By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, R.D., M.P.H., Best Life nutritionist
Eating healthfully shouldn't be as hard as it used to be, especially because these days, good-for-products seem to be crowding out the less nutritious stuff on store shelves. But don't be fooled: Many products that seem to be healthy, in many cases, are actually far from it. Read on for a few of the trickiest health-food impostors, and learn why you should steer clear.
Crackers and cookies "made with whole grain." Those cheese-flavored crackers and chocolate chip cookies that have a small amount of whole grains added to the mix are still brimming with fat and calories you don’t need. And in most cases, all they have is a little extra (and the emphasis is on little) whole grain flour. If you're looking for whole grains, get them from sources that are made primarily from whole grains (a whole grain should be first on the ingredient list) and don't contain any extra calories from fat and sugar.
Dark-chocolate-covered dry fruit. Many dried fruit choices are now sporting a dark cloak—you can find pomegranate, prunes and raisins, just to name a few, covered in dark chocolate. Because these foods are found in the dried fruit aisle, not the candy aisle, you're likely to think what you're eating is more healthful than it really is. But beware: Dried fruit is already higher in calories than fresh, and adding a coating of chocolate is basically the same as gilding the lily, with even more calories plus fat. You can still enjoy these sweet treats—just make sure you think of them as candy, not fruit.
Diet soda. University of Texas research found that diet soda drinkers had a 47 percent higher body mass index (BMI) than those who didn't sip the calorie-free fizzy fix. Though it's not clear why, some scientists believe that the sugar substitutes in diet soda can change your tastes, leaving your taste buds less than satisfied with anything that's not exceptionally sweet (sugar substitutes can be several times sweeter than sugar)—a habit that can leave you hungry for sweet (and calorie-dense) foods more regularly. Need another reason to can the can? New research suggests that people who drink a daily diet soda are 48 percent more likely to have a vascular event, like a stroke.
Double-fiber bread. You know fiber is good for you, so choosing a double-fiber whole-wheat bread over the regular version would be even better, right? Not necessarily so. To squeeze all that fiber into a single slice, companies use isolated fibers (like inulin) to pack in the bulk. The problem is, there's little proof that they can do what intact fibers with the bran can—like lower cholesterol and help regulate blood sugar. That said, there's no real harm in choosing double-fiber bread, as long as you don't rely on it as your main—or only—source of fiber for the day. Be sure to choose a variety of other intact whole grain products that have the bran—and therefore, the healthful antioxidants.
Flavored nuts. No longer are your choices limited to salted or roasted when it comes to nuts. There are now a variety of delicious-sounding gourmet flavors lining the shelves in the nut aisle. Unfortunately, even though health claims of nuts (like their cholesterol-lowering prowess) are legitimate, there's no accounting for the extra salt and added flavors that drive up the calorie and sugar content of an already calorie-dense food. Stick to unsalted, raw or lightly salted varieties to keep your calories in check.
Juice. Although juice (100 percent juice, that is) can be a healthy choice, it's still one of the main causes of confusion for dieters. There are three main strikes against juice: First, even the healthiest juices are fairly high in calories, especially when compared to the whole fruit. For instance, an eight-ounce glass of OJ has 100 calories, while an orange has only about 60. Second, because juice can be so sweet-tasting, it's easy to knock back a whole glass or more in just a few seconds. And third, research shows that calories from liquids don't satisfy us as much as the calories from solid food.That means that 60-calorie orange would probably do a better job of keeping your hunger in check than the glass of juice. Adding to the confusion is the fact that most choices are not 100 percent fruit juice, meaning there are sweeteners, fillers and water added. If you do choose to have some juice, make sure it's 100 percent fruit juice and keep the serving small—stick to four ounces per day (you can count it as a serving of fruit); anything above that should be considered an Anything Goes treat.
Organics. While some organic foods are better for you than conventional choices (certain produce picks like strawberries or peaches have more pesticide residue so it's a good idea to go organic in these cases), an organic label is not a guarantee you're getting the most nutritious product. Take, for example, organic animal crackers. While the ingredients may be organic (which may mean a more flavorful product, according to many food pros and chefs who say organics tend to have a truer taste), they can still be high in fat and low in nutrients. Our advice? Choose organic if you're looking to minimize the processing of your food or because you want to reduce your carbon footprint (organic food is usually produced in a more earth-friendly way)—not for lower fat and calories.
Poultry burgers. Not all turkey and chicken burgers are created equal. If you're making burgers at home, start with ground white meat from the breast, instead of packages that include white and dark meat. Choosing ground white meat gives you a much healthier burger: About 130 calories and two grams of fat for a three-ounce patty compared to about 220 calories and 15 grams of fat for the same size burger made from dark and white meat. And if you're worried about a dry burger, you can always add a teaspoon or two of olive oil to the chop meat to keep your burgers juicy without driving up the saturated fat. Finally, don't forget that even if the poultry patty itself is healthy, toppings like sauces and cheese, as well as sides, like fries, can drive up the calorie and fat content of your meal.
Smoothies. If you're in control of the blender and you know what goes into your creation, a smoothie can be a healthy treat. But order one in a smoothie shop or café, and you may be getting a glorified milkshake. Be sure to ask what's in your smoothie, and stick to healthy ingredients like nonfat yogurt, fat-free or one-percent milk and fruit. Additions like ice cream, syrups and powders can take your smoothie from healthy snack to high-cal dessert.
Sugar-free treats. Artificially sweetened cakes, cookies and candies may be tempting because they often have fewer total calories, but they're usually loaded with fat or other not-so-healthful ingredients to keep them tasting like treats. In fact, that seemingly healthy sugar-free treat may pack more than half a day's worth (5 grams) of artery clogging saturated fat—that's hardly health food! Plus, research suggests that sugar-free food can increase cravings for sweets in some people. And then there's the potential to fall into the trap of overeating simply because the product is considered "healthy" or a "diet" food. The bottom line: If you're desperately seeking something sweet, go for a small serving of the real sugar-sweetened version, which is often more satisfying. Of course, if you have diabetes, sugar-free foods can help you maintain your blood sugar, but it's still important to mind your total carbohydrate consumption, and that includes sugar-free cakes and cookies.
Don't let health-food impostors ruin your best intentions! By choosing minimally processed, whole foods, you can keep your meals and snacks on track.