Before you pour yourself a bowl of Cranberry Almond Crunch cereal, snack on that tub of yogurt, reach for the whole grain bread or quench your thirst with a bottle of enhanced water, you might want to do a little label sleuthing. According to a recent report from Baylor Health Care System in Texas, many foods labeled as fat-free, cholesterol-free or all-natural that we think are healthy are no better, and in some cases worse, than typical processed foods.
Take that cereal; it has more sugar than a bowlful of Cocoa Puffs. Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of “10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman's Diet,” blows the whistle on some of those so-called “healthy” foods.
Most people know that calcium is important to build bone and prevent osteoporosis. And milk products, such as yogurt, are one of your best sources of calcium. Recent research also shows that some healthy bacteria in yogurts, called probiotics, can help keep you regular, curb symptoms of travelers' diarrhea, diarrhea associated with taking antibiotics and inflammatory bowel disease, and might even boost immunity and lower colon cancer risk. The most powerful bacteria are ones like L. acidophilus.
Don't pay extra for the brands on the market that say their specific form of bacteria — with silly names like “regularis” — are any more effective at keeping you regular. And just because a yogurt has the word “immunity” in the title doesn't mean it's better at boosting your immune system either. Choose a brand with a mix of bacteria. Also, skip most fruited varieties, which have up to eight teaspoons of added sugar, more sugar then you'll find in most candy bars. With Americans consuming more sugar than has ever been consumed by any living creature in the history of the planet, or about 40 teaspoons a day, we need to cut way back on sugar, not keep piling it on! Oh, and those yogurt coatings on pretzels and raisins? It's more candy than yogurt, which explains why an ounce of yogurt-coated raisins has more than 40% more calories than plain raisins.
What to eat instead: Choose plain, nonfat or low-fat yogurt, then sweeten it yourself with all-fruit jam or fresh fruit. You never will add as much sugar as was added for you in the commercial fruited yogurts. Or, look for low-sugar brands of fruited yogurt, preferably ones fortified also with vitamin D and omega-3 fats.
Pretzels (2 ounces)
- Regular: 216 calories, 2 grams fat (~ 0.5 tsp), 0 saturated fat, higher in fiber, all B vitamins, iron and other minerals. Also higher in sodium.
- Yogurt-covered: 263 calories (22% increase), 10 grams fat (~2.5 tsp), 8 grams saturated fat (2 tsp) and lower in fiber, all B vitamins, iron and other minerals.
Raisins (3 Tbsp)
- Regular: 93 calories, 0 fat, 0 saturated fat
- Yogurt-covered: 142 calories (52% increase), 5 grams (> 1 tsp), 3 grams saturated fat
2. Low-carb desserts
These sales gimmicks typically have just as many calories as their full-carb counterparts. For example, Oreo Reduced-Fat cookies have 150 calories for three, just 10 calories less than the full-fat originals. Weaver's Baked 40% Reduced-Fat crackers are only 20 calories less than the full-fat Weaver's crackers. And General Mills Reduced Sugar Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereal has only 10 fewer calories per 3/4 cup serving than the regular.
Why don't you save more calories? Many of these items replace sugar with a sugar alcohol, such as maltitol or maltodextrin, which has fewer calories than sugar, but isn't calorie-free. And watch out — these alcohols can have a laxative effect. Also, in some cases, the manufacturer has just down-sized the serving size, so you're eating less in order to get those slightly fewer calories. Also, beware. People tend to eat more when they think it is low-fat or low-carb, so you could end up packing on even more weight if you don't limit the serving size.
What to eat instead: If you're talking about healthful foods, such as orange juice, yogurt and whole grain cereal, it's worth looking for less sugar.
But cookies, chocolate candy and refined-grain desserts are junk foods with or without sugar. Instead, finish off a meal with fruit, such as sliced mangos or fruit parfaits topped with a dollop of fat-free whipped topping.
You need 8+ servings of fruits and vegetables everyday, so take advantage of dessert as an opportunity to meet one or more of those servings.
3. Enhanced waters
Why drink ordinary water when you can drink “nutrient-enhanced water”? Well, maybe because these “enhanced” waters are just sugar water with a touch of nutrients and a lot of hype. There is no evidence that the ingredients prevent colds, boost health and energy, or reduce disease risk. They also come at a high price, some cost up to $1.50, two to three times the price of plain bottled water.
Watch out for the serving sizes, too. A Glaceau VitaminWater says it supplies half of your daily need for some of the nutrients. But you have to drink the entire bottle, which according to the label would be 2.5 servings and 125 calories, almost the same amount of sugar calories as you'd get in a cola. In reality, you're getting only 7 out of the 40+ nutrients you need. Even then, the amount is minuscule. For example, the vitamin C you'll get from drinking an entire bottle of Glaceau VitaminWater could easily be gotten from eating two strawberries, for a fraction of the calories. You are much better off taking a moderate-dose multiple vitamin and mineral supplement and leaving these enhanced waters on the grocery store shelf.
Just because it's bottled, doesn't mean it's safe. One study that compared 57 bottled waters with samples of tap water found that one in four of the bottled waters had unacceptable levels of bacteria, almost 2,000 times higher than the tap water samples. The amount of bacteria probably won't make you sick, but it is a warning sign, especially since regulations for bottled water are pretty lax (it was only in 2005 that the Food and Drug Administration finally set a standard on bottled water for acceptable levels of the highly toxic metal arsenic!). Besides, about a quarter of those “gourmet” waters come straight from the tap. Skip the middle-man and get your eight glasses a day from your own faucet or filter it yourself at home.
What to eat instead: Water, ice water with a twist of lemon or lime, sparkling water or any of the zero-calorie waters, such as Fruit2O.
4. Whole grain bread
The brown wrappers of multi-grain, whole wheat, 7 grain, oat or rye breads all look so wholesome and healthy. Think again. Flip it over and read the ingredient list. If you see “wheat flour” or “enriched flour” as the first or second ingredient, you have mostly refined white bread with some whole grains added.
What to eat instead: Choose only breads that say “100% whole wheat” or “100% whole grain” on the front label.
Salads are often the answer to everything from waistlines to health. However, many fatty concoctions are guzzled under the guise of “salad fixings.” The fact that salad dressing is the number one source of fat in women's diets attests to the confusion over what is really a healthful salad and what is a fat-laden disaster.
What to eat instead: Salads are great, just heap the plate with leafy greens and other plain vegetables, such as grated carrots, mushrooms, raw broccoli flowerets, alfalfa sprouts, tomatoes, radicchio lettuce, purple cabbage, cucumber and sweet red pepper.
Skip anything mixed with oil, mayonnaise, cheese or whipped cream. This includes potato or pasta salads, Mexican meat or cheese sauces, tuna mixed with mayonnaise, egg salad, macaroni and cheese, tartar sauce and Waldorf salad. A one-ladle serving of these foods could contribute up to three tablespoons of fat to the meal. Remember that one small ladle drizzles two tablespoons of dressing onto your plate, or up to four teaspoons of fat and 170 calories. In essence, too much of the wrong dressing can transform four cups of low-fat vegetables into a 70% fat calorie lunch! Place some low-fat dressing in a small dish and dunk your fork lightly into the dressing before each bite.