Think munching on banana bread and dried fruit is good for you? Think again! Dietitian Brooke Longfield shines a light on the dark side of ‘healthy’ foods.
We have all seen someone digging into a bag of low-fat chips, oblivious to the fact that they’re consuming double — or even triple — the recommended serving size. And many of us are familiar with the friend who shows up with a tray of ‘all-natural’ raw chocolate brownies, insisting you take two because “they’re healthy”.
Many foods promise benefits they can’t deliver for two reasons — either they have an unfounded reputation as a healthy food, or they simply don’t live up to the claims on their packaging.
This ‘health halo’ effect is detrimental because in giving you every confidence in your ‘healthy’ choice, you can easily overeat — and you may be doing so more often than you realise. In reality, that ‘healthy’ food could have the kilojoules, and sometimes even the fat content, of a cream-filled doughnut!
Even if you eat such foods in sensible portions, your faulty perception of them can cause weight gain, so read on to wise up to these tasty tricksters.
1. Crudités and dip
It’s too easy to undo healthy behaviour with bad habits (think eating raw vegie sticks but smothering them in lashings of fatty dip). There is no harm in dressing vegies with a little olive oil or tahini if these healthy fats help lift your vegie intake, but steer clear of creamy fat-rich dips.
HFG tip: Place a helping of crudités and dip on a side plate. It will help you know exactly how much you’ve eaten, which is much harder when you’re dipping straight into the tub.
Better choice: Opt for vegie-based dips, such as hommous or beetroot varieties, and take a look at the nutrition panel to ensure the fat content is lower than 10g per 100g.
2. Banana bread
Calling this popular café-choice a bread is very deceptive — it is a cake in every other aspect but its name. One thick piece bulges with about 1500kJ (359cal), the energy load of a square of caramel slice. And if you are inclined to slather a toasted slice with a couple of teaspoons of butter or margarine, you’ll bump up its energy load to nearly 2000kJ (478cal), not to mention 24.6g of fat and half of your daily limit for saturated fat.
HFG tip: Save banana bread as a treat for a special occasion, or share a slice with a friend — and hold the butter!
Better choice: Want to cut your kilojoule intake by more than half? Spread a thin slice of raisin toast with a light layer of ricotta or reduced-fat table spread for a healthier brekkie.
3. Dried fruit
This is when it pays to read the ingredients list. Some varieties contain added sugar and even oil, making them not much better than a fruit-flavoured lolly. Plus, dried fruit itself is a highly concentrated source of sugar, and far too easy to overeat!
HFG tip: The recommended serve of dried fruit is 30g, which is equivalent to 1½ tablespoons of sultanas or four dried apricot halves, so bear that in mind.
Better choice: Crunch on the fresh versions of your favourite fruits — the roughage will keep you full for longer.
4. Vegie chips
Packaged vegie chips have about 25 per cent fat, an amount you can easily find in a bag of regular potato chips. Compared with these, however, the vegie versions often contain more salt.
HFG tip: If there are more than three ingredients, the chips are highly processed, so ditch them! Also, limit salt to fewer than 600mg of sodium per 100g.
Better choice: Make your own by spraying very thin slices of veg (such as sweet potato and beetroot) with olive oil and roasting them until they’re crisp.
5. Light olive oil
On a bottle of olive oil, the word ‘light’ can be misleading. In this case, it’s only a description of the oil’s colour and flavour. In fact, light olive oil has as much fat as the regular variety. Even worse, its ‘lightness’ is the result of a production process that involves adding less-nutritious refined oils.
HFG tip: Shop smart. The next time you spot a promising claim on an olive-oil label, spin the bottle around and scan the nutrition panel to read the real story.
Better choice: Look for extra-virgin olive oil, which experts acknowledge provides a wide range of health benefits. Scan bottles for the Australian Certified Extra Virgin symbol to ensure you’re buying a good-quality product.
6. Protein bars and energy balls
Appealing to health-conscious people, these dense bars and balls tend to be loaded with sugar and saturated fat. Sure, some of that sugar may be in the form of dried fruit, and the fat may be that of nuts and healthy oils, but here’s the bottom line: fat and sugar are high in kilojoules, so before you know it, you’ve blown that hour at the gym in just a few sweet bites.
HFG tip: Look for protein bars or balls with fewer than 800kJ (191cal).
Better choice: If you are after a high-protein post-workout snack, blend a smoothie of reduced-fat milk and fruit, or munch on a handful of raw nuts.
7. Sports drinks
Sports drinks contain added salt and sugar to help replenish reserves the body loses by sweating during prolonged exercise sessions. But if you’re not an elite athlete, you aren’t sweating enough, so your body will just store the excess kilojoules as fat.
HFG tip: Leave sports drinks on the shelf.
Better choice: Stay hydrated with water.
8. Organic cakes and cake mixes
Organic cake is no more nutritious than ordinary cake — it just means its ingredients have been produced without the use of pesticides or herbicides. Organic cake may be helping the environment, but it’s not doing your waistline any favours.
HFG tip: Save cake as an occasional treat. Most cakes and cake mixes — organic or not — are high in sugar and deliver few nutritional perks.
Better choice: Try some Healthy Food Guide recipes to enjoy a healthy spin on homemade cakes, muffins, biscuits, slices and tarts.
9. Ready-made salads
Since some large salads found in food courts have more kilojoules than a Big Mac meal, it’s important to choose the right one for lunch — and know which portion size you should opt for. A mix of crisp green leaves will boost your fibre intake, but these may be decorated with not-so-healthy ingredients, such as bacon, croutons, cheese and creamy dressings — all of which are heavy with kilojoules and often salt or fat, too, making them a pretty pricey lunch for your health.
HFG tip: Line a bowl with a bed of leafy greens, then add lean chicken, eggs or tuna to keep you feeling satisfied. Also, always ask for dressing on the side so you can control the amount you use instead of drowning your salad in it.
Better choice: Take the time to chop salad ingredients at the start of the week. Seal them in individual airtight containers and pop them in the fridge. That way, you’ll easily be able to assemble two or three healthy lunches and dinners.
10. Frozen yoghurt
It may be a surprise to hear, but a standard cup of this soft-serve treat has roughly 8g (2 teaspoons) more sugar than a scoop of ice cream — and that’s before you add the choc chips, gummi bears and cookie dough! In addition to these sugary toppings, few frozen yoghurts offer the probiotic benefits of natural yoghurt, so it’s pretty much just fluff.
HFG tip: Stick to a small cup and choose fresh fruit and nuts as toppings.
Better choice: Make your own healthy yoghurt ice cream (see our recipe here).