Top 10 Food Mistakes
Provided by: Prevention.com
By Peter Jaret
Maybe it was easier when the only thing on the table was what you could hunt and gather. Sure, the menu was primitive. But at least there weren’t any experts hovering over the fire, wagging their fingers and saying, “Eat this. No, no, don’t eat that.” Ours is an age of unprecedented bounty and convenience—and almost nonstop nutritional advice, much of it subject to change as new research findings come along or scientists change their minds. You try to keep up with the latest and make the smartest choices—but are they as healthy as you think? Here’s a reality check, with tips from experts on how to make the very best of your good intentions.
1. You reach for multigrain bread or cereal
Foods labeled 7-grain or multigrain may seem like the healthiest choices; especially with new findings showing that a diet rich in whole grains protects against heart disease, cancer, and other ills.
The famed Nurses’ Health Study documented lower rates of heart disease and stroke among whole grain eaters. Experts don’t know all the reasons behind the benefits, but they do know that intact grains are rich in fiber and nutrients—including vitamin E, B vitamins, and magnesium—that are stripped away when grains are refined into flour.
Unfortunately, many foods are only posing as rich in whole grains. “Take a closer look at the labels and you may find there’s not a single whole grain in them,” says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council, a nonprofit consumer group in Boston.
The reason: Labels can claim that products contain grains even if they’re highly processed and stripped of most of their nutrients and all of their fiber. “White flour is made from grain, after all,” says Harriman.
Learn the lingo of food claims. Bread that’s 100% whole grain means just that—it contains no refined flour. Cereal that’s made with whole grain may have a little or a lot. Crackers labeled multigrain may not have whole grains at all.
To be sure you’re getting the grains you want, check the ingredients panel. Whole grains should be the first or second ingredient listed. Luckily, finding whole grain products is easier now that manufacturers supplying at least 16 g of whole grains per serving—what’s considered an excellent source—are stamping their packaging with the Whole Grains Council’s logo.
2. You buy bottled water laced with vitamins
It’s a measure of how health conscious we’ve become that water is now fortified with nutrients and even medicinal herbs. But when asked for the l’eau down on so-called enhanced water, Prevention advisor Elizabeth Somer, RD, counseled: “Save your money.” Many are bloated with unnecessary calories. The label of one leading brand, for example, reports that it supplies half the daily requirement for some nutrients. But to get that amount, you have to drink the whole bottle, which contains 125 calories. And for that you get just 6 of the 40-plus essential nutrients provided by most supplements. An entire bottle, notes Somer, supplies no more vitamin C than you’d get from eating two strawberries.
Drink plain, refreshing, calorie-free water when you’re thirsty—and take a multivitamin daily to make sure you get balanced levels of the essential vitamins and minerals.
3. You choose veggie chips over potato chips
You’d think you were at a farmers’ market when shopping the snack aisle these days. Dozens of munchies are made from carrots, spinach, kale, and even exotic tropical vegetables. But scrutinize their ingredients and you’ll find that vegetable coloring is all most of them have in common with produce. What could sound more virtuous than a brand called Veggie Booty—especially when the packaging advertises kale and spinach? The ingredients label reveals that vegetables are at the bottom of the list (that means they contribute less, by weight, than ingredients at the top of the list, like oil). Many of these seemingly healthful snacks are still loaded with calories: A 4-ounce bag of Hain Carrot Chips contains 600 calories—just as much as Lay’s Classic potato chips.
When you simply must have chips, look for brands with vegetables at the top of the ingredients list. Terra Chips, for instance, contain decent amounts of taro, sweet potato, parsnip, batata, and other vegetables. A tip-off to a snack’s healthfulness is its fiber content. One ounce of Terras contains 3 g of fiber—not bad for a snack food. They’re no bargain in the calorie department, however: At 140 per ounce, they’re almost the same as regular chips. If you’re counting calories, baked potato chips—at 110 calories per serving—are a better choice. An even healthier alternative? A handful of nuts, loaded with fiber, healthy oils, and vitamins and minerals; they’ll even satisfy your urge to nibble. And if you want to be truly virtuous, go for the real thing: carrot sticks, jicama slices, lightly salted radishes, or roasted sweet peppers chilled in the refrigerator.
4. You choose snacks that are “made with real fruit”
Pictures of luscious-looking fruit adorn the packaging, and the labels claim that there is real fruit inside—but don’t think you can count these snacks as one of the four to five daily servings the new dietary guidelines recommend. Because current law doesn’t require labels to specify how much fruit is in the product, manufacturers can brag on packaging that food is made with real fruit if it contains only small amounts of fruit juice.
“Concentrated white grape juice or pear juice may sound healthy, but all that really means is fruit sugars and water,” says Gail Rampersaud, RD, of the food science and human nutrition department at the University of Florida. Other downsides: Few of these snacks provide any fiber, and some faux-fruit munchies even contain small amounts of artery-choking hydrogenated fats. And they often have as many calories—almost all from sugar—as candy. For example, a 25-g serving of Fruit Gushers has 90 calories, just about equal to a handful of Willy Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstopper jawbreakers.
Treat these snacks as candy, which is what they really are, and eat them sparingly. Satisfy your sweet tooth with real fruit instead. If you’re looking for convenience, pack a single-serving box of raisins or other type of dried fruit.
5. You buy low-sodium products to cut down on salt
Almost all of us could do with less salt, which has been shown to increase the risk of high blood pressure. Americans consume an average of 3,375 mg of sodium a day—way over the recommended maximum of 2,300 mg for healthy people (1,500 mg for the one in three among us who has hypertension). Because processed foods represent one of the biggest sources of hidden sodium, it’s great news that manufacturers are making low-sodium alternatives. Problem is, many still contain more salt than the 140 mg most of us should get in a single serving. A 1-cup serving of a leading chicken broth labeled less sodium, for instance, contains 554 mg; 1 tablespoon of reduced-sodium soy sauce has 600 mg.
“Be wary of products labeled less sodium,” says Rampersaud. The law requires that the sodium level be only 25% less than the original product. But if that product happens to be very high in salt to begin with—like many soups and broths—you may still be getting a lot of sodium. “To ensure that you get 140 mg or less per serving, look for products marked low in sodium,” says Rampersaud.
6. You drink fat-free milk to bone up on nutrients
Smart move. But if you buy milk in glass or translucent containers, you may not be getting all the nutrients you should be. Although calcium in milk is relatively stable, vitamins A, B2, C, D, and E and amino acids all break down gradually when milk is exposed to light. Milk is especially susceptible because the riboflavin (vitamin B2) it contains acts as a photosensitizer, says Donald McMahon, PhD, an expert in dairy foods processing at Utah State University. In a study at Cornell University, levels of vitamin A fell as much as 32% when milk in plastic containers was exposed to fluorescent light for just 16 hours. Other studies have found that up to 60% of the riboflavin is lost under similar conditions. Light also oxidizes fat and diminishes the flavor of milk.
Buy milk in opaque containers, which eliminate as much light exposure as possible. “A container that blocks light will maintain vitamin A, riboflavin, and other nutrients in milk for about 10 days,” says McMahon.
7. You toast your health with a glass of wine or beer
More than 100 studies have found that moderate drinkers have about one-third lower risk of heart disease than those who abstain. But excessive drinking—three or more alcoholic beverages a day, most studies agree—has also been proven to send blood pressure climbing. New evidence shows that even light to moderate drinking on an empty stomach can contribute to high blood pressure risk. In a 2004 study that looked at data from 2,609 men and women ages 35 to 80, State University of New York at Buffalo assistant professor of preventive medicine Saverio Stranges, MD, found that the risk of hypertension was almost 50% higher in people who drank alcoholic beverages without food than in those who imbibed only with a meal.
Enjoy that drink over dinner. “Consuming alcohol with a meal slows the rise of alcohol in the blood and speeds its elimination from the body,” says Stranges. Together, those effects may help prevent increases in blood pressure. Drinking small amounts of alcohol with a meal is a good idea for another reason. Alcohol is known to help prevent the formation of small blood clots that might clog arteries and cause a heart attack—and which form most often after a big meal.
One more advantage: Alcoholic beverages enjoyed with a meal are usually sipped, not chugged, which means you’re less likely to become inebriated. The risks of regular overindulgence include weight gain, depression, and liver and kidney problems—as you can see, there are plenty of good reasons to save your drinking for dinner.
8. You grab a granola bar for a quick breakfast
Snatching an on-the-go breakfast is better than skipping it altogether; numerous studies show that people who eat a morning meal are slimmer and have lower cholesterol levels and better memory recall than those who don’t. But many of those seemingly healthy breakfast bars so great for eating on the run are basically candy bars in disguise, says nutritionist Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Even though they may contain granola or fruit, some bars are full of high fructose corn syrup and trans fats to keep them soft and sweet,” she says. A top-selling granola bar contains nearly the same amount of sugar—14 g—and fewer nutrients than a strawberry Pop-Tart or a slice of chocolate cake. A leading breakfast multigrain bar packs 15 g of sugar as well as heart-harming trans fats. “That rush of sugar will leave you feeling drained and hungry by midmorning,” says Gerbstadt.
Check labels and choose a bar with less than 11 g of sugar and no partially hydrogenated oils (that’s code for trans fats). Also, choose a brand that has at least 3 g of fiber, which slows digestion and provides sustained energy. For a healthier—and cheaper—option, do a little preparation over the weekend. Bake your favorite oatmeal-raisin cookie recipe with half the sugar and half the oil, and pop them into individual plastic bags for all of oatmeal’s goodness without the mess. Or better yet, hard-boil a half-dozen eggs and grab one each morning along with some fruit and an English muffin for a portable breakfast.
9. You have an after-dinner mint instead of dessert
The cooling taste of mint may sound like just the thing after a heavy meal, but it could spell trouble. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, mints are high on the list of foods that can cause heartburn, the telltale burning in the lower chest that occurs when juices from the stomach creep up into the esophagus. Mint seems to relax the muscle that keeps the valve at the top of the stomach clamped down, increasing the odds of reflux. Other surprising culprits: caffeine-containing food and beverages, such as chocolate, soda, and coffee.
Skip the mints (and the Mississippi mud cake and cappuccino) and have a piece of fruit instead. If you’re prone to heartburn, drink a tall glass of water after meals to flush out the esophagus. And then take a stroll. Walking keeps you upright and enlists gravity to keep acids from splashing up the esophagus. And it can help in another important way: “Being overweight increases the risk of reflux,” says gastroenterologist Hashem El-Serag, MD, a heartburn expert at Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston. Getting into the habit of walking after a meal could help you keep the pounds off—and lower the risk of heartburn.
10. You save restaurant leftovers to reheat later
If you stop for a movie after the meal, your health may be in jeopardy. The food needs to be in your fridge or freezer within 2 hours (1 hour if it’s over 90°F outside) or you’re risking food poisoning. Another concern: nuking leftovers in take-home food bags, pizza boxes, fast-food wrappers, microwave-popcorn containers, and even on some paper plates. These can leach dangerous chemicals into the food when heated, reports Lauren Sucher, a spokesperson for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit consumer organization in Washington, DC. The chemicals include phthalates and bisphenol A, which are known to cause reproductive damage in animals, as well as fluorotelomers, which can release fumes that cause a flulike sickness. The seriousness of the danger remains controversial. “But why take a chance when it’s easy to reduce your exposure?” asks Sucher.
When nuking food, place it in microwave-safe containers, preferably glass or ceramic. And make sure you reheat those leftovers to at least 165°F to kill off any nasty bugs; bring soups and gravies to a boil.