By the time you’re 50, you're probably trying to eat healthier. High-fiber cereals are newly on your radar. So are any foods that boast healthy amounts of flax, calcium and/or antioxidants. Trouble is, many supposedly good-for-you supermarket foods are full of not-so-good adds-ons like salt, sugar and bad fats.
So how do you sort through the nutrition hype of all these packaged eats and treats to find the healthy gems? When checking out nutrition labels, follow these three important rules: 1. Read carefully. 2. Read carefully. 3. Read carefully.
Before loading up your grocery cart, read up on why six of the foods that you think are healthy are far from it, then swap them out with the suggested alternatives.
(More: Fiftysomething Diet: 5 Foods That Women Need to Eat)
1. Supposedly Good: Whole-grain cereals In the quest for improving the health of your morning routine, you’ve no doubt searched the cereal aisle for whole grain choices. But whole grain cereals, the ones with a prominent whole grain stamp on the front of the package, are not always such a good deal. During processing they lose some of the vital parts of the whole grain and often a good deal of its healthy fiber. In fact, a recent Harvard study finds that cereals bearing a “Whole Grain Stamp” actually carry more sugar and calories than cereals without the stamp. Their fiber content isn't so great either.
"We need a better way to look at good cereal choices," said one of the study's authors, Rebecca Mozaffarian. “Given the significant prevalence of refined grains, starches and sugars in modern diets, having a unified criterion to identify higher-quality carbohydrates is a key priority in public health.” For now, look at the nutrition facts panel to assess the amount of fiber — preferably at least five grams per serving. And don't forget to look at the sugar content (3 or 4 grams per serving is plenty).
Healthy Swap: 100 percent whole grains There’s no confusion when you buy 100 percent whole grains to start the day. That includes steel cut or rolled oats, wheat berries or bulgur or even cooked barley. You’ll get 4 to 8 grams of fiber and no added sugars — there is nothing else added. And while whole grains contain many beneficial nutrients, ones that are rich in fiber are an especially good choice. Studies show that fiber-rich diets help lower blood pressure, control blood sugar and lower “bad,” or LDL, cholesterol. A 2004 study from the University of Minnesota suggests that for every 10 grams of fiber you eat, the risk of heart and coronary heart disease plummets 14 percent! (Some whole grains, like bown rice, don't have a lot of fiber. But they have good nutrients. But who eats brown rice as a morning cereal?)
2. Supposedly Good: Reduced-fat peanut butter It may have four less grams of fat per serving than regular peanut butter, but the first two ingredients in Jif Reduced Fat Peanut Butter Spread are corn syrup solids and sugar. Next on the list is soy protein, followed by salt, fully hydrogenated vegetable oils, mono and diglycerides, molasses (another sugar) and so on. The company admits that the recipe is just 60 percent peanuts! Even though Skippy Reduced Fat Creamy Peanut Butter Spread puts roasted peanuts first on the ingredient list, sugar appears twice (corn syrup solids, sugar), then soy protein, salt, hydrogenated vegetable oils, etc. Are you noticing a theme here? Yes, reduced fat spreads save on fat. But at an unhealthy cost. You’re getting extra sugar (corn syrup, sugar, molasses) and unwanted hydrogenated oils.
Healthy Swap: Full-fat peanut butter, preferably brands made with just peanuts and a little salt. Studies show that people eating moderate amounts of peanut butter and nuts (both rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats) are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes and heart disease. And the tiny amounts of saturated fat they contain? Not to worry. “The presence of saturated fat doesn’t automatically kick a food, such as peanut butter, into the ‘unhealthy’ camp,” Harvard nutrition expert Walter C. Willet writes in the Harvard Heart Letter. “Olive oil, wheat germ, and even tofu — all considered to be ‘healthy’ foods — have some saturated fat.” It’s the whole package of nutrients, not just one or two, that determines how good a particular food is for health. “I try to eat as healthful a diet as I can,” Willet says. “It includes all kinds of nuts, as well as peanut and other nut butters.” (Feeling adventurous? Click here for a recipe to make your own nut butters.)
3. Supposedly Good: Low-fat muffins Needing fewer calories as we age is a bummer. And one of the quickest ways to slash calories, you might think, is to opt for low-fat foods, particularly when the sweet tooth strikes. The problem is that low-fat foods, muffins included, aren’t making us any healthier as a nation or promoting weight loss. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why. The calories and size of these treats, including the high sugar counts, tell the story.
A reduced-fat blueberry muffin at Dunkin’ Donuts has 410 calories, 75 grams of carbohydrates and 10 teaspoons of sugar — that's more sugar than its regular blueberry muffin. And you're saving only a measly 50 calories. Starbuck’s Reduced-Fat Cinnamon Swirl Coffee (340 calories) has 10 fewer grams of fat, but 4 grams more sugar than its classic version. “It’s time to end the low-fat myth,” says Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Unfortunately, many well-motivated people have been led to believe that all fats are bad and that foods loaded with white flour and sugar are healthy choices.” Not so.
Healthy Swap: Whole wheat English muffins Granted, this muffin switch doesn’t deliver a sweet hit, but it’s downright impossible to find donut and coffee shop muffins that aren’t softball-sized, high-calorie cakes masquerading as muffins. A whole wheat English muffin on average has 150 calories and 3 to 5 grams of fiber. Spread with a thin coat of peanut butter for a healthy topping. If you’re in the mood to bake, dietitians at the Culinary Institute of America joined with Harvard to create normal-size muffins made with whole grain and nut flours, healthy fats and minimal sugar. (Click here to get recipes for these tasty muffins: blueberry, cranberry orange, jalapeño cheddar corn, lemon chickpea and whole wheat banana nut.)
(More: Fiftysomething Diet: 5 Foods That Men Need to Eat)
4. Supposedly Good: Trail mix While nuts and dried fruit combos start out as a good thing, most mixes throw in added sugars, salt and milk chocolate. A small handful often has upwards of 300 or more calories so it's not a light, healthy snack. Looking at the ingredient list of Planter’s Nut and Chocolate Trail Mix you’ll notice the first ingredient is peanuts, but the second is chocolate candy pieces. (Not healthy dark chocolate, but sugary milk chocolate candies.) Next is sugar, artificial color, corn syrup, carnuba wax, etc. There are 4 teaspoons of sugar in just one ounce of the mix.
Healthy Swap: Unsalted almonds and raisins Buy separate packages of unsalted nuts or roasted unsalted mixed nuts and combine them with dried fruits, like raisins, that don’t have added sugars or sulfur additives. Weigh out a half ounce of whole almonds (about 11) and tuck it in a mini snack bag with 30 raisins for a 120-calorie snack with no added sugar.
5. Supposedly Good: Veggie chips Clever marketing strategies want you to think that sweet potato chips or sticks made with a laundry list of vegetable ingredients are a healthier option than potato chips. But processing veggies into powders to color and flavor chips that are basically made of potato starch is more smoke and mirrors than nutritional wizardry, according to an upcoming Consumer Reports article. Its conclusion: “Despite the parsnips, sweet potatoes and taro pictured on packages of veggie chips — and boasts of a ‘full serving of vegetables in every ounce’ in a couple of products — these aren’t crudités. They’re still fried and have plenty of fat and calories.”
Healthy Swap: Air-popped popcorn It’s a better way to get your crunch on since popcorn is 100 percent whole grain, netting you about 4 grams of fiber in a 3-cup serving — only 93 calories. A study last year from the University of Scranton finds that popcorn, particularly popcorn hulls, contain high levels of not just fiber but health-promoting antioxidants called polyphenols. A serving of popcorn provides up to 300 mg of those antioxidants, compared with 114 mg for a serving of sweet corn and 160 mg for all fruits. “Air-popped popcorn has the lowest number of calories, of course,” said lead researcher Joe Vinson, a chemistry professor at the university. “Microwave popcorn has twice as many calories as air-popped." That's also true if you pop your own with oil.
6. Supposedly Good: Nutritional drinks in a can These drinks used to be a hospital staple meant to help people debilitated by cancer or other illnesses. Today, however, their manufacturers are pitching them far and wide to seniors and anyone else interested in health. Sold at supermarkets and drugstores, products like Ensure now come in other varieties, including a “Nutrition Shake.” Nestle’s Boost nutrition drinks are aimed at “anyone concerned about getting proper amounts of nutrients in their diet.”
Are these drinks a good idea for the average Jane or Joe? Not really. Dr. Amy Ehrlich, associate professor of clinical medicine and interim head of Montefiore Medical Center's geriatrics division, suggests that many people equate these drinks as a replacement for meals. But they’re not — even for someone who is having trouble eating and keeping weight on. “It is always better to use regular food," she says.
Healthy Swap: Real food A glass of skim milk, an egg, some lean meat, kidney beans. These are the good protein sources that come with a natural supply of vitamins and minerals and none of the sugars (corn syrup, sugar), natural and artificial flavors (ick!) and other additives found in these supplemental drinks in a can.