Natural. Light. Diet. Organic. If you’re trying to eat better, you might look for those words. The thing is, they’re industry buzzwords and don’t necessarily mean that the food behind the label is healthy. Stores and manufacturers have no problem pulling a fast one on you.
The word “healthy” really means something different for each person, so start by defining it for yourself. Have specific goals like eating less sugar or more protein? Great! Just don’t rely on the box to tell you what’s best.
To be a savvy shopper, educate yourself and read nutrition facts and ingredients. You can eat nutritious foods and not get tricked into eating something you don’t want.
Avoid Sugary Smoothies
What could be better than a delicious, drinkable meal like a smoothie? A glance at your bottled smoothie label could show you that you’re drinking two meals instead of one, or getting more sugar than you imagined. Smoothie shops often include sweetened yogurt, syrups and lots of fruit juice in their creations. Sweet and sugary. Fruit juice in moderation isn’t bad, but you’re not getting the fiber benefits of the whole fruit.
Think about making your own smoothies so you can control what goes in. If you still want your smoothie made for you, ask what’s in it first. The person behind the counter can make a custom smoothie for you.
Beware of Bars
It’s easy to just grab a bar when you’re crunched for time. After all, the box says that they’re full of fiber, whole grains or protein. Good stuff!
If it showed the fat and sugar inside, though, you might be eating the equivalent of a candy bar. Breakfast or cereal bars can be low in protein and fiber, so your stomach might complain long before lunch. Check the label and decide if they’re really the best choice.
Can’t find one you like? Look up nutritious breakfast options you can make ahead, like a yogurt parfait. Or make your own bars. If you’re not into recipes, pack foods that are rich in whole grains, fiber and protein. Think a 100% whole wheat English muffin, an apple and a handful of almonds.
Ditch Diet Soda
Diet sodas are synonymous with weight control, but if you don’t make other lifestyle changes, they don’t make much difference. Some research even indicates that drinking diet soda could be associated with an increase in type II diabetes and other serious conditions. But there’s no definitive proof. Remember that diet sodas aren’t simply flavored water, and some people don’t drink them because they’re not into unpronounceable ingredients.
Water is always the best beverage. Sliced lemons and oranges can make it tastier, but you can add whatever you want. Apple rings and a cinnamon stick, cucumber slices, mixtures of herbs and fruits…find what works for you.
Buy Organic Wisely
You might think organic is always best, but does your budget agree? Organic foods are usually more expensive than their non-organic equivalents. If going all organic is your thing, cool. But organic potato chips and candy, for example, are still junk food. Just something to keep in mind.
If you want to avoid pesticides on produce, there’s a happy medium. The “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” are fruits and vegetables listed by the Environmental Working Group as either the highest in pesticide residue or lowest in pesticide residue. If it’s on the Dirty Dozen, go organic. If it’s on the Clean Fifteen, you’re fine buying the regular — and cheaper — variety.
Does Low-Fat Equal Highly Healthy?
When the food police decided that fat was evil, the market was flooded with low-fat foods. Everything from low- and no-fat salad dressings to fat-free cakes. You could eat as much as you wanted because you weren’t eating fat.
There’s always a catch, though. If you take out the fat, it’s usually replaced with salt or sugar. Food author Michael Ruhlman once showed a fellow shopper that her fat-free half-and-half had corn syrup as its second ingredient. Regular half-and-half doesn’t have added sugar.
Which is more important to you? Some foods contain healthy fats, and fat makes foods delicious and filling. You might be more satisfied with eating a small amount of a full-fat food than a lot of a low-fat one.
You can’t trust everything you read, so choosing healthful foods means doing research and asking questions. If eating “unhealthy” food — according to your definition — works for you, that’s totally fine. Just be smart and stop the grocery stores and manufacturers from tricking you into eating foods that you think are healthy.