A bowl of granola cereal, with berries on top

When “healthy” is unhealthy: Tips for making the right choice at the store

July 1, 2015

Take a stroll around your local grocery store and it’s evident that healthy is “in.” As the public becomes more aware that overall health starts with what we put into our bodies, food producers and manufacturers have begun marketing their products with enticing labels such as “good source of fiber,” “low fat” and “sugar free.” While these words seem like good indicators that we’re making health-conscious choices, they can also be red herrings.

“It can be frustrating to wade through all of the misinformation about nutrition and selecting healthy foods when you’re at the store,” said Brenda Bustillos, registered dietitian nutritionist (R.D.N.) and doctoral candidate at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health. “Many people look at these words and think that they’re making nutritious choices, but sometimes these foods have a better reputation than they should.”

To help you sort through all of those confusing and misleading labels, Bustillos offers the following criteria for evaluating if a “healthy” food is actually nutritious.

Keep it natural

“When in doubt, the healthiest food is its most natural, least processed form,” Bustillos said. Whenever you can, buy fresh fruit and vegetables to use in your meals.

When considering more processed foods, take a look at the ingredients section.

“The first ingredient listed is the largest component in the product. For example, if the one of first ingredient in a loaf of bread is something like high-fructose corn syrup—even if the packaging claims to be multigrain or something equally healthy sounding—then you know that it’s probably not the most nutritious item on the shelves,” Bustillos explained.

Processed food tends to add a lot of preservatives, like sodium, to extend the shelf life of the product. It’s an unfortunate trade-off, but the more natural (and nutritious) options are more perishable.

For breads and grains, try to look for 100 percent whole-wheat options; these items will have whole wheat listed as their primary ingredient. Take the time to see what ingredients are going into your foods and, ultimately, your body. You may be surprised that the main ingredient isn’t what you think.

Beware of those “healthy” words

It’s hard to walk down a grocery aisle without the phrases “low fat” and “sugar free” jumping out at you. Naturally, we gravitate towards these appealing words, thinking that they’re healthier than their regular counterparts, but these products could be just as unhealthy.

“Usually with products that advertise that they’re low in some undesirable ingredient, the product is subsidized with another ingredient to make it taste the same as the regular option. If you’re not careful, you could be consuming more sugar, fat or sodium than if you’d bought the regular item,” Bustillos cautioned.

Always check the nutrition label

Some foods have received the reputation of being “health foods,” without having any significant nutrition. Always look at the nutrition label of any food you buy, even if you think it’s healthy.

Those energy and protein bars you might pick up to fuel your workouts, or the granola you munch on as a snack, could actually be sugar bombs. Try to select foods with low sugar and sodium content, and avoid foods with high amounts of saturated and trans fats.

Bustillos also recommends keeping an eye on serving sizes. One of the most common mistakes is thinking an appropriate serving is larger than it actually is. This could lead to consuming more than your body actually requires.

“Just because a food is marketed as and believed to be healthy, doesn’t mean it is. Know exactly what you’re buying before putting it into your body,” Bustillos said.

For more tips on selecting the right options at the store and meeting your nutritional needs, visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ website or meet with a R.D.N. in your area.

Please see a local CBS affiliate broadcast news segment on health food options.

— Elizabeth Grimm

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