Look Closer at All Natural

Last month, I wrote about ‘natural flavors.’  Be wary of this term in packaging and the ingredient label, as it’s an umbrella term that can mean almost anything…as long as it was once a ‘natural’ ingredient.  That isn’t to say it’s always bad; it’s simply worth checking out beyond the information provided on the label, perhaps via the company’s website.

This month, as we’re in the throes of potty training (!!!), I’ll keep this piece short and sweet.  It’s easy to get duped in the grocery store by colorful packaging and feel-good messages, like ‘all natural’ and ‘fat free.’  I’m here to give you a quick-and-dirty list of common pitfall items, as well as some foods that are better than they seem.

Here’s a list of things people eat, often assuming they are a ‘healthy’ choice:

  1. Energy bars:  Most of these ‘nutrition’ bars have ingredient lists a mile long, and contain artificial sugar to keep calories down.  They are highly processed and far from ‘real food.’  Anything that tastes like an Oreo but is supposed to be ‘healthy’ IS too good to be true.  Better options are bars with fewer ingredients, such as a Larabar, which is made from dried fruit and nuts.
  2. Trail mix:  While some varieties do deserve a halo, most store-bought mixes are full of candy, chocolate and other sugary bits.  Additionally, the problem is often one of portion control than actual ingredients.  Your best bet is to make your own with dried fruit and nuts, and then pre-package ¼ cup portions into containers to bring to work or in the car.
  3. Smoothies:  Again, anything you’re buying from a coffee shop is probably full of sweeteners (from both fruit and additional sugar) and lacking in the fiber/protein/vegetable department.  Make your own at home with a vegetable, minimal or no additional sweeteners and sufficient protein instead.
  4. ‘Light’ and ‘fat free’ foods:  Often, these food are highly processed to begin with, (think crackers) and then altered to provide the same taste and mouth feel with less sodium, calories or fat.  Not a good combination.  In my opinion, go with the regular version, which usually will have fewer ingredients than the ‘healthier’ formulation, simply eat fewer.
  5. Sugar-free foods:  Again, choose the ‘regular sugar’ version, which often has fewer ingredients and is less processed.  In my opinion, artificial sugar is worse overall for your health than regular sugar, so avoid it.  When consuming items that are high in additional sugar, such as candy and soda, the name of the game is extreme moderation.

Here’s a list of foods that are ‘healthier’ than they seem:

  1. Full-fat dairy:  Fat helps us feel full longer, and gives a better texture to foods.  Full-fat plain yogurt is worlds’ apart from fat-free, and makes a great option to add to a smoothie for protein or for breakfast with a little fruit and granola.
  2. Real mayonnaise:  Skip anything with canola or soybean oil; opt for a jar made with high-quality, less processed oil, such as avocado or light olive oil. 
  3. Eggs:  Hopefully by now everyone knows it’s OK to eat eggs, even if you have high cholesterol.  (The cholesterol in eggs doesn’t raise your cholesterol the same way other things, like trans fats, do.) They are great sources of protein and B vitamins, so eat up! 
  4. Red meat:  Yes, red meat often has more fat than chicken or fish, but it’s also high in iron.  Not all cuts are high in fat, and fat from a pasture-raised cow is certainly better than the trans fat found in your ‘lowfat’ cookies—again, eat up!
  5. Peanut Butter: Yes, it’s high in calories, but they come from fat, most of which is the unsaturated kind.  The unsalted version is very low in sodium, and the fat helps keep you satiated.  Opt for more ‘natural’ versions that contain either only peanuts, or peanuts and salt.  Stick to the serving size (typically two tablespoons) and you’re good to go. 

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