Some of the rules of a healthy diet are fairly obvious -- steer clear of fast food joints, say "no" to fried foods, and keep the chips and cookies to a minimum. Unfortunately, eating smart involves more than just avoiding notoriously unhealthy foods.
Lurking behind the facade of words like "organic," "fat-free" and "natural" is a whole slew of foods that can kill a diet and pack on the calories. So here's a warning for any well-intentioned healthy eater: Just because it sounds nutritious, doesn't mean a food is actually good for you.
Lurking behind the facade of words such as 'organic,' 'fat-free' and 'natural' is a whole slew of foods that can kill a diet and pack on the calories.
Deciphering a Label
The key to knowing whether the foods you're buying are as nutritious as they seem is being able to read the nutrition labels. Some tips from the experts can help you navigate the information on a food package:
• Be mindful of portion size: "People always miss the serving size," said registered dietitian Tara Miller. The packaging can make a food or drink look like a single serving, when it's actually two or more.
• Look for foods that are trans fat-free: "Trans fat is harmful for your heart," said Ginn. While you're at it, though, also scan the label for partially hydrogenated oils, another ingredient you should avoid.
• Don't be seduced by misleading words: "Organic" doesn't necessarily mean a food is low in calories, and "fat-free" can be a mask for loads of added sugars to hide behind, says Gans. Instead of assuming these marketing catch-phrases indicate a healthy food, check out the label and be mindful of the order in which the ingredients are itemized. If an unhealthy one like sugar is at or near the beginning of the list, steer clear of the food.
The biggest pitfall with a salad is ruining a veggie-filled meal with hundreds of calories in dressing. "Check the label," advised Keri Gans, a registered dietitian and author of "The Small Change Diet." Oftentimes the dressing with a salad at a restaurant has more calories than a candy bar. "Order dressing on the side," Gans said. "You should not be putting more than 60 calories of dressing on a salad."
Blending fruit with frozen yogurt sounds like a sure-fire healthy snack. But Tara Miller, registered dietitian and founder of Achieve Balance Wellness and Nutrition Counseling, warns against too much of a good thing. "People think that because it's fruit, it's healthy," she said. Yet most smoothies -- especially the ones sold at specialty shops -- are 16 to 32 oz. and contain too many servings of carbohydrates. So keep it small, and try to add vegetables to your smoothies whenever possible.
3. Soy Milk
Both soy and almond milk are great options for those who are lactose intolerant. But many people regularly grab the vanilla or sweetened varieties of these drinks, ignoring the excess sugar and paying attention only to the healthy connotations of the word "soy" or "almond." If the sweetened versions are all you can tolerate, though, Miller recommends avoiding the added sugar by mixing a teaspoon of vanilla flavoring into the unsweetened kind.
Granola is a food that most people consider an uber-healthy breakfast choice. But granola can also be very high in sugar and low in fiber, says Gans. "When you look for granola, you need to read the label carefully," she said. "Not all granola is created equal." Make sure the cereal or granola you're choosing from the store shelf has a minimum of 4 or 5 g of fiber.
You're rushing to get to work on time and dash into the nearest coffee shop to pick up a quick breakfast. In the name of health, your eyes are drawn to those bran muffins on display beside the donuts. But don't let the word "bran" or "yogurt" trick you when it comes to muffins, cautions Miller. "Think of them more in the donut category," she said. Bran muffins often contain extra fat, necessary to hold the bran together. And the fat-free versions usually contain extra sugar to compensate for the reduced in mouthfeel and flavor.
This one might be surprising since the tuna, salmon and other fish commonly found in sushi is about as lean as it gets. Yet when you factor in the cream cheese of your Philadelphia roll or the mayonnaise in most spicy tuna rolls, the calorie count skyrockets. Portion size matters, too, says Gans. Stick to three rolls or less, and choose brown rice when possible.
7. Turkey Burgers
When a burger craving hits, the calorie-conscious person often turns to a turkey burger as the second-best option. But be careful, warns Gans. "If you have a turkey burger made with dark meat and skin, it can be higher in calories than a sirloin burger," she said. If you're at a restaurant, ask whether the burger has dark meat and turkey skin ground into it. At the grocery store, it's a bit more straightforward: Check the label and pick a lean meat with less than 10 g of fat per serving, Gans advises.
8. Frozen Meals
There's a whole section of frozen meal options that are quick and easy to make and boast low calorie counts. Yet many are also packed with sodium, says Angela Ginn, registered dietitian and owner of the nutrition counseling service Learn-2-Live. "Frozen and prepared foods can often have a day's worth of sodium," she said, which is roughly 2,300 mg per day.