I consider myself a pretty savvy food shopper. I know enough about healthy eating to choose whole-grain bread rather than white, skim milk instead of whole, oatmeal over sugar-laden cereal. And I read labels as carefully as the next health-conscious gal. But what about foods that have confusing labelsor no labels at all?
“Smart shoppers often get tripped up by seemingly healthy foods that are lacking in vitamins and nutrients or are relatively high in calories or fat,” says Lauren Slayton, RD, founder of Foodtrainers, a nutrition-counseling center in New York City. In an effort to give my weekly haul a nutritional boost, I handed its contents over to the expert. Slaytons suggested trade-offs took my groceries from just OK to amazingly good-for-me.
Reach for: Raspberries
Grapes are a staple in our house, and I often grab them by the handful, figuring Im choosing a virtuous snack. While grapes are heart-healthy, I could be getting more nutritional (and hunger-stopping) bang with an equally sweet fruit. “Grapes are very low in fiber and vitamins,” Slayton explains.
But raspberries are a great source of soluble fiber, which helps reduce bad cholesterol and makes you feel full fastergreat news for your waistline. Plus, theyre high in antioxidants. When theyre out of season (read: pricey), buy frozen organic raspberries, Slayton suggests: “Thaw them, and theyre perfect for popping in your mouth.”
Reach for: Asparagus
Beets just look healthy, dont they? And theyre deliciously sweet (even sweeter when you roast them). But theres a reason for that. Beets are full of sugar, sending your blood sugar on a glycemic roller coaster.
“When your blood sugar goes up and down, you get hungry faster, so you eat more often,” Slayton explains. “It also causes you to store extra calories as fat.” A smart alternative? Asparagus. Like beets, its yummy roasted, but it has the advantage of being much lower in sugar. Plus, asparagus is high in folate and vitamin C.
Rethink: Vanilla soy milk
Reach for: Skim milk
My sister turned me on to vanilla soy milk a few years ago, not because were lactose-intolerant but because its divine with cereal. Little did I know, its mostly sugar.
“Vanilla soy milk is more like a dessert than a substitute for milk or a good source of soy,” Slayton explains. If youre not lactose-intolerant choose skim milk, which has a lot of calcium but no fat or sugar. (Even plain soy milk has a little more calories and fat than skim milk.)
If you just cant break the vanilla-soy-milk habit, Slayton adds, use a little in your coffee rather than in a big bowl of cereal or a smoothie.
Rethink: Vitamin-fortified water
Reach for: Flavored seltzer
Im not a huge fan of vitamin-fortified water, but my husband gulps it after his workouts. Big mistake, Slayton warns.
“Vitamin-fortified waters get my award for fooling the most educated consumers,” she says. “One bottle has more calories and sugar than a can of cola! And the vitamins are negligible, compared with the amount of sugar youre getting.” Replace it with flavored seltzer (zero calories) or a no-cal flavored water (like Hint) that contains no artificial sweeteners or added sugar.
Reach for: Bulgur or quinoa
When my family needs a break from pasta or rice, I usually turn to couscous. Its a quicker, healthier substitute … or so I thought. Turns out it has the same nutritional value as white pastas like penne or rigatoni. The same amount of bulgur has fewer calories and three times the fill-you-up fiber, Slayton notes.
Quinoa is high in fiber, too, plus its a great source of protein (on par with a piece of chicken). “Play around with different grains like wild or black rice, farro, or amaranth. Youll find one you love thats a whole lot healthier than white pasta or rice,” Slayton says.
Rethink: Ground turkey
Reach for: Extra-lean ground sirloin
Surprised, right? So was I. Ground turkey has become my go-to good-for-you alternative in meatloaf, meatballs, and burgers. But unless the label reads “lean ground turkey” or “turkey breast,” youre actually getting a mix of white meat, dark meat, and even some skin, which all add up to 325 calories and 20 grams of fat for a 5-ounce serving.
“Compare that to 95 percent lean ground beef, which has 240 calories and 10 grams of fat,” Slayton says. Lean beef also supplies a good helping of ironalmost five times more than turkey.
Rethink: Canned chickpeas
Reach for: Low-sodium red, black, or white beans
My pantry is stocked with canned beans and chickpeas, and Ive always assumed theyre all created equal. Truth is, chickpeas are sneaky: Theyre like beans, but with more fat and calories.
Adding a few to your salad is fine. But for a main ingredient, Slayton prefers black, red, or white beans, which have no fat, plenty of protein, fewer calories, and lots of nutrients like zinc and folate. “Canned beans do have a lot of salt, though, so choose a low-sodium variety,” she suggests.
Rethink: Tricolor pasta
Reach for: Whole-wheat pasta
Im very mindful about filling our dinner plates with colorful foods, so its always made sense to opt for tricolor pasta instead of white. But, Slayton informs me that theres almost no spinach, beets, or other vegetables in each serving. Plus, the fiber-and-iron content is identical to that of plain white pastameaning it has fewer of these nutrients than whole-wheat pasta.
“The best color choice for pasta is brown,” Slayton says. While they have similar calorie counts, whole-wheat versions have more fiber than white, so you fill up faster and eat less. She suggests trying different brands to find your favorite. “Some are very tasty,” Slayton adds, “nothing like the old cardboard stuff.” Her faves: Hodgson Mill and Barilla Plus.
Rethink: Banana chips
Reach for: Dried apricots
Talk about a food that only sounds healthy! Id assumed that banana chips were virtually guilt-free. But then I found out that most of them are deep-fried, with 220 calories and 15 grams of fat per half-cupyikes! The same amount of dried apricots, on the other hand, has about 150 calories and less than 1 gram of fat (plus loads of vitamin A). Buy organic and youll also avoid sulphites, which can trigger migraines and even disrupt sleep.
Rethink: Goat cheese
Reach for: Feta cheese
I often give salads and frittatas a pick-me-up with a sprinkling of goat cheese. Slayton recommends feta.
“Both of these cheeses have strong flavors, so the good news is you usually dont go overboard with serving size,” she explains. The Greek-salad staple is a healthier bet, though: It has about 4 grams of saturated fat per serving, compared with 7 grams in goat cheese, and around 15 fewer calories per ounce. Sold!