Which Is Worse: When the Real Things Trump Diet Food
Think you're choosing a healthier option? Think again.
The Salad Topping That Doesn't Get Along with Carrots
You've made a colorful salad of spinach, romaine, cherry tomatoes and carrots; it's bursting with carotenoids that offer protection from heart disease and cancer. But if you choose fat-free dressing, you'll get far less of their health benefits than if you go with the full-fat kind, concluded a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition—in fact, you'll get hardly any. That's because carotenoids are fat soluble, says Janis Jibrin, RD, lead nutritionist for Bob Greene's Best Life, which means you need to combine them with fat for optimum absorption. Jibrin suggests dressing your greens (and oranges and reds) with a good fat, like olive oil, herbs and lemon juice.
The Sweet Treat That Tricks Your Taste Buds
Artificial sweeteners—aspartame, saccharin, Splenda, Truvia, whatever you use to take the place of sugar—are referred to as "high-intensity sweeteners" by Stephanie Clarke and Willow Jarosh, New York–based registered dieticians. They cite research that shows that these chemicals can condition your taste buds to crave super-sweet flavors; once your palate is conditioned to artificial sweeteners, regular sweet foods (like antioxidant-rich berries) will feel like going back to regular TV after watching everything in 3-D. (The advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest also warns against long-term use of saccharine and aspartame because of conflicting studies regarding their safety.) Clarke and Jarosh remind us that a teaspoon of sugar has only 16 calories and more than enough sweetness for normal 2-D taste buds (just remember to limit your intake to 6 teaspoons per day of added sugar, per the American Heart Association).
The Dairy Snack That Won't Do as Much for Your Bones
Most people consider yogurt to be a tasty way to put a big dent in their daily 1,000–1,200 mg calcium requirement. However, the artificial sweeteners and fillers in the "light" fat-free flavored varieties displace calcium, says Jibrin, sometimes by as much as half (per 6-ounce container,150 mg vs. 300 mg for the fat-free plain stuff). To get all the bone-strengthening benefits of the plain (yet admittedly bland) version, Jibrin suggests eating the low-fat or nonfat unflavored version and sweetening it with a half a teaspoon of honey—or, better, mixing it with real fruit.
The Peanut Butter That Sounds Too Good to be True
The amount of fat in 2 tablespoons of peanut butter is 16 grams—no small amount, to be sure, but it's mostly unsaturated (i.e., better for you) and can make a filling snack, Jibrin says. By switching from full-fat to the reduced-fat kind, you'll save only about 4 grams of fat. Plus, there's virtually no difference in calories! The reduced-fat version replaces some of those mono- and poly-unsaturated fats found in peanuts with fillers, empty carbs and extra sweeteners not found in any type of real food. "They have no nutritional benefit," Jibrin says. She adds that the total recommended fat intake for the average person is about 30 percent of total calories each day, so full-fat peanut butter, in moderation, can still be a part of a healthy diet. Look for a brand that has only one ingredient on the list: peanuts.
The Cereal That's a Waste of Milk
It's true that some cereals can pack in way more calories, fat and sugar than most of us should be eating in the morning. However, "diet" versions (usually found in the form of rice flakes or puffs) take breakfast to the opposite extreme: You'll see from the nutrition label that these are low in pretty much everything—including fiber, which means you'll probably be as hungry after finishing a bowl as you were when you woke up. Jibrin recommends whole-grain, unprocessed oatmeal or minimally processed whole wheat cereals instead and says that despite its reputation as a megacalorie treat, granola can be a great source of fiber and protein. Choose one that has nuts, seeds and whole grains and is low in added sugar, and consider using it as a condiment (sprinkled on unsweetened yogurt or a whole wheat cereal) rather than a meal in itself.
The Fruit Spread That's More Spread Than Fruit
Ever look at the label of those sugar-free jams? Not only is the first ingredient often water, but it's usually followed by a long list of additives like polydextrose, maltodextrin and calcium chloride—not to mention aspartame ("to cover up for lower-quality fruit," say Clarke and Jarosh). You're getting a whole lot of other things you don't want or need. Clarke and Jarosh recommend choosing a brand with a label that lists fruit first, and avoiding those made with high-fructose corn syrup.
Slices That Are Faking It
Clarke and Jarosh explain that to make the "light" versions of bread and English muffins, the recipes are stripped down to white flour. Then vitamins, fiber and even sweetness (in the form of artificial sugars) have to be added in. They say that you're better off going with regular whole grain breads because those extra calories (30 or so) pack in natural flavor, nutrients and fiber. That's real food, with real benefits, compared with slices that have sweeteners you don't need and may leave you hungry and looking for something to eat later (and that something will likely have more than 30 calories).
Next: Diet advice you can ignore
Next: Diet advice you can ignore