Healthy Junk Food, and Junky Health Food

Humans tend to dichotomize foods, categorizing them as either “good” or “bad.” Cookies are bad and salads are good; bread and pasta are bad and vegetables are good. But a diet based on “good” and “bad” isn’t so simple. Sometimes so-called “health foods” have few redeeming qualities and are filled with so many calories and extra fat, sugars, and additives that they’re actually more like junk food. And sometimes, junk food is made with wholesome, nutritious ingredients that will keep you energized throughout your day. Read on to see when junk food and health food masquerade as each other.

When Junk Food is Health Food…

Burgers
Restaurants often churn out burgers made with ground beef chuck – a cut that often contains more than 20% fat – to deliver the juiciest, most mouthwatering burgers. And then the patties are stacked on buttered, refined-flour buns along with a hefty swipe of mayo, a couple slices of cheese – and perhaps a sprinkle of iceberg lettuce. The average restaurant hamburger packs in between 700 and 900 calories, but they can easily surpass 1500 calories, making them a sure bet for weight gain. Fortunately, burgers are, by definition, meat sandwiched between a carb, leaving lots of room for improvement. Instead of greasy beef, fill your burger with lean beef, chicken, or turkey patties, or branch out and try homemade veggie burgers or portobello caps. Add moisture with chopped onions, mushrooms, or olive oil, and pick a taste theme (Italian, Southwest) to add flavor with spices and herbs. To reduce belly-bloating white carbs, replace the standard bun with a whole wheat bun or English muffin, and pack on fresh vegetables: regulars such as lettuce, tomato, and onion, as well as more unusual toppers like pickled carrots and cucumber, pineapple, or beets. If you follow these tips, your new hamburger is simply a balanced meal of lean meat, whole grains, and vegetables – for 300 calories.

Pizza
Have you ever lifted up a slice of pizza, only to see grease dripping off the tip? In America, that’s come to be the rule, not the exception. We’ve turned pizza into a white flour vehicle to carry tons of excess cheese and sodium-packed meats, leaving little room for standard tomato sauce and healthier toppings like vegetables. An average slice of Chicago’s notorious deep dish pizza contains around 500 calories, and even New York’s thinner slices can still hover above 300 calories. But pizza can easily be healthified (at home or delivered), even allowing you to have multiple slices without breaking the calorie bank. Start be requesting thin crust made with whole grains – this will cut down on empty carbohydrates, and the ones you do take in will be filled with fiber and vitamins. Then pile on tomato sauce–it’s filled with skin-protecting lycopene–but be careful that your jarred version isn’t harboring added sugars. Add flavor with fresh or dried herbs such as basil, oregano, thyme, and garlic. Then start piling on the veggies: zucchini, fresh tomatoes, onions, broccoli, peppers, squash, eggplant. Pizzas are recently trendy, so artisinal ingredients in thoughtful pairings are a great way to add flavor without too many calories. Try a combination of arugula, nectarine, and prosciutto, or go Meditteranean with roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and basil. Protein, such as grilled chicken, lean meatballs, or even tofu, will round out your slice; just be sure to avoid high-sodium, high-fat pepperoni and sausages. To hold it all together (and to make pizza what pizza is), sprinkle on some cheese. Use part-skim mozzarella for a true Italian pie that’s also low in fat; or experiment with feta, fontina, ricotta, or parmesan for different tastes and textures.

Pasta
Pasta dishes usually get a bad rap because they’re simply a plate piled high with refined flour and a heavy, cream-based sauce. Restaurants typically serve two to four times the amount of the suggested serving size of pasta, ramping the calorie count to around 800 – without sauce!  Butter-, cheese-, and cream-based sauces can add another 400 calories or more, turning your dinner into a feast of empty calories, and setting you up for hunger in the near future. Fortunately, America’s favorite Italian dish can be transformed into a fiberful, nutrient-rich dish with a few big-flavor tweaks. Start with a whole-grain pasta; a 180-calorie serving (usually about 1 cup) contains 6 grams of fiber and 7 grams of protein. There a ton of gluten-free varieties, such as quinoa, brown rice, and corn pastas that have similar nutritionals. To bulk up the dish, add vegetables: this is where your meal can turn into a veg fest. Broccoli, fennel, olives, cherry tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, and asparagus add flavor for minimal calories. But if you simply want the comforting flavor of pasta to shine through, roasted eggplant, zucchini, and squash can easily be hidden in sauce. Adding lean protein will not only add bulk to your meal, but it will make it more filling; try chicken, turkey sausages, and shrimp. A flavorful sauce, in addition to herbs (basil, oregano, parsley) and garlic will bring everything together; you best low-calorie bet is a tomato-based sauce. Jarred marinara sauce can contain hidden sugar and sodium, so look for one with less than six grams of sugar and 360 mg of sodium.

…And When Health Food is Junk Food

Smoothies
The first Jamba Juice opened in 1990; now there are more than 700 locations scattered across the United States. Smoothies and other fruit and vegetable juice blends are marketed as super-healthy, convenient, and no-cook snacks that easily ratchet up your fruit and vegetable intake for the day. And while many smoothies are full of fruit, they can also be pumped full of sugar, ice cream, chocolate, syrups, and huge scoops of peanut butter, turning them into a massive dessert for little nutrition. The innocent-sounding Aloha Pineapple, for example, contains the ingredients pineapple juice blend, pineapple sherbet, strawberries, nonfat plain yogurt, bananas and ice. But the original size also contains 410 calories – the size of a decent lunch – and 91 grams of sugar – almost as much as a whole apple pie. Since smoothies have such a health halo, you’re not likely to make room for a calorie- and sugar-laden drink in your diet, leading you to consume excess calories and perhaps pack on the weight. And because many smoothies use fruit blends and juices in place of whole fruit, the fiber count – one of fruit’s claim to fame – is drastically reduced. An apple provides 3-4 grams of filling fiber, while one cup of apple juice has a mere .25 grams. Further darkening fruit juice’s image is the fact that juice omits the skins and pulp of fruit, which contain disease-fighting pigments and antioxidants. Smoothies can be healthy additions to a diet, as long as whole fruits and vegetables (try spinach, kale, and carrots) are the main ingredients and caloric adjustments are made throughout the day to compensate for added calories.

Salads
Salads have long been a seemingly virtuous staple for dining dieters. And how could they not be? With their lettuce and spinach bases, colorful vegetables, and innocent-sounding vinaigrettes, they seem like downright rabbit food. But oversize portions of dressing, cheese, nuts, dried fruit, crispy toppings, and fried protein can make a salad the least healthy choice on the menu. Even worse, research from Cornell University shows that people tend to underestimate the caloric load of seemingly healthy food by 159 calories, causing you to vastly overeat. While two cups of any salad green contains less than 16 calories, fat, sugar, and calories from toppings will quickly add up. ¼ cup of cheese contains 90 to 120 calories and about 8 grams of fat; a serving of nuts adds at least another 150 calories; ⅓ cup of dried cranberries will add 123 calories; and croutons can add almost another 150 calories. Supposedly sinless vinaigrettes, such as red wine vinaigrette, can actually contain more than 210 calories and 19 grams of fat. Suddenly, your salad has hit 760 calories – and that’s without protein. Some restaurant salads are so egregiously pumped with toppings that they barely resemble a salad anymore: the Luau Salad at the Cheesecake Factory, which contains a few measly shreds of lettuce, vegetables, and chicken stacked atop two deep-fried wonton wrappers covered in a dousing of oil dressing, has an alarming 1390 calories! Should you choose a salad, limit yourself to one “splurge” item – cheese, nuts, or croutons. Add lean protein, like grilled (not fried) chicken, and drizzle – don’t douse – the greens with a vinegar-based dressing.

Yogurt and Granola
Granola has long been an image for health food cultures. And topping low-fat yogurt with the toasted, oat-based cereal is a convenient breakfast that offers both protein and fiber. But these two breakfast staples may be cramming in more sugar than a half a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia if you don’t pay attention to portions. Instead of reaching for unsweetened plain yogurt, most Americans prefer vanilla or fruit-on-the-bottom varieties. But just one cup of these flavored yogurts can pack in more than 28 grams of sugar. At least three nationally popular brands of yogurt list some form of sugar (crystalline fructose, naturally milled organic sugar, high fructose corn syrup) as their second ingredient. And these same brands also don’t contain any live and active cultures – the probiotics that improve digestive health. Granola can be even worse. On their own, oats contain less than a gram of sugar; when they’re tossed with sugar, corn syrup, and molasses, the sugar count skyrockets to more than 20 grams. When oils are added to the mix, one cup of granola can deliver 560 calories. These numbers are dangerous because most consumers treat granola like a cereal instead of a crunchy topping – so instead of a reasonable under-300 calorie breakfast, you’re more likely to eat a 700-calorie, sugar-laden breakfast. When you buy yogurt, look for the plain kind – you can add maple syrup or honey to sweeten it up a little – and live and active cultures. If you’re set on granola, use a tablespoon or two, and supplement with high-fiber, low-sugar whole grain cereals.

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