Trying to follow a healthy diet in the real world can be like trying to follow a path through a jungle. Are carbs bad? Can foods really reduce your cancer risk? Do you need a multivitamin? Misleading labels on our food can only make things even more confusing. When buying things at the store, these labels can easily be misconstrued.
“People love pretty designs and promises of health,” Stephanie Schiff, a registered dietitian at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital in New York, told The Daily Meal. But don’t be fooled. A manufacturer may decrease fat in their foods, but replace it with sugar. Or a “lower sodium” label might only mean the food has less sodium than an earlier version of the same item.
Where can you find the truth? “On the back, in the nutrition facts label, and in the ingredients list,” Schiff says. “Don't believe everything they tell you. Read the back labels and judge for yourself.”
These 26 foods, for example, may present themselves as healthy, but may not be as nutritious as they seem.
“Eating yogurt is an awesome way to add good bacteria to your gut,” Schiff says. But she notes too many yogurts have sugar as a top ingredient, and suggests shoppers buy plain yogurt instead, adding in such mix-ins as fruit, nuts, low-sugar granola or chia seeds. She also recommends Greek yogurt, a higher-protein kind of yogurt. Non-dairy diners can try almond and soy yogurt.
Ah, diet soda. While the dieters’ favorite drink may have zero calories, there are some scary reasons you might want to stop drinking it. Schiff admits that diet soda can be a better option than sugar-sweetened or fructose-sweetened soda, but it’s important to remember that the manufacturers can get the sweet taste in a variety of ways. Steering clear of artificial sweeteners is possible without giving up fizzy drinks. Schiff suggests that those who crave a soda try a stevia-sweetened product instead. “Stevia has no calories and is a natural product,” she added.
Hiking is a healthy pursuit, and trail mix may seem like an equally healthy snack to take with you. But you may accidentally overdo it on candy and chocolate chips. “Stay away from the ones with M&Ms, or yogurt-covered fruits,” Schiff advises. These trail mix ingredients can have a lot of added sugar, which is fine for satisfying your sweet tooth, but might not be the greatest everyday snack. Lower sugar options include trail mix with unsalted raw nuts, seeds and unsweetened dried fruits, which can provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and healthy fats. Don’t be afraid of high-fat foods — they can be really good for you.
Cutting out fat might seem healthier, but it really isn’t. Opting for low-fat versions of high-fat foods is a “healthy” habit that really isn’t. The fats in peanut butter are really good for you, and can help keep you satiated until your next meal. Additionally, for many products, when manufacturers reduce fat, they increase sugar or fillers, Schiff warns. She encourages peanut butter lovers to compare sugar content and added chemicals of peanut butter brands. Standard peanut butter may be a better choice.
Granola is great as a snack, as cereal or sprinkled on yogurt, but not all granolas are as healthy as they seem. Schiff says you should check to see if granola brands have added sugar, palm oil or partially hydrogenated oils listed high on the ingredient panel, and to remember that even natural ingredients like honey and maple syrup are still sources of sugar.
Tea is healthy, right? Picking up a bottled tea may be healthier than grabbing a sugary soda, but some bottled teas actually have as much sugar as that cola drink. “Go for the ones with no added sugar, just pure tea,” Schiff encourages. “They’re out there. And green tea will give you an extra boost of antioxidants.”
Energy bars are an easy road snack, combining the handy shape of a candy bar with better-for-you ingredients. But are they really better? “Energy bars tend to have a lot of added chemicals, which you don’t need,” Schiff says. She urges people who want to eat energy bars to look for bars made with a healthy, natural protein source, such as nuts, seeds or quinoa, plus minimal sweeteners and a short ingredient list.
Schiff says she “very seldom” thinks juices are a good option, and that we’re often better off with fresh fruit instead. Of fruit juices, her favorite is pomegranate upon occasion. “Studies have shown that it may improve cognition.”
Oatmeal has healthy, soluble fiber, which is good for your heart, Schiff notes. But some instant oatmeal packets are crammed with sugar. One easy option she recommends is to pre-prepare your own overnight oats. Just take 1/2 cup of rolled oats and 1/2 cup of milk — either dairy or plant — and mix them in a jar to leave in your fridge overnight. “The oatmeal will be creamy the next morning, no cooking required,” she says. “Then you can add fruit, coconut, nuts, cinnamon, cocoa nibs, anything, and eat!”
Smoothie chains may hype up the health factor of their drinks, but it really depends on the ingredients. Many chains lean heavily on sugary add-ins that make their smoothies more like milkshakes. A healthier option is to make them at home with no-sugar yogurt and consider using unsweetened, plant-based milks, Schiff suggests. “Use mostly vegetables, with some fruit.”
You might feel like opting for a bran muffin at the coffee shop instead of a chocolate doughnut is a healthy choice. “But it’s usually a sugar and fat bomb,” Schiff reveals. So if you’re choosing the muffin to try to cut sugar, you may as well get the sweet treat you really want. You may not be able to look at a label list in a bakery, but if you’re buying a wrapped muffin, check the nutrition label. For a healthier breakfast, you’re looking for lots of fiber and smaller amounts of sugar.
Fruit leather is fruit, right? Fruit is healthy. “This is candy, not fruit,” Schiff says. Fruit leather is high in sugar, and the sticky texture can linger on your teeth and contribute to cavities. It’s a fun treat to have once in a while, but don’t think of it as a replacement for fresh fruit.
We know what you’re thinking: Why would veggie burgers be on this list? Schiff agrees that these can be good options if you’re subbing them in for red meat. But you may still want to check the label. “If you have high-blood pressure or are at risk for heart disease, watch the sodium levels, which can be a bit high in some vegetable-based burgers,” Schiff says. “Try the Impossible Burger, or Beyond Burger, if you’re looking for a close-to-meat experience.”
Admittedly, fro-yo usually has less fat and sugar than ice cream, but watch the sugar content, Schiff says. It does, however, also have the benefits of gut-balancing probiotics in its corner. She recommends you don’t go overboard on the toppings and opt for soft-serve.
Beans are often a healthy choice filled with fiber, but buying the canned version can muck with your healthy plans. Some canned beans have more sodium than a dish you’d cook from dried ones. Look for varieties that are lower in sodium or make your own.
Rice cakes look (and sometimes taste) like Styrofoam, but the disks are still a staple for many dieters. Schiff notes that the rice cakes have low amounts of fiber, and don’t have a lot to offer on their own health-wise. But if you like to eat them from time to time, you can use them as a vehicle for a nutritious spread with protein or healthy fat, like peanut butter or avocado.
Açaí bowls, made with a highly nutritious Amazonian berry, are a 2010s trend that’s taken off as fast as Fortnite. They are also one of the best-kept secrets of Costco’s famous food court. But these bowls can be packed with sugar, no matter how healthy the sellers try to make them sound. “Add nuts for protein and fat, so you’re not hungry a half hour later,” Schiff says. “And get a small one.”
Bottled water isn’t bad for you, but why spend money on something that comes out of your sink? “Bottled water is usually no better than tap,” Schiff says. “As a matter of fact, many bottled water companies do get their water from a tap. Check your local water supply. If it’s good, use it!” Your town might even have the best-tasting tap water in the U.S.
Crunchy pretzels may seem like a healthy replacement for potato chips, but be careful. Schiff says they are often made with white flour, have no fiber, and can have a lot of sodium, partly from those added salt crystals that make pretzels so delicious. “Look for whole-grain versions,” she says.
You may know to avoid fluffy, sugary white breads if you want more fiber in your diet. But what about multigrain breads? Some companies hope you’ll buy anything with the labels whole-grain, multi-grain or whole-wheat, and ignore the actual ingredient list. Check the label and make sure sugar is not high on the list, Schiff says. In fact, there are a few things you should look for next time you buy a loaf of bread.
The deal with sushi can be a little fishy. Schiff agrees it’s often a healthy choice, since the raw fish isn’t fried or sauteed in oil. But you may be consuming more white rice than you realize. And be careful when you dip. Even the low-sodium soy sauce can send your blood pressure through the roof.
Soy milk is fine, as is any plant milk, Schiff says. In fact, soy milk might be the healthiest kind. But now that soy milk has become so popular, manufacturers are appealing to consumers’ sweet tooth by making chocolate, vanilla and other sweetened versions. “Watch out for flavored varieties, which often have a lot of added sugar,” Schiff says.
Packaged salted nuts can quickly load you up on salt, and a serving size is only about a handful. “Nuts have fat, and although it’s healthy fat, you shouldn’t overdo it,” Schiff says. “ If the nuts are roasted, that’s additional fat.” If you’re looking for something quick and satisfying, salted nuts can be a good choice. If you’re looking for something you can snack on all day, on the other hand, you may want to opt for a less calorie-dense food with less sodium.
Unless you have celiac disease or are gluten-intolerant, gluten-free packaged products won't make you healthier, Schiff says. “When companies take gluten out of their products, they often add more fat, sugar or salt.” If you need to go gluten-free, do so naturally, she advises, by eating more vegetables, fruits, gluten-free whole grains and lean proteins. Steer clear of packaged cookies, cakes and breads that tout the “GF” label. If you’re avoiding gluten because you think it’s bad for you, keep in mind that this is one of many common myths about gluten you shouldn’t believe.
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