10 'Healthy' Things That Aren't

If you want to be savvy about your health, you'll need to read labels rather than listening to marketing or general opinion. ©Photodisc/Thinkstock

If your go-to snack is a handful of pretzels and a bottled tea, which you selected as an improvement over chips and a soda, listen up: Your food isn't as healthy as you think, and you can do better. Yes, those pretzels are lower in calories than a bag of chips, but in addition to being low in fat and calories, pretzels are also low in vitamins and nutrients -- they have little nutritional value. And that tea? If it's sweetened, it may be just as bad for you when it comes to sugar as soda. For some of us, the idea we're leading an unhealthy lifestyle may come as a surprise.

Eighty percent of Americans think their fellow Americans lead an unhealthy lifestyle, although 85 percent say they live healthy [source: American Public Health Association]. Only three percent of Americans follow the steps that define a healthy lifestyle, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Those include: not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet [source: Oswald].

Here we've compiled 10 things you probably think are healthy; but as it turns out, they're not. Let's start with what's in the bread basket.

Multigrain and Wheat Breads
A bread marketed as "multigrain" can still contain processed flours. ©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

If you're eating wheat bread that's made with wheat flour, you might as well be eating white bread -- both are made with enriched flour. You might have a bag of it in your pantry -- all-purpose flour is an enriched flour. Unless the ingredient list specifically says "100 percent whole wheat," that slice of wheat toast might not be as healthy as you think.

Enriched flours are refined flours, and are stripped of their nutrients during processing. They don't have much nutritional value, and when you eat them they cause an unhealthy spike in your blood sugar -- which can lead to chronic illness and inflammation. Including whole grains in your diet may help you lower your risk of developing chronic disease such as diabetes and heart disease -- and despite what you think about carbs and weight gain, whole grains may help you maintain a healthy weight.

Energy Bars
Most people wouldn't think of a candy bar as a healthy snack. Many snacks sold as energy bars are nutritionally very similar to candy when it comes to sugar content. ©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Most energy bars are intended for athletes or for those who are serious about their workouts -- some are intended as meal replacements. Some energy bars are more like candy bars, sneaking saturated fats, sugar and hydrogenated oils into their ingredients -- the calories can equal popular chocolate candy bars. Calorie to calorie, a PowerbarProtein Plus Chocolate Brownie energy bar, for example, has 360 calories while a Snickers bar, in comparison, has 250 calories. Unless you're engaging in high-intensity training workouts, neither is a good snack option. Both have more sugar than recommended per day for an adult woman. Make sure the energy bars you nosh on are snack-sized -- that's between 100 and 200 calories per bar -- and keep the sugar and carbohydrates low. Compare nutrition labels to find the better bars. And if you're engaging in high-intensity workouts, look for energy bars that deliver a good protein source.

Sports Drinks
If you're consuming sports drinks but not participating in a high-intensity activity, you're likely gulping more calories than you're burning. © Getty Images/Jupiter Images/Thinkstock

If you're trying to eat well, don't derail that healthy diet with sports drinks. Sports and energy drinks are popular among adults and teens, and in 2011, Americans spent roughly $9 billion on them [source: Johnson]. But what you're getting is more sugar and more empty calories -- for many of people it's more than what they're burning (and that's what leads to weight gain).

Let's look at two popular sports drinks. One bottle (20 ounces) of Powerade contains 125 calories and 34 grams of sugar, which is about 8 teaspoons of sugar. Compare that to 20 ounces of Gatorade, which contains 130 calories and 35 grams of sugar, about 8.3 teaspoons of sugar, and you'll begin to see why nutritionists recommend water over sports drinks. Just like energy bars, sports drinks are designed for replenishing the bodies of athletes; if you're not engaged in high-intensity activity, you can skip them.

Going Vegetarian
A vegetarian diet can be highly beneficial to your health, but it's best to avoid processed foods, even if they are vegetarian. ©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Eating a plant-based -- even a mostly plant-based -- diet can help keep you thin, keep your cholesterol levels low, and may even help you live longer. This way of eating can also help lower your risk of developing several diseases, including some cancers. There are more than 7 million Americans who consider themselves vegetarian, but not all of them eat their fair share of vegetables [source: Watson]. And without a healthy, balanced diet, a vegetarian diet may not be any healthier than that of a meat eater. The problem is processed, high-fat and high-calorie foods.

Some vegetarians, especially those who are newly converted to the diet, rely on processed foods, such as fake meat products, carbs (think white rice and pasta), cheese and junk foods. And regardless of whether you eat meat or not, if you eat processed foods you add unnecessary salt, sugar and fats to your diet -- which also adds unwanted pounds and increases your risk of chronic illness.

Reduced-fat Peanut Butter
Reduced-fat peanut butters often contain more sugar than their original versions. © Getty Images/Jupiter Images/Thinkstock

Reading the nutrition label on your jar of peanut butter may surprise you -- it's a go-to food in many homes in America, and it's also high in calories and fat. Don't let those two things stop you from indulging, though. Just be smart about the type you do eat.

Reduced-fat peanut butters may sound like a good idea. Less fat is good, right? The trouble with reduced-fat peanut butters is they usually make up for their loss with added sugar, which is not an improved trade over fat. Two tablespoons of Skippy creamy peanut butter, for example, contains 16 grams of total fat and 3 grams of sugars, while the reduced-fat version has 12 grams of total fat and 4 grams of sugars [source: Skippy]. Too much sugar in your diet can lead to insulin sensitivity or high blood sugar, which may lead to type 2 diabetes and other health problems.

The best nut butters are the most natural. Try peanut butters with no added sweeteners -- but at 16 grams of fat per serving (two tablespoons for most nut butters) keep an eye on how much you spread on your sandwich.

Fat-free Anything
Fat helps your body function properly, so foods that have had all their fat removed aren't really doing your body any favors. © Envision/Corbis

Fat-free, low-fat and reduced fat foods may sound like a good idea. While less fat in your diet can be a good thing, products with these labels usually come at a price: When the fat is removed from a product, its sodium and sugar content often increases, as does the thickener and chemical content, all in the name of trying to mimic full-fat flavor and mouth-feel.

Fat helps your body function properly, absorb important vitamins and minerals, and regulate your hormones; the fat in the food we eat also help us know when we're full so we don't overeat. Fat is also energy for the body. Your goal shouldn't be to eliminate all fats from your diet; rather, it's the type of fat that you eat that matters. Saturated fats (such as butter) and trans fats (including partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils) are so-called bad fats, and are linked to chronic conditions such as inflammation, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Unsaturated fats such as omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, are considered heart-healthy fats. Look for polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, and replace solid fats with healthier vegetable oils.

Hand Sanitizer
Hand sanitizer is a great substitute for hand washing when you can't get to soap and water, but overuse of sanitizer can deprive you of needed exposure to germs. ©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Nothing beats washing your hands with soap and water to get them clean, but when that's not possible, using a hand sanitizer with a concentration of at least 60 percent alcohol (ethanol, ethyl alcohol, or isopropanol) is a great way to reduce the spread of germs and bacteria (that is, as long as your hands aren't visibly dirty). Experts recommend you apply enough hand sanitizer to wet your hands -- get in between all your fingers -- and rub your hands together until they're dry [source: Mayo Clinic]. But is there such a thing as too much hand sanitizer? As it turns out, maybe so.

Let's talk about your immune system. It's important to protect yourself against infection, but it's also good to allow some germs and microbes in. Without exposure to germs, you're actually not doing your immune system any favors -- you won't build up a resistance to the germs in any sneeze or cough that comes your way.

Extra Light Olive Oil
Olive oil is both delicious and nutritious, but it is a high-calorie addition to foods and should be used sparingly. ©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Olive oil contains monounsaturated fats, a type of fat associated with a lowered risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers when you include it in an otherwise healthy diet.

Did you know that extra light olive oil isn't "light" like the light we talk about when we're cutting back fats, though? Extra light in this instance refers to how processed the oil is, and extra light olive oil is one of the most refined olive oils you'll find -- you'll know it among other types of olive oils because it is the lightest in color and has the mildest flavor. Pale and buttery or green and fruity, olive oil is still oil, and every tablespoon of it contains 120 calories.

Like many other items on our list, smoothies can be really beneficial. They're packed with nutrients, but many are also high-calorie and full of sugar. ©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Smoothies sound like a healthy snack or meal replacement, and they can be -- if you go about it the right way. But because some smoothies contain more sugar than fresh and frozen fruits, yogurt, and skim (or non-dairy) milk, they can easily turn from diet-friendly to diet-busting as fast as you can say chunky monkey.

From one shop, a 20-ounce cherry smoothie with bananas and papaya juice, for example, has fewer than 300 calories, while a 20-ounce peanut butter plus chocolate smoothie nearly tops 700 calories. The best smoothies are those with no more than 17 calories per ounce (which means you're looking at 340 calories for a 20-ounce smoothie) and no less than 4 grams of fiber per serving. If you're having a meal-replacement smoothie, aim for at least 5 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber per serving [source: Magee].

Diet Soda
You may save calories by drinking diet sodas, but you're getting a lot of bad-for-you ingredients in the deal. ©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

When you drink diet soda you may be saving yourself a few calories, but they come at an expense -- you're still drinking soda, and all the bad-for-you ingredients that come along with it.

A 2013 study links an increased risk of developing diabetes -- an increase by as much as 22 percent -- with drinking one soda (diet or regular) a day [source: Neporent]. And additional research suggests the artificial sweeteners used in diet sodas may actually backfire on you. Diet sodas may have fewer calories than regular versions, but the artificial sweeteners may cause weight gain, and people who drink diet soda every day have a greater waist circumference than people who don't consume diet drinks.


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Author's Note: 10 'Healthy' Things That Aren't

I remember the day I realized a cup of walnuts equals roughly 800 calories -- it was the day I stopped eating trail mix as my mid-afternoon pick-me-up and instead starting noshing on hummus. It's not as though I was eating walnuts by the cupful -- I wasn't -- but I wasn't thinking about the calories and fat in a simple handful of nuts and dried fruits, one of my favorite snacks.

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