by Amy Rushlow
November 6, 2015
You’re trying to shed a few pounds. So you switch to diet soda from the sugary stuff, pour a bowl of granola cereal instead of Frosted Flakes in the morning, and buy lean frozen meals to help keep your calories in check.
Sorry to break it to you: While these steps are well-intentioned, they may not be helping you slim down. And some supposedly healthy foods can actually hurt your health over time. Think twice before adding these five foods to your cart.
Granola seems like the ultimate health food. But it’s often loaded with sugar, explains integrative nutritionist Jennie Miremadi, not to mention high in calories. (Just a half-cup of granola has about 260 calories, the same as 2 ½ cups of Cheerios.)
It’s also “high in fat from nuts, seeds, and oils, making it calorie dense,” Miremadi says. But aren’t nuts and seeds healthy fats? Yes, but “although there are health benefits to these ingredients, they are more caloric than grains alone, which is the main ingredient in most cereals,” certified dietitian nutritionist Beth Warren tells Yahoo Health.
For a healthier granola, look for one that’s higher in fiber and free of hydrogenated oils (trans fats), Miremadi advises.
But even healthy granolas are high in calories. That might not be a problem for you if you’re training for a marathon, but if you’re watching your weight, it can add up fast. The key is to check the portion size — usually one-quarter cup or one-half cup — and measure it out in a bowl rather than snacking from the bag.
Better option: Warren recommends Kind Healthy Grains Vanilla Blueberry Clusters with Flax Seeds, which has 5 grams of fat and 7 grams of fiber per half-cup serving.
2. Premium, prebottled juice smoothies
The green juice smoothies you find at the grocery store are delicious, no doubt. Unfortunately, that’s usually because they’re packed with sugar. Naked’s 15-ounce Green Machine juice smoothie, for example, contains 53 grams of sugar — more than an entire pack of Skittles!
“I think a lot of people get confused with these because they’re green and they say ‘green smoothie,’ but the sugar content is in the range of 50 grams of sugar in a lot of cases,” says certified nutritionist Yuri Elkaim, author of The All-Day Energy Diet and the upcoming All-Day Fat-Burning Diet.
Because the sugar in these juices usually comes from fruit, you might think it’s OK. But as Elkaim explains, the sugar is usually about 50 percent fructose, a type of sugar that needs to be metabolized by the liver before our bodies can use it. The problem: The liver can only process about 25 grams of fructose at one time. “Anything over that spills over into triglyceride (fat) formation,” he tells Yahoo Health. This can raise triglycerides in the blood, which contributes to cardiovascular disease and can even lead to fatty liver disease down the line.
In addition, these drinks will spike blood sugar, which triggers the release of the fat-storing hormone insulin. “Insulin is going to take all that extra sugar and it’s going to store it predominantly in our fat cells, assuming that our muscle and liver has exhausted their storage capacity,” Elkaim says.
Better option: A green juice made from mostly vegetables, with only a small amount of fruit, Miremadi recommends. “Juice Served Here’s Jinjå Greens contains vegetables and apple, and only 4 grams of sugar per bottle,” she says.
Related: 7 Ingredients You Should Never Add to Smoothies
3. Organic crackers and cookies
Research from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab shows that people view organic processed foods as having fewer calories and less fat than traditional versions. This phenomenon, known as a “health halo,” has been shown to make people consume more calories than they would otherwise.
But organic crackers and cookies are still just that: crackers and cookies, Miremadi points out. “Organic crackers and cookies do have minimal benefits over nonorganic crackers and cookies in that that they use organic ingredients and generally try to omit preservatives, artificial ingredients, and chemicals found in regular brands,” she says. “However, organic crackers and cookies are generally devoid of nutrients and are often still filled with sugar and processed, refined carbohydrates, which will spike your blood sugar.”
Better option: Crackers made from flax seeds, like Flackers, which contain healthy fats and are high in fiber to help you feel satiated. As for cookies, look for brands that use stevia or xylitol, Warren recommends — both are natural sweeteners that have a minimal effect on your blood sugar.
4. Lean frozen entrees
Lean frozen dinners may seem like a good idea if you’re trying to watch your weight. The dishes have built-in portion control so you don’t overeat, and you can even find healthier versions of comfort foods like pizza and mac and cheese.
The artificial ingredients in many frozen meals, however, limit any benefits you might get from portion control. “I don’t even consider them food,” Elkaim says. “If there’s a zombie apocalypse and everything else is raided and there are only frozen entrees left in the grocery store, go with the organic one. But also be aware that just because it says gluten-free, or low in fat, or organic, that doesn’t mean that they’re healthy.”
Artificial ingredients such as MSG (monosodium glutamate) create inflammation in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that receives the “you’re full now” message. “That communication becomes severed when we’re consuming these artificial ingredients,” Elkaim explains. “So, yes, it might be lower in calories, but the long-term consequence is that our brain doesn’t understand when we’re full anymore, and we have a very tough time of regulating our own appetite. … We’ve really traded our health for convenience.”
Better option: Plan your meals ahead of time and prepare your ingredients in advance. If you have your veggies and chicken measured out and cut ahead of time, for example, you can whip up a stir-fry in 10 minutes. That’s only five minutes longer than it takes to zap a frozen meal, Elkaim points out — and it’s exponentially better for your health.
5. Diet soda
“People think they are doing their health a favor by not drinking sugar-sweetened beverages and choosing diet drinks,” Warren says. “Artificial sweeteners have been proven time and time again that, in the long run, they are not doing your waistline or health a favor by consuming them.”
A study of 24,000 Americans found that overweight and obese adults were more likely to drink diet soda than people at a healthy weight. While that might not be surprising — if you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll probably switch to diet drinks — the diet drinkers also consumed significantly more calories from food compared to people who chose sugary beverages. And overweight and obese people consumed roughly the same number of calories no matter their choice of beverage, according to the results, which were published in the American Journal of Public Health.
In other words, you might save some calories by drinking diet, but if you think, “I drank diet soda, so I can order that side of fries,” it doesn’t matter much.
People who drink diet soda also tend to gain more belly fat over time. A recent University of Texas study followed 750 older adults for about 10 years. During that period, daily diet drinkers added more than 3 inches to their waist circumference, compared to less than 1 inch for non-diet drinkers. (The non-diet group included soda abstainers and sugary soda drinkers.)
“Artificial sweeteners trigger your brain to overeat and crave more sweet foods, just like its response to sugar. As a result, it leads to an increase in weight and risk for metabolic disorders,” Warren says.
Better option: Add a squeeze of lemon to sparkling water. Or flavor sparkling water with one-quarter cup of pureed berries and a dash of stevia for sweetness, Miremadi recommends.