Are Your Favorite Superfoods Making You Gain Weight?

August 20, 2015
We're looking at you, green smoothies and black bean brownies.

This article was written by Victoria Woodhall and provided by our partners at Women’s Health U.K.

You’re feeling incredibly proud of yourself right now. There was the supergreen protein smoothie you had for breakfast, the giant avocado salad and quinoa for lunch, the bag of walnuts stashed in your desk drawer for later, and the raw brownie you whipped up last night for when the moment strikes. All this clean eating has left you feeling delightfully virtuous. Your skin glows, your digestion's revving like a Maserati, and your jeans are, well, a bit on the tight side to be honest.

How did this happen? Isn't eating clean, nutrient-dense food what dewy-skinned instafoodies endorse? Isn't that the healthy narrative we've all been sold: eat clean, get lean? Well, not exactly.

Clean eating, in case you missed the memo, is not a diet (advocates are more likely to post antioxidant scores and mineral content than calories or grams of fat). It’s a lifestyle choice, eschewing additives in favour of ‘whole,’ unrefined food. After decades of low-calorie, low-fat foods stuffed with artificial sweeteners and bulking agents, which set your blood sugar on a roller coaster and leave you fuzzy-headed and constantly looking for the next pick-me-up, clean eating seems like the sensible way to look after your body. Until your body starts to grow.

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Smoothie Operator
“All raw foods that are unprocessed are superfoods,” says food futurologist Morgaine Gaye. “But true superfoods are high-potency foods, which you need very little of. Take chlorella, for example—a quarter teaspoon a day is plenty.” The truth is clean eating doesn’t mean free calories—in fact, in many cases, the calories are higher with clean foods. And because this new 'healthy' lifestyle doesn't come with any specificity of portion sizes or RDAs, there is no manual to follow. The result: Superfoods can end up supersizing you.

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“Of course you can gain weight eating too many superfoods,” says ‘flexi foodie’ Julie Montagu, author of vegan cookbook Superfoods, yoga teacher, and star of reality TV show Ladies of London. A blonde 5'7" powerhouse who does the splits on her kitchen worktop in her size-6 jeans, Julie points the finger squarely at the superfood smoothie. “People just chuck things in: almond butter, protein powder—which is often ground up nuts and seeds—nut milk, half an avocado. Once it’s whizzed up in the Vitamix, you can’t see what’s in it. You’ve basically downed 700 calories before your body has had time to register. Smoothies are a great way of hiding highly calorific foods. I see them as a treat. I’ll make mine with a coconut water base and only have a small glass. I won’t walk around with a supersize-me portion.”

RELATED: 8 New (and Even More Delish) Smoothies That Will Help You Lose Weight

Montagu’s rule of thumb is one green juice and one superfood powder a day. She avoids highly calorific superfoods, such as olive oil, and eats very few nuts (Brazil nuts are the only plant-based form of selenium, which you need for thyroid health, but three nuts a day are plenty). She eats limited amounts fruit and gets her good fats from half an avocado for breakfast (that's right, a whole one mashed up on your morning toast is way too much fat for one meal). “Coconut oil is another one to be wary of,” she adds. “It’s made with medium-chain fatty acids so digests faster and is said to increase your metabolism by up to 10 percent, but you don’t need two tablespoons in your superfood smoothie—one teaspoon a day is enough. I spread it on my rye toast.” Sweet foods, such as her black bean brownies—high in iron, folate and magnesium and made with 100 grams of low-GI unrefined coconut palm sugar, but sugar nevertheless—are reserved for treats.

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Recipe For Success
But not all superfood sweet treats are equal, so studying the recipe is key to avoid piling on the pounds. When sugars and fat appear together in high concentration—even healthy fats or natural sugars that may contain extra nutrients but are caloric just the same—the more we crave them. Take raw peanut butter cups, a vegan copy of the Reese’s version. Yes, they may not contain preservatives, but the ingredients are pure fats (nut and coconut butter), chocolate (cacao), and sugar (agave)—so you’ll inevitably be unable to stop at just one.

Food blogger Deliciously Ella’s famous vegan, gluten-free sweet potato brownies, which she describes as "the sweetest, gooiest, softest, most moist, chocolatey brownies ever," are made with two forms of sugar—14 mejdool dates and three tablespoons of maple syrup. No wonder they're so irresistible! One national newspaper journalist wrote that his wife put on three pounds after a week following Ella’s cookbook; but she did admit to scarfing down all the brownies in a few hours. Like we said...irresistible. 

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Balancing Act
Eating superfoods doesn’t mean we can ignore the other basic rules of weight management—portion control, limiting fats, and maintaining blood sugar balance by limiting carbs, says O’Shaughnessy. Healthy doesn’t mean you can eat twice as much. “The best way to thrive on a superfood diet is in eating lean sources of protein—meat, fish, eggs, yogurt—which are low in fat and will keep you full—plus veggies that grow above ground, which have none of the starchy carbs and which you can’t really pig out on.”

If this all sounds terribly depressing, then take heart: Clean versions of sweet treats will be digested more slowly than those made with refined flour because—while both versions are calorific and contain sugars—the clean versions contain complex carbs (sweet potato, black beans). But there are a few caveats: Yes, refined sugar is highly addictive ("We know it has an effect on the brain like cocaine," says Gaye), but natural sugars, especially agave, are moreish in a different way because of their high fructose content. "The problem with fructose is that your body doesn’t tell you when you are full from it, so you eat more," says O’Shaughnessy. "And it is metabolised directly by the liver into fat much faster than actual glucose [sugar]."

It's easy to overdo it on the nuts, too, because it's hard not to snack on them absent-mindedly—they’re full of good fats and protein, so what’s the problem? "People forget that while protein and carbs have four calories per gram, fat has nine calories and nuts are 50 to 75 percent fat," says O’Shaughnessy. A handful of edamame beans, a hard-boiled egg, or even pumpkin seeds are a better snack option.

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Mission Control
That means portion control is key for all of us, but especially for vegan clean eaters (Beyoncé take note) whose protein comes from greens, beans, pulses, and wholegrains—which can be high in carbs. “Especially on a vegan diet, you need portion control—and to combine foods very carefully,” says O’Shaughnessy. If you are having protein from beans, for example, don’t eat grains with them because that’s extra carbs. Limit starchy veg and avoid grazing on nuts or eating more than half an avocado a day.

If you find yourself reaching for the dairy milk at that time of the month, it’s because you crave magnesium found in cacao, says Gaye. “But if you had a handful of cacao nibs, the highest plant-based source of magnesium instead, that would remineralize you and get you away from a potential sugar crash cycle. A handful is pretty bitter, you couldn’t overdo it.”

For Gaye, true superfoods are things you can’t really stuff your face with because they “tend not to be delicious” (unless of course they are wrapped up in sugars and fats). Think reishi mushrooms, spirulina, chlorella, cacao nibs. “If you are pigging out on something you think is a health food, it’s probably not. For a true superfood, a small palm-sized portion is plenty.”

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