When it comes to making dinner or buying snacks, we see words like "vegetable," "yogurt" or "light" and assume it's a healthy choice. Just because something sounds nutritious doesn't mean it's OK to eat as much as we like. My motto is “no bad foods, just bad portions."
To save you some time and confusion, here are seven items that should belong in the “occasional treat” category.
Increasingly popular as a peanut butter replacement in a sandwich, as a dip, and other swaps, many of us slather this on, thinking it’s a health plus. Warning: creamy chocolate-hazelnut spread is not an even exchange with peanut butter when it comes to nutrition. The calories are equivalent—2 tablespoons weigh in at 200 calories. But the chocolate-hazelnut spread contains a whopping 20 grams of sugar —5 teaspoons. That’s about the same amount of sugar in a 1.5 ounce chocolate bar!
About one-third of the 12 grams of fat in those 2 tablespoons is saturated.
While peanut butter is primarily ground up peanuts, the chocolate hazelnut spread is not primarily ground hazelnuts.
Bottom line: Think of this spread as a treat and use sparingly.
Better choice: Try a tablespoon spread on some apple slices, or a thin-sandwich round topped with a tablespoon with sliced strawberries on top.
VEGETABLE PASTA (SPINACH, TOMATO)
Many people have a love-hate relationship with pasta: we love to eat it, but hate to think what it’s doing to our waistlines. Does it even have any nutritional benefits?
First, portions really count when it comes to pasta. Eat pasta “Italian style” where a 1 cup serving is part of a balanced meal. That’s about the size of a light bulb.
What about nutrient density? While the idea of a “vegetable” pasta” sounds pretty good, there’s often very little vegetable of any type in most brands (some add enough powder to provide one serving of a fresh vegetable, which is ½ cup of a cooked veggie). There’s enough to color the pasta to demonstrate the vegetable of choice, but it’s freeze dried (powdered) vegetables. It’s not a health negative, but nutritionally, it’s equivalent to plain white pasta. If you’re just looking to add a visual pop to your pasta dishes, these “colorful” pastas do the trick.
Bottom line: Calorie-wise, all pastas are the same.
Better choice: A one cup serving of whole wheat pasta, topped with a marinara sauce with chopped vegetables of your choice, such as mushrooms, carrots, onions or zucchini, is the way to add veggies to your pasta serving.
FRUIT OR VEGETABLE CHIPS
It’s tempting to look for packaged “chips” made of fruits and vegetables, but what’s really in these products? How do they stack up to real fruits and veggies?
Banana chips, often in a clear package, look like a smart choice, compared to candy or other treats, but just a half cup has around 240 calories, with 15 grams of fat, and 8 grams (2 teaspoons) of sugar. The high fat comes from the fat these are fried in.
Bottom line: There’s not a lot of veggie in “veggie chips.” Some contain about the same calories and fat as regular corn or potato chips. And because we may think they’re “healthier” than the average chip, we tend to eat more than one serving. Don’t be fooled — most are fried and should be limited to the “treat category."
Better choice: Make crunchy chips with the real deal — fruits or veggies — in your microwave oven (a Mastrad chip maker is around $20 and very easy to use), or in your regular oven, if you have the time.
Mix and match carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes (kale is an option) and other nutrient and fiber rich veggies or fruits (apples, pears), and season with a bit of sea salt, chili powder, garlic, or other flavors. Cinnamon for the fruits, if you like. Or, you can purchase ready-made (such as Simple and Crisp fruit) sliced paper thin, and full of crunch. A package of 15 has around 70 calories.
Yogurt + raisins sounds like the perfect combination. But a closer look at what these little delectables are made of shows these are a “treat” food and not a daily staple.
It might surprise you to learn that ¼ cup of yogurt covered raisins can have the same calories and nutrient profile as ¼ cup of chocolate covered raisins (which fall into the “candy” category, not “fruit”!).
Just ¼ cup of yogurt raisins can contain 130 calories, about one-third of which is fat (5 grams, 45 calories). And a whopping 20 grams of sugar (like a one-ounce chocolate bar!) or 5 teaspoons. Plus the “yogurt” is typically a “yogurt coating” composed mainly of sugar, palm oil, and “yogurt powder.”
Bottom line: Compared to nature’s own raisins, which are just dried grapes, these clearly fall into the “treat” category. Raisins are nature’s candy!
Better choice: Try mixing just a few yogurt raisins into home-made “gorp” with some high fiber cereal, raisins and almonds. Or, try the real yogurt-raisins — adding some raisins to a container of low-fat yogurt, along with other fruits as a topping.
TURKEY BACON AND HOT DOGS
“Turkey” combined with any food makes us think “healthy” and “low calorie.” But read the package labels when it comes to all turkey products (including turkey burgers).
While turkey bacon or turkey hot dogs sometimes are modestly healthier than their beef counterparts, they’re often equivalent in calories, fat, and sodium. Their protein content is similar as well. A typical turkey hot dog is around 100 calories, and is 72 percent fat (around 8 grams), with around 6 grams of protein, and a whopping 600 mg of sodium. While these are equivalent to most versions of reduced-fat regular hot dogs (Hebrew National, Ball Park) or regular hot dogs, like Smith’s, no hot dogs are nutrient powerhouses. The same goes for turkey bacon — weighing in at around 100 calories for 2 slices, and 6 grams of fat — about 50 percent fat by calories, and nearly 300 mg sodium. Center cut regular bacon (leaner) is a similar comparison.
Bottom line: “Turkey” in a product doesn’t always make it better. And a prepared turkey burger? Check the ingredients — as there can be “other turkey parts” added, like skin, that don’t make for a healthy nutrient profile.
Better choice: Eat turkey or pork bacon products of all types as a treat, not daily. Try Canadian bacon, which looks more like ham, but is ultra-lean, and has that smoky bacon taste. If you’re a turkey burger lover, purchase turkey breasts/thighs — and ask the butcher at the supermarket to grind, or do it at home yourself. Use all white or all thighs (skinless) as you prefer.
Most think granola means “good for you cereal.” But one cup of bagged granola can have nearly 500 calories. That’s why the serving size is listed as “1/4 cup” but most people eat more. While low in sugar, it’s often high in fat (oil is added in cooking, which you don’t really taste, but it adds texture and flavor, what is called “hidden fat” in food).
Bottom line: While there are some brands with bits of dried fruits and nuts— why not just eat the fruits and nuts as an add-on you put in yourself? The crunch and flavor of granola is a favorite for many people, and if it’s used more like a “condiment” — just a small amount to flavor, that’s a better nutritional plus.
Better choice: Use a tablespoon of granola as a topping for yogurt, regular or frozen, or reduced fat ice cream. If you enjoy granola as a breakfast cereal, add a tablespoon or two to your regular cereal. That 1 cup serving of granola in the am — without milk — is nearly one-third of your calories for the whole day.
“LIGHT” OLIVE OIL
When most people read the term “light” when it comes to foods, the interpretation is often “lower in calories.” But when it comes to oil labeling regulations, light only refers to color, not calories. When the light olive oil is on the label, it’s a much lighter green, often yellow-green, compared to first press, deep green olive oil.
Bottom line: Both can have the same amount of fat and calories —120 calories per tablespoon. And it’s often possible to use less dark green olive oil in cooking and salad dressings, because of the flavor intensity, where a little can go a long way with flavor. That’s why some people use “light” olive oil, so there is a trace of olive oil flavor, not an intense one that might clash with other flavor components in the food.
Better choice: Both types of olive oil are heart healthy. For olive oil, choose based on taste, not nutrients and calories.