In this article, we’ll be talking about some of the most calorie-dense foods that we consume on an almost daily basis and some of the food habits and choices that we make that contribute to a high-calorie diet or increased calorie consumption that sometimes we don’t even notice, hence we gain weight.
Some of the food items on this list are of course painfully obvious, we know they are high-calorie or empty calories, providing little to no nutrition, but other may not be as obvious.
1. Junk Food
Those things that our mothers always warned us against. Snacks, Chips, or however you want to call them, Junk Food literally has the name junk in it. In our supermarkets, convenience stores, bodegas, local grocers, and gas stations everywhere, you can find any variety and manner of chips, finger food, salty, sweet, sour, or any flavor you dare imagine lining up those store shelves ready for anyone to pick them up and take them home, or in some cases, eat them on the ride home.
In any case, junk food is called that because they are empty calories, not only are they lacking in macro and micro-nutrient content, but usually the way they are cooked, made, packed, preserved, and processed involves additional chemicals, preservatives, or methods that are harmful in excessive amounts or offer little to no nutritional value.
Our love of snacks takes away from having healthier eating habits.
2. High Fructose Corn Syrup
But, before we continue we have to have a quick talk about High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). It's everywhere, from our soda pops to our breakfast foods. If there is anything that needs sweetening, HFCS is there. According to the USDA. (1) HFCS has 53 calories per tablespoon. You might actually be surprised at where it shows up. This shows up on the list both as its own ingredient, and also as a sweetener or additive that companies keep adding to their beverages and even to their canned foods in order to enhance the “flavor.”
3. Sugary Drinks
Popular drinks such as Coca-Cola, Sprite, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper all contain HFCS (2) as their primary sweetener. Of course, the “diet” versions and “light” or “zero-calorie” versions all contain different kinds of low-calorie sweeteners, but the original versions all do. A study of artificially-sweetened found that Habitual consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages was associated with a greater incidence of type 2 diabetes. Although both artificially sweetened beverages and fruit juice also showed positive associations with the incidence of type 2 diabetes. (3) These drinks are also commonly used as a marinade or added to BBQ Pork Shoulders, Pork Butts in Pulled Pork in some recipes and even briskets, adding a substantial number of calories to any meal.
4. Energy Drinks
Now while not all energy drinks contain HFCS, some just contain glucose and sugar, they usually Energy drinks generally contain sugar — in the form of sucrose, glucose, or high fructose corn syrup, with 21–34 grams of sugar per eight-ounce serving. (4) One of the things that make Energy drinks like Redbull, Monster, and 4-Hour Energy what they are in their high sugar content. People get easily digestible sugar which gives them a boost of energy for a short period of time until of course, they experience a sugar crash. Its unknown effects of the unregulated additives and chemicals notwithstanding, Energy drink use has been linked to high sugar consumption. (5)
5. Fruit Juices
One might think that juice drinks would be a healthier alternative to soda pops or carbonated soft drinks and we would often be wrong to assume that. In truth, they are unlikely to be healthy alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages for the prevention of type 2 diabetes. Under the assumption of causality, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages over years may be related to a substantial number of cases of new-onset diabetes. (6) Most fruit-flavored juices these days still contain HFCS to varying degrees. Despite having natural sugars and some fruits already being naturally sweet, it is not uncommon for manufacturers to add more sugar or sweeteners in order to appeal to consumers. (7) Studies also suggest limiting Fruit Juice intake due to its sugar content to prevent the development of Type 2 Diabetes. (8)
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and a healthy breakfast is one that helps you start the day and keep going. And while most breakfasts all over the world are loaded with calories, carbohydrates and proteins, certain popular breakfast foods have a little too much in terms of empty calories. Unfortunately, some of the most popular breakfast options are simply desserts or cakes masquerading as a healthy meal, high in calories and a little low on everything else.
5. Pancakes and Waffles
Pancake and Waffle Mix already contain sugar on their own, so unless you are making things from scratch, you are loading yourself up with calories. A 100-gram serving of pancake clocks at 227 calories. Of course, nobody ever just eats a single 100-gram serving of pancake. Not to mention the butter and sugar syrup that you might drizzle over it to give it some flavor. A tablespoon of butter and maple syrup would add another 102 and 52 calories respectively and it is not likely that most people will stop at that. (9) Pancakes and Waffles are just desserts masquerading as breakfast with the kind of calories, sugars and fats you are ingesting at that point.
6. Breakfast Cereals
Most popular breakfast cereals are about 350-400 calories per 100-gram serving. (10) (11) We all know we liked breakfast cereals as a kids not just because of those activities on the back of the box but because they were just so damn sugary and sweet. In fact, research suggests taht some of the “worse” cereals contain about 40% to 50% sugar in their content per serving. (12)
So it should come as no surprise that something we thing of as something light actually packs a punch in the caloric department. It is easily found in its own aisle in almost any supermarket and even in some convenience stores. Most noncereal foods were relatively cheap in high-income countries, including sugar- and fat-rich foods. (13)
7. Sauces and Table Condiments
It should come as no surprise that Ketchup (14) and other popular condiments (15) contain HFCS. And even when they don’t, they are still high in calories. Mayonnaise and Ranch Dressing, even yogurt-based sauces contain a high amount of calories. (16) Any dressing you put on a salad would also increase the calories on a serving of salad, so much so as it almost defeats the purpose of having such a low-calorie meal, especially for weight loss.
How many calories? Hummus as a dip that contains 25 calories per tablespoon, but those can add up really quickly.
8. Pasta and Pasta Sauces
Do you want to lose weight? Then avoid pasta and sauces! The pasta itself isn’t an entirely high-calorie food. Sure it is packed with carbohydrates but it can otherwise be consumed without much worry, in moderation. However, once you add certain types of milk, cream, or dairy-based sauces, you really add in those calories. It's when the pasta is swimming in alfredo, four-cheese, garlic parmesan, carbonara, or garlic-butter sauce when it poses a danger to anyone trying to limit calorie intake. Excessive consumption of carbohydrates like pasta can just lead to more weight gain when coupled with a relatively sedentary lifestyle.
Donuts, Bagels, Pastries, Cronuts (Croissant Donuts), and Bearclaws are all popular these days, they come in a variety of possible flavors, and they are delicious and convenient to eat. For many people, they serve as a breakfast, brunch, or something to pair with coffee in the afternoon. However, losing weight is quite difficult with these very calorie-dense products and the more toppings and flavors there are, the higher the calorie count.
10. Specialty Coffees
Most Frappuccino's on the menu have the equivalent caloric weight to an actual heavy meal. It’s not a secret that if you add so much sweetener, flavorings, toppings, whipped cream, milk, or other dairy substitutes to a regular cup of coffee, you are just increasing its caloric value. For example, the calories consumed with a typical Frappuccino is about 400-500 calories per cup. (17) With some drinks like the Strawberries and crème Frappuccino blended crème containing 750 calories at its largest, 24oz size. Even a large Vanilla Bean Coolatta from Dunking Donuts contains 830 calories. (18)
Not only are specialty coffee drinks like lattes and frappes contain far more calories than a regular cup of coffee and cost twice the price. It is a high-cost and high-calorie drink that a lot of people. (19)
In a separate study analyzing calories from beverages purchased at two major coffee chains, the researchers found that on average, the calories in their specialty coffee drinks accounted for 12% of a 2,000-calorie diet. If you'd insist to have your specialty coffee from chain stores, however, you would be best served by using low-fat milk or ordering smaller serving sizes. (20)
Whole grain bread is higher in the caloric count. It is about 30 more calories than regular white bread. Flatbreads like Pita Breads, Naan,
Pizza is another kind of food that is widely consumed but whose caloric content is vastly underestimated. Most types of pizzas are high in calories and sodium, as they’re usually topped with cheese, salty meats and other high-calorie toppings.
Plus, some pizzas contain added sugar in the crust, certain toppings, and sauces. In fact, a single serving of Red Baron Classic Pepperoni pizza contains 15 grams of sugar. (21)
12. Flavored Yogurt
Those cups of flavored yogurt really do add up. Though we think of them as a healthy snack, and they are good for us for a variety of reasons, it does not change the fact that most flavor variants of yogurt contain sweeteners. One container can have 100 or more calories, so while they are marketed as healthy snacks, it is important to limit your intake to fewer calories. Doing so in excess can also affect you, including your body weight.
13. Limited Selection of Vegetables
Potatoes are a starchy food that is calorie and carbohydrate-dense, it can be prepared in many different ways, baked, fried, steamed, boiled and mashed, or served topped with sour creme, bacon, and chives. Tomatoes are also very common mostly in sauces on pizza or in pasta. That being said, there is this trend of seeing only a few kinds of vegetables available on restaurant menus or grocery baskets, they are staples, our favorites, the ones we cannot go without, and they are very rich in caloric content.
So despite many different kinds of vegetables being available, most people would still prefer to consistently get either the potato or tomatoes in terms of flavor.
14. Canned Sauces and Canned Meats
While delicious, canned spaghetti with meat sauce can contain 670 calories and 20 grams of fat. (22) Now this may not seem much.
Avocados have 322 calories for the whole avocado. A whole avocado usually also contains 30 grams of fat. Of course, avocado has been touted as a source of healthy fat. That doesn’t change the fact that as far as fruits go, it is one of the calorically dense ones and definitely one that a person counting their caloric intake should be aware of. (23)
16. Dried Fruits
Raisins are 429 per cup, Prunes have 418 per cup of pitted prunes, and dates have 1158 calories per 100 grams of pitted Medjool dates.
With all the water sucked out of them, dried fruit becomes a more concentrated source of sugar. Grapes once dried basically just become a piece of candy with the number of calories it contains. (24) Dried Apples, Dried Apricots and Dried Mangoes also are high in calories even if you are just snacking on them. Dried apples are 209 calories a cup, Apricots are 313 calories a cup and dried mangos are 319 calories. Suffice to say, preserved fruits, though natural is very calorie-dense. Another way fruits are prepared is by turning them to a jam, something to serve on top of warm toast and some butter.
Home-made granola bars are especially calorie-dense, may contain 500 to 600 calories per cup and though you can choose to reduce the amount of sugar or syrups you may add, commercially purchased and homemade versions do have sugar to help it go down more easily.
17. Portion Sizes
Portion size isn’t just something that you choose at fast food either. The larger portion sizes are also present at home. Though American fast food companies increased portion sizes, with many equivalent sizes in the US being larger than ones from other regions, such as in Europe. (25)
A study regarding food portion sizes and energy intake for specific foods observed the greatest increases in food consumed at fast food establishments and at home so it doesn’t really matter where we eat, we simply are eating more. (26)
18. Cooking Methods
The method of cooking that has become popular with the rise of traditional food media like TLC or the Food Network are all associated with making food as flavorful as possible. People prefer to Fry, Bake, Grill, Sous-Vide, or confit something rather than steam or boil them. Technology has made it so easy and convenient to be able to do all these things to our food even with limited space.
As the US continued to industrialize, food has become more and more processed and cheaper to obtain, unfortunately, this goes hand in hand with the rise in the prevalence of obesity. Consumption of these ultra-processed foods are associated with weight gain and contributes to many different diseases. (27)
19. Fast Food
There are many reasons why frequent fast-food consumption at most chains is unhealthy and contributes to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and coronary artery disease. Fast food has calorically dense food, the food is meant to be eaten quickly, made quickly, and made to withstand shipping. Its ingredients and the manner of its preparation (generally fried) increase the number of calories per serving even more. As consumer tastebuds become more discerning, restaurants develop richer and more flavorful dishes, which are also usually high in caloric content.
Fast food from major chains in most countries has very high levels of trans-fatty acids, which have powerful biological effects and may contribute to increased weight gain, abdominal obesity, type 2 diabetes, and coronary artery disease. The food quality and portion size need to be improved before it is safe to eat frequently at most fast-food chains. (28)
To add to this, fast food restaurant menus do not have nutrition facts available, not like grocery store ingredients, this information isn’t easily provided by the fast-food chains. (29)
For a multitude of reasons, people are cooking less and less and eating away from home more and more. And that’s leading us to chow down more than we would if we were home.
In 2015, many spent more money eating away from home than they did on groceries. With spending on food on the rise, it bears mentioning that most restaurants would prioritize taste over health and may contain more calories on account of the use of butter and other richer ingredients. Fast food establishments aren’t also exactly known for their health consciousness either. (30)
Sure, it’s possible to have a small, healthy meal at a restaurant. But researchers have found that people typically eat 20 to 40 percent more calories in restaurants compared with what they’d eat at home. (31) We eat more when we eat out!
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