Five 'healthy' foods that may not be

By Maggie Tacheny, Staff writer
Published On: Dec 28 2011 09:11:51 PM EST
Updated On: Nov 13 2012 09:33:24 AM EST

iStock/YinYang

You can find a health and fitness section in just about every newspaper, magazine, website and bathroom stall advertisement you see. Most health sections worth their electrolytes offer a daily health tip, usually a satisfying pat on the back rather than an admonition to shape up.

A good number of those factoids dictate what foods you should eat. These are especially satisfying because they involve adding food to your diet.

They're also easy to forget, because every food imaginable seems to get its picture in the paper. Foods that are traditionally considered indulgent or lacking in nutrition are occasionally revealed as lifesavers, making the Fun Food Fact even more confusing: If wine and chocolate really are health foods, you might ask yourself, why am I watching my diet so carefully?

Do the benefits of said health foods always outweigh the downsides?

Here are five foods you might want to get the full story on, from soup to nuts ...

No. 5: Soup

Mm-mmm good.

Soup is one of the original health foods, people think. You sip it when you're sick, and it inspires people to write sappy inspirational books. We feed it to homeless people, and it has the potential to be delicious and low-calorie.

But dieters should be aware of exactly what's in the ladle, says Georgia Kostas, nutritionist and author of "The Guilt-Free Comfort Food Cookbook."

That's because soups can easily hide unhealthy amounts of sodium and fat.

"One that immediately comes to mind is tomato basil soup," Kostas said. "It is so popular. It's got tomatoes, so people think it's healthy. But many restaurants make it with a cream base. If it's got a cream base, it can be very high in calories, so you're getting much more fat than you need."

No. 4: Fruit juices

If you've made an effort to give up soda, you might be reaching for fruit juice instead.

Do you know what percentage of it was once attached to a tree? Kostas says that number makes all the difference.

"If it's 100 percent fruit juice, then it is a good product, but you have to make sure it doesn't have added sugars to it," she said.

That means no high-fructose corn syrup, which is often the first ingredient in bottled juices.

"It looks like fruit juice, but you have to check the label. It might only have 10 percent juice," Kostas said, making it only slightly more healthy than your former daily can of orange soda.

No. 3: Energy bars and drinks

Page through any fitness magazine and you'll begin to see a pattern in the advertising. Words like "power," "fit," "edge," "endurance" and "energy" are splayed across the rippling muscles of men and women covered in inexplicably attractive sweat beads.

The man has just finished the Ironman. The woman came in ahead of him. If you eat the same energy bar they do, you must be doing something right, the ads say.

Perhaps, if you actually require a vast amount of energy. But be especially diligent when tossing what Kostas calls "glorified candy bars" into your cart. "People think they are (healthful) because they look at the ingredients and see vitamins and minerals added," she said. "But often the first ingredient is sugar."

The first ingredient should always be a whole grain and sugar one of the last, Kostas said.

Energy drinks, too, are usually suspect: "Many times, it's just caffeine and sugar," Kostas said.

No. 2: Oils

Over the past several years, every food expert from TV chefs to the Italian grandmothers on spaghetti sauce commercials have been proclaiming the benefits of natural oils.

Olive oil has gotten the most promotion, although avocado, almond and sunflower oils are becoming increasingly easy to find.

But watch the spout -- too much any of these can add up very quickly, Kostas warned.

"Limit it to maybe 1 tablespoon for your whole dinner. Many people think the more the better, and end up getting one-fourth of a cup, adding 500 calories instead of 25 to their dinner."

When it comes to oils, even the "healthy" ones, less is definitely more. And the same goes for our last "healthy" food selection.

No. 1: Nuts

Just as with oils, the key to keeping this seemingly innocent party food in the healthy category is moderation.

"This is definitely one case where more is not necessarily better," Kostas said. Almonds, for example, are high in vitamin E and magnesium and contain very little cholesterol.

But 1 ounce of almonds -- dry-roasted, with no salt -- contains 170 calories and 15 grams of fat. Kostas said one-quarter cup a day may be fine, or even less.

"But not a whole cup," she said. "Many people overdo nuts."

Overall, most of these foods are, in fact, healthy. But keeping them on the "good for you" list requires a bit of restraint, measuring and reading of ingredient lists, where, unlike the health section, there's no stretching the truth.

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