Health foods that aren’t healthy

May 18, 2010 at 4:19 p.m. ET

Think that granola-topped yogurt is a virtuous choice for your slim-down diet? It’s possible, but it may also be a fat- and sugar-laden calorie bomb that isn’t healthful at all. Seemingly healthy packaged foods, such as oatmeal, multi-grain products and organic items, are frequently diet-sabotaging junk food shrouded behind a deceiving label. Susan Burke March, MS, CDE, author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally, shares the most common ‘health’ foods that aren’t diet-friendly and why you should avoid them.

Woman looking for hidden sugars

Food labels that fool

Since you've decided to improve your family's diet, you now bypass the regular packaged food brands and opt for those labeled "all natural," "low glycemic," and "sugar-free." Though a sensible move, these seemingly healthier products may not be the best choices.

For example, the term natural doesn't necessarily mean healthy. Burke March explains, "Although 'natural' should mean no artificial colors or ingredients, [it] isn't a guarantee that the product contains whole wheat, or any fruits or vegetables at all." The registered dietician suggests reading packages from the back to the front, reading the ingredients list first. Here's why.

Natural isn't necessarily nature made

Those packages sporting "100% natural" may be no better than their standard brand neighbor. "The USDA says that the 'natural' claim means that the food does not contain any artificial ingredients, coloring ingredients, or chemical preservatives, and, in the case of meat and poultry, is minimally processed," says Burke March. "However, though the meat may be full of 'natural flavors' and 'naturally raised,' it doesn't mean the animal isn't raised on a factory farm or that the animal had access to the outdoors." Another example of being duped by the 'natural' claim is so called natural teas and other beverages that, upon closer inspection of the ingredients list, also contain high fructose corn syrup and added flavorings.

Organic calories are still calories

As you cruise through the packaged food aisles, you tend to grab the organic brands because they are less toxic to your family. However, organic foods should not be mistaken for diet-friendly foods, particularly when it comes to sugar. "The truth is, if it's sugar, it's sugar whether it is organic or not," explains Burke March. "High fructose corn syrup, honey, cane sugar or white, maple syrup, or agave nectar all have approximately 16 to 20 calories per teaspoon, and negligible nutrition – said differently, they are empty calories." She suggests looking for the products that offer optimal nutrition, are high in fiber, and low in sugar.

Multi-grain means many grains and more

Beware of bread, cereal and other products that claim to be multi-grain. Burke March says, "Multi-grain does not mean whole grain -- it means just about nothing at all, except that the product contains an undefined amount of different types of grains." The nutrition expert recommends reaching for products with "100% whole grain" on the label and listing "100% whole" wheat or other grain as the first ingredient. This will ensure that you're getting all of the good nutrition from that grain's kernel, including vitamin E, magnesium, and fiber. While you're at it, choose the products containing no artificial colorings and flavorings, no hydrogenated fats, the highest fiber, and the lowest salt and sugar.

Low Glycemic Index is an unreliable reference

First it was "low carb," now it is "low glycemic," but just because a food is labeled as being low glycemic (or low carb), doesn't guarantee it is good for you. The glycemic index ranks foods based on the how quickly they elevate blood sugar levels compared to the same quantity of a reference food, which is typically pure glucose or white bread. Theoretically, the lower the glycemic index (GI) value the better. Though a seemingly smart way to compare foods, Burke March says it isn't realistic. "In addition to not considering the amount of food usually eaten, the glycemic index doesn't include the amount of fiber in the food," she explains. "A medium baked potato has a higher GI (85) than a Snickers bar (55), and who'd say a candy bar is better than a baked potato?"

The GI is also based on the same quantity of food (50 grams), regardless of the actual volume; 50 carbohydrate grams of cookies (7 small cookies) is much easier to eat than 50 carbohydrate grams of carrots (5 cups of carrots) in one sitting. When it comes to carbohydrates, Burke March recommends focusing on eating whole foods with the highest fiber in portions that are right for you.

Fat-free and sugar-free foods are not calorie-free

Those tempting packages of fat-free chips and sugar-free cookies are hard to resist but they can be even more of a diet disaster if you end up eating numerous servings. Burke March warns, "[Just because a] food is labeled 'low-fat' or 'fat-free' does not make it calorie-free; manufacturers add sugar to add texture and bulk lost from removing fat." One look at the labels will also show that a sugar-free cookie has the same number of calories as the regular one you don't really want to give up. Whether or not you opt for "free" foods, always read the label for the serving size and stick to one serving.

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