly different mechanisms to do that, but there must be an energy deficit present.

    Healthy food alone doesn’t create that deficit, it takes some restriction of quantity, too!

  12. Siobhan says:

    Totally agree that portion control is important. What I’ve found is that there are some healthy foods … primarily bread products, starchy vegetables, and fruit … that make it difficult for me to only eat the one serving. Whereas with non–starchy vegetables and protein there seems to be for me a built-in portion control. In other words, I’m satisfied with a normal serving of protein and vegetables whereas I’m seldom satisfied with a normal serving of some fruits, starchy vegetables (like potatoes … I could easily eat a huge baking potato all by myself and still be hungry for more) and all breads/cakes/cookies.

  13. Pamela says:

    I’ve always been a believer that it’s a combination of appropriate food and right amount of exercise everyday that will make you lose weight. It’s not enough that we eat healthy food, we should also strengthen our muscles by exercising and weeding out those fats inside.

    -Pamela

  14. Joe says:

    Eating healthier food options are just one part of the equation. Throw that variable in with calories consumed, exercise, and rest and you are showing a more complete equation for weight loss.

  15. Sarah says:

    Very true. When I gained weight I was eating fairly healthy dinners – chicken, pasta, vegetables – but my portion size was way too big.

    Eating healthy foods can make you feel fuller for longer than unhealthy foods but overdoing any food can lead to weight gain.

    When I started weighing my pasta and rice it was quite a revelation as to what was considered a portion compared to what I had been eating.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    So true! Portion size and measuring is something I need to be more aware of all the time. Tracking calories has helped me keep portion size in mind when eating a meal.

  17. blackhuff says:

    I know that healthy eating can result in weight loss but weight loss can’t be successful on it’s own. You need to train as well, like you do with walking. You walk along with healthy eating.
    But you have a point regarding portion control as well. An abundance of healthy food can also result in no weight loss at all. Food can be healthy but a lot of it, do add up (calorie wise.)

  18. Becky Hill says:

    Portion control is key for me, and whenever the scale creeps up to my “this-far-and-no-further” point I get out my tablespoons, cup measures, and scale. Then it’s weigh and measure time. I even purchased a tablespoon set and quarter-cup measure that goes with me to work.

  19. Michele says:

    At the risk of echoing so many other commenters, YES, it is a myth. I’ve been eating mostly only healthy foods for the past three years, and my weight has nothing to do with whether I’m eating healthy foods. It is 100% about portions. Eating healthy foods just improves our health, but people could maintain a healthy weight eating terrible foods. This emphasizes the point that health is about so much more than just the number on the scale.

  20. Karla says:

    I use my food scale EVERY DAY!!! I make the best food!! and I love love love it!! I could sit down and eat a healthy salad with too much tofu, and smother it in “light” Ranch… when you eat to much dressing whats the point of even buying the light version!!?? It is all about portion control. That is exactly why so many foods never make it into my house. I cannot control myself with chips, cookies, nuts or any kind of nut butter. No portion control. I eat healthy but I need to weigh myself almost daily to keep those “healthy” choices in check

  21. Michelle says:

    I ran into that issue just last night as my husband and I made a relatively healthy dinner (pork with spices but no sauce and roasted vegetables mixed with feta and a bit of couscous…OK, that part isn’t quite so healthy but it was more vegetables that couscous). I really wanted to eat more, much more because it was so yummy, but I knew I really had to control how much I ate and could easily go overboard.

  22. Sarah says:

    I loved your post. Nobody could say it better and the best way for me to try not to eat a lot at one meal is to serve just the right amount of food on my plate and know about the calories for the food I’m taking at each portion.

  23. Rachelle says:

    This is something that seriously frustrates me because my sister is a great food blogger who has been blessed with a naturally high metabolism and has never struggled with weight. She makes and promotes nutritious food all the time but I find that I cannot make or eat most of her recipes because they are just too high in calories for me. I don’t care how nutritious it may be, there are so many yummy creamy calories that if I were to make that delicious dinner I wouldn’t be able to have more than 1/2 cup total! And I know that isn’t enough to satisfy and fill me up! I would be needing another meal within a couple of hours and that would be disastrous to my weight goals. She doesn’t understand why I don’t try more of her recipes and I feel bad that I’m not more supportive of her but there really is a difference, at least in my opinion and my experience, between meals that are reasonable for me to eat (someone with a slower metabolism) and meals that she can eat on a regular basis. She does have many great meal ideas that are not so heavy in calories but often I find that even salads have to be altered because of the added “toppings” or I have to substitute a lower fat/lower calorie dressing.

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