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10 'healthy' imposters

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  • Oatmeal Cookies

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  • Diet Soda

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Even if you haven't bought full-fat mayo or sugary soda since blue eye shadow was in style (the first time), you may be getting duped into less-than-stellar food choices at the supermarket.

The culprit? The "health halo." 

"From a distance, some foods seem like healthful choices because of the way they’re packaged or labeled," says Janel Ovrut, a Boston-based registered dietitian. "But just because a product’s marketing gives it an aura of health doesn’t necessarily mean it's good for you." 

Here, 10 health-food impostors, plus smarter swaps that up the nutritional ante and still give you the flavor you crave.

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1. Baked potato chips
Yes, they're lower in fat. But they're still high in calories and low in nutrients, with little fiber to fill you up.

Smarter Sub: Popcorn. You'll get the salt and crunch of chips plus fiber, and around 65 percent fewer calories per cup. Look for oil-free microwave popcorn or brands that are air-popped or popped in healthful oils such as olive or canola.

Health Bonus: Heart-healthy whole grains. Adults who eat popcorn take in as much as 2 1/2 times more whole grains than people who do not, according to research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

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2. Gummy fruit snacks
Although these products may contain some juice, they’re usually nothing more than candy infused with vitamins. They also contain high fructose corn syrup, which is linked with obesity, and heart-unhealthy partially hydrogenated oils.

Smarter Sub: Fresh or dried fruit. Both are packed with filling fiber, which you’ll miss if you opt for gummy snacks.

Health Bonus: Cancer-fighting antioxidants. Real fruit is loaded with immune-boosting nutrients that fruit-flavored snacks could never mimic. A Greek study found that women who ate the most fruits and veggies were the least likely to develop any type of cancer..

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3. Diet soda
In a 2008 study, researchers linked drinking just one diet soda a day with metabolic syndrome—the collection of symptoms including belly fat that puts you at high risk of heart disease. Researchers aren't sure if it's an ingredient in diet soda or the drinkers' eating habits that caused the association. 

Smarter Sub: Flavored seltzer water. It has zero calories and is free of artificial sweeteners but provides fizz and flavor. Beware of clear sparkling beverages that look like seltzer yet contain artificial sweeteners—they're no better than diet soda. Or try a sparkling juice; we recommend watering it down with seltzer to stretch your calories even further.

Health Bonus: Hydration (without chemicals). Water is essential for nearly every body process.

4. 'Calorie-free' sprays
Even though some spray margarines claim to be "calorie-free," labeling laws allow products with fewer than five calories per serving to claim to have zero calories. So, while one spritz may be inconsequential, the whole bottle could have as much as 900 calories.

Smarter Sub: Spray-it-yourself olive oil. In this case, a bit of real fat is more healthful and flavorful—and within a reasonable calorie range if you watch your portions. Investing in an olive oil mister ensures you don’t put on too much.

Health Bonus: Decreased inflammation. Olive oil lessens inflammation throughout the body, which helps your heart and lowers cancer risk, thanks to monounsaturated fatty acids..

5. Non-fat salad dressing
Fat-free salad dressings are often packed with sugar—so your dressing may be loaded with calories. Ironically, a salad without fat is not living up to its potential. "You need a little fat to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K and other nutrients," says Katherine Tallmadge, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Smarter Sub: Oil-based salad dressings. You'll get good-for-you fats instead of the saturated fat found in some creamy dressings. Look for ingredients like olive oil, vinegar, and herbs.

Health Bonus: Vision protection. As many as five times more carotenoids—antioxidants that are essential for eyesight—are absorbed when salads are consumed with fat rather than with no fat.

6. Low-fat cookies
Low-fat cookies are still popular, and many dieters think they can indulge guilt-free. The problem is that most of these snacks are made with extra sugar, which means they often have just as many calories as the full-fat version, if not more.

Smarter Sub: Oatmeal cookies. These are a great way to indulge a cookie craving while also getting whole grains. Not all are created equal, though: Skip those made with high fructose corn syrup, white flour, and butter in favor of varieties made with honey or cane juice, whole wheat flour, and oil.

Health Bonus: Lower cholesterol. The fiber found in oatmeal keeps your body from absorbing bad cholesterol.

7. 100-calorie snack packs
You might want to skip these if you're trying to lose weight. A recent study showed that people may eat more food and calories if the portions are presented in small sizes and packages. With smaller serving sizes, study participants didn’t feel the need to regulate their intake, so they ate more than one portion before feeling satisfied.

Smarter Sub: A small serving of almonds. Their healthy monounsaturated fat, fiber, and protein will tide you over until your next meal.

Health Bonus: Stronger bones. Almonds are an excellent source of bone-building magnesium, as well as the immune-boosting antioxidant vitamin E.

8. Pretzels
The label may shout fat-free, and they may seem like a better alternative to chips, but they're made with refined white flour stripped of its vitamins and antioxidants. They're also dense so they pack a ton of carb calories for a small amount that isn't filling. Think of it this way: One 15-ounce bag contains the equivalent of 24 slices of white bread.

Smarter Sub: A whole grain snack chip with seeds. Crackers made with organic grains and sunflower, sesame, and other seeds provide a satisfying crunch along with a healthy dose of fiber and protein.

Health Bonus: A flat belly. Sunflower and sesame seeds make this a MUFA-rich meal if you're following the Flat Belly Diet.

9. Spinach wraps
It looks green and good for you, but spinach powder is a scant ingredient. These wraps are typically made from refined white flour, and the green hue primarily comes from food colorings (Blue No. 1 and Yellow No. 5.). Not only does this not count as a veggie serving, you won't find the same immune-boosting vitamins A and C found in fresh spinach.

Smarter Sub: 100 percent whole grain breads. Choose whole grain wraps, pitas, English muffins, or bread. Look for 100 percent whole grain on the label.

Health Bonus: Reduced risk of disease. Research shows whole grains are linked to a reduced risk of nearly everything you're trying to prevent: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure.

10. Flavored water
Yes, it has vitamins, but at up to 200 calories per bottle, just one of these a day can cause a 20-pound weight gain in a year's time if the calories aren't burned off.

Smarter Sub: Calorie-free flavored waters. Instead of added sugar and artificial sweeteners, a few bottled brands contain just a hint of natural flavoring to entertain your tastebuds.

Health Bonus: Hydration. Water is the most important nutrient in your body, regulating temperature and filtering out waste.