It’s good for you, right? Not always. Nine ‘healthy’ foods that aren’t.
By Donna Burch
Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of nutrition knows that it’s easy to make bad choices in the grocery store or while eating out. Sure, there are obvious foods that everyone knows they should avoid, like those scrumptious-looking Halloween cupcakes in the grocer’s deli section or the family-size bags of potato chips (and don’t forget the accompanying can of dip, of course).
But there are plenty of foods sold under the guise of being a healthier option that can trip up even a seasoned pro if the nutrition labels aren’t carefully read.
Local dietitians hear about these pitfalls all the time from clients, so we asked them to identify the top nine foods that people usually think are healthy, but really aren’t.
On first glance, this one will be shocking to most people. Of course lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries are healthy!
But it’s not the vegetables or fruits that helped salad earn its top spot on this list. It’s all of those extras, such as meat, cheese and salad dressing, that send the calorie and saturated fat grams soaring.“People often order a salad for meals, thinking they are doing something good,” says Sandy Stokes, nutritionist supervisor for Chesterfield County Public Schools’ Food and Nutritional Services, “but you would be shocked at the calories and fat content in some of the salads.”
High sodium levels are another concern, as Stokes recently learned firsthand. She picked up a popular salad at a fast-food restaurant for a quick lunch. Later in the day, she looked up the nutritional information because she’s been trying to reduce her sodium intake.
“There were 1,600 milligrams of sodium, which is worse than most meals,” she says.
“People have to be educated when they are looking at foods because what you think would be low in something isn’t necessarily so,” Stokes continues. “You really have to look at calories and fat and saturated fat on anything you eat. Even with me, it will still catch me off guard.”
How to choose a healthier salad: Opt for grilled meats instead of fried. Choose salads that have mostly vegetables and fruits. Consider removing part of the meat and cheese to cut calories and fat. Make sure to read the label on the salad dressing. “Light” just means that the dressing has less fat and calories than the regular version, but it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the best choice. If at home, make your own salad dressings, so you can control the ingredients. Always watch your portion size.
With the introduction of Greek yogurt a few years ago, the yogurt market has really taken off. Wal-Mart now allocates a huge section of refrigeration space to yogurt to meet customer demand.
But unfortunately, much of the yogurt sold by grocers isn’t as healthy as one would imagine. Flavored yogurts are typically loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners. For example, one 6-ounce container of Dannon Fruit on the Bottom strawberry yogurt has 24 grams of sugar – that equals six teaspoons of sugar!
How to choose healthier yogurt: Buy plain yogurt and add your own fruit and/or a little honey to sweeten it, suggests Lisa MacPherson Giudice, registered dietitian at CJW Medical Center’s Johnson-Willis Hospital.
Energy bars are another trendy food product that’s really gaining popularity among people who are trying to eat healthier.
But the energy bar section of the grocery store is a tricky one, with some good and not-so-good choices.
“Energy bars are basically candy bars with a few vitamins and minerals added to them,” says Nicholas Fischetti, registered dietitian at VCU Health System.
Many energy bars are packed with calories, fat, sugar and mystery preservatives.
Because energy bars are often calorie-dense (some have more than 500 calories), they may be better suited as a meal replacement rather than a snack.
How to choose a healthier energy bar: Look for bars that have lower calorie, fat and sugar content and simpler ingredients. “Don’t eat it if you don’t know what [an ingredient] is or you can’t pronounce it,” Fischetti says.
The sports drink section of the grocery store is another one that’s growing.
But the truth is that most people who get in their 30 minutes of exercise per day (or not at all) don’t need sports drinks.
“They’re not usually healthy for you unless you meet that criteria of doing 60 minutes or more of maximum physical activity,” such as running, cycling or other high intensity exercise, Fischetti says.
Otherwise, you’re just hydrating your body with a concoction of sugar (or possibly an artificial sweetener) and chemicals.
And some sports drinks have just as many calories as soda.
How to choose a healthier sports drink: Look for sports drinks that are lower in calories and sugar but recognize that food manufacturers will sometimes substitute artificial sweeteners for sugar.
Depending on your view of artificial sweeteners, that may not be a good choice. The best thing is to just hydrate yourself with plain water.
Dietitians hear this one from clients all the time: “But I switched to wheat bread…”
Unfortunately, navigating the bread aisle is not that simple. Unless you’re choosing bread that’s labeled 100 percent wheat or has whole wheat in the ingredients list, you might as well be eating regular white bread. Wheat bread that doesn’t contain whole wheat flour has the same enriched, refined flour as white bread, plus some coloring to make it brown.
How to choose healthier bread: Look for the words “100 percent whole wheat” on bread packaging and whole wheat flour in the ingredients list.
There’s been a lot of media attention in recent years about the overuse of pesticides and chemicals in our food supply, so the organics market is booming.
But eating organic can give consumers a false sense of security.
“A lot of people see the word ‘organic’ and think that makes the thing a good option, but if you’re getting organic cookies, they are still cookies,” Giudice points out. “Just because something is organic doesn’t make it a health food.”
How to choose a better organic product: Instead of organic cookies, cereals and other sugar-laden choices, head over to the produce department and buy a bag of organic apples or blueberries.
Anything ‘fat free’ or ‘low fat’
As Julia Child said so eloquently, “Fat gives things flavor.”
Food manufacturers know this, but they also know that Americans are watching their waistlines and looking for ways to cut fat grams. To achieve a good-tasting salad dressing or mayonnaise without the extra fat, they have to add something back in. Usually it’s sugar or preservatives to mimic the full-fat flavor and mouthfeel that consumers want.
The same premise goes for fat-free or low-fat cookies, cakes and similar items. These products may have less fat, but that’s probably offset with added sugar.
And sugar still converts to fat if a person eats more calories than he or she burns.
How to choose a healthier product: Fat-free and low-fat products may be a good option for people who are trying to avoid fat and saturated fat due to high cholesterol or cardiac issues. But “for the average person, they’re better to use the regular product,” Fischetti says. “[There are] less ingredients, you know what’s in it and you can understand what you’re putting in your body.”
This one is probably a surprise because what could be healthier than deep-fried vegetables? After all, french fries are a vegetable, aren’t they?
All jokes aside, food manufacturers know that consumers are trying to stop themselves from walking down the potato chip aisle. Veggie chips lure consumers with the promise of a healthier crunch, but the reality is that veggie chips aren’t much different than regular potato chips.
“You’re drenching your vegetables in this oil, and then frying them, so this idea that you can take the fresh product and convert it into a product that can sit on a shelf for months … how is that healthy?” asks Kelsey Miller, dietitian for Bon Secours Richmond’s Community Nutrition Outreach.
How to choose a healthier veggie chip: Make your own. Thinly slice your choice of vegetable. You might try sweet potatoes, zucchini, carrots or, if you’re adventurous, beets. Brush the slices with a thin coating of coconut oil or olive oil. Season with your favorite spices; some popular seasonings for veggie chips are cumin, Italian seasoning, salt/pepper, etc. Bake in the oven on a baking sheet at 350 degrees for around 30 minutes or until the slices are crisp and brown. Flip the slices halfway through the cooking cycle so they brown evenly.
This one was a land mine when dietitians were asked about it. It seems opinions vary, depending on whom you ask.
With zero or few calories, diet sodas should help consumers stay slim and trim, right?
Well, the evidence of that isn’t as crystal clear as some of the diet sodas on the market. A 2008 study linked drinking diet soda to a 34 percent greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is diagnosed when a person has at least three of the following: abdominal obesity (belly fat), high fasting glucose, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol or elevated blood pressure. The combination of these risk factors increases one’s risk for diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
Diet sodas are a better choice than regular sodas for some people, especially diabetics who have to monitor their blood sugar levels.
But in addition to all of the chemicals found in regular sodas, diet sodas contain artificial sweeteners, some of which have been linked to cancer in laboratory animals. Artificial sweeteners are still considered safe by the U.S. government, but not all dietitians agree.
“I personally never recommend diet sodas,” Miller says. “I’m concerned about their effect on the body even though mainstream medicine claims it is fine for you. Even if science says something is OK, if your body doesn’t feel like it accepts that food, that’s your answer.”
How to choose a healthier beverage: Sodas aren’t healthy, period, whether they are diet or regular. Water is still the beverage of choice for dietitians, but they recognize that it can be a bit boring, especially for beginners. You can flavor your water by adding fresh fruit, or sip on homemade lemonade sweetened with a little honey.