They sound healthy, they look healthy and food companies work hard to make you believe they are healthy. But many foods that get a good-for-you rap are anything but nutritious. They’re packed with calories, fat, added sugars and artificial ingredients that your body doesn’t need. Here are some of the worst offenders at the market.
“Just because a bar has protein in it does not mean it’s nutritious,” says Melanie Warner, author of Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. In fact, many protein bars aren’t much better for you than a Snickers. They’re chock-full of sugar and saturated fat with a little protein added in, usually in the form of a highly processed powder derived from soy or milk.
“These powders offer no nutritional benefits beyond the protein, which most of us get enough of from our diets anyway,” says Warner. To find a bar that’s actually healthy, “Look for ones that have whole ingredients that haven’t been broken down, whether that’s oats, nuts or dried fruit,” Warner suggests. “These ingredients provide a well-rounded complex of nutrition beyond just the protein.”
Or skip the protein bar altogether. “A peanut-butter sandwich on whole-grain bread is a great substitute for a bar,” says Joan Salge Blake, RD, a health sciences professor at Boston University and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It travels well and costs less than 25 cents.”
“Some veggie burgers are very, very healthy, but many are not,” Salge Blake says. “Often times they’re held together by lots of cheese, making them much higher in saturated fat than you’d think.” They also can be laden with unhealthy oils, made mostly of soy, and have few if any other real vegetables—especially the patties served at restaurants.
When dining out, ask your server what’s in the veggie burger and how it is prepared before ordering one. At the grocery store, read the ingredients panel on frozen patty packages. Salge Blake says to look for vegetables, beans or whole grains high up on the list and make sure the burger is low in saturated fat.
Frozen diet entrées
Low-calorie nuke-and-eat meals might sound healthy, but they’re not so great, especially for guys. They usually have around 300 calories, which isn’t enough to cut it for dinner, assuming you shoot for the 2,500 calories a day recommended for men.
Chances are, you’ll polish one off and still feel hungry. Next thing you know, you’ll be searching for a snack. Additionally, Salge Blake says these entrées don’t offer enough vegetables to make a square meal and they’re usually sky-high in sodium. Some have as many as 700 mg, which is almost half of the 1,500 mg recommended for the whole day.
Although some people need to avoid gluten for medical reasons, many others cut out foods containing this protein because they think “gluten-free” means healthy. It doesn’t.
“Usually when people go gluten-free just to manage their weight, it backfires,” Salge Blake says. “Many gluten-free foods, especially sweet stuff like cookies, have the same number of calories as their gluten-containing equivalents, if not more. These foods are also more expensive, so if you don’t really need to avoid gluten, it doesn’t make sense to buy them.”
Don’t be fooled by the sea of spinach chips, carrot chips and pepper chips lining the snack aisle these days. Oftentimes these are no healthier for you than Ruffles. Most still use potato as their base, and then sprinkle in a little spinach, tomato or pea powder for color—and not a lot of added nutrition.
“The product might be called ‘spinach chips’, but if you look at the ingredients list, you’ll often see that there’s not much spinach in there at all,” says Salge Blake. “It’s usually listed at the very end, and it’s often just a powder.” Also, regardless of whether chips are made from potatoes or another vegetable, if they’re fried in saturated-fat-filled oils, steer clear.
Multigrain bread, pasta and cereal
Whole grains are healthier than refined grains because they have more fiber, vitamins and minerals. But multigrain? The term doesn’t tell you squat about nutrition. “It just means there is more than one type of grain used in a product,” says Warner.
For all you know, multigrain might mean refined wheat flour with a dash of refined corn flour. And two kinds of refined flours aren’t necessarily better for you than one. You have to check the ingredients list. If it says “whole wheat” or “whole corn” near the top, then you’re actually getting the extra health benefits.
Anything with added antioxidants or vitamins
Since doctors tell us to load up on antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies, manufacturers love slapping phrases like “with antioxidants” or “with added vitamins and minerals” onto processed food labels. You’ll see this a lot on breakfast cereals, bars and refined-grain breads, which are otherwise mostly empty calories. “These claims give foods a health halo, like all you need to do is sprinkle in some vitamins and they become healthy,” Warner says.
Oftentimes these foods are far from nutritious—remember 7-Up with Antioxidants?—and the added vitamins aren’t coming from real fruits and veggies, which are by far the best sources. “Manufacturers don’t usually add in actual blueberry compounds, for instance,” says Warner. “They’ll use synthetic vitamins made through chemical processing.”
Fat-free salad dressing
Non-fat dressings often pack in scads of salt to compensate for flavor, and they often include dozens of artificial ingredients. Besides, you should have a little fat with your salad. Your body needs it to be able to absorb the nutrients in all those fresh veggies. “Tossed salads are full of fat-soluble vitamins, so I recommend low-fat or light dressings instead of non-fat,” Salge Blake says. “Plus, a little fat helps you feel fuller.”
Low-fat ice cream
No ice cream is nutritious, of course, but low-fat versions get viewed as better-for-you. They’re not. “A lot of them aren’t far off from regular ice cream in terms of calories per cup,” Salge Blake says. “They take out some fat, but they add in sugar.” That’s bad, because more and more research shows that excess sugar—not fat—is the main culprit in weight gain.
“The other issue with low-fat ice cream is people think they can eat more of it because it’s ‘healthier’,” Salge Blake says. “Same with frozen yogurt, since it’s also lower in fat.” To keep your portions in check, she recommends putting a pile of fresh strawberries or blueberries in your bowl first. Then use a half-cup of ice cream or frozen yogurt as a topping.
Greek yogurt may be low in sugar and packed with protein, but your everyday Dannon or Yoplait? Not so much. “The sugar content of regular yogurt can be as much as a can of soda,” Warner says. Plus, it’s normally packed with artificial flavors, colors and preservatives. And compared to Greek, regular yogurt is higher in sodium and lower in protein.