Could Superfoods Actually Be Making You Gain Weight?

blueberry superfood smoothie bowl
(Photo: iStock)

When you hear “superfood” a few words typically come to mind: nutrient-rich, clean eating, healthy and fit, to name a few. But there’s another word associated with superfoods that probably doesn’t pop into your head: weight gain.

Your health-conscious consumption of superfoods – like power-packed smoothies, avocados, nuts and seeds – could be the reason your jeans are fitting a little tighter these days.

Simply put, eating clean and integrating superfoods into your regular menu is a lifestyle choice in which you shun processed and additive-laden foods and instead opt for unrefined or “whole” foods. The reasoning behind this theory is reversing what we think of as “healthy” – meaning those low-calorie, low-fat foods containing artificial sweeteners and bulking agents cause spikes in blood sugar resulting in more and more food consumption. 

Everywhere we turn it seems as if superfoods are being touted as the zenith of health; there are blogs, magazines and Instagram feeds galore showing us how to incorporate them into our daily menus. The mentality is simple: eat clean, get lean. But it’s important to remember eating clean isn’t synonymous with dieting.

Regulating Portion Control
One major correlation between superfoods and weight gain is the issue of portion control. Smoothies, for example, can stealthily rack up a copious amount of calories while being disguised as a way to manage weight. Many people toss in an assortment of good-for-you foods – almond butter, chia seeds, coconut oil, avocado – but end up drinking a 600 calorie “snack” that will inadvertently wreak havoc on their fitness goals.

In general, since superfoods are nutrient-dense and high-potency, you only need very little each day. And in most cases the calories are higher with clean foods, so over-eating can become detrimental to your waistline.

Limiting Fats
Nuts and seed are replete with good fats and protein and make for great snacks on the go. But too many nuts can result in too much fat and calories: just 14 almonds will cost you 100 calories. Nuts are a great way to curb hunger healthily, but grabbing a handful here and there throughout your day can easily add up to more calories than a full meal. The same can be said for superfood seeds such as chia and flax; a mere one tablespoon of chia seeds equals 138 calories.

Avocado is another healthy fat that can easily be abused. The actual serving size is one-fifth of the fruit, which typically isn’t adhered to when digging into a big bowl of guacamole. 

Health conscious eaters also seem to rely on all things coconut when it comes to mindful dieting: coconut oil, coconut butter and coconut milk. The benefits of coconut oil are innumerable, especially when it comes to cooking and baking. But a tiny bit goes a long way, as only one tablespoon contains 117 calories.

There’s hope!
The key to getting benefits and worrying less about calories is to combine superfoods with a well-balanced diet.

“A lot of people have unrealistic expectations about these foods, thinking they’ll be protected from chronic diseases and health problems,” Registered Dietician Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., told the American Heart Association. “They may eat one or two of these nutrient-dense foods on top of a poor diet.”

You don’t have to give up eating your favorite superfoods, you just have to learn to manage them. The best way to incorporate superfoods into your diet is by making sure to eat plenty of lean protein sources like meat, fish, eggs and yogurt in addition to veggies the rest of the time.

And good news for sweet lovers: clean versions of sweet treats will be digested more slowly than those made with refined flour and sugar because the clean versions contain complex carbs -- think foods like sweet potatoes, black beans and chickpeas. So if you’re going to indulge your sweet tooth, it really is better for your body to do it the clean way.