The grocery store can feel like a minefield: With labels touting words like “natural,” “reduced sugar,” and other unregulated terms that sound healthy, it can be tough to know which choices are really best for your weight loss program and your family’s overall health.
Everything can be enjoyed in moderation, of course, but when you’re trying to make healthy choices, you want those nutritional choices to be actually healthy—which means you should call in the experts. Luckily, we’ve got access to them. So we caught up with two Nutrisystem Registered Dietitians, Courtney McCormick, MPH, RDN, LDN, and Mandi Knowles, RDN, LDN, to find out what seemingly “healthy” foods you’ll rarely find in their kitchens.
1. Fruit “juices” that aren’t 100 percent juice
Drinking your calories is always a risky proposition on a weight loss program. Liquids don’t generally contain much fiber, protein or fat, so the calories you consume don’t stay in your gut to help ward off cravings later. But at least when you drink real fruit juice, the natural sugar inside brings nutrients along—stuff like Vitamin C, potassium and other minerals your body needs for healthy function.
But juices that aren’t just juice—that is, they have sugar added—are basically sodas hiding behind the facade of health when they can actually be killing you. It’s true: A study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded that people who consume more than 21 percent of daily calories from added sugars double their risk of death from heart disease compared to people who consume just 10 percent of their calories from added sugars. The added sugars cause blood sugar spikes, weight gain, and leave you feeling less satisfied: Other studies have shown that consuming carbohydrates as a liquid produces less satiety—fullness and satisfaction—than solid carbs, meaning you could still be looking for a snack after drinking “juice” despite the glut of calories you’ve just consumed.
2. Refined grains
We’re talking white stuff: White rice, white pasta and white bread. What’s the problem with this color? What it lacks: When the grains are refined, they don’t just lose color—they lose nutrients, especially fiber.
One hundred grams of white rice, for example, has fewer calories than a cup of brown rice, but the brown stuff has almost twice as much fiber, plus an added gram of protein. So while the carbs in the white stuff are fast-acting—like sugar, zipping through your system and spiking your blood sugar—the higher-fiber carbs in the brown stuff actually don’t get digested. Instead, the fiber slows the speed of your digestion so that you feel full, longer. And the fiber can also help ward off disease and keep you healthy: Insoluble fiber, like the kind found in rice, can lower breast cancer risk, keep your intestines moving for more regular bowel movements, and has been shown in studies to lower your overall risk of death.
3. Low-fat peanut butter
Fat—the dietary kind—gets a bad rap: In a Johns Hopkins study, dieters who ate a high-fat, reduced-calorie diet took 25 fewer days to lose 10 pounds than those on a high-carb diet. And the right kinds of fats can do even more: People eating a diet rich in monounsaturated fat lost weight and body fat without reducing their calorie intake in another study.
When it comes to reducing fat in natural peanut butter, it’s these healthy, monounsaturated fats that are removed. These monos can help control spikes in blood sugar, which can keep your body from storing fat around your waist. So when you slather reduced-fat peanut butter on a PB&J, you’re losing those benefits in favor of a high-sugar, high-carb meal. Stick with regular natural peanut butter and add some extra filling properties: Instead of jelly, try thinly-sliced apples or banana to give your sandwich fiber that will help you stay fuller, longer.
4. Sugary cereals
Cereal can be a great, fiber-rich, grab-and-go snack, but sugary cereals are packed with added sugar. One cup of a leading kids’ brand has three grams of fiber, but 10 grams of added sugar—about the same as you’d get from half of a full-size candy bar.
Look for cereals with little or no added sugar, and add sweetness in other ways: Try using vanilla-flavored, light or no-calorie almond milk instead of regular milk, or add a portion of sliced fruit to the bowl for added fiber. Nutrisystem has lots of great cereal options that were prepared with the right mix of nutrients… and none of the bad stuff. Click here to check them out >
5. Regular canned vegetables
Those green beans are canned with more than water: They’re loaded with salt. A half-cup serving of cut canned green beans contains 16 percent of your daily intake of salt. Added salt like that is part of the reason that the average American takes in almost 50 percent more sodium per day than is recommended—a surplus that can result in higher risks of stroke and high blood pressure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a reduction of just 400 milligrams per day across the American diet could prevent 28,000 deaths each year.
A good place to start: Replace canned vegetables with frozen ones. They’re packed and frozen without salt, so you can control the sodium you add. If your freezer’s already packed and canned is your only option, look for cans with “no sodium added” or marked as “low sodium,” which means the product must have 140 milligrams of sodium or fewer per serving—compared with 380 milligrams for the regular can.
6. Yogurt with added sugars
If it looks, smells and tastes like candy… it may not be the best choice for a weight loss program. Major brands know that healthy eaters have caught onto the fact that many yogurts are more dessert than breakfast, and are touting that they’ve reduced the sugar in their cups. But there’s still plenty of the sweet stuff inside: The blueberry flavor of one major brand has 18 grams of sugar in that little cup—so much that “sugar” is listed on the ingredients list before blueberries!
You’re better off mixing in your own fruit: Pack a quarter-cup of blueberries, sliced strawberries, or—if you’re feeling fancy—black currants, and mix the fruit with nonfat, plain yogurt. Five ounces of nonfat Greek yogurt has more protein than the sugary stuff, and just four grams of natural sugar.
7. Fat-free, oil-based salad dressing
Just like with peanut butter, when the fats are removed to make fat-free Italian and similar dressings, those fats are usually monounsaturated—the types of fats that help you lose fat, lose weight and in some studies, have been shown specifically to target belly fat.
What’s worse here is what they put in the dressing instead: Sugar and salt. Just two tablespoons of one of the leading brands provides 14 percent of your daily recommended intake of salt. When it comes to oily dressings, stick with the full-fat versions, and dress lightly: The fats will help the salad fill you up, and won’t leave you crashing like a fat-free, sugar-laden meal will.
One exception: Creamy dressings. Many of the leading brands have more fat—and not the healthy kind—than a full-size candy bar, and can deliver 140 calories in a single serving of ranch. If you’re a creamy dressing fanatic, go with the light version or look for yogurt-based creamy dressings. They’re made with nonfat yogurt, swapping the filling fat for equally filling protein that can keep you feeling full long after you’ve finished your forkfuls of veggies.