Living healthy is a multi-billion dollar spinner, and the food industry takes a rather large share from the cache, a share that often is not fair at all. In a world where fast food giants can claim to sell healthy foods, government food agencies are stacked with industry representatives and politicians have an open door policy for industry lobbyists, it pays both financially and in terms of health benefits to retain a healthy scepticism towards the marketing spin that tries to sell us health. If our health is a concern to us, it’s important to become and stay informed about foods: their nature, the ways they are produced and processed, how our body interacts with them and which diets are appropriate or not. Equally important is to become discretionary, for example by applying this knowledge to reading labels when shopping.
The US magazine WomansDay published a list of advertising gimmicks that all too often make us trust and fall for a brand in the wrong belief we’re paying fairly because the product’s health tag, while something as simple as reading the label could spare us throwing good money after bad food. The list makes interesting reading (it is tailored to the US market, but in our globalised world it is as valid here in Australia as it probably is in other countries).
Good source of whole grains
This means the food contains 8 to 15 grams of whole grains per serving, which isn’t bad. (An “excellent source” has at least 16 grams.) But what else is in there? Foods can be made with whole grains and also be packed with lots of preservatives, sugar, fat and other things you want to avoid. So scan the nutrition facts to see what you’re really getting. Generally, the best sources of whole grains are the simplest and made with very few ingredients, such as brown rice, oatmeal, basic bran cereal, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta and 100%-whole-wheat bread. Also remember that the first three ingredients listed are what the product’s mostly made from.
Just because it’s labeled organic (meaning it’s grown or processed without pesticides or hormones) doesn’t mean you’re home free. Organic chips, cookies, candies and other treats often still pack the same calories, sugar and salt as their conventional counterparts. Keep snack portions in check and focus on organic items that really are worth the extra dough (like dairy products and certain fruits and vegetables that don’t have thick skins or rinds). To find out when it’s best to go organic with produce, go to Foodnews.org [for US only].
Sugar-free and no-sugar-added foods swap sugar for artificial sweeteners, preservatives and other man-made ingredients—and often still have plenty of calories. (A “sugar-free/low-cal” brownie can have 250 calories or more.) Not only that, but you may not feel satisfied after you eat a “diet” snack, so you could end up going back for more. Sugar-free foods are also super-sweet, so you may find yourself craving them more often. Stick with small portions of the real stuff.
Fiber keeps us full longer and speeds up digestion, but there’s a catch: Most packaged foods with a “high fiber” claim contain powders like maltodextrin, inulin, polydextrose and oat fiber. These fiber powders will help you stay full, but they don’t provide the same health benefits that you’ll get from the kind of fiber found naturally in foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. They may also cause digestive distress.
It’s often loaded with sugar (upward of 4 tsp, or 16 grams, per ½-cup serving) and can be very high in calories (a bowl can easily rack up 600 to 700 calories). Look for a brand with 10 grams of sugar or less per serving (I like BearNaked or FEED ). Also, think of granola as a condiment: Sprinkle a few Tbsp on cereal or yogurt.
Energy, granola and other snack and meal bars
Many of these have the same sugar and calories you’d find in a chocolate bar. Others are packed with artificial sweeteners. Instead, pick ones that have just 3 or 4 ingredients and at least 3 grams of fiber. All-natural fruit and nut bars like Lara, KINDND and Clif Nectar are good; I also like Kashi granola bars because they’re low in sugar and have a good amount of protein.
Sugar strikes again! Sugary-sweet fruit-flavored yogurts can have up to 6 tsp (32 grams) of added sugar per serving. Start with plain yogurt; add some fresh fruit or a tsp of honey or jam for sweetness. If you have a real sweet tooth, a basic vanilla or fruit-flavored yogurt is OK once in a while.
Popular chains tend to whip up jumbo-size blends of sugary juice and frozen yogurt, which can cost you upward of 600 calories if you’re not careful. If you’re going to order a smoothie, make sure you read the nutrition info carefully. Better yet, make your own: Fill an 8- to 16-oz glass with fresh or frozen fruit, lowfat yogurt and skim or soy milk. Add about a tsp of natural peanut butter or flaxseed for an extra boost of energy and nutrients.
Why yes, they have fiber, but they also have saturated fat and a lot of sugar—and nowadays they tend to be gigantic. Some top out at 500 calories and 14 grams of fat; a donut is often a lighter pick! Try keeping portions, fat and sugar in check by making your own mini–bran muffins sweetened with applesauce, fresh fruit or a little sugar. Grabbing a muffin on the go? Eat just the muffin top or pick one that’s no larger than your fist.
They may be low in fat, but pretzels are simple carbohydrates, so they’re basically empty calories. They won’t do much to fill you up and could spike your blood sugar.Instead, opt for whole-grain or oat bran, and pair them with some protein-rich peanut butter or hummus.
Sweet potato or veggie chips
They’re fried, which means they contain unhealthy fat (and probably a good deal of sodium).You can get your crunch from natural popcorn, which contains cholesterol-lowering fiber. Baked chips are a little better (watch the number of servings in one bag) but they’re still pretty processed, so you’ll end up eating empty calories. Try making your own “chips”: Slice white and sweet potatoes, beets or parsnips super-thin, brush with a little olive oil, add salt and chili powder, and bake at 350°F (175°C) for 7 to 10 minutes until crisp.
Artificial sweeteners can heighten sweet/carbohydrate cravings and may impact weight gain if consumed in large quantities. A healthier option is seltzer with lemon or lime, or an occasional naturally sweetened soda like Gus Grown Up soda or Fizzy Lizzy.
Fortified water drinks
A few vitamins and minerals don’t make up for the excess sugar (and calories) or artificial sweeteners. Get vitamins from real, fresh food. Flavor regular water with simple additions like lemon or fresh herbs.