More Words to the Wise: “Healthy” Foods That Aren’t So Healthy

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Last week I highlighted a few foods that traditionally have gotten a bad rap, including popcorn, eggs, and potatoes. These are foods that people, for one reason or another, often seem to think they need to avoid. Hopefully I helped to dispel some of that thinking.

This week, I’m going to mention a handful of foods that we often think of as being “good” for us, or, at the very least, not likely to wreak havoc. As I always say, everything in moderation. But it’s important to be aware of foods that masquerade as being healthy when they’re really just not that special (and are sometimes downright unhealthy).

Low-fat yogurt. I’m all for yogurt. Yogurt is one of those foods that seems to have everything going for it: protein, calcium, B vitamins, and potassium. Many yogurts contain probiotics, which are the good bacteria that keep your digestive tract healthy and fight off various diseases and ailments.

The catch with yogurt is that many brands in the supermarket are laden with sugar (and carbs). Now, low-fat yogurts are truly low in fat, in that they can’t contain more than 3 grams of fat per serving (based on the official Food and Drug Administration definition of a low-fat food). Take Dannon Raspberry Fruit on the Bottom yogurt, for instance: a 6-ounce container has just 1.5 grams of total fat, so that’s good. But if you eat the entire container you’ll get 150 calories (not so bad) as well as 28 grams of carbohydrate.

Of those 28 grams of carbohydrate, 26 grams come from sugar. Now, because yogurt is made with milk, yogurt will always contain “natural” sugar from lactose (unless you’re eating a nondairy yogurt). However, there’s still a decent amount of sugar added to the yogurt to give it its fruity flavor. A glance at the ingredient list reveals the sugar sources: fructose syrup, sugar, and raspberries. Basically, you’re getting what amounts to a few spoonfuls of jam in your yogurt.

The fruited Greek-style yogurts aren’t necessarily that much better: while they contain more protein, they may also contain upwards of 20 grams of sugar. In the case of Chobani Non-Fat Cherry, the sugar sources are evaporated cane juice (that is to say, sugar), cherry juice concentrate, cherries, locust bean gum, and pectin. Perhaps these are healthier carbohydrate sources, but they’ll still affect your blood glucose. The solution? Buy plain or vanilla yogurt and add your own fresh fruit.

Smoothies. Fruit smoothies are in. You’ll find them sold at the mall, as well as in your favorite coffee shop. They look pretty and sound healthy. And when you’re craving a midafternoon snack, smoothies can seem more virtuous than going for, say a chocolate milkshake or an Iced Caramel Macchiato from Starbucks. But don’t be duped: A 16.25-ounce low-fat strawberry smoothie (with ginseng and B vitamins, mind you) at Panera Bread contains 260 calories and 59 grams of carbohydrate (53 of them grams of sugar). That’s about as much carbohydrate as is in four slices of bread or 1 1/3 cups of pasta. And even though the smoothie contains “naturally milled organic sugar,” it’s still sugar.

Smoothies at other places may contain ingredients that aren’t so healthy, too, like ice cream or whole milk. Is it possible to find a healthy smoothie? Probably. But be an educated consumer and check the ingredients and nutrition information (usually available on the store’s Web site). Or make your own with low-fat milk (or soy milk) or plain yogurt, fresh fruit, ice, and perhaps some protein powder, like whey.

Energy bars. Where I shop for food, there’s a whole section of an aisle devoted to various energy and protein bars. It’s overwhelming to look at them all, and it’s also hard to decide which one to buy: PowerBar? Clif Bar? Luna Bar? Lärabar? Do you even need energy bars to begin with?

Energy bars, like most foods, contain calories and therefore, provide energy. Nothing too special about that. Food manufacturers hype them up and have you believing that you need to eat these to build muscle and provide fuel for your workout sessions. Sure, they can be helpful, especially if you tend to not eat meals during the day, are training for a marathon, or are skiing Mount Washington. But do they really offer any benefits over eating, say an apple with peanut butter?

While these bars may contain healthful ingredients, like nuts, oats, and whey protein, they’re also likely to contain sugar (sometimes in the form of high-fructose corn syrup). And brown rice syrup is still sugar. Furthermore, many of these bars don’t provide any more “sustained energy” than eating some whole-grain crackers with reduced-fat cheese. A chocolate PowerBar Performance bar contains 240 calories and 45 grams of carbohydrate (three slices of bread’s worth). A LemonZest Luna Bar has 180 calories and 27 grams of carbohydrate (from organic rice, cane, and oat syrups). Energy bars aren’t necessarily bad choices. They’re certainly convenient. But unless you’re an endurance athlete, you likely won’t derive any great nutritional benefit from them.

Gluten-free foods. If you have celiac disease, you need to be on a gluten-free diet. But it seems like going gluten-free is the latest craze, whether one has celiac or not. Thanks to this craze, a proliferation of gluten-free products has appeared on the market, including gluten-free breads, cake mixes, cookies, and more.

They’re certainly helpful for people with celiac disease who would like to enjoy a sandwich or a cupcake. But these gluten-free foods are not necessarily any “healthier” than their regular counterparts. Many of these foods are high in calories, saturated fat, and sugar, as food manufacturers often have to compensate for the lack of gluten in the product. Again, the message here is “buyer beware.” Read nutrition labels and ingredient lists. Don’t buy into the latest diet fads, either.

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