20 Foods That Sound Healthy (but Aren’t)
Salad, bran muffins, fat-free foods―they're good for you, right? Not always. Our nutrition experts reveal surprisingly unhealthy foods, plus better-for-you alternatives. By: Katherine Brooking, MS, RD ; Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
Energy bars are the perfect pre-workout snack, right? Not always. Many energy bars are filled with high fructose corn syrup, added sugar, and artery-clogging saturated fat. Plus, some bars (particularly meal replacement varieties) contain more than 350 calories each―a bit more than "snack size" for most people. It is a good idea to fuel up with a mix of high quality carbs and protein before an extended workout or hike. Choose wisely: one-quarter cup of trail mix, or 1.5 oz. of low-fat cheese and three to four small whole-grain crackers. Or, make your own healthy granola bars and trail mix with these recipes.
- Not all energy bars are bad for you; see our top picks for the best energy bars.
An old rule of thumb for picking out a healthy dressing is to opt for opaque, oil-based dressings over creamy varieties. But this criterion doesn’t guarantee a healthy bottle. Check out the ingredient list on most bottled dressings, and you’ll often see three to eight lines of extras such as added sugars, coloring agents, flavor enhancers, thickeners, and additives. Your healthiest option is to whisk together your own simple vinaigrettes. When you need convenience, look for a bottled dressing with a short list of recognizable ingredients that has less than 300mg sodium per 2 tablespoons.
A smoothie can be a great way to start the day or to refuel after a workout. Just remember to account for the calories you drink when considering what you've consumed in a day. For the most economical and healthy smoothies, consider making your own. This delicious Blackberry-Peach Smoothie with Walnuts is packed with healthy ingredients and contains just 240 calories per serving.
Consumer surveys show that many Americans think “gluten-free” (casually abbreviated GF) means a food is healthy. But, unless you have a medical issue that requires gluten avoidance, this usually isn’t true. In fact, manufacturers often use less nutrient-dense flours and fat to replace the gluten in carbohydrate-rich foods such as pasta, crackers, and snacks. So, when you opt for these GF products, you’re spending more for no additional nutrients and sometimes a less healthy product. If you want to cut down on gluten, try replacing refined carb products with foods that are naturally gluten-free such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes instead.
Read More: The Truth About Going Gluten-Free
Oatmeal can be a great whole-grain energy source. Or, it can be a sweet bowl of refined carbs that leave you starving mid-morning. The primary oatmeal culprits are the refined instant varieties that are low in fiber and protein and have added sugar. Avoid these by choosing an instant oatmeal where the first ingredient listed is steel cut oats, whole oats, or whole groats and one that has at least 4g of fiber and 5g protein per serving. Another good sign—there’s no added sugar or it’s at the end of the ingredient list. Better yet, cook and refrigerate a batch of steel cut or old-fashioned oats that you can simply reheat and flavor yourself with fruit and toasted nuts.
See more: Out-of-This-World Oatmeal Recipes
Reduced-fat peanut butter is not necessarily a healthier version of regular peanut butter. Read the labels to see why. Both regular and reduced-fat peanut butter contain about the same amount of calories, but the reduced-fat variety has more sugar. But isn't it healthy to reduce some fat? Not in this case. Regular peanut butter is a natural source of the "good" monounsaturated fats. Look for a natural peanut butter with an ingredient list that contains no added oils. Better yet, find a store where you can grind your own, or make your own nut butters at home.
- See more: Our Peanut Butter Taste Test
Sure, a baked potato in its natural state (that is, sans toppings) is a very healthful food. Potatoes are naturally rich in vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. Plus, a medium-sized baked potato contains only about 160 calories. But if you're eating out, don't assume that the baked potato is the healthiest choice on the menu. Many restaurant-style baked potatoes can come "fully loaded" with butter, sour cream, cheese, bacon bits, and other goodies that can add up to around 600 calories and 20-plus grams of fat. Ask for one that is plain and get one or two small-portioned toppings on the side. Or try making your own healthful baked potato meal at home by adding some chopped, cooked chicken to our Caramelized Onion-Stuffed Baked Potato.
Why are we picking on this tasty raisin substitute? It’s not necessarily the cranberry itself, but the fact that this dried fruit is often sweetened with added sugar. When purchasing any dried fruit, you want to see only one item in the ingredient list—the fruit. Consumers need to understand that because it’s been dehydrated, dried fruit isn’t going to fill you up like fresh fruit, and the portion size is significantly smaller (1 cup of fresh cranberries is equivalent to about 3 tablespoons dried). This can lead to extra calories before you realize it, and when the dried fruit has added sugar, the calories add up even quicker.
A sandwich wrap full of lean protein and veggies may appear to be the lighter choice among sandwiches and subs, but don’t let its thin profile fool you. Wraps often have more calories, saturated fat, and sodium than two slices of whole-grain bread. Many are also made with refined flours and hydrogenated oils, which means they often have less fiber and contain trans fats. If you prefer wraps to bread, check the calories and ingredient list to ensure a whole grain is the first ingredient listed and there are no hydrogenated oils. Then, load it up with veggies and lean protein. Watch out for fat-based condiments and dressings.
Kamut, quinoa, farro, amaranth, spelt—these are just a few grains that have been around for hundreds of years but have only recently made it to the supermarket shelf. These “ancient grains” as they’ve been coined are common additions to cereal and bread products that are marketed to suggest they provide more nutrients. But, this isn’t always the case. First, the phrase “ancient grain” doesn’t mean that the whole grain is used, and it’s the whole grain that provides the health benefits. Second, products made with these marketed grains often have added sugar and fat. Be a smart shopper: don’t assume a bread or cereal is healthier or less processed because it contains “ancient grains.” Check the ingredient list and nutrients instead.
Thanks to a lingering effect of the 90s fat-free craze, many regard pretzels as a healthy snack option. But, there’s not much to say about pretzels nutritionally that make them a good snack choice. Usually made from refined flour, pretzels are low in calories, but also low in protein, fiber, fat, vitamins and minerals, which is why you still feel pretty hungry after eating them. Plus, pretzels are typically high in sodium. If you’re craving a salty crunch, opt instead for a snack with a little fiber and protein to provide satiety and nutrients, such as a handful of nuts, hummus with baby carrots, or apple slices with cheese cubes.
If you're going for a leisurely stroll or doing some light housework, skip the sports drinks. While most sports drinks do contain important electrolytes (like potassium and sodium) that are necessary for intense workouts or endurance training, you don't need a sports drink to fuel light activity. Many sports drinks contain 125 calories or more per 20-oz. bottle, so spare yourself the extra calories and opt for plain water or a calorie-free beverage to keep you hydrated.
We’re all about adding a little protein to our breakfast smoothies but not necessarily from a chalky, expensive powder. In fact, protein from food sources (think tofu, nut butters, or flaxseed for smoothies) is often higher quality, less processed, more easily digested, and better tasting than powders. You also don’t run as much risk of overdoing protein intake, which can put strain on your kidneys and liver. The average active person only needs 0.36g to 0.6g of protein per pound of body weight (ex: If you were 160 pounds, then this would mean 58g to 96g). This is easy to meet during a day with a healthy diet, but it’s also easy to go way over that amount if you add in protein powder.
Agave nectar has become a popular sweetener that’s often considered a healthy, less-processed alternative to refined sugar and corn syrup. From the sap of the agave plant, this nectar is slightly sweeter than sugar so less can be used to get the same sweetness. This is a good thing since agave nectar has slightly more calories per tablespoon than sugar. It’s important to remember that even though it may not be as processed as table sugar, agave nectar is still a form of added sugar—something of which most people already consume too much. And, while there’s nothing wrong with using agave nectar in place of sugar, there’s no real health benefit. If you like the sweetness of agave, use it in place of sugar, but remember it’s not essential to the diet and it’s a source of extra calories.
Sugar, partially hydrogenated oil, milk powder, yogurt powder—those are the ingredients that make up the so-called “yogurt” covering on raisins, pretzels, and almonds. These “yogurt” coatings obviously don’t offer that same nutritious punch as yogurt and actually add sugar, saturated fat, and trans fat to an otherwise healthy snack. Because of this, these snacks should be treated as an occasional sweet treat, rather than a daily food choice. For a healthier yogurt snack, stir fresh fruit into Greek yogurt and top with a sprinkling of toasted nuts. Or, try these cool Frozen Yogurt Dots.