Food marketers love to capitalize on the so-called “health halo” around some foods—you know, the idea that anything with, for instance, “gluten free” on the label is good for you. But not all health food products are really all they’re cracked up to be, says registered dietitian Emily Brown, a nutrition expert for Runnersconnect.net. “The calories, added sugar, preservatives and sodium in some of these highly processed foods can really sabotage a healthy diet,” she says. Here are her top health food imposters.
1. Frozen vegetarian dinners. Don’t let the “vegetarian” badge lull you into thinking it’s automatically healthy, Brown says. Read the label: Some brands of Indian, Asian, Italian or Mexican convenience vegetarian dinners are high in fat, calories and sodium. Make sure an entree provides no more than one-third of your daily requirements. For most people, that’s 500-700 calories, 500-700 mg of sodium and 15-20 grams of fat per meal.
2. Smoothie-bar smoothies. “People think they are healthy because they contain fruit and milk or juice,” Brown says. But the fruit is often packed in sugary, preservative-filled syrup, she says. Smoothies are often also made with whole milk, ice cream or frozen yogurt, which can add up to as many calories as a milkshake. Stick with smoothie bars that use fresh fruit (sans syrup) and let you select the additional ingredients: Choose juice, yogurt or low-fat milk. Or, make your own using one of our 30 Healthy Smoothie Recipes.
3. Frozen yogurt. The word “yogurt” itself implies health, so many people don’t even think twice about checking grams of sugar or calorie counts, Brown says. “It really is worth looking at the label, because many yogurts contain a lot of sugars,” she says. Treat frozen yogurt like soft-serve ice cream: Eat sparingly if you want to watch calories.
4. Protein or energy bars. Read the front of the label, and it might seem like there’s a lot of good stuff in these bars, like nuts and berries. But flip it over for the real facts, Brown says. “Many bars are highly processed and designed for a long self life,” she says. They are also very condensed calories, packing 200-300 calories without providing the fullness of a well-rounded meal, she says. Unless you are athlete with high calorie needs, you’re better off having a handful of nuts and dried berries.
5. Energy drinks. Don’t expect to get a quick boost of energy from the small amounts of B vitamins or amino acids found in some of these drinks. “It’s the caffeine, and, in some cases, the sugar that’s doing the trick,” Brown says. An occasional energy drink is OK, but if you are relying on these drinks to get through your day, find ways to get more sleep and to eat better, for your health’s sake.
6. Turkey or chicken sausage. Think poultry and you might also think “lean.” “But some of these products have just as much fat as the beef version, because they contain skin, fat and dark meat,” Brown says. To find a healthy product, read the nutrition label and look for a product that is 93 percent fat-free, she says. A typical portion (4 ounces) of lean poultry would have 8 grams of fat. As for sausages labeled gluten-free, it’s true that some contain more meat and less filler, but they are not necessarily lower in calories, fat or sodium than regular products.
7. Vegan treats. They may advertise themselves as cholesterol-free, but vegan treats can have as much fat, sugar and calories as the regular versions, and some contain hydrogenated or partly hydrogenated vegetable oils, which pack the double-whammy of raising bad cholesterol and lowering good cholesterol. “Enjoy them as you would any other treat: in moderation,” Brown says.
8. Coconut butter or oil. The fat in coconut has some interesting but controversial properties. It contains medium-chain fatty acids, which are easily absorbed and helpful for gastrointestinal problems. Some research suggests that medium-chain fatty acids raise metabolism better than other fats, and can help people lose weight and burn off stored fat. And some very controversial research suggests that medium-chain fatty acids can help reverse neurological problems–even Alzheimer’s. Bottom line: Include some coconut oil in your diet, but for weight loss, make sure it substitutes for other fat and keep your overall calories low enough to lose weight.
9. Nut butters. Peanuts aren’t nuts, they are legumes. True nut butters, such as almond or cashew, usually have a better mix of fats (monounsaturated) than peanut butter. But they are as high in calories as peanut butter, and some brands contain added salt and sugar, so you’ll have to check labels. If you want to be really healthy, make your own nut butter using raw, unskinned, unsalted nuts. (Most nut skins are high in polyphenols, powerful and protective natural antioxidants.)
10. Kale chips. Kale chips can be a tasty and convenient way to eat this health food. But look for dehydrated–not baked or fried–kale chips–and watch the salt. Aim for no more than 200 mg of sodium per serving.
11. Salmon jerky. What makes salmon jerky better than beef or poultry jerky is its omega-3 fats. Still, it is a cured, highly processed meat, and high in salt, with 500 mg or more per one ounce serving. Enjoy it in moderation, and select wild salmon for the most omega-3s.