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Health Food Fake-Outs
Stroll down any supermarket aisle -- even the candy one -- and you'll find shelf after shelf of foods that sound so good for you, they might as well be vitamins. And many menus are equally heavy on the hype (some large smoothies actually have more calories than 16 doughnut holes, FYI). The thing is, a lot of healthy food is anything but. "Just because something is high in protein or fiber doesn't mean that it's nutritious," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, the author of "Read It Before You Eat It." Here's the real deal on eight fake-outs.
Imposter: Fat-Free Salad Dressing
The problem with foods that are "free"? "When you take out ingredients, you have to add something else to make up for the missing flavor and texture," says Angela Ginn, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In this case, sugar and chemical fillers replace the fat, which is often the healthy monounsaturated kind. "You actually want a little bit of that fat to max out the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins from your veggies," explains Rachel Beller, RD, the author of Eat to Lose, Eat to Win.
The better bet: If you're dining out, drizzle on one tablespoon of full-fat dressing, plus vinegar to taste. At home, make dressing by whisking together two teaspoons olive oil, two teaspoons Dijon mustard, one tablespoon balsamic vinegar, and a squeeze of lemon.
Imposter: Turkey Bacon
While this breakfast staple can be lower in saturated fat and calories than regular bacon, it's usually loaded with more sodium, says Tara Gidus, RD, a nutritionist in Orlando, Florida. In fact, two slices contain about 600 milligrams, which is more than a quarter of your daily quota.
The better bet: Look for lower-sodium turkey bacon or go with center-cut pork bacon, which tends to have fewer calories and less saturated fat than standard strips. "And if you cook it until it's crispy, you'll remove a lot of the fat and be left with mostly protein anyway," Gidus says. Whether you go the turkey or the pork route, choose a brand that's free of nitrites and nitrates, preservatives that have been linked to certain cancers.
Imposter: Veggie Chips
What's in a name? In this case, not much: Most veggie chips are made mainly from potato flour mixed with small amounts of vegetable extract or powder, which means they have little to no nutritional value, Ginn says. Some brands are made from whole veggies, but they're still deep fried and heavily salted, Gidus warns.
The better bet: Keep the crunch but lose the empty calories by dunking baby carrots, cucumber slices or endive leaves in a Greek yogurt–based dip, Taub-Dix suggests. If you're dying for chips, grab the kale kind. They're baked, not fried -- and packed with vitamins A and K.
Imposter: Yogurt Parfaits
With upwards of 400 calories, one of these can do more dietary damage than a croissant or a breakfast sandwich, Beller says. The culprit is added sugar, which can be found in the yogurt, fruit, and granola. Some parfaits contain 53 grams of the white stuff, the equivalent of about six lollipops.
The better bet: Skip the parfait and go for low-fat plain Greek yogurt, which has twice as much protein as regular yogurt, topped with fresh berries and a handful of high-fiber cereal, like Kashi GoLean. If you need a sweetener, drizzle on a teaspoon of honey, which contains only six grams of sugar.
Yes, sushi is made with fresh fish and vegetables, but the amount is negligible when you consider how many carbs you're consuming from all that white rice. According to Beller, a typical roll is the carb equivalent of up to four slices of white bread. And if you order anything with a sauce on top or tempura inside, you're looking at close to 500 calories.
The better bet: Ask your server if the chef can go easy on the rice, and request the whole-grain brown variety if it's an option. Hand rolls (which are usually cone-shaped) and nigiri (fresh fish served atop a small clump of rice) tend to have less rice than cut rolls. Or skip the rice altogether and order sashimi plus a side salad and a cup of miso soup.
That tortilla is thin, but its giant diameter means it has about as many carbs as a cup of spaghetti -- and not the complex kind that keep you energized. If you think you're getting your veggies by ordering a spinach wrap, think again. Those tortillas are usually made with spinach powder, which makes up less than 2 percent of the total ingredients. Plus, because the ingredients inside are rolled up so tightly, you get a lot more filling -- and calories -- than you would with a regular sandwich.
The better bet: DIY it by purchasing small or medium whole wheat tortillas that contain four or more grams of fiber, Taub-Dix suggests. Or pair half a store-bought wrap with a piece of fruit or a salad and save the other half for dinner. "Also, there's nothing wrong with a sandwich on good old-fashioned whole wheat bread, which contains only 80 calories a slice," Gidus says.
Imposter: Wasabi Peas
This snack sounds harmless enough, but those healthy peas are coated with cornstarch, flour, oil, sugar and salt, Beller says. The result: 120 calories and 240 milligrams of sodium in a measly quarter-cup serving -- which, thanks to the addicting flavor and lack of filling fiber, you're not likely to limit yourself to.
The better bet: Grab a handful of dry roasted soybeans or almonds instead. Both come in wasabi flavors and pack up to three times as much fiber as peas. They also boast way more protein. Soybeans have 14 grams per ounce and almonds contain six grams, while wasabi peas can have just four grams.
Imposter: Dried Cranberries
You already ask for your salad dressing on the side. Now there's one more request to make: Hold the cranberries. Because they're naturally tart, a one-third-cup serving of the dried kind is loaded with about 25 grams of added sugar. That explains why dried cranberries contain 123 calories a serving, while fresh ones have 15 calories.
The better bet: At the salad bar, choose fresh fruit, like grapes or chopped apples, instead. On the go, opt for dried apricots, which have no added sugar.
Come to Terms
It's no wonder grocery chains are hiring in-store registered dietitians to help shoppers make healthy choices: A recent study showed that 43 percent of new products have health and nutrition promises printed on the packaging, up from 25 percent in 2001. Learn what to watch out for with this handy cheat sheet.
Hormone-Free: The USDA prohibits the use of hormones in all pork and poultry products; any brand touting the term is stating the obvious in an attempt to sound "natural." However, the USDA and the FDA allow the use of hormones in beef. Studies on whether they affect our health are inconclusive. But if you're concerned, look for beef labeled "No hormones administered."
Helps Support a Healthy Metabolism: The FDA doesn't always investigate this phrase, so it's important to check the ingredients list. Any food with this label should contain at least five grams of fiber per serving, says Taub-Dix.
No Antibiotics Added: Farmers say they have to administer antibiotics to animals to make them grow faster and fend off diseases. But some public health officials warn that doing so breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can infect people. Look for this label if you're worried about "superbugs," and thoroughly cook all meat and poultry either way.
Grass-Fed: Choose milk and beef with this label. It means that the cow had access to pasture and ate grass rather than grain, so it was less likely to get sick and need treatment with antibiotics. Also, meat and milk from grass-fed cows is lower in saturated fat and richer in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E, Taub-Dix says.
Sugar-Free: This signifies that the product has less than a half gram of sugar per serving. But sugar-free doesn't necessarily equal low-calorie, Taub-Dix says. The food could still be laden with fat and carbs. Plus, the sugar could have been replaced with artificial sweeteners, which research suggests may actually increase your appetite or create uncomfortable side effects like gas and bloating. Read the ingredients list before buying.