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Healthy Food Imposters—Don’t Be Fooled

Some foods that we think are healthy can be sneaky little diet wreckers. Nutritionist Leslie Bonci shares a few of these “food frauds” – starting with Caesar salad.

Food Fraud: Caesar Salad
Just a small bowl can serve up 300-400 calories and 30 grams of fat, thanks to loads of dressing.

FOOD FIX: Leave out the croutons; limit dressing to one tablespoon; and enjoy two tablespoons of tangy Parmesan cheese.

Food fraud: Fresh smoothies
That ‘healthy’ berry blend at a smoothie bar or café is likely to have a whopping 80 grams of sugar, 350 calories, no protein and often no fresh fruit. Vitamin-poor fruit “concentrates” are commonly used instead of more expensive fresh fruit. And sorbet, ice cream, and sweeteners can make these no better than a milkshake.

FOOD FIX: Order the ‘small’ cup. Ask for fresh fruit, low-fat yogurt, milk, or protein powder to blend in good nutrition.

Food fraud: Energy bars
Many of these are simply enhanced sweets with more calories (up to 500) and a higher price tag. Their compact size also leaves many people unsatisfied. “Three bites and it’s gone”, says Bonci, who advises hungry athletes and dancers.

FOOD FIX: Choose bars that have 200 calories or less, at least five grams of fiber, and some protein, which helps provide energy when the sugar rush fades.

Food fraud? A sugar-free dilemma
Sugar-free foods sound like a no-brainer for weight loss, but a problem arises when we choose artificially sweetened food or drink, then feel that we deserve a large order of fries or a large dessert. Upsizing the chips adds nearly 300 calories to your meal. If your calorie intake exceeds what you burn off, you’ll still gain weight – and you can’t blame the sugar-free foods.

FOOD FIX: Watch your total calorie intake.

Food fraud: Enhanced water
Vitamins are commonly added to bottled water and are advertised on the front label. Some brands also add sugar, taking water from zero calories to as much as 125. “Often the vitamins don’t contribute much”, Bonci says, “but the calories can contribute a lot”.

FOOD FIX: Keeping tap water in the fridge may make it more appealing to the family. As an alternative, try adding a low-calorie squash or cordial to add flavor without calories.

Food fraud: Semi-skimmed milk
Semi-skimmed milk sounds healthier than ‘whole’ or ‘full fat’ milk, but it still has almost half the saturated fat as whole milk. Here’s what’s in a 200ml glass of milk:

  • Whole Milk (3.5%) = 136 cal, 8g fat, 5.2g sat. fat
  • Semi-skimmed (1.7%) = 95 cal, 3.5g fat, 2.3g sat. fat
  • Skimmed = (0.1%) 70 cal, 0.62g fat, 0.2g sat. fat

FOOD FIX: If your family likes whole milk, mix it with semi-skimmed for a while, then skimmed. In time, they’ll come to like the lower fat taste.

Food fraud: Breakfast muffins
Muffins masquerade as a healthy choice for breakfast. Although they may beat doughnuts, they’re still mainly sugary little cakes of refined flour. One shop-bought muffin can hit 500 calories with 11 teaspoons of sugar.

FOOD FIX: Choose muffins no larger than 6cm (2½ inches) in diameter, or look for low-calorie muffins. Smaller portions limit calories and some brands are a surprisingly good source of whole grains and fiber.

Food fraud: Low-fat granola
The low-fat version of this crunchy cereal has only 10% fewer calories and is still full of sugar. Plus, the low-fat label can easily lead you to overeat. One study found that people ate 49% more granola when they thought it was low fat – easily wiping out the measly 10% calorie savings.

FOOD FIX: Look for low-sugar, wholegrain cereal, and sweeten it with fresh fruit.

Food fraud: Low-fat yogurt
Too often this nutritional superstar – rich in protein and calcium – contains shocking amounts of added sugar. Some brands add 30 or more grams of fructose, sucrose, or other sweeteners.

FOOD FIX: A 170g (6 oz) container should have 90-130 calories and no more than 20g of sugar. Avoid the sugary “fruit on the bottom”, or try blending sweetened yogurt with plain, fat-free yogurt.

Food fraud: Multigrain
When you see ‘multigrain’ on bread, pasta, or waffles, turn the package over and check the nutrition label. Even with more than one type of grain, the product could be made largely from refined grains – such as white flour – which have been stripped of fiber and many nutrients.

FOOD FIX: Look for ‘100% wholegrain’ as the first ingredient, or choose the brand with more fiber.

Food fraud: Light olive oil
Anything labeled ‘light’ is enticing when you’re watching your weight, but often the food is not what you expect. Light olive oil, for instance, has the same calorie and fat content as other types – it’s just lighter in color and taste.

FOOD FIX: Some light foods do provide significant calorie savings. Compare the labels in the supermarket.

Food fraud: Omega-3 fortified foods
Some labels on yogurt, milk, eggs, cereal, and other foods boast of added omega-3. However, most don’t contain the kinds of omega-3 best known to help your heart – EPA and DHA. Or they contain only a smidgen – about as much as in one bite of salmon. Instead, the foods contain ALA, which comes from vegetable sources. It’s not clear if omega-3 from ALA is as beneficial as DHA/EPA.

FOOD FIX: Try a serving of salmon. It has 100 times more omega-3 than is in a serving of fortified yogurt.

Food fraud: Microwave popcorn
The word ‘snack’ can be a little misleading on microwave popcorn. Some pack 9 grams of bad fat which includes 6 grams of trans fat into each ‘snack size’ bag.

FOOD FIX: Compare nutrition labels and get a lower-fat popcorn that has no trans fat at all. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese or low-salt spice blends for added flavor without a lot of fat.

 Food fraud: Iceberg lettuce
This popular lettuce is big on crunch but a big ‘zero’ when it comes to vitamins and flavor. Its boring taste leads many people to overdo it on the dressing.

FOOD FIX: Add spinach or arugula to the mix. Crumble two tbsp. (100 calories) of blue cheese or feta on top. Then splash the salad with a little oil and vinegar to spread flavor without a lot of calories.

Food fraud: Salty toppings
Processed artichoke hearts, chickpeas, and olives are just a few of the salt shockers lurking on the salad bar. To avoid an unhealthy amount of salt, limit anything that comes out of a tin. Also, say ‘no’ to cured meats. Choose beans or tuna, but not both.

FOOD FIX: Radishes, bell peppers, cucumbers, broccoli, and other fresh vegetables are low in salt. At home, rinse canned beans to remove a lot of the salt.

Food fraud: Coleslaw
Cabbage can be great for weight loss, but coleslaw can be a diet disaster. A restaurant 130g serving can have 260 calories and 21 grams of fat – a third of most people’s daily limit – thanks to copious mayonnaise.

FOOD FIX: Some places offer a healthier coleslaw, so ask for nutrition information. At home, try low-fat mayonnaise or mix with fat-free yogurt.

Food fraud: Banana chips
Deep-fried bananas are probably not what the doctor was thinking of when she told you to eat more fruit and veg. These don’t look greasy, but just one ounce can have 145 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 8 grams of saturated fat – about the same as a fast food burger.

FOOD FIX: Try a fresh banana: four times more food, 0 grams of fat, all for about 100 calories.

For more healthy food switches: Eat This, Not That