These common nutrition mistakes can lead anyone astray. Learn how to avoid them for better health.
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, Dietary Guidelines,
and all those superfood health claims. It should be simple. But it really isn’t—not with this much daily nutrition noise to
Consider nutrition science, flip-flopping over the humble egg: 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.
Pollan is right, mostly: The basic rules of healthy eating are simple. But diet is also in the details, as our nutrition mistakes 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.
Result: Up to a 25% price 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 hens. 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.
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, calcium is naturally suspended throughout the liquid.
What to do: 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.
Result: Good idea, but you’re probably not getting as much omega-3s as you may think.
Fortification of foods is sometimes good but also marketed a bit ... enthusiastically. You’d have to eat 1 cup of that peanut butter to equal the amount of omega-3s in a single serving of salmon—a whopping 1,520 calories versus about 200 calories in a 4-ounce piece of fish.
What to do: Enjoy the PB, but favor the fish.
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.
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. 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.
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.
Result: Sodium city, and not necessarily much in the way of calorie savings, either
Sodium can soar in a chicken sandwich. 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 1,100mg 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.)
Lean chicken sometimes picks up salty toppings, like the bacon and cheese on the McDonald’s Premium Grilled Chicken Club. 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.
Result: You bypass one of the easiest ways to get whole-grain, fiber-rich goodness.
Turns out an oat is an oat is an oat, whether it’s steel cut from the original groat or rolled flat and even presteamed so that it will cook in 90 seconds rather than 15 minutes. Flattening and steaming does not remove whole-grain benefits, so you get all of the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and oaty fiber. Yes, the steel-cut variety is nutty, chewy, and delicious, but instant is so darned weekday convenient.
What to do: Embrace all oats. One caveat: Prepackaged flavored oats can contain a lot of added sugar and salt.
Result: You’re eating better—but may be taking in more calories than you think.
Last year, Weight Watchers changed its famed point system to make fruit “free”: Dieters can eat as much as they want without eating into their precious daily points. WW’s rationale: It encourages eaters to swap in more healthy low-calorie foods. Fine print reality: Nothing with calories is really free.
We’re not dissing fruit. A nutrient-rich banana only has about 105 calories. An ounce of baked chips has about 120. Swapping one for the other is a good nutrition deal. But simply adding fruit will, in the long run, add up, calorie-wise.
What to do: Focus more on healthy food choices, less on calories, but be mindful that no food is “free.”
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.
Result: The omega-3s are tourists—they don’t hang around.
Flaxseeds are trendy, marketed as something of a superfood. They represent an excellent way to add fiber and omega-3 fatty acids to baked goods, oatmeal, and cereal. And they’re a good alternative to fish and fish oils for vegetarians or vegans. But whole seeds tend to, um, pass right through.
What to do: Grind the seeds; unlock the goodness.
Result: You may get lots of nutrients—but not much iron.
Iron is important for energy because it helps deliver oxygen to every cell in your body, but it’s tricky to get because it comes in two types. Spinach and other plant sources are rich in what is called non-heme iron. Only about 2% to 20% of non-heme iron is absorbed, versus 15% to 35% of the heme iron found only in animal foods, specifically meat. Chicken liver has the most (13mg), followed by oysters (4.5mg), and beef (about 3mg).
What to do: Vitamin C helps increase your body’s uptake of non-heme iron from foods. Pair iron-fortified breakfast cereal with a glass of OJ, or add grapefruit segments to that spinach salad.
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. “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 preworkout snack is essential—there’s no fuel in the tank. If you exercise mid-afternoon, you might need less.
What to eat: The best preworkout 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.
Result: More calories or sodium than you might think
Cookbooks call for swirls, coatings, even “glugs” of olive oil. Others, more precise, call for a teaspoon or tablespoon—but it saves time to just guess. Our experiments with guesswork show that most people overpour common foods and liquids. The difference between a teaspoon and tablespoon of any oil is 80 calories and 9g of fat. The difference between a half-teaspoon and a teaspoon of salt is about 1,200 milligrams—half the daily recommendation.
What to do: Measure.
Result: You likely eat enough for 1.4 people.
When we asked 100 people to show us their typical cereal pour, only 1 in 10 poured close to the recommended portions. For flake cereals, the average pour was 40% more than the 1-cup serving size. A full cup of skim milk in the bowl means you’ve added 40 more calories over the label standard. OJ, coffee cream, jam for toast: Breakfast requires lots of little portion calls, all made on a groggy brain.
What to do: Read labels, then practice with a measuring cup, just to get an idea of the recommended serving. If you change cereals, start over.
Result: Healthy choice made, unhealthy quantity consumed
Here’s the scenario: 94% fat-free microwave kettle corn saves you 6g of sat fat over the full-fat variety. But a typical, not-very-big bag contains 2 servings of about 3 cups each. Said handy bag often joins the eater on the couch for a movie, and soon it’s empty. It’s just human nature to eat what a container contains.
What to do: Choose that healthier snack—and eat it in measured amounts.
Result: More calories in than out
Cardio-equipment calorie counters are notorious for overestimating your calorie burn. The American Council on Exercise found some machines can be off by 25%. Machines that require you to punch in your weight, height, age, and gender give you a better estimate, but it’s still an estimate.
What to do: If you’re calorie counting, invest in a heart-rate monitor, the kind that straps around your chest.
Result: A good nutrient boost, but not quite a whole-grain boost
A whole grain is a seed with three parts: bran, endosperm, and germ. Wheat germ is only one component of a whole grain. Most of the fiber is in the bran, and the protein is in the endosperm. Wheat germ delivers a concentrated wallop of folate and vitamin E but doesn’t count as a whole grain.
What to do: Enjoy your germ, but not at the expense of other whole-grain choices.
Result: Come Thursday or Friday, nutrients have done a vanishing act.
Some nutrients begin deteriorating in a fresh fruit or vegetable as soon as it’s harvested. In a week, green beans lose 77% of their vitamin C, spinach loses 50% of its folate, and prechopped cantaloupe, mango, and strawberry pieces lose 10% to 15% of their carotenoids.
What to do: It’s less convenient, but buy fresh produce a few times a week. Also, shop smart: Ask the produce manager which veggies are freshest. And lean on locally grown, which has a shorter transit time, or frozen off-season vegetables, which are flash-frozen within hours of harvesting, sometimes right in the field.
Result: Way more fat in your burger or meat loaf than you thought.
The 80/20 percentage refers to the proportion of fat and protein in the grind, not the proportion of calories. Because fat contains more than twice the calories of protein, 20% of fat by weight contributes 72% of the total calories in a 3.5-ounce portion of raw ground beef, or about 180 of the 250 total calories.
What to do: Buy a much leaner grind, such as 90/10, or ask for a lean whole cut like sirloin or brisket to be custom ground for you, which will be fresher anyway.
Result: You miss out on an easy way to cut 20% of your added salt.
Kosher and table salt are chemically the same. But the larger grain size of kosher salt actually works to your advantage. Tiny grains of table salt tend to pack down in the spoon, leaving less air. Coarse flakes and crystals pile up like little, rough rocks, with more air between the pieces. That adds up to 20% sodium savings.
What to do: Have fun exploring the new sea and rock salts now on the market. Stronger flavor means you can use less, too.
Result: Fewer heart-healthy compounds in your Caesar.
Minced garlic is more redolent than chopped because the smelly, heart-healthy thiosulfinates are created as the clove is cut. More cutting, more healthy compounds. Thiosulfinates prevent blood platelets from clumping, which helps keep arteries unobstructed.
Bonus tip: Chop garlic early in the prep phase, then set it aside for a few minutes (covered, so it won’t dry out) to give time for thiosulfinates to develop. Grate garlic on a Microplane, and you’ll release even more.
THE RESULT: You may not be getting exactly what you think.
THE FIX: Packages are rife with all sorts of statements claiming that the product is new, improved, and better for you. Sometimes that’s true, but those claims don’t always tell the full story. Specific health claims, such as “lowers cholesterol,” are usually carefully regulated, but health implications made on food labels get into the undefined gray area of packaging.
THE RESULT: Your portions are bigger than you may think.
THE FIX: Downsize your plates. On a standard 8- to 10-inch dinner plate, healthy portions look like a meal. On a 12- to 14-inch plate, they look meager, so if you have a fill-the-plate, clean-the-plate approach, you’re likely to dish out (and consume) a bigger portion. A smaller plate automatically guides you to smaller portions.
THE RESULT: You miss out on sources of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that could add more ﬂavor and variety to your diet.
THE FIX: Think of white as a color, too, and enjoy white vegetables. Cauliﬂower, white onion, and garlic all contain compounds linked to cancer prevention. And even white-ﬂeshed potatoes (with the skin on) are a healthy option: They have potassium, vitamin C, and ﬁber.
THE RESULT: Less lycopene.
THE FIX: Temperature affects the development and availability of lycopene, an antioxidant that gives watermelon, tomatoes, guavas, and red-ﬂeshed grapefruits their rich red color. The USDA Agricultural Research Service found that after two weeks, melons stored at room temperature developed a richer rouge and gained as much as 40% more lycopene (14mg per 11⁄2 cups), depending on the variety, than melons stored in the refrigerator—that’s nearly half of an acceptable daily intake of 30mg. To get the maximum beneﬁt, let whole watermelons sit on the counter for up to ﬁve days to fully ripen and develop lycopene, and then place them in the fridge to chill. If the melon has been cut, it should be refrigerated immediately.
THE RESULT: Less calcium and less protein.
THE FIX: Almond milk has a nutty flavor with a faint bitter background. It’s made from ground almonds that are mixed with water, and then fortified with nutrients and thickened with agents like lecithin and carrageenan for body. At 60 calories per cup, it has fewer calories than fat-free milk, but it also has less protein (1.1g) and calcium (7mg) compared to the 8.3g of protein and more than 300mg of calcium in each cup of milk. If you make the switch, be sure to find other sources of these nutrients or try another milk substitute.
THE RESULT: You may not be getting all the whole grains you think you are.
THE FIX: When this phrase appears on a package, it doesn’t mean “made exclusively with whole grains.” No regulations govern the specific percentage, so while the product will contain some whole grains, the rest of the ingredients could include refined flour, which offers significantly fewer nutritional benefits. The Whole Grain Stamp requires at least 8g of whole grains per serving, so it’s a good guide. Look for it on packages to help you get closer to the daily goal of 48 grams.
THE RESULT: You miss out on whole grains.
THE FIX: Don’t confuse whole grains with fiber. Bran cereal may have more fiber than a whole-grain flake cereal (because it contains only the wheat’s fiber-loaded bran), but it won’t necessarily have the nutritional benefits that other whole-grain cereals offer. For a processed food to be considered whole grain, the product must contain all three whole-grain components: the germ, the endosperm, and the bran. The bran is full of fiber, while the germ and endosperm have many of the phytonutrients (beneficial chemicals found in plant foods), antioxidants, and other compounds believed to contribute to whole grains’ multiple health benefits.
THE RESULT: You still find yourself with the sniffles.
THE FIX: Keep your vitamin C levels under control: 75mg per day is recommended for women, and 90mg for men. Extra vitamin C hasn’t been proven to prevent colds. (Exceeding 2,000mg per day can cause nausea and other gastrointestinal problems.) What has been proven to work? Washing your hands.
THE RESULT: The extra fiber may not be exactly what you think.
THE FIX: Many foods are boasting higher fiber content—even yogurt, which doesn’t naturally contain fiber. The reason: Food manufacturers are isolating specific types of fiber and adding them to breads and other packaged foods. Can this added fiber take the place of whole grains and provide the same health benefits as naturally occurring fiber? The verdict is still out. Studies have found that these added fibers perform some of the same functions as dietary fiber, such as aiding in digestion and increasing satiety. They are not, however, equal to the fiber found naturally in food. It’s difficult to compare a serving of nutrient-rich green beans to a packet of artificial sweetener with added fiber. For the most part, foods with added fiber (or any other synthetically-added nutrition enhancers, for that matter) don’t provide the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients associated with naturally high-fiber foods.
THE RESULT: A middle-of-the-road choice, nutritionally.
THE FIX: Compared to a piece of fruit and handful of nuts or cheese and whole-grain crackers, pretzels aren’t the healthiest option. But compared to a trans-fat- filled, high-calorie snack cake with frosting, pretzels are nutritional manna, especially if you’re at a vending machine. The biggest rub is that a 1-ounce serving of pretzels has 110 calories and 450mg sodium—about one-fifth of your daily sodium allotment. Choose low-salt or unsalted multigrain and whole-grain versions for the biggest nutritional boost.
THE RESULT: You may be getting way more calories than you think.
THE FIX: Crunchy, corny, oily, salty—i.e., totally irresistible—tortilla chips usually start dinner at the local cantina. Halfway into a basket, you’re in for more than 300 calories and, at 200mg, the sodium’s starting to add up before you’ve touched the guac or downed a margarita. We measured chip baskets and found that a quarter-basket represents about a 1-ounce serving—11⁄4 ounces to be precise. It’s a sensible portion containing 169 calories. So visualize a quarter-basket when you sit down, and savor each crunch. Pay attention to the dips as well: A 2-tablespoon serving of salsa has 10 calories, guac comes in at 50 calories, and queso clocks in at 70.
THE RESULT: Not much of the calorie savings you covet.
THE FIX: Color doesn’t tell the whole tale. Guinness Stout looks dark and heavy but has about the same calories as Bud Light. What can compound the confusion is a lack of consistent labeling. A Bud Light label lists calories but not alcohol (4.2% compared to a regular Bud’s 5%), while a12-ounce bottle of specialty ale may state its alcohol content (a walloping 8%) but not reveal calories. Confused? So were we. If the label doesn’t list calories, look to the alcohol percentages to guide you instead. As a general rule, more alcohol means more calories. To keep your number in check (and keep things simple), heed the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend the alcohol equivalent of up to one beer a day for women (two for men), defined as 12 ounces of regular beer with 5% alcohol by volume (ABV).
THE RESULT: More liquid calories than you need.
THE FIX: Sports drinks contain carbohydrates and electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, and chloride, and are designed to rehydrate and keep energy levels high. Electrolytes assist in cellular function and regulate fluid balance—life-saving in cases of severe fluid loss. They’re also lost through sweat during exercise. How-ever, unless you’re active at a high intensity for more than 60 minutes per workout or are exercising in very hot conditions, you don’t need sports drinks. Water and a balanced diet will keep you hydrated and supply all the electrolytes you need. If you’re concerned about calories— and that’s one reason you’re at the gym in the first place—read the labels. To provide bona fide energy, a drink must contain calories, and that usually means sugar. Some beverages have two to three servings per bottle. If you drink the whole bottle, that can easily translate to more than 200 calories, which could be more than you burned during your workout.
THE RESULT: You miss out on some tasty drink options.
THE FIX: Caffeinated beverages can indeed hydrate you as well as water—provided you don’t drink them in excess. Researchers used to believe that any caffeinated beverage, like soda or coffee, had a diuretic effect, meaning you’d urinate more after drinking it, increasing your risk of dehydration. But recent research has shown this to be true only if you drink large amounts—more than 500 to 600mg per day, the equivalent of 11 diet sodas or more than 5 cups of home-brewed coffee.
THE RESULT: Your latte isn’t as skinny as you think.
THE FIX: Seemingly small upgrades to your morning coffee can amp up the calorie load more than you may think. A 12-ounce serving of brewed coffee clocks in at less than 5 calories; the addition of a tablespoon of full-fat half-and-half and one sugar packet brings the total calories to less than 35. But if you upgrade to a skinny latte, the total goes to 100. Make it a full-fat latte, and you increase it to 180. Add on whipped cream, and it’s now at 240. A pump of syrup adds 20 more calories. When it comes to building your latte, do the math and know how many calories you’re willing to devote to your morning cup of joe.
THE RESULT: You miss out on a good form of juice.
THE FIX: Juice made from concentrate is the same as the original juice. The only thing missing is most of the water. Extracting water reduces juice volume and weight, making it easier to ship. When water is added back to the concentrate, the product is labeled “reconstituted” or “made from concentrate” and generally has the same nutrition profile as the original juice. The exception is if sugar is added when the juice is reconstituted. Check the ingredient list to be sure.
THE RESULT: Lots of vitamin C but no fiber.
THE FIX: Even though the pulpy stuff seems like it would contain fiber, it doesn’t. Most of the fiber in an orange actually comes from pectin in the white inner portion of the peel that surrounds the segments. This fuzzy layer, called the albedo, is removed in the juicing process, along with the fiber (2.5g per medium orange). With or without the pulp, 4 ounces of fresh orange juice may not offer any fiber, but it does supply 83% of your daily vitamin C—about the same as the whole fruit.
THE RESULT: Your bread stales faster.
THE FIX: It may seem counterintuitive, but bread is one food that doesn’t stay fresher longer in the fridge. As bread loses moisture, it hardens and becomes stale. This process is inevitable. Staling occurs more quickly at temperatures just above freezing, but slows when bread is stored below freezing. Wrap the loaf well in plastic or foil before placing it in the freezer. If you’re going to use bread within a couple of days, then store it at room temperature. The bread will last a little longer if you transfer it to a zip-top plastic bag or other airtight container rather than the bakery bags with twist ties.
THE RESULT: You miss out on beer, white wine, and liquors, which all have benefits.
THE FIX: The so-called French Paradox elevated red wine to health-food status when researchers thought it was the antioxidants in the drink that protected the foie gras– and cheese-loving French from heart disease. More recent research, however, has shown that antioxidants aren’t the answer after all. Alcohol—the ethanol itself—raises levels of protective high-density lipoproteins (HDL, or good cholesterol), which help protect against plaque buildup in the arteries and reduce clotting factors that contribute to stroke and heart attack. Any kind of beverage that contains alcohol, when consumed in moderation (and that means one to two drinks per day), helps reduce heart disease risk.
THE RESULT: Less-tasty food.
THE FIX: Sugar is essential in the kitchen. Consider all it does for baking—creates a tender cake crumb and ensures crisp cookies, for example. Then there’s its role in creating airy meringue or soft-textured ice cream. Keep in mind that other sweeteners like “natural” honey are basically refined sugar anyway, and they’re all metabolized by your body the same way. Sugar also balances flavors in healthy foods that might not taste so great on their own. A wee bit of sugar to balance a savory tomato sauce is a good thing, as is a teaspoon of honey on a tart grapefruit half or in plain yogurt. Don’t go overboard, of course. Most health experts suggest that added sugar supply no more than 10% of your total calories—about 200 in a 2,000-calorie diet.
THE RESULT: You miss out on ice cream’s nutritious qualities.
THE FIX: The beauty of sorbet lies in its simplicity: It’s basically just frozen, sweetened fruit juice. However, while sorbet is “light” in the fat department, keep in mind that it’s not like eating fruit. It does contain calories, mostly from sugar—many sorbets contain three times more calories (thanks to added sugar) and fewer vitamins (thanks to the extra water) than 1 cup of the actual fruit. Compared to ice cream, sorbet saves on calories and saturated fat, but you’ll also see less protein and calcium—1⁄2 cup of ice cream contains 2 to 4g of protein and 80 to 130mg calcium. Plus, the amount of sugar in ice creams and sorbets is about the same.
THE RESULT: Not always much fruit.
THE FIX: Some seemingly fruity foods may contain as little as 2% real fruit. Or the fruit may be juice concentrate, a form of sugar. Bottom line: Check the ingredients to see how far down the “real” fruit falls on the list.
Read More: Where's the Fruit in Fruit Products?
THE RESULT: You miss out on healthy fats and filling protein.
THE FIX: At 95 calories per tablespoon, peanut butter (and other nut butters) may be caloric, but those calories come with nutrients that are not worth sacrificing to the scale. Nut butters are packed with satiating protein and fiber (4g and 1g per tablespoon, respectively) to help keep your stomach from rumbling between meals and are a great source of heart-healthy fats. Pick a natural nut butter that includes only nuts (and occasionally sugar and salt) in the ingredient list. Before spreading it on your sandwich, give it a good stir to incorporate the oils that may have separated. Some commercial peanut butter and nut butter varieties contain trans fat that should be avoided since it raises levels of bad cholesterol while decreasing good cholesterol. The way to tell if trans fat is lurking: The ingredient list will include partially hydrogenated oils. Fully hydrogenated oils do not contain trans fat.
THE RESULT: You may be missing out on healthy fats and the ability to absorb the salad’s nutrients.
THE FIX: Salad dressings are all over the nutritional map. Some, such as blue cheese, are hefty in sat fat (1.2g per tablespoon) and others, such as balsamic vinaigrette, provide a good dose of healthy fats (1g of monounsaturated and 1.3g of polyunsaturated, with 0.4g sat fat). When purchasing a bottled dressing, shift your focus away from total fat. The nutrition label’s number for total fat includes bad fats and good fats, so it is misleading. Instead, look at the specific types of fat listed under total fat; aim for more mono- and polyunsaturated fats, less saturated, and no trans. Oil and vinegar–based dressings are generally high in healthy fats. In addition to the good-for-you components of dressings, those fats add rich texture and flavor and also help you absorb the fat-soluble nutrients (vitamins A, D, E, and K) found in salad.
THE RESULT: You may gain trans fat.
THE FIX: Margarine is made by forcing hydrogen through vegetable oils, which makes it solid at room temperature and also produces trans fat, a type of fat that raises “bad” LDL cholesterol and lowers “good” HDL cholesterol. Check ingredients; many margarines still use these partially hydrogenated oils and can contain up to 2.5g of trans fat per tablespoon. (The American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat to less than 1% of your daily calories—about 2g for the average person on a 2,000-calorie- per-day diet.) Other margarines now blend trans-fat-free palm oils with emulsified vegetable oils and are trans fat free. Butter is made from cream (the fatty top layer of whole milk) that’s churned until the fat solids separate. By law, it must contain at least 80% milk fat—artisanal varieties may have more. You can’t hide it: Butter contains fat and a good bit of it—7g of sat fat per tablespoon. But in moderate amounts, butter can be part of a healthy diet. There’s really no substitute—it produces rich flavors, helps create tender baked goods, and is key for browning.
THE RESULT: Excess sodium.
THE FIX: The curing of meats was traditionally done to preserve a precious food, and that food, being precious, wasn’t served in mile-high deli sandwiches. It’s the portion, not the pastrami, that can be unhealthy these days. Still, even in a modest 1- or 2-ounce serving, sodium can add up. To dodge some of the salt, get slices fresh from the deli for up to 50% sodium savings over pre-sliced. Opt for reduced-sodium versions when you can. And load your sandwich with lots of veggies.
THE RESULT: Not as much savings as you think.
THE FIX: It’s true that dark meat is more caloric and higher in sat fat than white, but if you always choose white over dark for the health benefits, take this into consideration: A 4-ounce serving of roasted dark-meat chicken contains just 50 more calories and 2.2g more sat fat than an equal amount of white meat. So you can stray from your fidelity to white meat and opt for the richer flavor of dark meat from time to time.
THE RESULT: You may be getting more sodium than you realize.
THE FIX: About one-third of the fresh chicken found in supermarket meat cases has been injected with a mix of water, salt, and other additives. This is done to make naturally lean poultry meat juicier and more tender. A raw 4-ounce serving of what’s called “enhanced” poultry can contain as much as 440mg of sodium—nearly one-fifth of the current 2,300mg daily allotment from a source you’d never suspect. It’s also 500% more sodium than is found naturally in chicken, yet USDA policies allow poultry companies to label their enhanced products “100% natural” or “all natural,” even though they’ve been injected with ingredients in concentrations that do not naturally occur in chicken. Processors are required to disclose the injections, but the print on the package can be small and inconspicuous and will say something like, “contains up to 15% chicken broth.” You can also check the ingredient list and the nutrition facts label. If the chicken is truly natural, the sodium won’t be higher than 70mg per serving.
THE RESULT: You miss out on a lean source of protein—and delicious meals.
THE FIX: While the current USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans still recommend consuming less than 300mg of cholesterol per day (200mg for those at risk of heart disease), it’s a bit of an anachronism—a holdover from the time when researchers believed the amount of cholesterol you ate had a direct correlation to the amount floating around in your bloodstream. Since then, extensive research has shown that saturated fat and trans fat have a much stronger influence on raising total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol than cholesterol from food. Keep a closer watch on those fats and feel free to enjoy shrimp to fulfill the USDA’s recommendation of two servings of seafood each week.
THE RESULT: You may not get as many healthy fats.
THE FIX: Tuna varieties offer varying amounts of omega-3s. Albacore, a widely available species labeled “white meat tuna,” has the most: 1.1g in a 4-ounce serving packed in water and 0.5g in the same amount packed in oil. Since omega-3s are oils, they don’t disperse when the fish is packed in water, so these beneficial fatty acids remain in the fish when the water is drained. But when packed in oil, the fish’s natural oils intermingle with the packing oil, so some of the omega-3s are lost when the fish is drained. For maximum omega-3 benefits, choose tuna canned in water. To make sure you’re making a sustainable choice, buy canned tuna that has been troll- or pole-caught in U.S. waters.
THE RESULT: You miss out on great health benefits.
THE FIX: Seafood contains too many healthy nutrients to cut it out of your diet completely. It’s a source of high-quality, lean protein and is low in saturated fat—and fattier types of fish (like salmon, sardines, and anchovies) are rich in omega-3s. In fact, the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend two servings of seafood per week. Mercury can inhibit development of the brain and nervous system in fetuses and young children, so pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children should eat varieties that are lower in mercury. While there are many low-mercury fish and shellfish in the sea, there are a handful of fish to avoid, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. Check local advisories about the safety of fish and shellfish caught in nearby lakes, rivers, bays, and coastal areas.
THE RESULT: You miss out on the omega-3s.
THE FIX: Omega-3-fortified eggs come from chickens that have been fed a diet supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids (often from flaxseed), but if you eat only the whites to save on fat and calories, you’re missing out on those healthy fats and a host of other nutrients. True, the yolk contains 1.6g of saturated fat, but it also has 2g of monounsaturated fat and 0.7g of polyunsaturated fat, plus folate, calcium, beta carotene, and iron.