You might assume that by eating healthy, you’ll automatically drop those extra pounds or won’t ever gain weight. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. It can be frustrating because you may feel like you’re doing everything right but not seeing the results you want and expect.
One major problem—that I see my patients struggle with all the time—is that so many healthy eating programs rarely address the healthier habits that need to accompany healthier food choices. Both aspects are important and work synergistically to not only help you lose weight and feel healthier but to also help you stick with it long-term.
Below are four common ways you can gain weight while still eating healthy, plus some great tips to avoid this paradox:
1. Too many calories.
It’s easy to overeat indulgent foods and snack foods since they have an addictive quality1; they’re hyperpalatable (comforting and taste good), so it’s difficult to limit yourself. These foods are often processed, higher in fat and glycemic load, and calorie-dense—adding hundreds of calories to your day without realizing it.
Most healthier, lighter foods don’t have this effect and their intake is easier to control. But if you’ve struggled with unhealthy food habits, like overeating and eating when you’re not hungry, choosing healthier foods is only half the battle.
When you start eating healthier, it’s common to replace junk foods with things like nuts, nut butters, granola, grain crackers, and healthier dessert options (I'm looking at you, vegan ice cream). Although these foods can still be healthy, they’re calorie dense and can sabotage your weight management efforts. Lower calorie, nutrient-dense snacks like fruits, vegetables, hummus, or a high-quality protein shake are smarter options.
There are many reasons for overeating, but a common one is stress. Stress makes you crave comfort food and feel less satisfied after indulging. Stress eating2 is often used (oftentimes unconsciously) to take your mind off what’s stressing you out rather than dealing with the issue.
The better approach is to become more mindful of sources of stress (and do your best to minimize or remove chronic sources of stress) and find nonfood ways to de-stress and focus on what you really need in these moments. It could be catching up with a friend who makes you laugh, taking a warm bath, getting outside and taking a walk, listening to music, or reading. Mindful eating goes a long way, too; portion what you eat, go slowly and savor the nutrition, and avoid multitasking while eating.
Calorie imbalance can also occur when there are ample calories coming in but too few calories going out. I’m talking about physical activity, which expends calories, builds lean muscle mass, and increases metabolism. All three of these phenomena are essential for success in long-term weight management. Physical activity also has positive benefits for sleep quality, bone health, stress management, and mental health, so this piece of the calorie puzzle is a win-win.
2. Fats, protein, and carb imbalance.
Once banished by low-fat, low-calorie diets that dominated the last part of the 20th century, the 21st century brought fat back. Healthy eaters now fully embrace the great nutrition and satisfying nature of “healthy fats.” Nuts, avocados, coconut, and even animal fats can be a great way to feel satiated.
Unfortunately, unlimited fats pose a challenge when your goal is not just healthy eating but also weight management. Having too many fats—even healthy ones—at every single meal can slow your weight-loss progress. This is true for any macronutrient consumed in excess, but dietary fat is more than double the caloric density (9 kcal per gram) of protein and carbs (both 4 kcal per gram).
The best approach is to find the right balance between fats, protein, and carbohydrates because when meals aren’t well-balanced, it becomes much easier to fill up on high-calorie foods. Instead of loading up on fats with abandon, use them strategically to accompany foods that have fewer calories like fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and lean proteins (or combine lean protein + healthy fat in omega-3-rich fish). This way, you'll feel satisfied from both the volume of the lower-calorie foods and the satiating nature of the healthy fats.
3. Not enough vegetables.
Striking a balance between high-calorie and low-calorie foods is key to healthy eating and achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. One of the more important ways to strike this balance is to incorporate an abundance of vegetables. In fact, eating more vegetables is tied to a lower risk of weight gain and obesity3.
And variety is important. If you eat mostly low-calorie foods, like salad every day, you’ll probably feel unsatisfied and either give up altogether or find yourself overindulging. Instead, mix up the types of vegetables (think: a variety of colors) and make vegetables at least half the volume of your plate. The fiber will help fill you up while other more satiating components like fat, carbohydrates, and protein will round out this balanced meal.
4. Too much processed food.
Packaged and prepared foods—even healthy or organic versions—can be calorie-dense and easy to overeat. Common examples are protein bars, trail mix, granola, breads, and baked goods.
It’s best to make your own whenever possible because that way, you can control not only the quality of ingredients but the proportions. I suggest limiting processed and indulgent foods to four or six times per week; this way you don’t have to eliminate them altogether. Treating yourself is OK in moderation, but choose primarily nutrient-dense, filling, and lower-calorie whole foods to make up the majority of your diet.
The bottom line.
Eating healthy can help you lose weight, maintain your ideal weight, and improve your overall health and well-being. But to be successful with it long-term, balance is just as important. Balance is the trick to consistently eating healthy without depriving yourself of the foods you love. For additional pointers, my guide, “The Healthfull Method,” will help you learn how to balance your meals and snacks so you can eat healthfully, achieve and maintain a healthy weight, and feel satisfied without going crazy over calories.
Kate Martino is a physician's assistant who is passionate about healthy and vibrant living. She received her master’s in physician’s assistant studies from Pace University. Martino specializes in health and diet education, finding balance and joy in healthy habits, controlling cravings and appetite, maintaining motivation and strategies to stick with it for life. You can get started here or learn more on her website.