Rethinking Healthy Food: What foods can help or hinder fat loss?

Jamie Staley, NASM-CPT, Pn1

Have you ever decided to start “eating better” to lose weight and then been discouraged when nothing seems to change?

Focusing on making food choices that seem “healthy” can result in fat loss, but they don’t always.


Food choices for fat loss have more to do with “healthy” versus “unhealthy.” For starters, everyone has their own definition of what “healthy” or “clean” eating even means. Secondly, labeling food as “good” or “bad” can lead to more problems than solutions when trying to have a healthy relationship with food.

So if weight loss is the goal, which foods help and which foods can hurt your efforts?

I’ll break down some of the top contenders in each category.

The Helpers

The best food to incorporate for fat loss will keep you feeling fuller longer and be the least amount of calories for the most amount of food volume. Essentially: lean protein, veggies, fiber (which is a form of carbs), and food with a high water content.

However, to make a calorie deficit the most enjoyable it can be, you need to also find a way to satisfy cravings without blowing your whole day’s worth of calories.

  • Melon. Watermelon is 91% water meaning you can eat 100g (about 2/3 cup) for only 30 calories. Cantaloupe is about the same with the same serving size of 100g coming in at a mere 34 calories.
  • Vegetables: Lettuces, greens, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, peppers, cabbage, etc. are extremely low in calories relative to their serving sizes. Just be careful how you prepare them!
  • Lean protein: chicken breast, ground turkey, tuna, salmon, etc. pack a powerful protein punch for a smaller amount of calories.
  • Protein bars or shakes. Aim for at least 20 to 30g of protein per bar/shake. These can be purchased or you make you own!
  • Cottage cheese: 1/2 cup is about 110 calories and 12g of protein.
  • Plain yogurt. Flavored yogurt usually contains a lot of sugar. Get plain yogurt and add your own berries (and maybe a few dark chocolate chips if you’re feeling fancy). A sprinkle of cinnamon also helps to cut through the bitter flavor.
  • Low-calorie popcorn. This can be a great snack option, especially if you are craving the real stuff. Brands like Skinny Pop offer a variety of flavors with calories as low as 39 calories per cup.
  • Low-calorie ice cream. Again, the most important part of a calorie deficit is enjoying it as much as possible. If you don’t feel deprived, you are likely to keep going and see better results. So before you think ice cream is out of the question, shop around. I like Skinny Cow ice cream bars (100-160 calories per bar) and Halo top or similar brands.
The Shady Characters

Let me first start by saying that this list contains foods that are good for you, in the sense that they contain healthy fats and micronutrients.

I am not saying these foods are “bad” or that they should be cut from your diet.

I am saying that if you are trying to keep your calories lower, these foods should be incorporated carefully and always portioned out so that you are aware of what you are eating. So many people think they are “eating healthy” or “eating clean” and wonder why they aren’t losing fat.

Eating “healthy” or “clean” does not automatically lead to weight loss.

Me, 24/7
  • Nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds are great sources of healthy fats, but with them come calories that add up quick for a small serving. Most servings for nuts and seeds can range from 1/4 cup to only a couple of tablespoons and be between 100-200 calories.
  • Dried fruit. Dried fruit sounds like it would be a good choice, but it is usually very high in sugar and calories without any of the fiber that fresh fruit offers. You will also find smaller serving sizes and they are easy to overeat.
  • Trail mix. Given the two items above and add in a whole host of other things, trail mix is usually very high in calories for a very small serving size.
  • Avocado. Although they are great for you, one avocado is a whooping 322 calories (depending on size).
  • Granola. Usually high in calories and sugar for a small serving size.
  • Nut butters. Most nut butters (peanut, cashew, almond, etc.) are very high in fat, which makes the calories come on quick. Opting for a brand that just has nuts without added oil and sugar can save you some calories though, so compare brands.
  • Smoothies. Smoothies you buy packaged or order out are usually extremely high in sugar, fat, and calories and relatively low amounts of protein and micronutrients. Your best bet? Make them at home! (See my fast food guide here and look at Tropical Smoothie Cafe.)
  • Some “protein” bars: some snack or meal replacement bars can have 300 calories or more with very little protein. Look for a bar that has at least 20 grams of protein. (Example: Clif bars are around 240-250 calories with only about 9-10g of protein and about 22g of sugar).
  • Restaurant salads. Most people tend to think ordering a salad from a restaurant is the healthiest option. This is rarely the case. Between the dressings, huge portion sizes, added fats (croutons, cheese, etc.) the calories can add up real quick. Let’s take Applebees for example. I found six salads on the menu ranging from 830-1570 per salad. There are two steaks and two burgers that are less calories than any salad.
  • Condiments. Speaking of salads, salad dressings, mayonnaise, oil-based sauces, pesto, wing sauces, aioli, etc. can all be very high in calories. Use in moderation and be sure to measure! Regular mustard, honey mustard, and light mayo are some of my favorites.
How Can I Help?

If tackling your nutrition on your own feels too intimidating and confusing, I can help! I am a Level 1 Certified Nutrition Coach through Precision Nutrition, one of the most reputable nutrition companies in the world.

I will coach you through individualized action steps to meet your goals and help you formulate a plan for change that fits your life, instead of trying to make your life fit a plan. I’ll give you the accountability, real information, and guidance to make lasting nutritional change.

Send me an email at and let’s chat about your goals!

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