Avoid unhealthful 'health' foods

These not-so-nutritious choices can fool you into thinking they're good for you

Published: March 2012

We hate to be the ones to break it to you, but that bran muffin you have for breakfast could be undermining your health (with lots of fat) and sabotaging your waistline (with excess calories). Same goes for granola, banana chips, trail mix, turkey hot dogs, and any number of health-food pretenders that are often higher in fat, sugars, and calories, or lower in nutrients than they would seem to be. Or they have all sorts of stuff added to them that you don't really need.

The solution? "Read nutrition labels," advises Leslie J. Bonci, M.P.H., director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Here are a dozen health-food pretenders that may seem good for you, but aren't necessarily—plus suggestions on what to try instead.

Also below, check out our advice on portion size, which is important for staying slim.

(This article is reprinted from Food & Fitness, which you can buy online or at a newsstand. This Consumer Reports magazine will help you learn how to eat great tasting meals and stay healthy on a budget; know when it pays to buy organic; discover the supermarket traps that can cost you money; and find out the secrets of how real-life families maintain a healthy weight and stay in shape. Plus, get our exclusive Ratings for popular food items and exercise equipment.)

Health-food pretenders

"Sweetened applesauce has lots of added sugar," says Elisa Zied, R.D., author of "Nutrition at Your Fingertips" (Alpha, 2009). A 1-cup serving can have up to 200 calories.

Try this: Unsweetened applesauce usually has half the calories, Zied says. If it's too tart for your taste, add some cinnamon or, better yet, eat an apple instead. You'll get extra fiber as a bonus.

Yes, they're made from good-for-you bananas. But they're usually fried in coconut or palm oil, unhealthy sources of saturated fat. That's why there can be 210 calories and 13 grams of saturated fat in a serving.

Try this: Have a banana. You'll get lots of nutrients for half the calories and no fat.

Many bran muffins are the size of doorstops—actually two servings in one muffin. And they're often loaded with fat, sugar, and calories, Bonci says. Slather on butter and you might as well eat a frosted cupcake.

Try this: Bran cereal with low-fat milk and fresh fruit. Flakes, buds, or clusters—it's your choice.

Couscous "Regular couscous is a processed, refined grain, just like white pasta is," says Blatner. "It has little nutritional value."

Try this: Whole-wheat couscous—or opt for a whole grain like quinoa or brown rice.

"It has a health halo because of the word yogurt, but it's really a high-sugar dessert," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, and author of "The Flexitarian Diet" (McGraw-Hill, 2009). Generally, fro-yo has a nutritional profile that resembles light ice cream more than plain yogurt.

Try this: To get the probiotic benefits of plain yogurt, look for the seal on the label of frozen yogurt indicating "Live and Active Cultures."

"The amount of fruit they contain is less than 10 percent," says Bonci. "These are mostly just concentrated sugar."

Try this: A small portion of dried fruit, such as apricots or raisins. They're denser in calories but contain more nutrients.

It's usually high in sugar, fat, and calories—and relatively low in vitamins and minerals. There are about 400 calories in a cup.

Try this: A bowl of an airy, oat-based cereal, like Cheerios, came out tops in our last test of kid-friendly cereals. For extra crunch and sweetness, add just a sprinkling of granola on top.

The nuts are a great source of heart-healthy fats, and the dried fruits provide good-for-you vitamins, but some mixes have lots of calories for just a few ounces. One cup can contain almost 700 calories! And because it's a tasty finger food, it's easy to overeat.

Try this:
Cut calories by making your own combination. Mix a palmful of nuts and seeds with a teaspoon or so of raisins.

A lot of turkey hot dogs are surprisingly high in fat— higher, even, than regular hot dogs, says Bonci. Some contain loads of sodium and nitrates.

Try this: A turkey breast sandwich—unless you're really craving that hot dog flavor. If that's the case, read packages and go for the version with the lowest amount of fat.

"They may contain the colors of the rainbow, but they don't count as a serving of veggies," says Bonci. Worse, they're usually high in fat and calories.

Try this: Air-popped popcorn or dried veggies. Bonci recommends the Just Tomatoes brand of dried vegetables because they have no added fat, salt, or anything else.

Sure, they have some added nutrients, but they're often packed with sugar and sometimes caffeine, says Catherine Christie, R.D., chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

Try this: Plain old water or sparkling water with a squeeze from a lemon, lime, or orange.

They're usually huge—enough for two people, really—and high in calories and sometimes fat.

Try this:
A sandwich on wholegrain or whole-wheat bread. When shopping for bread, check the ingredients: make sure whole grain tops the list.

Portion size is an easy way to eat better

Wingin' it
A serving of chicken wings is 4.4 ounces, or about four wings.

Portion size, or how much of a particular food you actually eat, is important for staying slim. But most of the time you have to "guesstimate" the right serving size.

"While the terms 'serving' and 'portion' are often used interchangeably, they actually mean different things," says Marisa Moore, R.D., national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

A serving is a standard industry amount used to determine calorie counts on food labels. A portion is the amount of food you actually eat. As food containers, restaurant portions, and drink bottles have become supersized, the gap between servings and portions has gotten really out of whack. And what we eat is often dictated by the size of the container or the dish we order—not the recommended serving sizes posted on nutrition labels and websites.

Even if you do check the labels, it's not always easy to judge what constitutes a true serving, in part because it's usually given in terms of weight, which the average person might find hard to convert to a real-world amount. After all, what does an ounce look like? How about a gram?

To see how accurately people can judge a serving, we conducted our own test: We gave about 100 staffers paper plates and asked them to dish out one serving each of three foods: dry-roasted peanuts, cheddar-cheese cubes, and chicken wings. We gave each serving size in weight, the way it usually appears on food labels. Perhaps they were on to the purpose of our experiment: They were more likely to measure out too little food than too much. But their all-over-the-map guesses highlight just how hard it is to judge how much to eat—even when you're trying!

Use a food scale to weigh portions so you can develop an eye for what a true serving looks like. You can buy a scale for less than $20.

Cheese cubes
1 serving = 1 ounce = about 4 cubes
Guesses ranged from 1 cube to 5 cubes

Chicken wings
1 serving = 4.4 ounces = about 4 wings
Guesses ranged from 1 wing to 4 wings

1 serving = 1 ounce = 39 peanuts
Guesses ranged from 5 peanuts to 50 peanuts

Use these visual cues to judge serving sizes and limit calories:
3 ounces of meat = a deck of cards
1 cup of cereal or cooked pasta = a baseball
1.5 ounces of cheese = 4 stacked dice
1/2 cup fresh fruit = half a baseball

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