A trip to the grocery store can be filled with questions about what should and should not be in your cart. With all the options available, it can be difficult to discern which foods are healthy choices, and which are just packaged to look like they are. The following are some common foods that are not as healthy as you think, and suggestions for finding more nutritious substitutions.
Granola: Often filled with large amounts of sugar and fat resulting in high calorie counts, granola is a food meant to be enjoyed in small quantities (not by the bowlful). If you don’t want to give up your granola for good, look for brands that don’t list sugar as the first ingredient and don’t include high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils. Brands like Bare Naked include quality ingredients and natural sweeteners. But, remember, it is only a treat. Try mixing a small amount of granola with low sugar cereal to satisfy your craving for some crunch.
Reduced Fat Peanut Butter: Most of the fat in reduced or low-fat peanut butter is replaced with sugar and other fillers, which is a less healthy alternative than the fat itself, making the calorie difference negligible. The mixture of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids in peanut butter make this salty spread a regular choice, and it does not need to be eliminated from your diet. Take the popular brand Better ’n Butter, which includes three different kinds of sugar in the ingredient list, as well as soy and other processed fillers, making it worse for you than its higher calorie counterpart. Peanut butter should have two ingredients: peanuts and salt. Go for all-natural peanut butter to avoid sugars and fillers, and remember that a tablespoon of peanut butter contains about 100 calories, so portion control is important.
Energy/Protein Bars: Many energy and protein bars are essentially glorified candy bars. With large amounts of sugar and other processed ingredients, they may not give you the nutritional benefits you are looking for. Avoid bars listing high fructose corn syrup in their ingredient lists, and be wary of brands that “hide” sugars in their labels by using small amounts of many different types of sweeteners (molasses, honey, etc.). Balance Bars, for example, list three different types of sugar in the first five ingredients of their Caramel Nut Blast bar. Luna bars boast a mostly nutritious ingredient list, but include added sugar in different forms, such as brown rice syrup and cane syrup. Snack bars can be a convenient during the school day though, so look for brands using all natural ingredients, such as Larabars, which are made from mixtures of fruits, nuts, and spices.
Gluten-Free/Organic Snacks: Gluten- free and organic labels do not mean foods are healthy. Gluten-free muffins, breads, and cereals are often packed with more sugar and fat than their “gluten-filled” counterparts, meaning that the calorie count can be much higher. Along those same lines, an “organic” label says nothing about the nutritional makeup of the food. Candy bars, cookies, sweets, and snacks can all be organic, but that does not make them more nutritious than conventional products. Sugar is sugar, whether it is organic or not.
Instant Oatmeal: Pre-packaged and instant oatmeal — especially the flavored kind — is often high in sugar and artificially processed flavors. Making the switch to old fashioned oats or even steel cut oats ups the fiber and protein levels, making it a more satisfying snack or meal. Even if you’re living in the dorms, old-fashioned oats can be cooked in the microwave in about five minutes. Try cooking them in almond milk to make it extra creamy. For added flavor, you can use a small amount of brown sugar (1 tsp), cinnamon, nuts, and/or unsweetened dried fruit.
Veggie Burgers: Many people opt for a veggie pattie instead of a beef burger thinking it’s the more healthy option. Veggie burgers can be a healthy choice when actually made with beans and vegetables. However, many store-bought varieties are hardly made with vegetables. Morning Star Veggie Patties, for example, are made from a base of hydrated wheat gluten and soy flour; have extremely high sodium levels; and are filled with combinations of sugar, soy, and corn. For a healthier option, look for an all natural brand that lists beans or brown rice as its first ingredient and includes a vegetable within the first three ingredients.