You are falling into the health halo trap – believing certain words on a label or menu means that the food is better for you.
The FDA has never defined the term “natural” for use on food labels. It does provide a definition by default. The agency does not object to the term on foods that do not contain added color, artificial flavors and synthetic ingredients. Sounds good you say? Well, it’s all in the way we phrase something. By the non-definition of natural, high fructose corn syrup is natural. It comes from treated cornstarch that it converted into a sugar. For many who are trying to pick healthier foods, this might be surprising. What about those who wish to avoid GMO (genetically modified) foods? These foods are natural and you would be hard pressed to find soy products that are not GMO.
Okay, you are starting to get the picture. Don’t use natural to determine if a food is healthier. What about organic? The USDA certified organic seal on a food does insure that foods have been grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. They are not irradiated, are not GMO, and have not been treated with human or industrial waste. But it does not mean that the food is safer or healthier. An organic cookie doesn’t have fewer calories, less fat or less sugar than a non-organic cookie. Organic simply refers to the method of growing the ingredients or raising the animals.
Buying fat-free or sugar-free foods seems virtuous and you can easily be seduced into eating larger amounts. But beware: some brands of sugar-free cookies and fat-free crackers have the same number of calories and sometimes more than the original versions. A regular vanilla cream, sugar wafer cookie averages 18 calories. A brand labeled sugar free and low sodium – definitely perceived as the healthier choice – actually has 20 calories a cookie. For calories, it is a draw between the two. Five fat free saltine crackers have 60 calories. But, 5 original saltines also have 60 calories because all types of saltine crackers contain very little fat. Once again, the labeling leads you to believe that the fat free version is better for you.
Few foods are calorie-free. Research has shown that when people believe a food is good for them, they often eat a larger portion which negates any calorie saving. If a fat-free salad dressing has half of the calories of a regular version and you use twice as much, or you eat a box of sugar-free cookies, there is no calorie benefit.
Let’s not forget salad, the poster-boy of diet food. Now don’t get me wrong, salads are good. Salad ingredients are rich in vitamins and minerals, offer fiber, and the satisfaction of chewing which helps you feel fuller longer. But there is a dark side to salad.
Two cups of tossed salad – naked – has 22 calories. Forget the dressing: top with avocado or an egg and 2 cups now hovers around 90 calories; top with grilled chicken and the same portion is 130 calories. If you add ¼ cup Italian dressing (a typical restaurant portion) you add 276 calories. Sticking with low cal Italian dressing still adds 64 calories. Your 2 cups of salad topped with avocado and chicken, plus low cal dressing is now up to 306 calories. If you use regular Italian dressing you weigh in at over 500 calories. A slice of pepperoni pizza actually has fewer calories.
Other salad choices can be even worse if weight loss is your goal. Three cups of spinach salad without dressing is 322 calories; three cups of Chef salad without dressing is 535 calories. Three cups of Greek salad with dressing has 318 calories; three cups of Cobb salad with dressing has 484 calories. The all-time bad boy of the salad category is Caesar salad, with over 550 calories in 3 cups.
Want to lose those last 10 pounds? Plan to move everyday. Even if you don’t have a formal exercise program, walk, wash the car, or play catch with the kids. Add movement to your day, everyday. Read labels. Compare the food with the seductively worded label to the old standby. You may find that the tried-and-true is the better choice. And most importantly, keep portion sizes reasonable.
© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with sales of more than 8.5 million books.
The Complete Food Counter, 4th ed., 2012
The Diabetes Counter, 4th Ed., 2011
The Protein Counter, 3rd Ed., 2011
The Calorie Counter, 5th Ed., 2010
The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010
The Fat Counter, 7th ed., 2009
The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008
The Cholesterol Counter, 7th Ed., 2008
Your Complete Food Counter App: ClickHere
For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to: TheNutritionExperts
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