With all the mac & cheese and fried chicken in the world, going for lighter bites can be a struggle. To make matters worse, some foods are disguised as healthy options, when really they’re just tricking us into eating hundreds of extra calories and boatloads of sugar.
If we wanted that, we’d go straight for the donuts and not bother with the appearance of health. Here you'll find the 12 sneakiest "health" foods, plus how to outsmart them.
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“For some reason, granola has always had a health halo around it,” says Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet. More often than not, it’s anything but healthy.
Many options contain tons of added sugar (which science says plays a part in high blood pressure and heart disease), few nutrients, and a boatload of calories. Think of it more as a topping than anything else.
Gans suggests sticking to products that have more than 5g of fiber (which will keep those hunger pangs from interrupting that mid-morning meeting with your boss) and less than 10g of sugar.
These super-trendy sips aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be. Just don't tell that to your juice-cleansing friend, who might be hangry enough to physically assault you.
While green juices are definitely a way to get some nutrients, they also sometimes contain added sugars. “Just because it’s green doesn’t mean that the calories don’t count,” says Gans. Keep tabs on the serving size (some bottles contain two or three), and remember that all that sugar can add up.
Healthy in theory, not so much in practice. It’s easy to overeat sushi, particularly if you’re sharing a bunch of rolls with buddies. Plus, the add-ons (spicy mayo, crunchy tempura flakes, and excess amounts of avocado) can ratchet up the calorie count, says Gans.
Just because they come from nature doesn’t mean these sweet treats are super-healthy snacks. Even if they contain no added sugar and are made from 100% fresh fruit, they’re still packed with way more sugar, calories, and carbs than we need, says Molly Kimball, registered dietitian with Ochsner’s Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans.
The bottom line: these are calorie-dense sugar bombs.
By now you know that sugar’s practically Public Enemy No.1. But does that also hold true for artificial sweeteners?
While there's no definitive evidence that the fake stuff is dangerous, it may lead to glucose intolerance (a precursor to diabetes), according to a 2014 study published in the journal Nature. Plus, eating and drinking artificial sweeteners trains our taste buds to crave something sweet, perpetuating a cycle, says Kimball. Try to avoid them, unless you're using them to help you kick a sugary drink habit.
Hate to break it to you, but the majority of the bars you snack on when you’re on the go aren’t your best bet. First off, be wary of stuff that’s branded as a fitness food -- products with this kind of packaging may make you eat more of them and work out less (womp, womp), suggests a study in the Journal of Marketing Research.
What you’re getting with each bite may not do you any favors, either. “You don’t need 20 or 30g of protein from a bar,” says Gans. “You should be getting it from real food.” She suggests maxing out at about 12g of protein per bar. You’re also going to want something that’s high in fiber and low in added sugar.
OK, yogurt’s got a lot of awesome stuff going on -- we’re talking vitamins, minerals, and (ideally) plenty of protein. But if yours tastes exactly like apple pie or your favorite cheesecake, it’s probably not that great for you.
“With regular flavored yogurt, you may be looking at 28g of sugar and 5g of protein -- it’s a terrible ratio,” says Kimball. Even flavored Greek yogurt can pack in a good 11 to 14g of sugar, though these usually also contain as much protein.
Rule of thumb: look for something that’s high in protein (Greek yogurt’s the winner in that department) with a good ratio of protein to sugar (i.e. 20g of protein vs. 6g of sugar).
Over the past couple of years, going gluten-free has been as popular as McCarthyism was in the '50s. But if you’ve hopped on the bandwagon hoping to overhaul your health (and to stay off a mysterious "black list"), you might want to reconsider.
The truth is, unless you have a gluten intolerance or celiac disease, gluten-free picks aren’t necessarily going to be better or more nutritious options, says Gans. In fact, many recipes might add sugar to make the product taste better, and may also be higher in calories, she warns.
A cookie’s a cookie, whether there’s gluten in it or not.
They may be quick, easy, and delicious, but parfaits are a nutritional nightmare. Each to-go cup is likely full of vanilla-flavored yogurt (which is high in sugar) and fruit that, while healthy on its own, might also have added sugar, according to Kimball. Top it off with granola, and you have a straight-up dessert on your hands.
You’re better off going the DIY route with fresh fruit, Greek yogurt with a high protein-to-sugar ratio, and just a sprinkle of granola.
Unless you’re whipping up your smoothie yourself, you run the risk of consuming as much as three to four days’ worth of added sugar, warns Kimball. Ones to watch out for: anything with “power” or “muscle” in the name -- even a small one might contain 80-100g of carbs and 80-100g of sugar, she says.
You don’t have to skip the blended beverages entirely. Just stick to one with 30g of protein and no more than 10-15g of naturally occurring sugar.
Reduced-fat peanut butter
The less fat, the better, right? Around your waistline, yes. But in your peanut butter, that’s not necessarily the case. See, the dietary fat in peanut butter really isn’t a bad thing; it can actually help keep you fuller longer, says Kimball.
On the flip side, sugar’s the stuff you should try to limit. And though reduced-fat peanut butter is by no means terrible for you, it can sometimes contain added sugar and sodium. All you need is natural peanut butter with no added sugar or salt, and you won't have to worry.
The glorious deception of American marketing works especially well in the bread aisle. Some bread that may be marketed as "whole grain," just isn't whole grain at all.
The red flags to look for? The words “multigrain” and “made with whole wheat” on the packaging, says Kimball. When in doubt, look at the label. If the first ingredient listed is enriched wheat flour, you’re getting plain white flour in that loaf. Stick to the ones that say they’re 100% whole wheat or whole grain to be safe.
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Alexandra Duron is a freelance writer for Thrillist and thinks (full-fat) peanut butter = happiness. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @alexduron.