Let’s face it: When you’re trying to eat healthy, the grocery store can be downright confusing. Sure, the produce department is a no-brainer, but what about all the aisles of packaged products proclaiming themselves a “healthy” choice?
The trick is to keep it simple. “The simpler a food is, the greater the likelihood it’s a healthy option,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, wellness manager at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
Some foods might seem like a safe bet because of trendy terms or ingredients. Here are the facts about eight foods that might have you fooled.
1. Sports Drinks and Enhanced Waters
It’s easy to think of sports drinks as healthy, especially because of all the famous athletes who guzzle them in ads. But unless your kid is exercising intensely, for a long stretch of time, or in high heat, he should pass on them.
“Most kids don’t need a sports drink for refueling or rehydrating,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN, author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook. And the extra, empty calories can add to unhealthy weight gain and tooth decay, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The same goes for waters that have been enhanced with vitamins and minerals since they usually have artificial flavors and sweeteners.
Bottom line: “Plain water and a well-balanced diet are the best way to stay healthy and hydrated,” Newgent says. Too boring for your kids’ taste buds? Make your own fruit-infused water with fresh lemons, limes, or berries.
2. Trail Mix
It’s an easy, tasty way to refuel between school, dance practice, and studygroups. But be careful: Many grocery store versions are packed with not-so-nutritious add-ons, like chocolate, salty nuts, and pretzels or peanuts covered in “yogurt.”
“Watch out for trail mixes that are borderline candy mixes,” Newgent says.
Bottom line: Look for trail mixes that are mostly plain nuts, dried fruit, and seeds. Or make your own at home. And watch the portion size. A small handful of this high-calorie snack is usually enough.
3. Veggie Chips
The pieces of actual veggies in veggie chips are so thin and processed that most of the nutrition from the vegetable is gone.
Raw veggies are obviously a healthier way to go, but let’s face it: Sometimes those carrot sticks just aren’t going to satisfy your crunch craving. Try whole-grain pretzels, baked corn chips, crackers made with seeds and nuts, or popcorn, Kirkpatrick suggests. To keep from turning a bag of chips or box of crackers into a meal, divvy them up into sensible portions ahead of time.
Bottom line: Don’t assume veggie chips are as nutritious as veggies.
4. Nutrition Bars
Some are filled with so much sugar that you may as well be eating a candy bar. For instance, the best-selling energy bar, according to a 2013 survey, has 230 calories, 10 grams of sugar, and 160 milligrams of sodium. A Snickers bar clocks in at 250 calories, 27 grams of sugar, and 120 milligrams of sodium.
Bottom line: If you’re going to eat them, choose one that’s low in added sugar and made mostly of nuts, seeds, fruits, and whole grains. Better yet, make your own.
5. Raisin Bran or Flavored Oatmeal
The classic breakfast cereal is another sugar trap. Although some are high in healthy fiber, the already-sweet raisins usually come coated in more sugar.
The same goes for flavored instant oatmeal. Even though it offers whole grains, the flavored packets have more sugar and salt than plain rolled or steel-cut oats.
A better option for cold or hot cereal: Start plain and add your own extras. Buy bran flakes and sprinkle a tablespoon of raisins into your kids’ bowls. Or dress up plain oatmeal with fresh fruit or a small dab of honey.
Bottom line: “There’s lots of smoke and mirrors on cereal boxes, especially the ones marketed to kids,” Kirkpatrick says. She suggests looking for cereals that have less than 135 milligrams of sodium per serving and no added sugar.
What could be healthier than drinking a smoothie made of fresh fruit? The fruit itself.
“A smoothie every once in a while is OK, but you’re removing the fiber and taking in a high concentration of sugar,” Kirkpatrick says. “So you’re going from having 9 grams of sugar in a bowl to 30 or 40 grams of sugar in a smoothie — even more if it’s a commercially made one.”
Bottom line: Make smoothies at home so you know exactly what’s in them. Better yet, just eat the fruit.
7. “Low-Fat” and “Fat-Free” Products
“We have to get away from this thinking that ‘low fat’ is a good option,” Kirkpatrick says. “Naturally occurring low-fat foods like an apple are one thing, but packaged low-fat foods are a bad choice 90% of the time.” That’s because low- and no-fat foods typically replace the fat with other stuff, like salt, sugar, or thickeners, which can add calories.
Bottom line: Don’t assume “low-fat” or “fat-free” is healthier than its full-fat version. Check the label for the calories and serving size.
8. Gluten-Free Products
There’s no need to avoid this protein unless someone in your house has a medical problem like celiac disease, in which gluten damages the small intestine.
That’s not to say that naturally gluten-free whole foods, like quinoa, aren’t good for you, Newgent says. “But, unfortunately, most people who switch to a gluten-free eating style when they don’t need to far too often reach for overly processed gluten-free products, like gluten-free cookies.”
Also, when manufacturers take out gluten, they often remove the B vitamins, minerals, and fiber that come with it. Plus, gluten-free products tend to be more expensive than their regular counterparts.
Bottom line: Skip foods labeled “gluten-free” unless you have to eat them for medical reasons.