Grocery shopping can be a daunting task for anyone, even dietitians. Keeping up with label reading and trying to decipher the ingredients list practically requires a PhD. (OK, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but it can often be confusing.) What’s frustrating for me is the sneaky, stealthy way that some (not all) food manufacturers package and advertise their foods to make them seem “healthy” and “good for you.” I sometimes have to pause when I’m shopping to figure out if the product is really too good to be true.
I can imagine how confusing it can be for people who are honestly trying to make better food choices without spending hours in the supermarket. So this week, I’m highlighting a few of those “health foods” that maybe are thinly disguised. I should point out that the definition of “healthy” is somewhat subjective. For example, you may decide that a healthy food is one that is low in calories or low in carbohydrate. Others may define healthy as being free of artificial sweeteners or food colorings.
I’m a big fan of yogurt. It’s a great source of calcium, protein, and good-for-you bacteria called probiotics. The downside of some yogurts is that they can be filled with sugar. Many people don’t care for the tangy taste of plain yogurt, so food companies doctor up their yogurt by adding fruit…along with high fructose corn syrup. And to get kids to eat their yogurt, the companies have added even more sugar in the form of those little crunchy-things (such as cookies) to stir in, essentially making a highly nutritious food not much better than a sugary dessert.
Let’s take Dannon Fruit on the Bottom Raspberry yogurt: A 6-ounce cup contains 150 calories, 1.5 grams of fat, and 1 gram of saturated fat. Not too bad in terms of heart health (low-saturated-fat foods have no more than 1 gram per serving). But keep reading the Nutrition Facts label and you’ll see that the yogurt has 28 grams of carbohydrate (2 carbohydrate choices worth) and 26 grams of sugar!
Now, I should point out that some of that sugar is naturally occurring, coming from lactose, a milk sugar. Yet the second ingredient on the list is fructose syrup, and the fourth ingredient is sugar (as if you needed more). Dannon’s Light & Fit Raspberry yogurt contains 80 calories, 0 grams of fat, 0 grams of saturated fat, 16 grams of carbohydrate, and 11 grams of sugar per 6-ounce container. It seems like a better choice. Keep in mind that this yogurt contains three nonnutritive sweeteners: aspartame, acesulfame-K, and sucralose, along with fructose. Depending on how you feel about nonnutritive sweeteners, this may not be your first choice either.
Bottom line. Don’t give up on yogurt, but choose wisely. Go for nonfat varieties that contain about 12 grams of sugar (that’s what naturally occurs in 6 ounces of yogurt) and roughly 90 to 120 calories per serving. Choose less “fruity” flavors such as vanilla or lemon if you can’t take plain. Or, try plain yogurt and add your own fresh or dried fruit and/or some nuts, ground flaxseed, or lower-fat granola. Try the newer Greek-style yogurts, too. They’re generally lower in carbohydrate (which means easier on your blood glucose) and higher in protein than regular yogurts — but again, choose the nonfat varieties.
Summer is right around the corner. This means bathing suit season, cookouts, hot weather…basically a time to lighten up your food and maybe drop a few pounds. What do people turn to? Salad! Salads are awesome if they’re made the right way. And if you make your own salads, you’re in control, which means you decide what goes in the salad bowl.
But what happens when you’re out and you need a quick, healthy lunch? Is a salad really the best option? Some salads are obviously not too healthy. Beware the chicken, tuna, shrimp, or egg salads that are dripping in mayonnaise (even if they ARE served on a bed of lettuce)! Are Caesar salads any better? Not if you go to Wendy’s and order the Spicy Chicken Caesar with Lemon Garlic Caesar Dressing. An entire salad will set you back 750 calories, 49 grams of fat, 15 grams of saturated fat, 41 grams of carbohydrate, and 1820 milligrams of sodium. Yikes.
If you’re a fan of Panera Bread, you might be thinking that their Greek salad is a healthy option. Let’s see: One Greek salad with dressing is 380 calories, 34 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat, 14 grams of carbohydrate, and 1670 milligrams of sodium. Not as big of a nutritional disaster as the Wendy’s salad, and it’s reasonable in carbohydrate, but the fat and sodium are still pretty high.
Are there any decent salads out there? Surprisingly, McDonald’s Southwest Salad With Grilled Chicken isn’t half bad. It weighs in at 320 calories, 9 grams of fat, 3 grams of saturated fat, 30 grams of carbohydrate, 30 grams of protein, and 960 milligrams of sodium. It’s not perfect, but it’s a better choice than the others.
Bottom line. Healthier salads are available, but you’ll need to do your homework. Fortunately, most fast food and chain restaurants post the nutritional content of their items on their Web sites and may also have this information in their restaurants.
However, it’s really best to make your own salad. Yes, it seems like work, but it’s really the best way.
Start off with a pile of washed leafy greens of your choosing. Next, add an assortment of raw veggies, such as shredded carrots, radishes, red and green peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, mushrooms…the list could go on. Then, if the salad is the entree, add some protein in the form of grilled chicken or turkey, hardboiled eggs, salmon, tuna, tofu, chickpeas, black beans, or low-fat cottage cheese (protein also helps keep you feeling full). Next, add a small amount of a heart-healthy fat food, such as a few slices of avocado, some black or green olives, a sprinkling of your favorite nut, or some ground up flaxseed. Top it off with an oil and vinegar dressing, or even just plain balsamic vinegar (you know to forgo the creamy Ranch dressing, right?). Yes, you can use bottled dressings but they can be loaded with fat, sodium, and/or sugar, so choose wisely.
More “not-so-healthful” foods next week!