Making a concerted effort to eat healthy foods isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Especially since there’s a lot of misinformation on what constitutes a healthy option.
“Food isn’t inherently healthy or unhealthy, it’s the habitual choices that you make over time that determine how healthy your diet is,” says Shahzadi Devje, a Toronto-based registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator. “Food is fuel and you shouldn’t feel guilty about what you eat. But there is a general perception of what is a healthy food [that becomes problematic] when you aren’t mindful of the added ingredients that can be otherwise unhealthy.”
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Here, Devje focuses on nine foods that are widely regarded as healthy choices but in fact hide unhealthy components.
Unless you suffer from celiac disease, gluten-free foods and snacks are not a healthy choice.
“These foods contain a variety of rice flours, starches and a lot of sugar that aren’t nutritionally beneficial. If you don’t have a gluten allergy, you shouldn’t eat them because they contain more calories than a normal product with gluten.”
In addition, a study published in 2017 in the British Medical Journal found that people who cut out gluten unnecessarily put themselves at higher risk of cardiovascular issues because they avoided eating heart-healthy whole grains.
When it comes to healthy restaurants or to-go options, not many foods get as good a rep as salad — and for good reason. Done properly, a salad will offer you a wealth of nutrient-dense ingredients that are part of a well-balanced diet. Unfortunately, unless you’re preparing that salad at home and you’re aware of every ingredient going in it, there’s a very good chance that it will harbour a lot of unnecessary fats, calories and salt.
“The dressing is the most dangerous part,” Devje says. “Most are full of fat, salt and sugar. Plus, salads can be loaded with ingredients that are healthy but in small doses.”
She points to nuts and seeds as the biggest culprits. Although they’re a good source of protein and fibre, they should be eaten in small quantities because they’re also high in fat and calories.
“If you’re trying to be mindful of your weight, you need to keep nuts and seeds to a small serving because they can add up quickly.”
If you’re ordering a salad in a restaurant or picking one up to-go, she says to always ask for the dressing on the side and pay close attention to the ingredients going into your meal.
This is a popular on-the-go snack, but while it’s long been perceived to be a natural and healthy option, pre-packaged varieties of trail mix are anything but.
“There’s an excess of sugar and preservatives in packaged trail mix that will actually only work to exacerbate your hunger and make you overeat at your next meal,” Devje says.
It can be difficult to add variety to breakfast, and in general, oatmeal is a good choice. But if you’re buying instant oatmeal, you’re not doing yourself any favours because those flavoured packets are full of sugar.
“Oatmeal is a whole grain that’s high in fibre and will keep you full longer. It’s also great for regulating blood sugar levels and cholesterol. But the flavoured oatmeal with added sugar won’t do any of those things.”
Devje says to make your own oatmeal using plain oats — whether they’re steel cut or rolled — and add your own toppings judiciously, like fresh or frozen fruit and a sprinkling of nuts or seeds.
And don’t fret over what kind of oats to buy; both steel cut and rolled are whole grains and have a similar nutritional profile. The only difference is that the latter will cook faster.
How can something that’s derived directly from a fruit with no added ingredients not be healthy? Because you’re missing out on the best parts.
“Eating a whole piece of fruit is always the ideal choice because you’ll get the fibre, vitamins, minerals and nutrients that are only present in a whole food.”
Devje doesn’t swear off juice altogether — but she also doesn’t advocate it as a daily part of a healthy diet.
“You also have to be aware that if you’re buying juice from a store, there could be added sugar and that’s going to lead to a sugar spike,” versus the stabilizing benefits of eating the whole fruit.
Similar to juice, a smoothie runs the risk of pulverizing all the good-for-you nutrients present in a whole food and in addition, it won’t fill you up.
“Granted, if you make a smoothie at home using fruits and vegetables, it has the potential to give you the fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and water that you won’t get from a slice of toast with jam. But you have to remember that it won’t fill you up and it could make you hungrier at your next meal.”
She says it comes down to one simple question: Should we be drinking our food? And the answer is no.
The fat-free movement was arguably the biggest health craze of the 20th century, and it was also one of the most misguided. (The going belief is that the sugar industry was actually the one to spark it.)
“The problem is that fat-free foods generally contain more calories and sugar because fat is what gives food flavour. So when it’s removed, you have to add extra ingredients to make up for it.”
Devje says it’s always better to go for a full-fat product occasionally versus eating fat-free all the time.
Once again, this is an otherwise healthy food with redeeming nutritional qualities that is often compromised by added sugar.
“People think they’re getting calcium and protein and vitamin D from yogurt, but unless you’re buying plain yogurt, what you’re really getting is a lot of sugar,” Devje says.
And it’s even worse if you’re buying frozen yogurt, which she says has the same amount of sugar as a tub of ice cream.
“You have to be vigilant in reading the ingredient list and making sure that sugar is really far down on it, because that means there’s less of it in the product.”
These are the saving grace of any busy person (which is almost everyone these days) who doesn’t always have time to sit down to a proper meal. But they are not all created equally.
“A snack bar is not something I would advocate because it doesn’t provide a balanced, wholesome meal, but I understand that many people need to eat them now and then.”
Devje says to look for bars that consist of complex carbohydrates, are high in fibre (three to five grams per serving), have less than five grams of fat, offer 10 to 15 grams of protein, and are fortified with vitamins and minerals.
“At the end of the day, it’s always best to eat a balanced meal made from mostly plant-based ingredients and with healthy fats like avocado and olive oil.”
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