Yogurt, granola, kale chips – they all sound healthy, right? Unfortunately, no matter how virtuous a food sounds – particularly in conjunction with popular buzz-words like “all-natural,” “gluten-free” and “live active cultures” – it can still be bad for you.
Those words focus on only one piece of a much larger food puzzle. While the terms may be true, they don’t necessarily qualify the food as healthy. After all, a cookie can be gluten-free, cholesterol-free and organic and still be high in calories, fat and sugar.
Here are 10 foods that wear a “health halo,” but may not warrant space on your plate:
1. Multi-Grain Bread. A lot of people choose multi-grain or seven-grain breads because they think they’re more nutrient-dense. The reality: Most of these breads still list unbleached enriched wheat flour as the first ingredient. Sure, these breads may also contain whole grains, but they’re more an afterthought than the main event.
A better bet: Avoid breads that have the word “enriched” at the top of the ingredient list. The word means they stripped the grains of its nutrients during processing and then added them back to make up for the deficit. Choose breads that list whole grains, like whole wheat, as the first ingredient.
2. Flatbread. You may think you’re going skinny on your sandwich if you opt for a wrap instead of bread. But whether you’re eating flatbread, lavash or tortillas, there’s a good chance that it’s higher in calories than two slices of regular sandwich bread. The reason: Not only are the wraps big, they also don’t have the air (or yeast!) that make regular bread rise, so they’re more dense. And don’t be fooled by the spinach or tomato varieties. They’re might be a little spinach or tomato flavoring, but not enough to make a nutritional difference.
A better bet: If you’re worried about the calorie content of bread and want to slim down, consider using romaine lettuce to wrap your sandwiches, opt for open-faced sandwiches with whole-wheat or whole-grain bread or skip the bread altogether.
3. Yogurt. Yogurt has earned a place in the health food hall of fame since it’s one of few foods that are naturally high in probiotics, the so-called good bacteria that protect your gut flora. But not all yogurt is good for you, and the frozen variety isn’t all that different from ice cream. Not only is it high in sugar, it’s also often adorned with unhealthy toppings ranging from crushed Oreo cookies to gummy bears. Yogurt-covered snacks, such as pretzels, raisins and peanuts, are also sugar traps. And flavored yogurts, especially those targeting kids tend to be loaded with extra sugar.
A better bet: Choose plain low-fat Greek yogurt and flavor it with fresh berries, bananas and other whole fruit.
4. Energy bars. Most energy bars are no different in terms of sugar, calorie and fat content than a standard candy bar – especially the ones that are coated in chocolate. They may sound healthy, with ingredients ranging from brown rice syrup to added fiber, but the reality is they’re little more than conveniently packaged calories.
A better bet: Choose bars that boast simple, recognizable ingredients. Bars, for example, that contain a mixture of nuts, seeds and a bit of honey to hold them together. And if you are trying to cut calories, you might look for something else altogether. Energy equals calories and all energy bars are calorie-dense.
5. Crunchy snacks. Whether you’re noshing on pretzels, veggie straws, sweet potato chips or kale chips with sea salt, chances are you’re getting a whole lot of calories without a ton of nutrition. Most of these packaged snacks are refined grains, like enriched wheat flour or corn or soy flour. And while there might be some veggies in these snacks, it’s usually in powdered form and far from a full serving of vegetables.
A better bet: If you’re craving crunch, cut raw vegetables into sticks or rounds – carrots, celery, cucumbers and bell peppers are all good choices. Add some hummus or even peanut butter for dipping and you have a balanced snack.
6. Dried fruit. Most people know that fruit snacks packaged for kids are little more than sugar and fruit juice, but dried fruit can also be problematic. Fruit that’s dried is often lacking the water-soluble nutrients in its fresh, canned or frozen counterparts and is calorie-dense. With the water removed, it’s easy to overeat.
A better bet: Snack on whole fruits that are easy to carry, such as bananas, apples, oranges and pears.
7. Plant-based milks. A lot of people think plant-based milks like soy, almond and rice milks are better than cow’s milk. However, these milks don’t have the same nutrient mix as cow’s milk. Plus, many plant-based milks, especially the flavored varieties, are loaded with fat and sugar.
A better bet: Unless you have an allergy or a serious taste aversion, stick to cow’s milk over fortified plant-based varieties.
8. Granola. Whether you’re sprinkling granola on your yogurt or snacking on a granola bar, most granola products are chock full of fat and sugar. Sure, they start out with healthful ingredients – rolled oats, dried fruits, nuts and seeds are all wholesome, nutrient-rich ingredients. But then manufacturers take those ingredients and coat them in some sort of sweetener (sugar, molasses, honey and corn syrup are common choices) and bake them in oil.
A better bet: Try muesli! Muesli is essentially all of the wholesome ingredients in granola but without the sugar and oil. Some varieties contain only nuts, seeds, rolled oats, spices and dried fruits. You can also make your own granola or granola bars, using limited quantities of sweetener and oil.
9. Reduced-fat peanut butter. These highly processed spreads have the same number of calories as traditional peanut butter, they’ve just replaced the fat with fillers and sugar. Many manufacturers are also taking these reduced-fat butters and adding high-calorie flavorings to them, such as chocolate or strawberry.
A better bet: Opt for the real deal over any nut butter imposters. The fat in nut butters is actually good for your heart in modest doses.
10. Sports drinks. If you’re a marathon runner or you work out for more than two hours each day, you may need a sports drink to replace lost electrolytes. For the average American, though, sports drinks aren’t necessary and they’re an added source of sugar in a diet that’s already laden with calories.
A better bet: Hydrate with water, not amped-up beverages. Not only will you quench your thirst in a healthy way, you’ll also avoid an unnecessary hit to your pocketbook.
The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re on the hunt for health foods: One or two healthy words or ingredients on the label doesn’t give you the whole picture. It’s also important to look not just at individual foods but at your whole diet.