Best-selling author Michael Pollan became famous telling us that to eat healthy is to eat simply—just like our grandmothers did. Problem is, Grandma didn't live in the Information Age, the age of the 25,000-product supermarket, the strange Food Pyramid, long-winded food labels, Dietary Guidelines, and all those superfood health claims. Yes, Mr. Pollan, we agree, it should be simple. But it really isn't—not with this much daily nutrition noise to contend with.
Consider nutrition science, flip-flopping over the decades like a fish pulled into a boat. The humble egg is the poster child: villainized as an artery-clogging cholesterol bomb in the 1980s, now a centerpiece of the healthy breakfast (or dinner) plate while activists focus on the well-being of the chickens. When this magazine was founded, the main nutrition notion was that Americans had to lower the percentage of calories derived from all fats. Now that's off the table, with some fats "good" and others "bad."
Pollan is right, mostly: The basic rules of healthy eating are simple. But diet is also in the details, as the 22 very specific food-choice pitfalls on these pages illustrate. In the crazy modern food world, you want to keep your eye on the big picture, but pay attention to the small print, too.
1. You pick brown eggs over white.
RESULT: Up to a 25% premium paid for what is, basically, an aesthetic choice.
Even in the era of fancy omega-3 eggs, brown eggs retain a certain rustic allure. But a large brown egg contains the exact same proportion of white and yolk, and the same nutrients, as a white egg. Brown eggs simply come from a different breed of hens, which are often bigger birds and require more feed than standard white-egg-laying Leghorns. Those costs are usually passed on, adding to brown eggs' "specialness."
What to do: Choose by wallet or style sensibility; either way, you'll pick a good egg.
2. You drink soy milk for the calcium, but you don't shake it.
RESULT: When sludge forms at the bottom of the carton, you toss it—and a whole lot of good-for-you calcium goes down the drain.
Calcium added to soy milk is good for bones. But it tends to settle, and then can be quite tough to redistribute into the milk. According to a study from Creighton University in Nebraska, fortified soy milks may deliver only 25% to 79% of the promised calcium, depending on the type used and the way it's added. In cow's milk, by contrast, calcium is naturally suspended throughout the liquid.
What to do: Shake, shake, shake that soy milk—each time. And consume calcium from a variety of sources to get the full amount you need daily: 1,000 to 1,200mg.
3. You trade ground turkey for ground beef in recipes to save fat.
RESULT: Unless you're careful, not much savings over lean beef.
Turkey breast is lean, but dark meat isn't, and some ground turkey contains both. A quarter pound of regular ground turkey contains 3g sat fat. Compare that to only 2.5g in the same amount of sirloin. Ground turkey breast, on the other hand, has just half a gram of sat fat, so the right cut of turkey is a significant fat-cutter.
What to do: Read the label; buy the lean.
4. Watching your weight, you pull way back on snacking.
RESULT: Less weight-loss success, more hunger, fatigue.
It's a long stretch from a noontime lunch to a 7 p.m. dinner. Snacking helps manage hunger by keeping your metabolic engine running at a more constant pace, which means you won't attack dinner like a ravenous wolf. Any healthy-eating plan should allow for one or two snacks per day: something nutritious and satisfying.
What to snack on: Calcium-rich low-fat dairy foods, full-of-fiber nuts, or naturally sweet, low-calorie fruit.
5. You're on a veggie kick, boiling lots every night.
RESULT: Vitamin-rich pot water.
Dropping foods that are rich in water-soluble vitamins (like the Bs, C, folate) into cooking water leaches some of the vitamins. That's fine for a soup or stew, less so if you're draining the veggies. A Danish study found that boiled broccoli retained only 45% to 64% of its vitamin C after 5 minutes of boiling; steamed broccoli kept 83% to 100%.
What to do: Haul out that old steamer. Also good: microwaving.
6. You hanker for some fast food. Grilled chicken beats beef burger.
RESULT: Sodium city, and not necessarily much in the way of calorie savings either.
Sodium can soar in a chicken sandwich for two reasons. The chicken breast may have been injected with a salty brine solution to help the meat stay moist. At Burger King, the Tendergrill Chicken sandwich has 1,100 mg sodium, and 75% of that comes from the chicken itself. (A Whopper Jr. burger has half the sodium, little of it from the beef, and 130 fewer calories.)
Second, lean chicken sometimes picks up salty passengers along the way, like the bacon and Swiss cheese on the McDonald's Premium Grilled Chicken Club sandwich. That baby has 1,410mg of sodium, 18% more than a Quarter Pounder with Cheese—and is not lower in calories.
What to do: You have a 2,300mg-per-day sodium budget. Take a minute to scan the restaurant's nutrition data—online, in-store, or from a smart phone.
7. You automatically swap turkey bacon for the pork kind.
RESULT: Not always the hefty salt and fat savings you might expect.
We're not trying to pick on the poor old turkey here, but bacon is a prime example of why label-reading is important. Pork bacon comes in smoky, super-thick, fatty slabs but also in naturally leaner center-cut slices; the latter can contain as little as 60 calories, 1.5g sat fat, and 260mg sodium per slice.
Turkey bacon also wanders all over the nutrition map. A slice of Jennie-O's ultra-lean version is a nutrition bargain, at 20 calories, 0g sat fat, and 120mg sodium. But others can contain the same sat fat as center-cut pork bacon—and even more sodium.
What to do: If you like pork, choose a lean, high-flavor cut. If you need less fat, find a lean, lower-sodium turkey product.
8. You make time for the gym, but you skip the pre-gym snack to save on calories.
RESULT: Fewer calories can mean fewer calories burned—not the best equation.
"Think of a preworkout snack as fueling, not filling," says fitness expert Myatt Murphy, CSCS. Although you exercise to burn calories, to exercise effectively and burn even more, you need a few calories in the tank. "Aim for 100 to 200 calories, just enough to give you enough energy for exercise. Too much food, and your stomach will be working out at the same time to digest it all."
Thirty minutes before exercise is the way to pace this. If you're an early bird, a pre-workout snack is essential—there's no fuel in the tank. If you exercise mid-afternoon, you might need less.
What to eat: The best pre-workout snacks provide a mix of carbs and protein—a banana and a handful of nuts or a slice of whole-grain bread with peanut butter.
For the full list of all 22 Common Nutrition Mistakes visit CookingLight.com