Even the most nutritious foods can get completely wrecked with the wrong toppings, ingredients or preparation method. Adding insult to injury is the fact that so many snacks are marketed as being good for you, when if you read the food label you would have to disagree. We talked to several nutritionists and dietitians to gather a list of the most unhealthy "healthy" foods, as well as some ways to make them better nutritionally. Here's our list.
1. Veggie Chips
The problem with veggie chips is that the name is just so deceiving. "Just because a product has 'veggie' in the name does not mean it qualifies as a health food," says Cody Steiner, R.D., L.N., also known as "The Guyititian." "Most store-bought vegetable chips are based on corn, potato, or pea starches with a bit of other vegetables mixed in. Even the whole vegetable chips that have a better nutritional value and contain more fiber can be a very oily/fatty snack that adds up in calories quick!"
In fact, Veggie Chips from Sprouts Farmers Market pack 8 grams of fat (1 gram saturated) in a measly 1 ounce (28 gram) serving of 26 chips, along with 220 grams of sodium and 140 calories! That works out to 12 percent of your recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for fat and 9 percent of your RDA for sodium. A few handfuls of such a snack can quickly put a dent in your daily dietary needs. Instead, make your own veggie chips in just a few minutes using little more than your favorite veggies, some sea salt and a smidge of olive oil.
2. Cauliflower Pizza Crust
A lot of people turn to cauliflower crust in an effort to lighten up an old favorite, pizza. It makes sense, too. A vegetable has to be better than bread, right? Sadly, not so much. "These crusts often use things like cheese and fats to bind the crust, so while it's (probably) low carb, it's not low cal," explains Jim Mumford, food and recipe writer for the blog Jim Cooks Good Food. Indeed, one slice of cauliflower pizza crust contains 16 percent of your daily cholesterol, 14 percent of your daily saturated fat, 84 calories and 47 percent of your daily sodium.
There are other reasons it might be best to stick to the original, rather than trying to fake your brain out. "By making a 'healthy food swap' you might be depriving your body of key nutrients — making your health suffer," says nutrition coach and personal chef Samantha Eaton in an email interview, adding that carbohydrates and healthy fats are often the first on the dietary chopping block.
Eaton notes that cauliflower has a litany of great health benefits, but replacing a much-loved carb with a veggie may not be the best idea. "Carbohydrates are your body's primary energy source. When we don't eat enough, it's common to experience things like low energy, headaches, constipation or diarrhea, sleep issues, cravings for sugar/white carb foods, and weight loss resistance," she explains. "If the 'healthified version' of a food doesn't taste as good to us as the original version, we won't get as much pleasure from it. We then feel deprived, and are more likely to have cravings and overeat in that moment and/or later to feel satisfied."
A better idea is to opt for thin-crust pizza with tons of veggie toppings and skip the calorie-laden meats. The nutrition profile is actually better than a cauliflower crust pizza.
3. Sweet Potato Fries
Now for some not-so-sweet news: Choosing sweet potato fries over beloved standard french fries doesn't do nearly as much good as you might think. "Sweet potato fries are slightly lower in carbohydrates and higher in vitamins, like Vitamin A," says Syracuse-based registered dietitian nutritionist Emily Tills in an email. But you're not necessarily saving on calories by ordering sweet potato fries. In fact, a serving of seasoned fries from the restaurant chain Friday's has 320 calories and 16 grams of fat, while a serving of sweet potato fries has 390 calories and 20 grams of fat! Worse, "People will swap the fries, but then end up eating even more sweet potato fries than they would of french fries," says Tills.
The preparation is where the sabotage comes in. "No matter which one you choose, they are both deep fried, which can be detrimental to your heart health and cause weight gain," says Laura Hallissey, MS, RD, LDN in an email. Instead she suggests baking the fries at home under your own watchful eye. "Baked sweet potato fries are much better for heart health than fried sweet potato fries. Try baking them with a little olive oil and seasonings for a healthy side dish," she says.
4. Low-Fat or Vinaigrette Salad Dressings
Vinaigrette just sounds like it would be healthy. But not necessarily. Take Ken's fat free sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. Two tablespoons of it has 70 calories, zero fat, but a whopping 14 grams of sugar, or 28 percent of your daily allowance.
"By removing some of the fat from commercial dressings, that minimizes the flavor. In order to make the product more flavorful, sugar is added," Hallissey explains. "This is why companies can make claims about being low-fat without saying anything about the high sugar content."
You'd be far better off using Ken's California golden Italian dressing, which has only 2 grams of fat, 40 calories and 2 grams of sugar.
Both varieties of dressing still have a truckload of sodium, though, so the best solution is to go homemade and use it sparingly. "It's as easy as mixing together some olive oil, your vinegar of choice, mustard if you like it, and lemon juice," Steiner says. "If you don't want to whip it together put it in a small mason jar or snap lock container and shake away!"
5. Granola or Protein Bars
These bars are marketed as "health" foods, but they must still be shelf stable, so they're typically packed with preservatives. Plus, they have to taste good, or they won't sell. "Most granola bars, even the 'healthier' brands are high in sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners," Steiner says. "Protein bars can be even worse. When your 'health food' both looks and tastes like a candy bar — it's not a health food!"
For example, products like a peanut butter and jelly Larabar can weigh in at 210 calories, 13 percent of your daily fat allowance and 18 grams of sugar. A Nature Valley granola bar has 190 calories, 1 gram of fat and 11 grams of sugar. A PowerbarProtein Plus Chocolate Brownie energy bar, for example, has 330 calories and 21 grams of sugar while a Snickers bar, in comparison, has 215 calories and 20 grams of sugar. (The American Heart Association says men should eat no more than 36 grams or 9 teaspoons of added sugar, while women should eat no more than 25 grams or 6 teaspoons of added sugar.)
Bottom line: Instead of buying a protein bar that's been on the shelf for who knows how long, many ingredient purists turn to making their own at home using a few simple pantry staples, like flour, protein powder, nut butter and milk (or a milk substitute). Granola bars are just as easy to make at home, too!
6. Sports Drinks
Like energy or protein bars, this product may be good for athletes but not for the average Joe who jogs twice a week or doesn't work out at all. Sports and energy drinks are popular among adults and teens, and are touted as a way to replace lost electrolytes. But what you're getting is more sugar and more empty calories — for many of people it's more than what they're burning (and that's what leads to weight gain).
Let's look at two popular sports drinks. One bottle (20 ounces) of Powerade contains 130 calories and 34 grams of sugar, which is about 8 teaspoons of sugar. Compare that to 20 ounces of Gatorade, which contains 140 calories and 34 grams of sugar, about 8.3 teaspoons of sugar. If you're not engaged in high-intensity activity, you can skip them and drink water instead.
7. Multigrain and Wheat Breads
If you're eating wheat bread that's made with wheat flour, you might as well be eating white bread — both are made with enriched flour. You might have a bag of it in your pantry — all-purpose flour is an enriched flour. Unless the ingredient list specifically says "100 percent whole wheat," that slice of wheat toast might not be as healthy as you think.
Enriched flours are refined flours, and are stripped of their nutrients during processing. They don't have much nutritional value, and when you eat them they cause an unhealthy spike in your blood sugar — which can lead to chronic illness and inflammation. Including whole grains in your diet may help you lower your risk of developing chronic disease such as diabetes and heart disease — and despite what you think about carbs and weight gain, whole grains may help you maintain a healthy weight.
8. Reduced-fat Peanut Butter
Reading the nutrition label on your jar of peanut butter may surprise you — it's a go-to food in many homes in America, and it's also high in calories and fat. Don't let those two things stop you from indulging, though. Just be smart about the type you do eat.
Reduced-fat peanut butters may sound like a good idea. Less fat is good, right? The trouble with reduced-fat peanut butters is they usually make up for their loss with added sugar, which is not an improved trade over fat. Two tablespoons of Skippy creamy peanut butter, for example, contains 190 calories, 16 grams of total fat and 3 grams of sugars, while the reduced-fat version has 190 calories, 12 grams of total fat and 4 grams of sugars. Too much sugar in your diet can lead to insulin sensitivity or high blood sugar, which may lead to Type 2 diabetes and other health problems.
The best nut butters are the most natural. Try peanut butters with no added sweeteners — but at 16 grams of fat per serving (two tablespoons for most nut butters) keep an eye on how much you spread on your sandwich.
9. Extra Light Olive Oil
Olive oil contains monounsaturated fats, a type of fat associated with a lowered risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers when you include it in an otherwise healthy diet.
Did you know that extra light olive oil isn't "light" like the light we talk about when we're cutting back fats, though? Extra light in this instance refers to how processed the oil is, and extra light olive oil is one of the most refined olive oils you'll find — you'll know it among other types of olive oils because it is the lightest in color and has the mildest flavor. Pale and buttery or green and fruity, olive oil is still oil, and every tablespoon of it contains 120 calories.
Smoothies sound like a healthy snack or meal replacement, and they can be — if you go about it the right way. But because some smoothies contain more sugar than fresh and frozen fruits, yogurt, and skim (or nondairy) milk, they can easily turn from diet-friendly to diet-busting as fast as you can say chunky monkey.
From one shop, a 20-ounce (591-milliliter) cherry smoothie with bananas and papaya juice, for example, has fewer than 300 calories, while a 20-ounce peanut butter plus chocolate smoothie nearly tops 700 calories. The best smoothies are those with no more than 17 calories per ounce (which means you're looking at 340 calories for a 20-ounce smoothie) and no less than 4 grams of fiber per serving. If you're having a meal-replacement smoothie, aim for at least 5 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber per serving.