As a nutrition consultant, I know eating healthfully can be harder than it should be, thanks in part to a creative food industry that encourages us to consume more than we need. Our country’s agricultural system produces twice what most of us require—3,900 calories per person per day, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. Creative marketing is designed to unload the excess, much of it made with cheap ingredients and minimal nutritional value, and designed for long shelf lives. Terms such as “low-fat,” “high-fiber,” “multigrain,” “gluten-free” and “natural” can confuse even the most sophisticated customers into believing what they’re buying is healthful.
What can you do? First, make a habit of reading the ingredients, not just the Nutrition Facts panel. Look for products with the fewest ingredients and the most recognizable ingredient names, and avoid those that have sugar (or one of its synonyms, including fructose, cane juice, rice syrup, fruit juice concentrates and dextrose, among others) in the first few ingredients. Beyond those general guidelines, remember that the following products are all worth resisting.
Reduced-Fat Peanut Butter
The oil is the most healthful part of a peanut or tree nut. It contains most of the nutrients, so taking it out actually robs the peanut butter of its health benefits. “Reduced-fat peanut butter has as many calories and more sugar than regular,” says Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Instead: Buy (or make your own) full-fat natural peanut butter. The only ingredients should be peanuts and possibly a little salt. Eating peanut butter or one or two ounces of nuts daily is associated with reductions in heart disease and cancer risk. A recent Harvard study showed that eating peanuts—which are nutritionally similar to tree nuts—is associated with lower body weight.
Most of us can ditch the sports drinks when we hit the gym or trails. Essentially diluted soft drinks with salt, sports drinks are only useful during intense exercise exceeding one hour in extreme heat. Drinks such as Vitaminwater are basically sugar drinks with a vitamin pill. They are “unequivocally harmful to health,” says Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “Whether vitamins dissolved in water have any benefit will depend on who you are...Some people may be getting too much of some vitamins and minerals if they add vitamin water on top of fortified foods and supplements.” Energy drinks, such as Red Bull, SoBe Lifewater or Monster Energy, are not only high in sugar, but most contain stimulants that may be harmful, especially for people with medical conditions such as high blood pressure. Finally, most bottled or ready-to-drink teas contain added sugar and little or none of the nutrients in fresh tea.
Instead: Drink water. It’s the best drink for hydrating your body. If you like flavored drinks, consider making herb- or fruit-enhanced water.
The reputation of these bars, also known as meal replacement bars, is that they aid in weight loss or help build muscle. In fact, they are calorie bombs: candy bars with vitamins, protein or fiber added. In most, sugar is either the first or second ingredient.
Instead: Snack on veggies and fruits for weight loss and yogurt for muscle gain. For a nonperishable, high-energy snack, try nuts and dried fruit.
Multigrain breads, crackers and cereals are among the most confusing foods. People see “multigrain” and think “whole-grain”—that’s not necessarily so. This is an important distinction because people who eat whole grains have a lower incidence of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and are less likely to be overweight compared with those who eat refined grains. Note that “enriched wheat flour” is still refined flour.
Instead: A whole grain, such as whole wheat, whole rye, whole oats or brown rice, should be the first and preferably the only grain ingredient.
“Baked” Chips and Crackers
It’s easy to believe these foods are healthful because of labels such as “baked,” “low-fat” or “gluten-free.” But most are made with refined-grain or starch, which provide plenty of calories and few nutrients. Popchips, for example, are a product marketed as healthful. But the ingredients are highly refined potato flakes, starch, oil, salt and about 14 additional things. Pita chips are made with refined white flour, oil, salt and several more ingredients. To boot, research shows that eating refined grains and starches increases the risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and weight gain.
Instead: Try Wasa or Finn Crisp Original Rye crackers, or another cracker that’s actually 100 percent whole grain and has little sodium. If you’d like a chip, try Terra Chips, made with sliced vegetables, or even a 100 percent whole grain chip or potato chip fried in a healthful oil such as olive oil. You can also make your own healthful veggie chips by baking kale or sliced root veggies in the oven; find recipes in Healthy Snacking 101.
Artificially sweetened foods are seen as guilt-free pleasures because they’re low- or no-calorie. But recently, studies have shown that artificial sweeteners may promote fat gain and insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes, by damaging our guts’ microbiota, the 100 million organisms in the digestive tract that profoundly affect our health (read more about this in The Vital Importance of Healthy Gut Bacteria). In these preliminary rat studies, sugar water improved insulin sensitivity and fat burning as compared with fluid sweetened with artificial sweeteners.
Instead: Real sweeteners are always preferable to artificial sweeteners, and we will consume far less if we add our own versus buying a sweetened product. So don’t feel guilty about adding a teaspoon—or even a tablespoon—of honey, maple syrup or jam to your plain yogurt, whole-grain cereal, coffee or tea. This way you get the health-enhancing nutrients from these foods, in a few extra calories.
Katherine Tallmadge is a dietitian and former media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Her book, Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations is available in our store.