No one can eat healthy foods all the time. Even the fittest among us have a few guilty pleasures we can’t help but indulge every so often. (Lookin’ at you, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies!) We all know they’re not exactly doing wonders for our health, but hey, you only live once.
However, there are other less-than-virtuous foods we may be eating on a more regular basis—without even realizing they’re unhealthy. Thanks to clever marketing, a lot of these picks have a so-called “health halo” around them. This misleading messaging tricks you into thinking you’re making a healthy choice. However, these “healthy foods” are hiding ingredients that can actually derail your efforts to get fit.
Below, six registered dietitians tell us the seemingly healthy foods they avoid (and suggest their clients do, too)—and what to nosh on instead.
1. “Whole-Grain” Products
Grocery store shelves are full of products proudly bearing “whole-grain” claims. But, many don’t actually deserve that stamp of approval, says Megan Casper, MS, RDN, founder of Nourished Bite. The FDA defines “whole grains” as containing the three integral parts of a grain—bran, endosperm and germ—in the same proportions as intact grain products. However, products need to contain only 51% of this whole-grain mixture to be labeled “whole grain.” The rest of it could be processed, refined grains, Casper explains. This means they lack the antioxidants and fiber of true whole grains, even if they’re labeled as such.
Eat this instead: Casper recommends looking for products that say “100% whole wheat” on the package, contain a 10:1 carb to fiber ratio, or bear this whole grain stamp. These signs ensure that all of the ingredients in the product are whole grain.
2. Coconut Flakes
“I love my coconut flakes, but these little guys are so easy to go overboard on,” says Tracy Lockwood, MS, RD, CDN, owner of Tracy Lockwood Nutrition in NYC. Be mindful that just 1/4 cup of unsweetened dried coconut flakes has about 100 calories and 9 grams of saturated fat. This is more than half of the daily recommended amount from the American Heart Association.
Eat this instead: Top your yogurt parfait or (low-sugar) smoothie bowl with about 1 tablespoon unsweetened coconut flakes. Also add heart-healthy toppings such as walnuts and flaxseeds, Lockwood suggests.
3. Acai bowls
The snack of choice for Californian surfer dudes, acai bowls are colorful concoctions that make a healthier alternative to ice cream on summer days. But while they are loaded with antioxidants, the trouble lies in the added sugars hiding in the pre-made mixes, Lockwood explains. They can be packed with more than 15 grams of added sugar. That doesn’t account for the naturals sugar from the fruit and toppings.
Eat this instead: If you’re craving the real thing, go for it—but just be sure to split the bowl with a friend, Lockwood suggests. “You’ll still feel full and satisfied even after dividing it up.” If you’re DIY-ing it at home, look for an acai and greens mix (like this one) that contains only 4g of sugar per packet.
Like the rest of us, Lockwood loves the taste of granola. What she doesn’t love is how easy it is to eat much more than the recommended serving size of 1/4 to 1/3 cup. This can already add up to 200 calories. “That’s roughly the size of a open cupped hand,” she says, “I’m pretty sure anyone can mindlessly eat granola by the handful.”
Eat this instead: “Double check the label and make sure the sugar content is reasonable,” Lockwood suggests. “Less than 10 grams per serving is ideal.” And be sure to grab that measuring cup so you know you’re eating only one serving!
5. Trail Mix
Sure, a fruit-and-nut trail mix sounds like a healthy snack. And it can be a good source of protein, fiber, and healthy fats. However, it’s also a great source of lots of calories, says Danielle Cushing, RD, LDN, CNSC. “If you eat a couple of “handfuls” of trail mix, you’re quickly wrecking your weight loss attempts.”
Eat this instead: Cushing suggests making your own trail mix: “Minor changes can make a big difference!” Start with lightly salted nuts and add natural dried fruit—not the stuff with crystallized sugar all over it! Skip the chocolate and add in a low-calorie cereal or grain like plain Cheerios, puffed rice, or popcorn. “The cereal will allow you to have a much larger portion for the same amount of calories as typical store-bought trail mix,” Cushing points out.
6. Flavored Yogurt
“Yogurt in general can be a good source of protein, calcium, and probiotics. [But] those benefits are often cancelled out by the high sugar content if the yogurt is flavored,” says Rebecca Lewis, RDN, a registered dietitian at Hello Fresh. Some brands pack as much 20 grams of sugar or more serving!
Eat this instead: Opt for a unflavored yogurt with less than 12 g of sugar per serving, Lewis says. Yes, you have to check the labels! Add sweetness with fresh fruits. Also, make sure you go Greek. Greek yogurt has about two times the protein and about half the sugar of regular yogurt.
7. Beef Jerky
Plenty of people go for this high-protein, highly portable snack when they’re watching their carbohydrate intake. The catch: “Most jerkies are chock full of sodium to preserve the meat,” Lewis says. “All this sodium causes water retention and bloating—not to mention the long-term effects of high blood pressure.”
Eat this instead: “Choose low-sodium turkey jerky,” Lewis suggests. “It’s just as delicious without all the salt!”
The classic Netflix-and-chill snack sadly isn’t your body’s BFF. “Popcorn itself is actually considered a whole grain, but you’ll want to avoid the microwave kind. It’s a processed food that is loaded with fat and sodium,” Lewis says. Even worse, the bag lining contains diacetyl. This is a chemical that gives popcorn its buttery flavor, but can also toxic when heated and has been linked to lung disease.
Eat this instead: Make your own popcorn from scratch (use peanut oil for the best results) on the stove top or using an air-popper, Lewis advises. And get creative with your toppings. “Give nutritional yeast a try—it tastes like cheese without all the fat,” she says.
9. Soy Protein Products
“Soy protein isolate is often added to snack bars and other products to boost the amount of protein, so the nutritional stats look healthier,” explains Sylvia North, a registered dietitian and integrative nutritionist in New Zealand. But high-protein doesn’t always equal healthy. The problem with type of soy? It’s a dehydrated, refined product that’s highly processed and has little nutritional value. (This isn’t the same soy protein found in tofu and tempeh, which is a more natural, less processed form.)
Eat this instead: “If you’re looking to up your protein intake, look for real food sources that are naturally high in protein and healthy fats, such as a boiled egg or small handful of nuts,” North suggests.
10. Protein Powder Supplements
You hear people talking about their post-workout shakes. Maybe you’ve even jumped on the powdered protein bandwagon. But mixing that scoop with water after exercise isn’t always necessary, says Dana Angelo White, MS, RD. “Many people think they need to rely on supplements to get in their daily goal of protein this can easily be achieved with food,” she explains. “Plus protein powder supplements contain excessive amounts of protein per scoop plus additional ingredients like artificial sweeteners.”
Eat this instead: It’s a better strategy to get your protein from whole-food sources such as lean meats, eggs, Greek yogurt, dark, leafy greens, nuts, and nut butter, White says.
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