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10 Junk Foods Disguised as Health Foods

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    Store-Bought Hummus

    I'm a huge fan of hummus, but I'm sick of hearing people refer to it as a protein-rich food. Sure, the main ingredient is chickpeas, but this popular dip is higher in fat and carbs than it is in protein. An average store-bought hummus has 2 grams of protein and 100 calories for 2 tablespoons. Eat enough hummus to get 15 grams of protein and you're taking in a whopping 750 calories.

    Not to mention, the store-bought versions with pine nuts and swirls of oil can have double the calories of the traditional homemade hummus recipe. Plus, how many of us stick to the suggested 2-tablespoon serving size on the package? Calories add up fast when you're scooping your hummus with pita chips or crackers. Commercially produced hummus also contains cheaper oils like soybean and sunflower rather than olive oil, making it more inflammatory than the original heart-healthy recipe.

    Healthy Swap: Make your own hummus to control the ingredients and serve with veggies for a lighter, healthier version. Think of hummus as a fat—not a protein—and watch your portion sizes. You can also make dips out of fat-free plain Greek yogurt—in 1 cup, you'll get 20 grams of protein for only 120 calories.

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    Vegan Cheese

    Repeat after me: "Just because it's vegan doesn't mean it's healthy." Processed food is still processed food, whether it's gluten-free, non-GMO, or organic. Don't fall for trendy words on the front of a package.

    How do scientists in a lab recreate cheese with only plant-based foods? Take a look at the ingredients. You'll see most vegan cheese is made from tapioca flour, cheap vegetable oil, and salt. The oils and starches are super processed to give them a cheeselike consistency. You might as well have a slice of processed cheese that comes in plastic wrap—they're both junk foods.

    Healthy Swap: Try making your own cheese sauce using nutritional yeast! This awesome ingredient packs in cheesy flavor that's vegan and full of B vitamins. You can also make cashew cheese, a tasty alternative that's packed with protein and uses whole foods. If you aren't vegan, go for the real thing and enjoy cheese in small amounts.

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    Bottled Iced Tea

    The images of green and black tea leaves blossoming on the bottle can make iced tea seem like a natural, healthy beverage. But read the ingredient list on most brands and see that you're getting tons of sugar in each sip. At around 250 calories and 60 grams of sugar per bottle, these sweetened teas simply aren't the zero-calorie, metabolism-boosting teas they used to be.

    If you do find a low-calorie bottled iced tea, watch out for artificial sweeteners. These non-foods may mess with your metabolism, making it harder to lose weight.

    Healthy Swap: Look for no-sugar-added or unsweetened iced tea with natural lemon or other fruit flavors. You can also make your own iced tea at home and throw in some frozen berries for sweetness.

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    Low-Carb Protein Bars

    So you've found a protein bar that's low in carbs and actually tastes good. What's not to love, right? Well, check out the ingredient list. Typically, it's long enough to have its own zip code and many of the ingredients are words you can't pronounce (what I call non-food). Manufacturers of these bars have taken out the carbs and replaced them with artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and artery-damaging trans fats. They are junk food, not health food—plain and simple.

    Healthy Swap: Make your own bars! Try my No-Bake Cranberry Chocolate Lentil Bars for a whole-food snack you can feel good about. And ask yourself, why are you low-carbing anyway? Choose smart carbs like an apple or berries and pair with nut butter or Greek yogurt for a satisfying snack for sustained energy.

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    Vegetable Chips

    Whether they come shaped as chips, straws, or triangles, crunchy veggie snacks aren't as healthy as they seem. It isn't the same as eating your vegetables, like the ads want you to believe. The first ingredient is typically potato flour followed by sunflower oil and corn starch. Most vegetable chips offer zero nutrition other than the carbs, calories, and fat from cheap vegetable oils. They're no better for you than baked potato chips.

    Healthy Swap: Bake your own kale chips or zucchini chips or look for brands that have vegetables other than potatoes as the first few ingredients.

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    Fish is healthy. Seaweed is healthy. Sushi isn't necessarily healthy. It all depends on what rolls you order. If it has white rice, tempura, and/or mayo (as in spicy tuna rolls), your sushi could have more calories than you realize. For example, six tempura shrimp pieces of sushi come out to more than 600 calories. Those little slivers of vegetables aren't adding much nutrition-wise either. Face it: You're eating a big bowl of rice in a prettier package.

    Healthy Swap: Go to a sushi restaurant that uses brown rice and choose sushi rolls with plain fish, vegetables, and avocado for healthy fat. You can also try sashimi for even more protein and order it with brown rice on the side to better eyeball your portion sizes.

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    Snap Pea Snacks

    Snap pea snacks are basically baked vegetables that are more delicious, right? Wrong. They aren't just made with peas; they also contain white rice, a fast-releasing carb that makes your blood sugar spike and then crash, leaving you prone to cravings. These crispy snacks are just as high in calories as chips and as high in fat as Doritos! And when you believe something is healthier, you think you can eat more of it, making portions out of control and these snacks even more problematic.

    Healthy Swap: Grab some roasted chickpeas, edamame, or nuts and seeds for a natural protein-rich snack that helps you stay fuller longer. Just be sure to keep the portion size to a small handful if you're watching your weight.

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    Store-Bought Salad Dressing

    Bottled salad dressings are convenient but usually loaded with sodium. Plus, the low-fat versions often have lots of sugar to make them taste good. You might see some brands claiming they're "made with olive oil." It sounds healthy, but check the ingredient list. Often you'll see that olive oil is one of the last ingredients and the main oil is cheaper (and more inflammatory) sunflower or safflower oil.

    Healthy Swap: Make your own salad dressing with lemon juice or apple cider vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil (3:1 ratio) with plenty of herbs for amazing flavor and heart health benefits.

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    "Multigrain" Bread

    Multigrain sounds wholesome, but that's not necessarily the case. All it means is that your bread has more than one type of grain in it. But these grains could be highly processed "white carbs" that raise insulin levels and could cause you to store more belly fat.

    Healthy Swap: Make sure your bread is whole-grain, which should have more fiber and antioxidants. Check the ingredient list for the word "whole" in front of each grain to be sure.

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    Rice Cakes

    Rice cakes are advertised as guilt-free snacks because they're low in calories. The problem is that they're made from quick-digesting carbs that cause cravings for more food. They don't have much fiber, and they lack the protein and fat to slow down those carbs, so you won't feel satisfied. Flavored versions are also loaded with extra calories, sodium, and artificial flavors. Before you know it, you've eaten the whole bag and could still go for more.

    Healthy Swap: Make some air-popped popcorn and sprinkle with oregano and a pinch of salt. You can eat 3 cups of popcorn for the same calories as two large rice cakes or 10 mini versions. Plus, you'll benefit from 3 extra grams of fiber in the popcorn.


Christy Brissette, RD

Christy Brissette is one of North America’s top dietitians and a leading nutrition and food communications expert. She is the President of 80 Twenty Nutrition, a nutrition and food media company and private practice. Her mission? To end food confusion and dieting once and for all.  More →

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