Before I start this exposé of sorts, I have to tell you, I am not usually one for alarmism. I am about to share with you some very popular “diet” and “health” foods that, in reality, lack serious nutrition, but that does not make them “evil” or “forbidden.” Everyone eats unhealthy food sometimes! What irks me about these products is not that they aren’t particularly nutritious; it’s that advertisers have convinced us that they are, leading us to believe that eating them regularly will help us to achieve our health goals.
Would you eat a candy bar or drink a small can of soda for breakfast? Ok, maybe you would (the dietitian in me will pretend I didn’t hear that), but I doubt even if you did, that you would consider it healthy. Yet that is exactly what we do with yogurt. Now, let me back up, because yogurt does have some very important nutrients in it that candy bars and soda lack: namely, calcium, but also a little bit of protein, particularly if you opt for a Greek yogurt. However, the sugar content of most yogurts is identical to, if not greater than, some of our favorite “junk” foods! I tell my clients to stick to plain yogurt, flavored themselves with fruit and spices (the trick is to start with a ton of fruit and gradually decrease over time so your taste buds adjust), and to think of flavored varieties as liquid ice cream. Oh, and while we’re on the subject? Frozen yogurt is just low-fat ice cream, too. Sorry.
“Natural” sweeteners have really gained momentum over the past few years; none, arguably, more-so than agave. However, did you know that agave is almost exclusively made of fructose and that it is actually a pretty refined, processed ingredient? Even Dr. Oz said, “Just kidding!” after being called out on the reality of agave’s nutritional properties. Stick with 100% pure maple syrup, sucanat, or coconut sugar for something more natural, and remember: all sweeteners, even “natural” ones, are best consumed at a minimum.
Who here can honestly say they don’t wish they had a few more hours in the day? We are all busy, and when time gets tight, healthy habits are often the first to be compromised. In place of full, balanced meals, more and more we are turning to portable bars to tide us over while we work. Unfortunately, these are usually little more than candy bars with protein powder mixed in. You are better off with a handful of nuts, some hardboiled eggs and a piece of fruit, or carrot sticks and hummus.
CEREALS THAT ADVERTISE AS BEING HEART HEALTHY OR GOOD FOR WEIGHT LOSS
We won’t name names here, but there are certain cereal brands that have marketed themselves successfully as staples in a healthy diet. However, if you turn over the package, the nutrition facts panel and ingredients list tell quite a different story. Before falling for marketing hype, check your cereal for the following criteria: it should have at least five grams of fiber and less than 8 grams of sugar per serving (in fact, the best cereal options don’t contain any sugar!). The fiber should not be coming from ingredients like “cellulose” or “inulin” either, which studies have yet to show have any true health benefits. Flavor cereal naturally with cinnamon, berries, or a dash of vanilla extract.
Vegetables can be a tough sell. They are often the last part of the healthy eating equation that individuals tackle, and they look for any shortcut they can. Here is the bad news: there is no way around eating your vegetables. Pastas that promise to deliver a full serving of vegetables in every serving are nothing more than regular white pasta with some spinach or tomato puree added in. They are low in fiber and not so great in the vitamin and mineral department, either. 100% whole grain pasta is your best bet, but honestly, even if you go with a good quality white pasta and replace a third or half of the serving with non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach are particularly great for this), you’d be better off than with a full serving of the veggie pasta. Plus, it’s way cheaper.
Did you find any of your “healthy” favorites on this list? Don’t despair! Remember, eating these foods sometimes because you enjoy them is perfectly ok. A good rule of thumb is to make 80-90% of your food choices solid nutritionally, giving you 10-20% wiggle room for treats. Ultimately, nothing beats good, old fashioned healthy, whole foods.