In life, often if it seems too good to be true, it usually is and unfortunately this can be said for some of our favourite 'health' foods. Simply because it looks, sounds and even tastes 'healthy' sometimes the actual nutritional profile of the food leaves a lot to be desired. Here are some of the most common 'not so healthy' offenders for you so you can be sure that your healthy choices really are all that you need them to be to keep your body in tip top shape.
While bars and snacks that are packed full of grains, oats, dried fruits and seeds may appear to be as healthy as food could get, when we break things down nutritionally, the reality is not so healthy. While grains, oats, seeds and nuts are all 'healthy' they are also all energy dense ingredients. This means when they are consumed together, you can end up with a product that contains more than 60g of total carbohydrates along with 20+ grams of sugar courtesy of honey, dried fruit and / or rice malt syrup. Make better choices by keeping a close eye on calories and total carbohydrates and choose products that contain fewer than 200 calories and 20g total carbohydrates.
Ever popular on social media channels, any post that features homemade 'bliss balls' is guaranteed to do well. From a calorie perspective, 'bliss balls' could also be called 'calorie balls' as the combination of dates, nuts, nut spreads, honey, rice malt syrup, cacao, coconut oil, dried fruit and seeds can mean a small bliss ball may contain as many calories as a small meal. In particular it should be notes that while brown rice malt syrup is often referred to as 'sugar' free, it is only free of fructose and is still a refined sugar with an exceptionally high GI. Consider 'bliss balls' as a sweet treat or dessert, and enjoy a small one occasionally.
The range of protein bars is ever increasing and overwhelming. In their most simple form they may contain some carbs and protein along with a chocolate or nut flavour, or they may have an ingredient list a mile long and include added fat burners, sweeteners and unidentifiable ingredients to make them into an edible snack option. As a general rule of thumb, the fewer the ingredients on a nutrition label, the better the food is likely to be for you so while a protein bar may claim to be low fat, low sugar and high protein, this tends to mean your bar is filled with non-nutrient rich ingredients. At $4 plus a bar, chances are you will be better off with some nuts and yoghurt, or pure protein powder, milk and fruit than a formulated protein bar.
Another slightly misleading healthy snack is trail mix – the blend of dried fruit, seeds and nuts which appears natural and healthy yet tends to lose this quality when we have demolished an entire 200g bag in one sitting. Nuts are healthy; fresh fruit is healthy but large serving sizes of calorie dense dried fruit and more than a handful of nuts are extra calories.
Low sugar baked goods
How could a 'sugar free cake' not be healthy? Two reasons actually. In more cases than not 'low sugar' baking does tend to contain sugar whether this is via dates, brown rice malt syrup or dextrose, or the cakes are exceptionally high in fat and calories courtesy of nut spreads, coconut oil, almond meal or coconut. A cake is still cake even though someone says it is low in sugar.
It is easy to get confused with this one – how could something that comes from fruit, ones of nature's wonderfoods not be healthy? The issue with fruit juice is that it is an extremely concentrated source of calories, calories that come from simple sugars. When you consider that it can take up to 3 or 4 whole pieces of fruit to make a single glass of fruit juice, and that means the sugar and calories of each of those pieces of fruit, it starts to become clearer as to why fruit juice can quickly equate to a calorie overload. Unlike fruit itself, fruit juice does not offer the fibre or 'full' factor that real fruit offers. If you do love your juice, try vegetable varieties instead which have far fewer calories and make sure any juice you do have is made using a single piece of fruit.
Unfortunately when it comes to nutrition more is not better and smoothies that contain a mix of fruit, yoghurt, ice cream and honey can contain more calories than a meal and as much as 12 teaspoons of sugar. Unfortunately the other downside to drinking your calories is that the body does not compensate for liquid calories. This means that any liquid calories tend to be 'extras', extras that many of us do not need.
It doesn't matter if rice has been made into a snack bar, cake, puff or crisp, rice is a dense source of high glycaemic index carbohydrate which means that blood glucose levels rapidly increase, along with the hormone insulin, the hormone that also promotes fat storage in the body. Rice snacks are also low in protein and other key nutrients which mean that they simply offer 'empty calories' along with a rapid rise in blood glucose levels rather than long lasting energy.
Fruit muffins or bread or toast may sound like a better option than carrot cake or a big fat brownie but the truth is that whether it is a muffin, slice or banana bread, the ingredients are still basically sugar, butter and white flour, which really equates to cake. If you consider that the average muffin or slice of banana bread contains more than 60 grams of total carbohydrate, or the equivalent of four slices of bread, 20-30 grams of fat and at least four teaspoons of sugar, it is safe to say that there is nothing healthy you can say about these café options.
Susie Burrell is an accredited practising dietitian and the creator of a commercial diet plan.