Katherine Tallmadge is a registered dietitian, author of "Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations (opens in new tab)" (Lifeline Press, 2011), and a frequent national commentator on nutrition topics. This article was adapted from one that first appeared in the Washington Post. Tallmadge contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Eating healthy can be harder than you think, thanks to an enterprising food industry that wants people to consume more than they need. That's because the United State's agricultural system produces twice as much food as what most people require — 3,900 calories per person per day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. This overabundance encourages creative marketing to unload the excess, much of it characterized by cheap ingredients , a long shelf life and minimal nutritional value — the kinds of "food" with the highest profit margins.
As a nutrition consultant, I know that words such as "low fat ," "high fiber," "multigrain," “gluten free" and "natural" can confuse even the most sophisticated customers into believing what they're buying is healthful.In fact, market research proves that consumers make these assumptions.
What can you do? First, make a habit of reading the ingredients list, not just the nutrition facts panel. And remember the following products worth resisting:
Reduced-fat peanut butter
The oil is the healthiest part of a peanut or a tree nut, containing most of the nutrients, so there's no advantage to taking it out. (Peanuts are technically a legume, but dieticians call them nuts because their nutritional characteristics and health benefits closely match those of tree nuts.) In fact, removing the oil makes things worse because it robs the peanut butter of its health benefits. "Reduced-fat peanut butter has as many calories and more sugar than the regular" variety, said Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Instead: Buy regular peanut butter and eat real nuts. Eating one or two ounces of nuts daily is associated with reductions in heart disease and lower cancer risk. A recent Harvard study showed that eating nuts is associated with lower body weight, too.
Sports drinks — which are just diluted soft drinks with salt — are only needed during intense exercise that exceeds one hour or that occurs in extreme heat. Drinks such asVitaminwater are essentially sugary drinks combined with a vitamin pill. They are "unequivocally harmful to health," says Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health. "Whether vitamins dissolved in water have any benefit will depend on who you are and whether you are already getting enough [vitamins] … Some people may be getting too much of some vitamins and minerals if they add vitamin water on top of fortified foods and other supplements."
A recent Iowa Women's Health Study found an association between certain commonly used vitamin and mineral supplements and increased death rates. But the worst offenders in this category areenergy drinkssuch as Red Bull, Sobe Life Water and Monster Drinks. They're not only high in sugar, but most also contain stimulants, which may be harmful, especially for people with medical conditions like high blood pressure.
Instead: Drink water, ideally from the tap ("Eau du Potomac," as it's known locally here in D.C.). Water is the best drink for hydrating your body; it's naturally calorie free and contains fluoride to prevent tooth decay. And don't try to get vitamins from solely your beverages. No supplement matches the nutrients in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains.
The reputation of these bars, also known as meal-replacement bars, is that they are healthy, aid in weight loss or help build muscle. In fact, they are calorie bombs: candy bars with vitamins, protein or fiber added. For most of them, sugar is either the first (predominant) or second ingredient.
Instead: Snack on fruit or veggies for weight loss and yogurt for muscle gain. If you're hiking a long distance and want a healthful, nonperishable calorie bomb, try nuts and dried fruit.
Multigrain breads, crackers and cereals often cause the most confusion for food shoppers. People see "multigrain" and think "whole grain." That’s not necessarily so. This is an important distinction because people who eat whole grains have a lower incidence of diabetes, heart disease and cancers, and are less likely to be overweight compared with those who eat refined grains. Note that when "enriched wheat flour" is listed in the ingredients, that means refined flour.
Instead: Be sure a whole grain, such as whole wheat, whole rye, whole oats or brown rice, is the first — and preferably the only — grain in the ingredient list. A great example is a cereal listing whole rolled oats as the only grain, or a bread listing whole wheat as the only wheat. Alternatively, consider an egg for breakfast. "The huge amount of refined starch and sugar that many people eat for breakfast, often thinking that this is the healthy choice, does far more damage to their well-being than an egg," says Harvard's Willett.
Non-fried chips and crackers
It's easy to believe these foods are healthful because of labels such as "baked," "low fat" or "gluten free." But most are made with refined grain or starch, which provide plenty of calories and few nutrients.Popchips, for example, are a new product marketed as healthful. But the ingredients are highly refined potato flakes, starch, oil, salt and about 14 additional things.Pita chips, made with white flour, oil, salt and several more ingredients, are no better. To boot, research shows that too much refined grains and starches increases the risk for heart disease, cancers, diabetes and weight gain.
Instead: Try Wasa or Finn Crisp Original Rye crackers. They're 100 percent whole grain and have little sodium. If you'd like a chip, try Terra Chips, made with sliced vegetables, or even a 100-percent whole-grain chip fried in a healthy oil, such as olive or canola. Tortilla chips and SunChips are two examples. "Now that trans fats have been removed from most cooking oils, the healthiest part of potato chips is the fat," Willett says. "And chips made of whole grains rather than potatoes, like Frito-Lay's SunChips, can legitimately be considered a health food," so long as you keep to the one-ounce serving size.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. Her latest book is "Diet Simple Farm to Table Recipes: 50 New Reasons to Cook In Season". This article was originally published on LiveScience.com.