A blueberry yogurt parfait made with rolled-oats granola and a swirl of honey sounds like a pretty healthy breakfast, doesn’t it?
Put that spoon down for a moment and let’s take a closer look: Most of those convenience store fruit-flavored yogurt parfaits are made with sweetened yogurts and blueberry preserves packing over 200 calories and 30 grams of sugar per 8 ounces. The granola crunch (just a quarter cup) adds 150 calories and 7 grams of sugar to the mix. Together, that’s like eating seven chocolate sandwich cookies for breakfast!
Better switch to oatmeal.
But wait! That apple-and-cinnamon-flavored instant oatmeal packet you just grabbed packs more sugar in it than a glazed doughnut, at 12 grams.
There are dozens of foods like these that wear a “health halo,” seemingly virtuous foods that we’ve come to believe are good for us, but actually aren’t doing our bodies any favors. And food marketers add to our confusion by playing up misleading health claims. Let’s take a look at some foods many of us believe are healthy choices, and then identify some better options.
Pick up your spoon. Here’s what to eat instead of that yogurt parfait or instant oatmeal:
Make your own parfait with unsweetened Greek yogurt and a quarter cup of fresh blueberries and a sprinkle of shelled sunflower seeds.
Steel-cut oatmeal, plain, with a quarter cup of chopped fresh honeycrisp apple, skin left on, and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
There’s nothing essentially wrong with having a turkey wrap for lunch unless you believe that the greenish wrap is the equivalent of a serving of spinach. It isn’t, by any means. That wrap is an enriched flour or corn tortilla made with a shot of green food dye to make it appear healthy. Oh, there might be a few molecules of spinach in there, but nothing like the fiber, folate and other essential nutrients you’d get by stuffing that wrap with a handful of actual spinach leaves.
Eat instead: A turkey sandwich on whole grain bread and stuffed with a generous quantity of spinach leaves, bell peppers and cucumbers.
Made with vegetable powders, they lack the kind of nutritional power of whole vegetables and they often contain high amounts of sodium and even some sugar. They are basically potato chips.
Eat instead: Baby carrots and hummus dip.
It doesn’t have the calories of regular soda, because it’s sugar-free. But that doesn’t make it any healthier for you. In fact, studies show that our bodies react to artificial sweeteners the same way as sugar, increasing cravings for more. One study found that diet soda drinkers had increases in waist size six times greater than non-diet drinkers.
Drink instead: Unsweetened iced tea with lemon. Zero calories, and black and green teas contain powerful antioxidants.
Low-fat peanut butter
Here’s where food marketers lure you into buying an inferior product under the guise of it being better for you because it’s lower in fat than regular peanut butter. The fats in peanut butter though are heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. What you get in place of the removed fat — added sugars like corn syrup solids and other starchy fillers — isn’t worth the minimal calorie savings.
Eat instead: Natural peanut butter. The ingredients label should list only “peanuts.”
Some people feel the Mediterranean dish is as good for you as, say, quinoa, but it’s not. It’s essentially teeny-tiny pasta, sometimes made of refined flour. And like other refined noodles, it can raise your blood sugar and contains fewer nutrients than you’d find in other grain-based side dishes.
Eat instead: Whole grain couscous or other whole grains like quinoa or farro. All are higher in hunger-satisfying fiber and protein than regular couscous.
Protein energy bars
These “fitness bars” are riding the tidal wave of the high-protein craze. But many of them are glorified candy bars loaded with sugar. Others, that might contain less sugar, are often chock-full of unpronounceable processed chemical ingredients.
Eat instead: Sliced apple dipped in natural peanut butter. You get quality carbs, fiber and protein. If you prefer a packaged snack, check labels and choose those with the shortest ingredient list containing just nuts and fruit.
“Beans, beans, they’re good for your
heart. …” You know the rest of the ditty. Problem is, when it comes to baked beans, it’s not true. While beans and legumes are rich in fiber and other healthful nutrients, baked beans are nothing more than pinto beans drowning in a bath of molasses and salt. They sure taste good, but all their sugary calories cancel out the pure bean benefits.
Eat this instead: Top a garden salad or pasta dish with pintos, chickpeas or red kidney beans to get your fiber sans the sugar.
Now, do you notice a pattern among many of the “health halo” foods above? Most are naturally good for you, but they have been highly processed with added sugars and other flavorings and preservatives. Simply reading the ingredient labels of these packaged foods will tip you off so you can avoid being misled.
Jeff Csatari is the author of The 14-Day No Sugar Diet.