1. ENERGY BARS
Especially when they tout how much fiber and protein they’re packed with — or how minimal their “net carb” count is — energy bars may seem like super-healthy snacks. (After all, they’re sold at health food stores and most gyms, and athletes eat them, so…?) But before you plop one of these plastic-wrapped blocks of “nutrients” in your mouth, consider how heavily processed most of them are.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, says the more ingredients listed on the label, the more manufactured (read: divorced from actual food) energy bars are. Common ingredients in many energy bars are fancy names for different forms of sugar, Kirkpatrick says. They spike blood sugar levels and court a crash later on without providing lasting satisfaction and energy.
Instead of reaching for a bar next time you’re struck with an afternoon snack attack, try slathering a few tablespoons of nut butter on an apple, or dipping a few carrot or cucumber slices into some hummus.
2. LOW-FAT OR FAT-FREE YOGURT
When a food product cuts out or reduces something we’ve learned is “bad” from its contents, we falsely conclude it’s “better” for us. Not necessarily, Kirkpatick cautions. Especially when it comes to nixing fat.
Great to take out the saturated stuff, she says. Not so great if manufacturers compensate for the tastiness lost in doing so by pumping their yogurts full of sugar. Many low-fat and fat-free yogurts are so high in sugar that they might as well be considered dessert. Dietary sugars can bump up bad cholesterol levels in your blood, defeating the purpose of picking less-fatty brands.
Check the labels on the low-fat or fat-free yogurts you’re considering, and opt for ones with no sugar listed at all in the ingredients, Kirkpatrick advises. Dairy naturally has sugar in it (it’s called lactose) but choose brands whose grams of the stuff are in the single-digits. Pro tip: Look for unsweetened Greek yogurts, which have less lactose.
Not as caloric or fattening as some ice creams, but still not necessarily good for you. Frozen yogurt may seem deceptively healthy simply because “yogurt” is in its name. But re-read what you just learned about yogurt (above) and you’ll realize that’s no grounds to consider the stuff on par with steamed vegetables. Fro-yo’s sugar levels are definitely in the double digits, and some brands have even been outed for deceiving customers about how many calories are truly in one serving.
No shame in loving the stuff and allowing yourself the pleasures of fro-yo’s many different brands and flavors. But treat it just as you would any other dessert (i.e., don’t misconstrue it as a health food.)
Just because they’re jam-packed with whole fruits doesn’t mean smoothies are great for our blood sugar levels or for our belt sizes. Kirkpatrick cautions against massive blends of bananas, berries, and other tree-born sweets because they can push your sugar intake over the recommended daily limit of 25 grams — especially if the smoothie you’re drinking them out of is store-bought, since Kirkpatrick says most smoothie places add sugar to their berry mixes. If you’re making one at home, half a cup of berries should suffice.
Don’t be swayed by promises of vitamin C, antioxidants, or Amazonian rain forest delicacies. Acai berries may contain some awesome nutrients, but when you ingest them via a drink with over 40 grams of sugars? Kinda contradicts the whole “I’m doing this for my health” intention.
Granola picked up a rep for being “healthy” way back when your parents were smoking pot in the 1960s. Why? Because it simply had less sugar in comparison to other breakfast items on the market at that time. (Well, also because oats are supposed to be good for your heart.) But the added ingredients (yes, sugars, once again) and high fat content of most brands makes the stuff less of a healthy choice for most of our diets and more of a treat best to consume in moderation, Kirkpatrick says.
6. FROZEN DIET MEALS
Low calorie counts and approval stamps don’t automatically make a frozen meal better for you than a meal you might cook on your own, Kirkpatrick says. Even, she points out, if they make it healthy. “Most frozen meals contain additives you wouldn’t find in your kitchen at home,” she says. “And they’ll typically use cheaper starches and grains like white potatoes or rice. “It’s hard to get a frozen meal where every component is a healthy choice.”
If you pack your fridge full of frozen meals due to time constraints, consider buying whole food items instead. Think: A bag of frozen veggies you can heat up in the microwave with some olive or avocado oil.
7. DRIED FRUIT
Bad news for dried mango lovers and those who snack on cranberries. “Raisins, apricots, prunes, dates, and figs are really the only dried fruits that don’t have sugar added to them during the drying process,” says Kirkpatrick.
8. VEGAN DESSERTS
Alas, a dessert is still a dessert, even if it contains no animal products. In fact, some vegan treatshave more fat and simple carbs than ordinary delights. Yes, coconut sugar, which is often swapped with white sugar in most vegan desserts, may sound healthier, Kirkpatrick says. But it still has a similar effect on your blood sugar levels and insulin as the regular stuff.
SO WHAT CAN YOU EAT?
If you are going to buy prepackaged or processed snacks and foods (because you are a human) choose ones that have at max five ingredients — though ideally three or less. (The fewer ingredients, the less processed a product is, says Kirkpatrick.)
And if you’re unsure whether something’s “healthy” or nah? Ask yourself whether you (or a friend who can cook, if this isn’t your best skill) could make it in your kitchen at home, suggests Kirkpatrick. “If not, best to put it back on the shelf.”
Lastly, be wary of lofty claims — i.e., “As much vitamin C as an orange!” “High in fiber!” — especially if these boasts are slapped onto foods you’d otherwise consider “bad for you.” It’s always wiser to seek the purest source of a nutrient when possible, Kirkpatrick says. (Translation: Eat. Actual. Food.)
This may make it seem like nothing but salad is sacred, but so long as you keep your eye out most of the time, a little slip (or treat) here and there won’t kill you. Remember, a huge part of health is enjoying your life. And sometimes that means indulging.