For years, we've been told that healthy foods are low in fat and sodium and high in fiber and protein. But some seemingly "good" foods can be junk in disguise, because macronutrients (the carbohydrates, protein and fat a food contains) aren't all that matters.
To truly determine if a food is something you should be eating, you must look beyond the nutrition facts and read the list of ingredients. You might be surprised by what you find. Here are five popular foods generally considered "healthy" that might not be so great after all, along with a better alternative for each.
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Many cereals are just processed grains with added sugar, juiced up with artificial colors and flavors. Even some organic cereals with the word "healthy" in their name include sugar as one of their first ingredients. Many athletes need to take in a lot of carbohydrates each day to support their activity level, but those carbs should come from whole foods like potatoes or yams, or the oat-based "cereal" below.
Try This Instead: Choco-Nana Overnight Oats
- 2/3 cup rolled oats
- 3/4 cup almond milk
- 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 1/3 banana, sliced
- 1 tbsp. Peanut Butter
- Salt to taste
- Mix all ingredients in a bowl.
- Cover and refrigerate overnight.
- In the morning, mix in peanut butter and top with banana and a few dashes of cinnamon.
Like cereal, granola often contains processed grains and added sugars along with unhealthy fats and oils. It's a calorie-dense, but not nutrient-dense food. You don't get much bang for your nutritional buck, and you wind up chowing down on a pile of empty calories. If you're craving a satisfying crunch, there are better options, like a handful of nuts.
Try This Instead: Powerful Greek Yogurt
Add extra crunch to your Greek yogurt by combining chopped almonds and walnuts with dried cherries, dried cranberries, and dark chocolate chips. This antioxidant power trail mix works on its own as a between-meal snack, too.
3. Protein Shakes
Protein shakes are all the rage, but research reveals that carbohydrates are equally (if not more) important than protein after workouts. Look for a supplement that offers a carbs-to-protein ratio of 2:1, or if you're not interested in dropping your dough on a pricey supplement, chocolate milk has also been found to be a great post-workout drink.
Try This Instead: Protein and Carbs
Fuel and build before and after your workouts. Mix your favorite protein shake in a 2:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio, and drink it 1 to 2 hours before your workout, and again within the hour after your workout. You can add a carb supplement like this one, or you can simply blend a banana or a handful of berries into your protein shake.
These are the ultimate "hit-or-miss" foods, as they can be incredibly healthy or incredibly unhealthy—depending on what you put in them. Good smoothies include a fruit, a vegetable, a healthy fat and a protein. It won't mean squat, however, if you top all those healthy ingredients off with a pile of chocolate and ice cream. Make sure to load your smoothie up with whole foods like bananas, apples and mixed berries (like in the tasty recipe below), and leave out all the unhealthy additions.
Try This Instead: Green Tea Super Berry Smoothie
- 1 cup iced green tea (no sugar added)
- 1 cup frozen mixed berries
- 1 cup raw spinach
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 1 scoop vanilla protein powder
- 1/3 banana
- 1/4 green apple
- 2 teaspoons honey
Directions: Put all of the ingredients in your blender and blend until smooth.
5. Deli Meats
Deli meats may be protein-packed and low in calories, but they generally include ingredients like sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrate and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Usually, when ordering a meat, you want the ingredients to include turkey, chicken, beef or pork. The other ingredients may not be harmful, but they definitely do not aid your ability to build muscle and recover from exercise. Turning your favorite meats into a sandwich-ready option is not terribly difficult—see the recipe below.
Try This Instead: Sliced or Shredded Chicken
Purchase fresh chicken breast (organic, if possible) from the meat section of the grocery store and boil it until fully cooked. The meat will break apart easily. Allow it to cool, then slice or pull it apart to make shredded chicken. Refrigerate and use in salads or sandwiches throughout the week.
- The Unhealthiest "Healthy" Foods
- YOU Docs: Q&A on Healthy vs. Unhealthy Foods
- What Makes Food Unhealthy?