One of my worst habits is looking through people’s pantries and refrigerators. Depending on how well I know you, I might sneak just a peek; or I might actually go through the packaged and frozen food items for a solid 5 minutes (sorry). I’m not looking to judge; I’m simply observing what you live off of, what you start your day with, what quenches your thirst, what gives (or takes away from) your energy. I always see some good staples: beans, oatmeal, usually some frozen vegetables. But I also see, a lot of the time, food items that you should not eat under any circumstances! These items are not only a waste of money; they are sabotaging your health. No matter how convenient or tasty they are, keep these items out of your house.
Sorry for snooping, friends, but all of these come straight from your kitchen!
It’s true that the worst breakfast is no breakfast, but sugar-laden cereal comes in at a close second. The Environmental Working Group made a list of the top 10 worst children’s cereals and placed Kellogg’s Honey Smacks at the top of the list. This cereal lists sugar as its first ingredient and honey as its third; it contains 56% sugar by weight. These cereals have more sugar than cookies, and without any fiber or protein, they send your blood sugar quickly soaring and crashing and putting you into a state of lethargy and hunger. If I could tell a person one thing to change about their diet, it would be to eliminate as much sugar as possible. Sugar has been linked to most chronic illnesses that plague America today: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, depression, stress, and inflammation-related diseases.
Healthy Alternative: Look for a cereal with at least 5 grams of fiber and less than 10 grams of sugar (but aim for less). In the ingredients list, whole grains (like oat bran, whole wheat meal, wheat bran, millet, or spelt) should be at the top, and sweeteners (sugar, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup) should be at the bottom.
In the short term, a can of diet soda might save you 140 calories. But in the long run, they may be putting your at risk for weight gain. In a study led by the American Diabetes Association, researchers found that adults who drank two or more diet sodas a day gained an average of 4 centimeters around their waistlines. Researchers theorize that artificial sweeteners might trigger appetites – but unlike food with calories, they don’t stifle appetite, causing you to eat more in the long run. Diet soda drinkers may also eat more because they think they’re saving calories; hence those people at McDonald’s who order a supersized Big Mac, Large fries and a Diet Coke.
Also watch out for: Fruit juices, sports drinks, vitamin-enhanced drinks
Healthy Alternative: You’ve heard it a thousand times, but switch to water! Not only is it calorie-free, it makes your body function better in countless ways. Being well-hydrated improves cognitive performance, helps with muscle contraction, promotes cell, kidney, heart, and skin health, and quelches hunger. If you’re not a fan of plain water, doctor it up with herbs (basil, mint, parsley, lavender), fruit (raspberries, blueberries, citrus), cucumbers, or ginger. Or, switch to green tea – but leave it unsweetened.
Uncrustables, Bagel-Fuls, Pop-Tarts
These “snacks” seem to be hiding in a majority of kitchens, behind the more virtuous Quaker Oats and packages of brown rice. Whether it’s because of their “heat-and-go” convenience, the One Serving of Whole Grain! stamped on the front, or the nostalgic throwback to childhood that they recall, these items are simply alluring. These products replace old easy-to-make- standbys, but manage to tack on additional calories, sugar, sodium, chemicals, additives, and partially hydrogenated oils. Uncrustables, for example, are the new peanut butter and jelly sandwich; but they also add azodicarbonamide (which may exacerbate asthma symptoms) and distilled monoglycerides (another fancy name for trans fats). And Pop-Tarts – which come in flavors like “Frosted Vanilla I-Scream Cone” and “Hot Fudge Sundae” – pack almost 400 calories and 32 grams of sugar per package. Whether a snack or a breakfast, these “Thaw and Eat” treats are the definition of empty calories. Even after 400 calories, you’ll be hungry again in an hour.
Also watch out for: Toaster Strudels, Quaker Breakfast Cookies, frozen cinnamon rolls
Healthy Alternative: Take an extra 30 seconds and spread peanut butter/jam/cream cheese on toast yourself; you’ll at least be cutting out unhealthy additives and trans fats. Opt for protein-rich nut butters over cream cheese and jam, though: cream cheese is mostly saturated fats, and jam is packed with sugar. For a healthy spin on these carb-with-a-spread snacks, try whole wheat bread with almond butter and banana slices or with peanut butter and apple slices.
I have a friend from college who basically lived completely off of Dino Nuggets (whenever he didn’t order fast food). I can’t vouch for his health now, but what if he had replaced all those Dino Nuggets with free-range, skinless chicken breasts? Dino Nuggets, along with other fried and frozen meals, uses mechanically separated meat (which is processed with bacteria-killing ammonia and artificial flavors and dyes) and binds them with soy, starches, and oils. One serving of Dino Nuggets contains 210 calories, 8 grams of fat, 22 grams of carbohydrates, and 11 grams of protein; for the same amount of calories, a chicken breast has 5 grams of fat, 0 grams of carbohydrates, and 46 grams of protein. So chicken nuggets essentially take what should be a great source of protein and weigh it down with fillers, additives, and starches. Since when does chicken have more carbs than protein?
Also watch out for: Most frozen dinners, corn dogs, “meat” crumbles, most frozen pizzas
Healthy Alternative: If you’re dead-set on thawing or microwaving your dinner, there are a couple brands that offer relatively healthy frozen dinners: Amy’s, Seeds of Change, Cedarlane, and Organic Bistro all keep calories in check, use organic ingredients, and stick (for the most part) to real, pronounceable foods. For solid protein, pick ground meat with nothing added over prepared and processed patties or nuggets and season it yourself with spices, herbs, and vegetables. But of course, nothing beats a real, undoctored chicken breast.
Low-Fat/Reduced-Fat/Fat-Free Packaged Goods
Just because these snacks are low-fat or fat-free doesn’t mean they contain fewer calories than their regular counterparts. In most cases, food manufacturers replace the fats – most often the healthy, monounsaturated kind – with starches, fillers, and sugar. Reduced-fat peanut butter, for example, contains only 10 fewer calories than the regular kind, but it also contains more sugar and carbohydrates – and it’s stripped of the healthy fats and antioxidants found in peanuts. Some reduced-fat version even have more calories, like Honey Maid Honey Graham Crackers! Reduced-fat versions may also cause you eat to more than you otherwise would: in a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, participants ate 28.4% of M&M’s labeled “low-fat” than those labeled as “regular.” According to the study, foods with a “low-fat” label prompted participants to increase their perception of an appropriate serving size by 25.1% – ultimately leading them to take in more calories overall.
Also watch out for: Other foods with “health halos,” like made with whole grains, organic, all natural, sugar-free, no high fructose corn syrup. Having these labels, even if they’re true, doesn’t mean the product is healthy. Look at the nutritional information and ingredients to see what the product really contains. Organic french fries are still fried in oil, and a stick of butter can be all natural – but that doesn’t make them healthy.
Healthy Alternative: Stick to the regular versions of packaged products. Most likely, they’ll have fewer ingredients – as well as fewer sugars, additives, chemicals, and preservatives. An even better snack option is food without a label – fruits, vegetables, and nuts. They naturally contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and they’re as unprocessed as food can get.
Refrigerated Cookie Dough
Calorically speaking, there’s not much of a difference between refrigerated cookie dough and the cookies in your pantry. But in terms of their temptation factor, there’s a huge difference: with cookies, there’s a serving size and calorie, fat, and sugar counts that hopefully keep you in check. And, if you’re a mindful eater, it’s difficult to actually let yourself eat the whole box; you can visually see how much you’re eating. But when you have a tub of raw cookie dough in your fridge, it’s constantly seducing you with its cookie dough Siren song: Just one more spoonful! By the time you know it, you’ve spooned your way through the entire tub, without baking a single cookie. With a tub, each spoonful barely makes a difference, so you can’t see the caloric impact you’re making. A study from Cornell University found that large bowls and small spoons lead consumers to underestimate the quantity of food, which is exactly what a tub of cookie dough provides. Add to that the mindlessness of eating cookie dough, and you’re unconsciously taking in an extra 300 calories a day.
Also watch out for: Foods without built-in portion control: big bags of candy or chips, large tubs of ice cream, dips
Healthy Alternative: If portion size is an issue, either buy single-serving sizes of food or divvy up the contents into single-serve bags yourself. An ice cream bar, for example, may be a better choice than a few scoops of ice cream, because you don’t go back for another bar – but you may head back for a few “tiny” scoops. If cookie dough is your thing, find a bakery you love and treat yourself to a just-baked, gooey cookie once a week.