Stroll around the grocery store and you’re likely to encounter foods you never thought to be “healthy”: whole grain cookies, fat free ice cream, and soda with vitamins. Food marketers have seized and sold the notion that low fat is equivalent to healthy and that sprucing up bad food with good ingredients rids them of all evils. Unfortunately, it’s up to us to wade through what’s right and what’s hype.
While it’s easy to see how many foods aren’t good for us—Coke, Slurpees, and Tootsie Rolls are all low fat for example—some of the worst diet derailers are those junky items masquerading as something healthy. Here’s a sampling.
Considering that the American Heart Association has put its stamp of approval on such items as Chocolate Lucky Charms and Special K, it’s no wonder consumers are confused. Sure, these products are low in fat, but who cares? Like most cereals made by Kellogg’s, Post, or any of the other big guys, one of the first ingredients is sugar, resulting in a breakfast full of empty calories.
Better Bet—Check labels for added sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and corn syrup; make sure cereal at least has fiber.
They come across as being healthy with things like “all natural” or “whole grain” on the front, but most of them are filled with sugar, hydrogenated oils, and preservatives. Nutri-Grain Strawberry Yogurt Bars sound nutritious, but take a look at the first six ingredients: high fructose corn syrup, glycerin, water, fructose, modified corn starch, partially hydrogenated cottonseed, and soybean oil. Now where are those darned strawberries?
Yogurt isn’t a bad food; rather, it’s the stuff they flavor it with that is. Lots of yogurts on the market come with added sugar that’s not naturally found in the fruit or the milk.
Better Bet—Choose plain yogurt and add your own fruit.
Packaged Diet Food
Lean Cuisines used to be my favorite frozen food in high school, and I think I even ate a Lean Hot Pocket once. Had I taken the time to look at the ingredient list, I probably would have thought otherwise; there’s some scary stuff in there. Most highly processed foods like this—regardless of fat content—are loaded with sodium, sugar, and preservatives. And after the comedian Jim Gaffigan dubbed Hot Pockets “pop tarts filled with bad meat” how could you ever eat another?
Better Bet—Homemade anything.
Low-Fat Peanut Butter
Peanut butter has good fat, but the low fat version replaces this with hydrogenated oils and sugar in place of the fat. No way that’s better for you. If it comes with the name Jif or Skippy, steer clear.
Better Bet—Natural peanut butter containing only ground peanuts (and salt if you like).
Even though rice cakes claim to be healthful because they’re fat free, they also happen to be free of any substantive ingredients; Quaker’s caramel corn flavor cakes are packed with sugar, maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial flavors.
Better Bet—Homemade popped popcorn drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt.
Some soy and rice milks, especially vanilla and chocolate flavors, have lots of added sugars. They taste great, but sometimes are more like a dessert than something to be used on a regular basis.
Better Bet—Look for plain flavor without added sugar; regular milk has no added sugar.
Salmon Fish Tacos
If you’re trying to eat healthy at a Mexican restaurant you might be hard pressed, but certainly grilled fish tacos seem like a healthier option—the fish is grilled, not fried, after all, so it’s good fat, not bad; and a bit on the smaller side. However, this dish at Chevy’s contains 1092 calories, 64 grams fat, 2468 milligrams of sodium, and 18 grams of sugar. That’s equivalent to eating four McDonald’s hamburgers.
Better Bet—Most local taquerias won’t be giving you less salt or fat, but portion sizes are a lot smaller, resulting in fewer calories.
A similar situation exists for restaurant and fast food chain salads. These really are something good turned terribly bad, and you don’t even get the satisfaction of a burger. Take for instance Chilis’ Southwestern Cobb Salad with Honey Lime Dressing. It has 1240 Calories, 82 grams of fat (19 saturated), 73grams of carbs, and 2930 milligrams sodium. Wow.
Better Bet—(This is scary): Chili’s Honey BBQ ribs, they have less calories (1060) and less fat (65 grams).
It’s a shame that perfectly good nutritional advice (whole grains are good, but not when they’re in cookies) has been co-opted by the major food companies. I’d rather eat a big juicy steak than some of the “health” food that’s out there. A good rule to remember while walking the supermarket aisles is that if it’s marketed by a major food company to make it look like health food, chances are it isn’t. The ingredient list shouldn’t take a dictionary to read, and those things without ingredients lists—fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts—will almost always be a true good-for-you food. Sugar, fake fat, and preservatives are fine every once in awhile, but I’d rather not have them masked in my meals.
Updated, August 12, 2008