It’s hard enough, willpower-wise, to make healthier choices when you’re trying to achieve your weight loss goals. But it’s even harder when seemingly better-for-you “diet foods” don’t live up to their claims—or are downright harmful to your health. Here, registered dietitian Keri Glassman, founder of NutritiousLifeMeals.com, gives it to us straight on 10 foods that may be derailing your diet.
1. Diet soda. Though diet soda may save you liquid calories in the short term, in the long term, not so much! A recent study found that people who drank diet soda every day had a 61 percent higher risk of vascular events, including stroke and heart attack, than those who did not consume diet drinks. Plus, some reports state that a chemical used in the coloring of diet colas could cause cancer.
Better move: Try seltzer water with sliced fruit (such as orange, lemon or lime) instead. The seltzer provides the fizz that most people like in sodas without all the artificial sweeteners and other artificial ingredients.
2. Artificial sweeteners.Sugar substitutes may seem like a good choice for people looking to cut down on calories. But they may just enhance your cravings for sweets, says Glassman. “Artificial sweeteners are 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar,” she says. “When you consume them, your body expects calories to follow the sweetness. When those calories don’t come, it goes looking for them later.”
Better move: A healthier alternative is to use a small portion of a natural sweetener such as honey. The calories—60 per tablespoon–may be worth it in the long run. “Raw honey contains powerful phytonutrients that have cancer-fighting properties, but many of those benefits are eliminated when the honey is processed. Honey has also been shown to improve immunity,” Glassman says.
3. Pretzels. You may think that with only 1 gram of fat per serving, pretzels are a virtuous snack choice. “Pretzels are essentially refined carbohydrates that offer no nutritional benefits,” Glassman says. “They will not keep you full and are truly not much different than eating jelly beans.”
Better move: Popcorn is a healthier alternative because is a whole grain, containing around 100 calories in 3 cups, and has about 4 grams of filling fiber per serving.
4. High-fiber cereals. Everyone wants to get a little more fiber in their diet (it protects against heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity), but some of these high-fiber health claims come with a heavy dose of sugar. While cereals with 3 grams of fiber or more per servings are technically allowed to call themselves high fiber, “I like a cereal to have at least 6 grams of fiber and less than 6 grams of sugar”per serving, Glassman says.
Better move: Make sure to check the ingredients. Added sugar comes from ingredients like corn syrup, white or brown sugar, honey and evaporated cane syrup, as well as natural sugars from dried fruit. And read the Nutrition Facts label: For instance, Raisin Bran contains 6.5 grams of fiber and 17.6 grams of sugar per one-cup serving, but Shredded Wheat (not frosted) packs 6 grams of fiber, with no sugar, in just 2 pieces!
5. Veggie chips. Veggie chips must be healthy because they are made from veggies, right? Wrong. “Most varieties of veggie chips contain mostly corn flour or potato, with small amounts of veggie powder or puree mixed in,” says Glassman. “Vitamins, such as A and C, that are found in vegetables are lost in the processing of these chips, so they don’t offer much in the way of nutrition.” Plus, they won’t save you any calories: One oz. of veggie chips has 150 calories, the same as potato chips!
Better move: Make your own veggie “chips” at home by chopping kale and tossing it with a small amount of olive oil and sea salt, then popping it in the oven and baking until crispy.
6. Turkey burgers. Many people assume that because a burger is made with turkey rather than ground beef that it contains less calories and fat. But this is often not the case.“Often, turkey burgers ordered in restaurants are made from dark meat and turkey skin, and can be higher in calories and fat than a lean beef burger,” Glassman says.
Better move: Your better option is to make your own turkey burger using ground turkey that is at least 95-percent lean.
7. 100-Calorie snack packs.100-calorie packs sound like a perfect idea. “These packages may provide portion control, but they don’t provide nutrients that keep you full,” says Glassman. “If you eat 100 calories of cookies versus a small apple and some peanut butter, you will end up eating another pack or more later in the day.”
Better move: A small handful of nuts or a small piece of fresh fruit with ½ oz. cheese provides around the same amount of calories, has many more nutrients, and is much more filling.
8. Fat-free salad dressing. When you see “fat-free” stamped on that bottle of salad dressing, you’re probably thinking that this must be the healthier option. “Chances are, that salad dressing is loaded with sugar to make it taste good in place of the fat,” Glassman says. “A high-sugar dressing will not keep you satisfied and your body burning fat like the real thing.”
Better move: Choose a clear (oil-based) dressing and use 1 tablespoon. If you need to “wet” your salad more, add vinegar and/or lemon.
9. Sushi. Sushi has often been recommended as a low-calorie alternative to Western cuisine. However, American-style sushi rolls aren’t always as healthy as people think they are.“Fish, rice and veggies are all healthy options, as long as you watch the portion of rice carefully,” Glassman says. “But many American-type sushi rolls add mayo-type sauces, fried veggies or fish in oversized portions.” A fried sushi roll can provide more than 500 calories and 13 g of fat.
Better move: Stick to plain fish and veggie rolls and also portion your meal by having one roll and the rest sashimi. Miso soup is also a great filler at the beginning of the meal to help you reduce your portions.
10. Frozen yogurt. Yogurt is a great healthy snack that provides calcium, protein and in many cases promotes intestinal and immune system health. But its frozen counterpart is not so virtuous. “By calling something frozen yogurt, all it really does is make us feel less bad about indulging in a sweet treat,” Glassman says. “Most frozen yogurts contain the same amount of calories as ice cream.” Even fat-free options have a similar calorie count, and typically more sugar than higher-fat versions.
Better move: Go for refrigerated yogurt on a daily basis. When you really need a “conscious indulgence,” opt for real ice cream in controlled portions (1/2 cup).