New year, new resolutions to exercise more and eat better to achieve a healthier lifestyle. These are worthy goals, of course, but many people don't realize they're sabotaging their attempts at healthy living with food and drinks that masquerade as nutritious but actually aren't. Sneaky little devils.
Eating better is often a simple matter of reading labels and nutrition information to figure out exactly what's in whatever it is you're ingesting. Many products purport to be healthy when they're actually packed with sugar, preservatives and other chemicals. Instead, aim for the fewest ingredients possible, and eat the real stuff instead of faux health food.
Here are some primary offenders.
10. Fat-free anything Let's just make one thing clear: Fat-free does not mean calorie-free. Fat-free foods still have calories, and generally, they ain't good ones. When food chemists take the fat out of something, it has to be replaced by something else to add more flavor. Unfortunately, that something else is usually sodium and/or sugar. People also tend to eat more of something that's fat-free, because it sounds healthier. Instead, practice moderation. One chewy, full-fat cookie is going to be a lot tastier than five of those non-fat hockey pucks some companies pass off as cookies.
9. Flavored yogurt You know how many yogurt companies print "real fruit" on the cup, as if actual things that grow out of the ground are supposed to be mind-blowing? That's because A). Most fruit-flavored yogurt is chock full of artificial flavors, so any hint of actual fruit is a good thing, and B). They want you to think it's healthier as a result. It's not, because it's packed with sugar, preservatives and usually food coloring. Yogurt should have two ingredients: Milk and active cultures. If you want fruity yogurt, buy plain yogurt and add fruit. It tastes better, because there aren't any weird chemicals or preservatives in it, and it's much healthier.
8. Energy bars If you must eat an energy bar, think of it like a candy bar. It's an indulgence or a sweet snack, not a meal replacement. Energy bars are loaded with sugar, and most of them are also packed with enriched white flour, saturated fats and corn syrup, in addition to the few vitamins the wrapper touts on the front. Additionally, a small energy bar isn't likely to fill you up for long. Lara Bars and Kind Bars are made with mostly nuts, and the sugar is kept to a minimum. When you need a burst of energy in a hurry, try those instead.
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7. Dried fruit In some fruits, dehydration causes the nutrients to become more concentrated, which is great. However, many dried fruits, such as cranberries and cherries, often have added sugar, along with nasty preservatives called nitrites. Also, when you eat an apple, you're consuming all the water in the fruit, which helps hydrate and fill you up. When you eat 20 dried apple rings like they're chips, you'll probably still be hungry, and you've just eaten the equivalent of several apples. Instead, just eat fruit. It's cheaper than the dried stuff, anyway.
6. Trail mix I remember many a camping trip where I relied solely on trail mix and Tang for sustenance. As a child, I could do that. Now, when I eat a handful of yogurt-covered raisins, M&Ms, dried bananas and a few nuts, I know it's going straight to my hips. Trail mix is good for you in theory, but many people gravitate toward the kind with loads of chocolate and candied fruit to make all those healthy almonds go down a little easier. For a better alternative, make your own with raw (un-roasted and un-salted) nuts and a little dark chocolate. But remember, each serving of nuts is packed with calories, so take it easy.
5. Store-bought smoothies I love Jamba Juice as much as anyone. It's convenient, and when I down a Razzamatazz smoothie, it's easy to pretend I'm doing something good for my body. And then an hour after I drink it I'm hungry again. That's because most smoothies you get from shops like Jamba Juice and Smoothie King often have sugary fruit juice, syrup or sherbet added to them. Also, there's a lot of concentrated fruit in a smoothie, meaning a lot of sugar, and too much of the natural kind is still not great for you. Skip the store smoothie and make one at home with plain yogurt, a banana, some strawberries and ice. If you need a little more sweetness, add some honey.
4. Beef jerky Pure protein. What could be bad about that, right? Wrong. Though the protein in jerky is great, in order to dehydrate the meat and keep it safe for consumers, nitrites and other preservatives are added. Nitrites produce carcinogens in the body, which could contribute to colon cancer. Beef jerky is also usually loaded with salt. Because it's too delicious to give up on entirely (and can't not eat beef jerky on road trips), I look for organic jerky with no preservatives and as little sodium as possible.
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3. Sports drinks Vitamin Water. Gatorade. Rockstar Zero. All purport to be good for you, increase your energy and provide you with much-needed vitamins. While energy drinks do tend to give you a boost, and while, yes, many do contain vitamins, most also contain a load of sugar and calories. And those without any sugar or calories, the so-called "zero" drinks? Those can be even worse, because they're packed with artificial sweeteners, which could actually increase your appetite while not really adding any vitamins to your diet that couldn't be obtained by drinking a glass of milk or 100 percent fruit juice. Here's a rule: If your beverage has more than two or three ingredients, try something else. Unless you're out drinking cocktails. Then, by all means...
2. Pre-made salads Good for you! You went out to Chili's and ordered a salad 'cause you're trying to be healthy. Sorry, but you should have ordered nachos, southwest eggrolls or loaded potato skins, because any of those is healthier than some of Chili's calorically blessed salads. Same is true of most fast-casual eateries and fast food restaurants. Once you add cheese, meat, croutons and creamy dressings to a salad, the fat piles up fast. Sure, taco salads are great, but if you must indulge, try one with black beans, grilled chicken, a little cheese and salsa instead of salad dressing. Or replace that Parmesan-crusted chicken Caesar with grilled chicken and a homemade yogurt-based dressing.
1. Diet Soda Please, please, please tell me you all know by now that diet soda is just as bad for you as regular soda and part of the reason that Americans struggle so much with obesity. You all know that, right? You know that diet soda can increase your risk of metabolic syndrome, making you an ideal candidate for heart disease, don't you? And you know that the artificial sweeteners in diet soda disrupt your body's ability to regulate calorie intake, causing you to eat more and gain more weight. And then, of course, you're aware of how it rots your teeth, can cause cell damage and might make your kidneys stop functioning, aren't you? Good. If only everyone knew all this and decided to drink sparkling water or unsweetened tea instead of soda.