If you are exercising and eating healthier these days, congratulations! However, it might be time to double-check whether some snacks you think are good for you really are. According to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), it's far too easy to consume what you think are "health foods" that actually aren't healthy at all.
A lot of the blame lies in crafty and confusing marketing techniques. For example, "low fat," "high fiber," "multigrain," "organic" and "natural" are often-used buzzwords that can trick even sophisticated foodies into thinking what they're consuming is healthful. "Beware of these 'health halo' words," registered dietitian Marisa Moore, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells us. "While they sound good, these terms don't guarantee a food is good for your health."
Your best strategy? Skip the hype on the front of a package or label. Instead, carefully check out the actual ingredients. "You have to read the label to make sure it's not full of sugar, sodium and saturated or trans fat," says Moore. Here are five examples of popular snacks and drinks that are not as healthy for your heart, waistline, blood sugar -- or pocketbook -- as they may sound.
"Reduced fat" peanut butter. Nuts are loaded with phytonutrients and protein, so how could taking the fat out of this popular nut product not make it better for you? The USDA offers this explanation: reduced fat peanut butter and all nut butters have reduced nutrition. That's because nutrients in nuts are found primarily in nut oil. Reduced fat nut butters can have higher calories than the regular variety, too. What's more, the natural nut oil makes you feel more satisfied so you tend to feel full after eating only a little regular peanut butter. On the other hand, you may be more likely to over-indulge in the reduced fat kind because it's not so filling. Your healthiest choice is to opt for natural peanut butter made from only peanuts and salt.
Multigrain breads and crackers. If you are health conscious, you've probably heard the good news that including whole grains in your diet can reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease and several cancers; whole grains also help keep weight under control. So when you see "multigrain" on a label, you may assume it means "whole grain." Unfortunately, that's not necessarily so. Read the ingredients and if you see "enriched wheat flour", that means you are eating refined (stripped of fiber) flour. "Multigrain" crackers, for instance, could be primarily refined flour with only a little bit of whole rye or oats added. That's why it's important to zero in on the ingredients and look specifically for "whole rolled oats", "whole rye", "whole wheat" or "brown rice" -- and avoid crackers and bread products that are loaded with sugar, even if they are whole grain.
Energy and sports drinks and "vitamin" water. Do you turn to sports drinks or vitamin-laced water to quench your thirst after a workout? Do you down energy drinks with "natural" ingredients to perk you up after a busy day? If so, it's time to find healthier -- and cheaper -- alternatives. Sports drinks are basically diluted soft drinks with salt added while energy drinks (such as Red Bull) contain such high levels of caffeine they can spike blood pressure to high levels; some are also loaded with sugar. "Vitamin" waters are just that -- plain water containing a few diluted vitamins and, often, a hefty dose of sugar. Bottom line: if you are thirsty, drink water. It's the best drink for hydrating your body and is naturally free of calories. If you need an energy boost, have some plain coffee or tea. You'll save money and avoid ingredients your body may be better off without.
Flavored and frozen yogurt. Yogurt is a popular "health" food and, in many respects, it is healthy -- it's all the additions that can knock it off the "healthy for you" category. Yogurt contains live, active cultures of Lactobacillus acidophilus. These probiotics, often called "good germs," help to maintain a healthy intestinal tract and aid in digestion. However, most frozen yogurt has been heat-processed, and that kills the health promoting probiotics. What's more people tend to think of frozen yogurt as healthier than ice cream and eat more of it. However the truth is frozen yogurt typically has the same amount of sugar as ice cream. If you like regular yogurt, that can be a healthy choice, but not if you go for the flavored variety. Many of these have added calories because they contain a whopping 25 to 30 grams of sugar in each serving -- the equivalent of 7 teaspoons of sugar. You can opt for artificially sweetened yogurt, but there's a natural, healthy way to sweeten yogurt and add more nutrition, too. Simply stick to the plain, unsweetened variety and stir in some fresh berries or banana slices for extra flavor.
Energy and granola bars. Often used as meal replacement bars, both energy and granola bars are touted as healthy ways to get extra nutrition and maybe even help you lose weight. Get ready for a reality check: most energy bars are little more than candy bars with some added fiber, protein and vitamins -- and loads of sugar and calories. In fact, most list sugar as either the first or second ingredient. The same goes for granola bars (and granola cereal, too). Check out labels and be on the lookout for sugar disguised as high fructose corn syrup and cane juice in these products. So what do you do when you want a snack but you want to be absolutely sure it's healthy? "Stick with the tried and true: fruits, veggies, nuts, and cheese," nutrition expert Marisa Moore answers. "These whole foods will keep you full, energized and well nourished. "