There are plenty of things that are — without debate — good for you. A plate of steamed vegetables with brown rice, for example. Or a bowl of fresh fruit. Or a piece of poached salmon. But there’s a long list of other foods that, despite wearing a so-called “health halo,” might not be the nutritional powerhouses everyone seems to think they are.
Energy bars: At some point over the past few years, energy bars and protein bars transitioned from something endurance athletes ate while (literally) on the run, into quick snacks or meal replacements for ordinary people. But many are high in calories and saturated fat, low in fiber and loaded with high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners — and are essentially no healthier than candy bars. “Look for bars with at least 3 grams of fiber, at least 5 five grams of protein and less than 2 grams of saturated fat,” says Pam Fullenweider, RDN, a dietitian based in Houston.
Frozen yogurt: Low-fat or nonfat yogurt that’s not sweetened and that contains live cultures (not all do) can be a not-so-guilty pleasure. But load it with sugar and turn it into a frozen confection, and most, if not all, of any health benefits are lost. And for anyone heaping things like crushed cookies or candies on top, don’t kid yourself that your snack is any healthier — or even much lower in calories — than ice cream.
Gluten-free foods: Slap the words “gluten-free” on a label and suddenly people think it’s better for them and will even help them lose weight. “But unless someone has celiac disease or a diagnosed gluten sensitivity, going for gluten-free is unnecessary,” says Leslie Bonci, RD, director of sports nutrition at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine, in Pittsburgh. Many such foods “are lacking in whole grains and fiber — plus they come at a higher price tag,” Bonci says.
Red wine: Studies have shown that people who drink one to two glasses of wine a day have a lower risk of heart disease, but there’s equally robust research finding that women who drink even one glass a day have a higher risk of breast cancer. “A little is fine, but just don’t think that red wine is actually a nutritious food like fruits and veggies,” says Martica Heaner, PhD, adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at Hunter College, in New York City.
Over-the-Top Salads: No one would deny that a big bowl full of greens and other vegetables is a smart pick. But in order for a salad to earn its place at the healthy table, the eater needs to cast a critical eye on what else is included. “Toppings like candied nuts, dried fruit, cheese and croutons — plus a creamy dressing — can make a salad very high in calories and fat,” Fullenweider says. Don’t be surprised to find out that your super-size salad tops out at 1,000 calories or more.
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.