With all of the conflicting nutritional information available these days, it’s easy to get confused about what’s healthy and what’s not. Although these products and others lining the supermarket shelves try to pass themselves off as healthy, there are certain telltale signs that give them away as foods that will actually contribute to weight gain.
The culprit in most of these and other types of packaged foods is sugar, in all its various forms. Foods may promote themselves as “low fat” or “made with” certain healthy ingredients, but it’s the ingredients list that actually counts. Get in the habit of reading labels — the first item in the ingredients list is the primary ingredient, so if the “real blueberries” promoted on the package of bagels don’t appear until the end of the list, you know they aren’t present in any substantial quantity.
Also look for forms of added sugar, which include brown sugar, dextrose, maltose, sucrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, cane juice, cane syrup, fruit juice concentrate, and molasses, we well as artificial sweeteners or other artificial additives.
If your diet contains any of these foods, start replacing them with healthier alternatives.
- Veggie chips. These chips attempt to look healthy by claiming they’re made with real vegetables, but a look at the ingredients usually reveals that the primary ingredients are potato flour and potato starch, making them no healthier and no less starchy than regular potato chips. A small amount of vegetable powder provides the vegetable-like coloring. A better alternative: make your own vegetable chips, or look for chips where vegetables — like kale and sweet potato — are the first ingredient. These will typically look like actual dried vegetables rather than chips or any type of veggie “puff” or “straw.”
- Rice cakes. These bland snacks secured themselves a reputation as a healthy diet staple during the low-fat craze of the 1990s, but rice cakes are actually low in nutrition and high on the glycemic index — an indicator of how food affects blood sugar. Rice cakes are refined carbohydrates that offer little in the way of actual nourishment for your body. A better alternative: look for crackers made with flax seeds, which are a good source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Check the ingredients to make sure that flax seeds are the first thing listed and that the food doesn’t contain a lot of additives.
- Pita chips. These are another refined carbohydrate masquerading as a health food. Most pita chips are made with enriched wheat flour, which is lacking in nutrients. A better option: look for whole-grain pita chips, or better yet, eat your hummus and other dips with carrots, celery sticks, and sliced cucumbers.
- Flavored yogurt. Fruit and yogurt definitely sounds healthy, but always look at the nutrition label. Many brands are packed with added sugar and artificial ingredients. By the same token, soft-serve frozen yogurt may contain more sugar than you think, especially if you’re topping it off with sprinkles or cookie chunks. A better option: buy plain Greek yogurt and add fresh fruit.
- Yogurt-covered pretzels. The “yogurt” used on these salty snacks is little more than icing that’s made mostly from sugar and palm kernel oil. If you’re craving something that’s both sweet and salty, choose a healthier option like dark chocolate with sea salt.
- Gluten-free baked goods. Refined carbohydrates are refined carbohydrates, whether they’re made with wheat or rice flour or something else. Just because a cookie is gluten free, that doesn’t make it healthier than a regular cookie. You’re better off skipping the baked goods altogether and opting for fresh fruit or a small piece of dark chocolate.
- Bottled green juice. Drinking your greens is a great way to get more vitamins and nutrients into your diet, but relying on bottled juices could be doing more harm than good. Many bottled green drinks are packed with sugar and other additives. Try making your own green juices and smoothies at home instead, so that you can control exactly what goes into them.
- Granola bars. As with any packaged food, it’s important to check the ingredients list when buying granola bars or protein bars. Avoid any with added sugars, refined oils, artificial flavors, and preservatives. Make sure the ingredients list is short, and look for bars made with nuts and whole grains.
- High-fiber cereals. While many “healthy” cereals contain beneficial ingredients like flax seeds, they’re often still high in sugar. And high-fiber cereals often use added fiber that’s not as easily absorbed by the body. Instead, look for cereals with less than 6 grams of sugar per serving and which contain nuts and freeze-dried fruits rather than sugar or sweeteners.
- Frozen diet foods. It may feel like the right decision to grab a frozen meal that says “lean” on the box, but most frozen foods are packed with preservatives and other additives. Plus, many of them are made with white rice or pasta, which are refined carbs. Whenever possible, choose fresh foods instead of heading for the frozen aisle.
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Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on May 8, 2017