With so many health fads coming and going, it’s easy to see why we're still so unhealthy while being one of the most health conscious countries on the planet. We are trying to do good by checking labels and testing out the new health craze (green juice anyone?), yet we still feel blah when it comes to our health and energy levels. Well, the answer could be lying in your pantry. Even the healthiest sounding packaged snacks can have hidden ingredients sabotaging your healthy eating efforts. Items marked boldly with words like “sugar-free” and “organic” have you smiling ear to ear in the checkout line, thinking you are on top of your fitness game. You managed to dodge the pastries and chips while navigating through the grocery store, all the while these sneaky ingredients are hindering you from losing weight or achieving whatever your fitness goals are.
Below are 15 foods that sound healthy but could be sabotaging your health efforts. This is not to say that you should completely avoid indulging, that's not healthy either. Just be more mindful of not stocking up on these items all at once. Aim to reach for whole foods when snacking, no food that has an ingredients list is a whole food. Practice balance and fill up on the good stuff while leaving a little extra room for the naughty stuff. Think of it like your bank account, you have to save money for the boring stuff like bills and your car payment, but you also want to have a little left over for a fun night out with friends. Your diet should be the same way.
Low fat yogurt is a very common choice when looking for the healthiest items. We choose low fat yogurt thinking we are saving in calories. The problem is many low fat yogurt brands add a lot of sugar to make up for the missing fat. Especially if you are buying the fruit on the bottom kind of yogurt, which is really just a thick syrupy fruit mush with little to no valuable nutrition. Choose Greek yogurt instead. The calories from fat in Greek yogurt are what helps keep us fuller longer, not to mention the protein content is high making this type of yogurt a great choice when reaching for a snack.
Since we’re on the topic of fat, you can probably guess how poor of a choice fat free foods are. To add insult to injury, they taste horrible. Often times, as with low fat yogurt, fat free foods will have added sugar and salt to make up for the bland taste that comes with removing fat. The sugar and sodium levels are through the roof on many fat free packaged foods. An easy way to avoid fat free items is to reach for whole foods for a snack instead. Choose a baked potato over potato chips or steamed edamame as a snack instead of crackers. For a sweet fix instead of cookies, have Greek yogurt with fresh fruit.
Many cereal manufactures have jumped on the whole grain bandwagon. We can now enjoy our favorite cereal we remember from childhood and now it’s healthy, right? Not really. Although in some cases this increases the fiber content, there is no guarantee that whole grain equals high fiber. We assume that grabbing for the whole grain box equals a win win for our health, but this isn't true. It also turns out that a food product must only contain 51% whole grains by weight to be labeled “Whole Grain.” This leaves a lot of room for other processed ingredients. Instead of being tempted by the whole grain label, look for breakfast items with at least 5 grams of fiber per serving.
Microwave popcorn has often been hailed as a healthy choice when dieting. This is another one that gets stamped the “Whole Grain” label, so consumers think they are making the healthy choice. The truth is, microwave popcorn is full of hard to pronounce artificial ingredients. A report by the Huffington Post found that the butter flavor is often produced from a compound called Diacetyl, which when microwaved produces vapors that can be damaging to lungs when inhaled, and it doesn't even have to be labeled as an ingredient.Many microwaved popcorn brands are all to often full of artificial flavoring, trans fats, and of course there is the overload of sodium content. Instead, pop your own popcorn the old fashioned way, on the stove top. This gives you control over the quality of the corn kernels (choose non-GMO), the quality of oil used, and the amount of salt added.
Instant oatmeal is high on the list of unhealthy foods you can eat for breakfast. The grains are processed so they cook quickly, which has been found to spike blood sugar, setting you up for a crash later on. If the processed grains aren't bad enough, the sugar content is also often very high in instant oatmeal and there are additives, preservatives and artificial flavors added. Instead of instant oatmeal for breakfast, choose steel cut oats which have the grain in tact and digest slower to keep you fuller longer or choose a high protein food like an omelette or scrambled eggs with fresh vegetables.
Smoothies sound like a good idea when reaching for something healthy. But, according to a report by time.com, smoothies can often contain as much sugar as a can of soda! Valuable fiber is destroyed in the blending process causing the sugars in the fruit to be absorbed at a much higher rate than if you were to eat a piece of whole fruit. This isn't to say that you should avoid smoothies all together. When ordering and making your own smoothies, opt for one that has mostly vegetables and just a tad bit of fruit to sweeten. Also, steer clear of added items like peanut butter and ice cream.
Turkey bacon is a deceptively unhealthy food. You would think that because it is leaner than pork that it would be the healthier choice. Turkey bacon is actually higher in sodium than pork bacon and usually contains more additives and preservatives. Turkey bacon is also made up of different parts of the turkey ground and formed to make the turkey bacon we buy (yum!), while traditional bacon is from one part of the animal. Enjoy bacon as a once in a while treat and purchase bacon that was pasture raised without the use of additives and preservatives with ingredients you recognize like pork, salt and brown sugar.
Granola is another food item that sounds healthy, but once you read the amount of sugar and calories in a single one cup serving, it is not worth wasting your calorie bank on. According to shape.com, a single bowl of granola can pack over 500 calories! That is a lot of sugar and calories if you are eating granola for breakfast. If you want to enjoy a little granola, add a small amount on your Greek yogurt or make your own so that you have control of the amount of sugar added. Many granola brands also add hydrogenated oils, stick to a brand that uses coconut or olive oils instead.
Like smoothies, fruit juices often have added sugars in addition to the already naturally sweet fruit. Fruit juices with the word “cocktail” at the end are often the biggest culprit of added sugars like high-fructose corn syrup and minimal amounts of real fruit juice. A recent report by huffingtonpost.com found that fruit juice can have even more grams of sugar than coke. Enjoy fruit juices in moderation and always choose brands with 100% juice, especially when purchasing beverages for children. For a healthier alternative to juice, enjoy water with fresh fruit and mint or sparkling water with a splash of juice.
Butter-like spreads became very popular in the 90’s and were even advertised as being healthy. All the while, real butter got a bad rap. We are now learning that our ancestors had it right all along. Margarine is made up of hydrogenated oils which results in unhealthy trans-fat. A diet high in trans-fats is linked with heart disease, hormonal imbalances and cancer. Hydrogenated oils are often genetically modified and altered further to form margarine. Margarine and butter-like spreads are not made from natural ingredients and instead contain chemical ingredients to mimic the flavor and texture of real butter. Whenever possible, purchase real grass-fed organic butter. Real quality butter is high in vitamins A,D,E, and K and antioxidants.
Gluten free food items are often mistaken as health food, when in fact they still contain the same amount of sugar and sodium as their gluten containing counterparts. Unless you truly have a gluten intolerance, choosing gluten free pancake mix, pastries, pasta and candy isn’t going to do you any favors in terms of health. Instead aim to eat whole foods when snacking. Crunch on fresh veggies with hummus or make your own baked potato chips using a high quality oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. Or if you are craving something sweet, have fresh veggies dipped in a little bit of dark chocolate.
Trail mix is a dangerous snack food. Many of us snack mindlessly without paying attention to serving size. And let’s face it, no one ever has just a handful of trail mix. Most trail mix is basically candy; an assortment of over salted nuts, some sort of sugary candy and some raisins. There is little quality nutrition to actually outweigh the high sodium and high sugar content of this snack. Instead, buy raw unsalted nuts to use sparingly. A few heart healthy nuts sprinkled on top of your salad = healthy, a few handfuls of salty sugary trail mix = not so healthy.
You have a beautiful salad full of fresh veggies, nuts, and a delicious cheese; then you top it with a processed refined oil and preservative filled salad dressing. That is the way it usually works. Store bought dressings are cheap and convenient, but the ingredients list of many brands reads like a short novel, in a language we can’t pronounce. They also usually use a processed oil like canola , soybean, and vegetable oil. Vegetable oil is usually corn oil not the oil of real wholesome vegetables. If you are in a pinch, opt for a vinaigrette style dressing with 100% olive oil or an organic dressing which also contains olive or avocado oils. If you have a few minutes, make your own simple dressing with fresh lemon juice, olive oil and chopped herbs.
Sugar free candy is popping up everywhere; in chocolate, chewing gum, hard candy and even toothpaste. Sugar free candy might sound like a healthy choice, they don’t spike blood sugar the same as candies with regular sugar so they seem like a good choice. The problem is that these candies use sugar alcohols like sorbitol and xylitol instead, which aren't fully digested resulting in gas, bloating and diarrhea.They can be especially hard on people who already suffer from IBS according to a report from webmd.com. Skip the candy all together and opt for real fruit to get your sugar fix.
Energy bars are a convenient choice post workout or on the go. But many of them are full of artificial ingredients and sugar. They also contain pesky fractionated oils to keep them fresh and the protein source is often of low quality like soy isolate. Energy bars are also intended for athletes, so their calorie content is very high for a small bar. Real food is always a better choice. If you are going to choose an energy bar as a meal replacement, an article by webmd.com recommends one with 15 grams of protein and 3-5 grams of fiber.