You know how some sneakers are specifically engineered for workouts and others, it turns out, are suited for nothing more than making fashion statements? Well, foods are like that too. Some are dressed up to look like they’re good for you when in fact they’re anything but. When you’re trying to eat well, it can be maddening when unhealthful impostors — filled with sugar, fat, and sodium — undo your good work. Here’s how to spot and stop seven of them.
1. Energy Bars
Just because they come in a tiny package that says they’re loaded with vitamin and minerals, energy bars are not necessarily a healthy choice. In fact, “a lot of them are nothing more than glorified candy bars,” said Sari Greaves, RD, nutrition director for Step Ahead Weight Loss Center in New Jersey.
“They can be packed with enriched white flour, high fructose corn syrup, and other sweeteners.” Many are high in saturated fat, too, and low in fiber. “And if you eat them in addition to meals,” said Greaves, “that’s an extra 300 to 400 calories in your day, which most of us can’t afford.”
* If you’re replacing a meal with an energy bar, choose one with 200 to 300 calories; for a snack, shoot for 150 calories or fewer.
* Opt for a bar whose ingredient list is short and begins with a whole grain such as brown rice, whole wheat, or whole oat flour.
* Make sure your pick meets at least two of Greaves’s requirements: fewer than 15 grams of sugar, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, at least 3 grams of fiber, and at least 5 grams of protein.
* If you can’t find one containing that much protein, add it yourself: Spread a low-calorie bar with a thin layer of peanut butter, or enjoy a glass of low-fat milk or a piece of low-fat string cheese with it. “Adding in the protein will help you feel more satisfied longer,” said Greaves.
Given that we use the word “granola” to describe healthy, outdoorsy types, it’s ironic that the yummy breakfast cereal is one of the least healthy ways to start your day.
“Most have too much sugar and very little fiber. A healthy breakfast cereal should be the exact opposite,” said Keri Gans, RD, author of the forthcoming Small Change Diet (to be published by Gallery Books in spring 2011, amazon.com). With all the sugar it contains, just one cup of granola can easily top out at 600 calories, a third of the average woman’s daily allowance.
* Gans recommends picking a cereal that has the same satisfying crunch as granola but contains more grams of fiber than sugar. Add a heaping tablespoon of nuts (try walnuts) and your favorite berry for sweetness.
* If you just can’t give up granola, sprinkle a small amount (less than a quarter of a cup — that’s how unhealthy it is!) over low-fat or nonfat plain yogurt with a handful of blueberries or a half-cup of sliced strawberries.
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With so much fruit, how could a smoothie be a bad thing? Trouble comes to tropical paradise when a smoothie’s main ingredient is fruit juice, which adds calories without providing any of the good-for-you fiber you get from the fruit itself. What’s more, some smoothie spots use sugar-loaded sherbet or frozen yogurt to bump up flavor.
“The average smoothie is going to provide enough calories for a meal — 400 to 600 — but not satisfy you like a meal,” warned Gans. Which means you’ll be adding on the calories later when hunger comes roaring back.
* On the go, opt for a low-fat yogurt and a piece of fruit.
* At home, try Gans’s recipe for a healthy smoothie: Blend a half-cup low-fat yogurt, a half-cup nonfat milk, one serving of fruit (such as a cup of frozen berries or a frozen banana), and a tablespoon of flax seed.
4. Vitamin Drinks, Sports Drinks, and Other Sweetened Beverages
A growing body of research suggests that ingesting added sugar from sweetened beverages increases the risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends we get no more than 6.5 teaspoons of added sugar daily. But most of us way outpace that. Between 1970 and 2005 the average American’s intake of added sugars (cane sugar, beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, or agave) jumped by 20 percent, and most of that increase came from beverages. You probably consume 22 to 30 teaspoons of added sugar daily, which adds up to 350 to 475 empty calories every day.
Soda takes a lot of the heat, but the problem doesn’t begin and end there. For instance, the 20-ounce bottle of SoBe Green Tea provides 15.5 teaspoons of added sugar — just one teaspoon less than a 20-ounce Coke. And a Minute Maid lemonade of the same size has a half-teaspoon more than a Coke. Gatorade and Vitamin Water may sound healthy, but a 20-ounce bottle of either exceeds your daily sugar allowance by two teaspoons.
* In restaurants, ask for unsweetened beverages — like ice tea — and add in a zero-calorie sweetener such as Splenda, said Greaves.
* Look for sugar-free versions of Vitamin Water and lemonade (like good ol’ Crystal Light), and Gatorade’s G2 reduced-sugar drink.
* At home, make your own flavored water, adding in sliced cucumbers, oranges, berries, lemons, or limes. Looking for a boost of vitamins? Pop a multi with your water.
5. Fat-Free Foods
They sure sound good, but the problem with fat-free foods, said Greaves, is that “people view them as a ticket to eat more.” Which is especially troublesome because when you take fat out of foods, something has to replace the flavor — and that something is generally added sugar and sodium. The right kinds of fats are actually essential to a healthy diet, providing flavor, reducing the risk of heart disease, and even picking up your mood, said Greaves. Furthermore, fat can help you feel full; many foods become less satisfying without it, which may lead you to eat more at your next meal.
* Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, are typically high in saturated fat; choose fat-free or low-fat versions.
* Ditto with commercially processed foods such as stick margarine and frozen meals, which are often high in trans-fats.
* On the other hand, “sometimes one regular cookie is a better choice than eight fat-free cookies,” said Greaves. It may be more likely to satisfy you and keep you from overindulging.
* Always go with full-fat, natural peanut butter, which is rich in healthy polyunsaturated fats. Reduced-fat versions replace them with hydrogenated oils (which are high in trans fats) and sugar.
* Fat-free salad dressings are loaded with sodium and sugar. Instead, mix two teaspoons of olive oil with lemon juice or flavored vinegar.
“I’ll just have a salad” has become the universal slogan of the well-intentioned eater, but consider this: Some restaurant chains have salads on their menus that top out at 1,000 calories. And if you pick up a premade Caesar-salad kit at the grocery store you might as well have stopped into Burger King for a Whopper, said Greaves. The fact is, many salads are packed with unhealthy add-ins, such as cheese (100 calories in four dice-sized cubes), bacon bits, creamy dressings, and croutons. Nothing against a big bowl of healthy greens; it’s the company they keep that’s worrisome.
* When you’re dining out, always ask for dressings on the side. Dip your fork into the dressing first, then spear some greens.
* At the salad bar, skip anything that’s mixed with mayonnaise, such as tuna or egg salad. Choose grilled chicken breast, tofu, or a half-cup of chickpeas instead.
* If you love cheese, dust a tablespoon of grated Parmesan over your salad before eating, to give it a lot of flavor with way fewer calories.
* Instead of chopped ham or croutons, go for a tablespoon of slivered almonds or sunflower seeds for flavor and crunch.
* At home, replace dressing with flavorful fresh fruit—such as pears or mandarin oranges.
With little leaves of lettuce peeking out and slim slices of deli meats, wraps seem like a solid choice. But the flat breads that give the sandwiches their name can bring 300 calories to the table all on their own, said Marisa Moore, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association in Atlanta. By the time you add in some cheese, cold cuts, and a spread, you can be putting away a 700-calorie meal that feels more like a snack. Plus, wraps are often made from refined grains—which means they don’t give you the fiber you need for a healthy lunch.
* Check nutrition info, if it’s available: A wrap made of whole grain is best. Barring that, look for the choice that’s highest in fiber, which will help you feel fuller.
* Eat only half of the sandwich for lunch, with a piece of fruit and a side of greens; save the other half for a post-exercise or afternoon snack.
* Skip the cheese and choose avocado (which is full of heart-healthy fat) instead.
* Pick Dijon or spicy mustard over mayonnaise.
* Pile on extra veggies, such as green peppers, onions, lettuce, and tomatoes.