The Most Common Nutrition Mistakes
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.
1. You pick brown eggs over less-nutritious white.
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.
2. You drink soy milk for the calcium, but you don’t shake it.
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.
3. You favor peanut butter fortified with omega-3s to get your share of those good fats.
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.
4. You trade ground turkey for ground beef in recipes to save sat fat.
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.
5. Watching your weight, you pull way back on snacking.
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.
6. You’re on a veggie kick, boiling lots every night.
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.
7. You hanker for fast food. Grilled chicken beats beef burger.
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.
8. You leave your hot cereal eating ’til the weekend, when you can slow cook steel-cut oats.
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.
9. You consider fruits like bananas and apples “free.”
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.”
10. You automatically swap turkey bacon for the pork kind.
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.
11. You spoon on whole flaxseeds to get those heart-healthy omega-3 fats.
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.
12. Mindful that many women under 50 are iron-deficient, you’re beefing up on iron-rich spinach.
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.
13. You make time for the gym, but you skip the pre-gym snack to save on calories.
“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.
14. While cooking, you eyeball the oil, the salt, the sugar…
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.
15. You do a free-hand pour at the breakfast table.
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.
16. You’re careful when you buy your snacks, less so when you serve them.
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.
17. You set the treadmill for a 300-calorie workout so you can eat a 300-calorie treat.
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.
18. You sprinkle wheat germ on yogurt or muffins for crunchy, whole-grain goodness.
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.
19. You stock up on fresh veggies on Sunday for your week of healthy eating.
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.
20. You buy 80/20 ground beef because it’s a good thing that only 20% of the calories come from fat.
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.
21. Big-crystal and flaky sea salts and kosher salts are bulkier, so you figure they also contain more sodium.
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.
22. Recipe calls for mincing the garlic. You stop at coarsely chopped.
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.
23. You assume a product with a health claim is healthy
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.
24. You always serve dinner on your largest plates
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.
25. You eat vegetables in a rainbow of vegetable, excluding white
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.
26. You refrigerate watermelon as soon as you buy it
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.
27. You switch to almond milk to save calories and fat
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.
28. You choose products "made with whole grains" to up your whole-grain intake
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.
29. You choose bran cereal because it's high in fiber
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.
30. You bolster your immune system with extra vitamin C
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.
31. You always opt for high-fiber bread over 100% whole wheat
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.
32. You always opt for pretzels as your healthy snack
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.
33. You always splurge on chips and dip at Mexican restaurants
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.
34. You choose lighter-colored beer over dark to save on calories
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).