As more and more health foods take over the shelves of grocery stores, it has become increasingly challenging for health-conscious consumers to pick out foods that are actually as nutritious as their labels claim to be.
Many of these ‘healthy’ or ‘guilt-free’ options are essentially junk food in disguise — loaded with sugar, sodium, trans fats and other additives that diminish their nutritional value.
Here are ten seemingly healthy foods that are actually diet busters, according to experts:
- Microwave Popcorn: Typically, freshly made popcorn can be a great fiber-rich snack. “But the microwaveable versions have high levels of sodium and the chemical diacetyl, making it a food that shouldn’t be eaten often,” says Beth Warren, founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Secrets of a Kosher Girl.
- Granola: “A lot of granola brands you find in the grocery store have high levels of added sugar,” says Annessa Chumbley, Indianapolis-based registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for Premier Protein.”Too often the combined sugar content is hidden within the ingredient list,” adds Chumbley. This is why she recommends making granola at home. Here’s a quick and easy granola recipe to try.
- Flavored Yogurt: “Many flavored yogurt options can have more sugar than a piece of cake,” notes Warren. Similarly, other flavored health foods like milk, oatmeal, coconut water and smoothies are also laden with sugar. “It’s important to turn the container over and see just how much sugar was added and what form of sweetener was used,” says Chumbley. She recommends purchasing unsweetened yogurt or opting for Greek, Nordic and Aussie yogurts which are low in sugar and high in protein.
- Store-bought trail mix: Homemade trail mix can be an easy-to-make, balanced snack option, but ready-to-eat versions often contain chocolate chips, high amounts of salt and added sugars, Warren points out.
- Veggie Straws: Veggie straws are mostly made from potato and corn. Meanwhile, some processed vegetable chips have high sodium and fat content. This makes them only a slightly better option than regular potato chips. “But their nutritionals are nowhere close to the benefits of eating an actual vegetable,” says Chumbley. For quick inspo, check out these fun and easy ways to eat more veggies.
- Packaged Salads: If done right, salad can be a perfectly healthy and filling meal. But ready-to-eat salads often contain high levels of sodium and fat along with a whole bunch of preservatives to keep it from getting spoiled. This makes homemade salads your best bet (just remember to go easy on the salad dressing!).
- Individual Applesauce Cups: Often, the applesauce cups that contain added flavors — like strawberry, blueberry or peach — have high-fructose corn syrup as the second ingredient, says Chumbley. “This can add up to five teaspoons of sugar in each serving,” adds the dietitian.
- Turkey Bacon: Yes, it might be a slightly better option than the pork variety. But turkey bacon is still bacon — meaning, it has high amounts of sodium and saturated fats which puts you at risk for obesity and heart disease.
- Dried Fruit: Many packaged dried fruit options are equivalent to a sugar bomb. So, make sure that the dried fruit you buy doesn’t have any added sugar, says Warren. It’s also important to be conscious of the portion size since dried fruit, store-bought or not, contains high levels of natural sugar, adds the nutritionist.
- Multigrain Bread: Just because it’s multigrain doesn’t mean it’s a healthier option. It just means that the bread is made with more than one kind of grain. The key is to look for bread that’s made from whole grains instead of refined ones. This is because finely milled grains lack gut-healthy fiber and lose most of the essential nutrients (like iron, magnesium and B vitamins) during the milling process.
So, how can you make sure what you’re eating is actually healthy?
#1 Pay attention to the back of the label, not just the front. Don’t get fooled by the health halo on sugar-free, gluten-free or fat-free food options while grocery shopping. “Nothing in life is free. If something says the word ‘free’ I always look at the ingredient list to see what is substituted in its place,” says Warren. “Typically, if there is no sugar, then there may be more fat added to a product or vice versa,” she adds. Also, some of these added ingredients tend to be artificial. For instance, “sugar-free foods are often filled with man-made sugar alcohols, which are hard on the gut and digestion,” says Chumbley.
#2 Understand the ingredient list. “Be wary of ingredients you cannot pronounce or are unclear of why they should be inside a product,” says Warren. “For example, peanut butter should logically be only peanuts and perhaps salt. It’s unnecessary to have anything else in it such as added sugar, partially hydrogenated oils or any other ingredient you aren’t familiar with,” notes the nutritionist. To learn more, check out this great article on how to decode food labels.
#3 Stock up on whole foods. “I am a fan of eating foods and ingredients that are as close to their original state as possible,” says Chumbley. “Of course, this doesn’t always apply, but a good motto to keep in mind is, ‘the closer to the farm the better”, she adds. For instance, fresh fruits and vegetables, especially non-starchy veggies, are always a great option. And go crazy on eggs. They are an excellent source of protein. Plus, the egg yolk contains “the entire collection of energy-giving B vitamins” along with all four fat-soluble vitamins – A, D, E and K, tells Chumbley. She also recommends legume-based snacks like roasted chickpeas.
Here are a few other expert-approved strategies to eat healthy:
- Get enough protein. “Make sure you’re getting enough protein to keep you full and energized throughout the day,” says Chumbley. Eat a protein-rich breakfast or lunch. Since protein is incredibly filling, it curbs glucose spikes, making it less likely for you to experience sugar cravings later in the day.
- Start a food journal. Keeping a food diary or journal is a great way to track exactly what you are putting in your body each day, says Warren. Jot down everything you’ve consumed in a day. Then go through the journal at the end of the week and identify areas that can be improved. Are you eating enough veggies in lunch and dinner? Do you eat too much red meat and not enough fish? Are you having a snack or two between meals? And if so, are they balanced? “After that, you can work on adjusting these small changes each week,” she suggests. “You’ll notice that you are better able to seamlessly work them into your normal routine instead of making drastic changes that are less realistic and short-lived,” she explains. Here’s how to get started.
- Detox after a food binge. It’s perfectly normal to indulge in your favorite comfort foods every once in a while. The important part is to bounce back instead of giving up altogether. “Start out with a balanced breakfast. This idea may seem obvious but is often what most people skip because they feel guilty or bloated,” says Warren. You might think it is a better option to not eat at all but this strategy will backfire. It will make you feel more hungry and more likely to munch later in the day, she adds. In addition, you can go for a “one or two-day reset involving a rotating mix of protein, vitamins and healthy fats,” says Chumbley. For instance, eat two hard-boiled eggs in the morning followed by carrot and bell pepper sticks or a roasted chicken breast for lunch. And a couple of hours later, eat some sliced cucumbers with guacamole for a light evening snack, and so on, she suggests.
And lastly, remember that “it’s better to be consistently good, as opposed to occasionally perfect. The smallest of habits of thought or behavior make the biggest of impact,” adds the nutrition expert.
Looking for more healthy eating tips? Check out these easy-to-follow strategies.