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Not so healthy "health" foods (and how to avoid them)

Some foods sound healthy but are actually loaded with fat or sugar. Particularly when you’re ordering food from a café or restaurant, or buying pre-packaged food, things are not always as they seem.

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Many foods that sound healthy, like salads, fruit smoothies and frozen yoghurts actually contain far more calories than you might imagine. Here are some foods to beware of when you’re eating out:

1. Prepared salads

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Just because it has the word “salad’ in it doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Prepared salads are often full of hidden fats and calories because they are made with loads of mayonnaise. While it often depends on portion size and ingredients, an over-stuffed tuna salad can contain as many as 700 calories and 40 grams of fat. If you're ordering out, remember to ask if your salad is made with low fat mayonnaise – and if you’re handed a large portion, keep an eye on how much you actually eat, you might be able to save some for later.

2. Smoothies

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Smoothies that simply contain a blend of fruit and low-fat milk can be healthy, but many smoothies contain added sugar, ice cream or cream. This turns a healthy treat into a calorie bomb! Also, many smoothies come in very large serving sizes. Some take-away chains serve smoothies with up to 500 calories. So if you’re ordering a smoothie, make sure it’s made with low-fat milk and doesn’t contain any added sugar. And if it’s too big, don’t finish it. Dairy-free smoothies are another alternative.

3. Foods labelled “Fat-Free”

Fat-free does not mean calorie-free. Just because a food contains no fat, that doesn't make it a health food. Many fat-free foods contain lots of sugar (which makes them high in calories) or lots of salt. That’s why you should check the nutrition labels when buying packaged foods to be sure you're getting a nutritious product and not just one that's fat-free.

4. "Energy" bars

Many energy bars are filled with added sugar and saturated fat. Some bars are designed to be eaten in lieu of meals, and they contain more than 350 calories each. That’s far more than a snack.

5. Sports drinks

Sports drinks can be very useful for hydrating and maintaining your blood sugar levels if you’re doing an intense workout. But if you’re not doing strenuous exercise its best to avoid them. Many sports drinks are high in sugar and contain 125 calories or more. It’s usually better to opt for plain water if you’re simply going about your day and not doing any extra exercise. 

6. Bran muffins

Most bran muffins are made with fairly healthy wholemeal ingredients. The problem is portion size. Whereas muffins were once a bite-sized snack, they seem to have grown immensely in recent years. Bran muffins can contain as many as 350 calories each – and that’s without any butter or jam. Some bran muffins also contain a lot of salt, up to 600mg, which is about one third of the recommended daily intake. So by all means, order a bran muffin – but if you’re given get a big one, save half for later.

7. Reduced-fat peanut buttter

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Reduced-fat peanut butter is not necessarily a healthier version of regular peanut butter. Both regular and reduced-fat varieties often contain about the same amount of calories, but the reduced-fat variety usually has more sugar. If it’s just a case of substituting fat for sugar, the health benefit is negligible. Look for a natural peanut butter with an ingredient list that contains no added oils and no added sugar.

8. Multi-grain and wheat breads

Terms like “multi-grain”, “wheat” and “wholemeal” sound healthy, but they may not actually contain healthy grains. Many types of bread labelled "multi-grain" and "wheat" are actually made with refined grains, so you're not getting the full nutritional benefit of the unprocessed grain. In order to know what you’re buying, read the nutrition label carefully. If the first flour in the ingredient list is refined (it will usually say "bleached" or "enriched wheat flour") you are not getting proper whole-grain bread.

9. Packaged turkey meat

Turkey is an excellent source of lean protein and a good choice for a quick lunch, but many packaged turkey slices are loaded with salt. One 60g serving of some brands contains about one-third of the maximum recommended daily salt intake. So make sure you buy low-salt varieties or opt for fresh turkey slices. Try to aim for a brand with less than 800mg of salt per 100g serving.

10. Restaurant baked potatoes

A baked potato without any topping can be a very healthy food. A medium-sized potato contains only about 160 calories, and potatoes are naturally rich in vitamin C, potassium, and fibre. But if you're eating out, don't assume that a baked potato is the healthiest choice on the menu. Many restaurant-style baked potatoes come loaded with butter, sour cream, cheese, bacon bits, and other goodies that can add about 600 calories and 20 grams of fat. Check with the waiter first to ensure fatty toppings don’t turn ruin your best intentions to eat a healthy lunch. Or try making your own healthy baked potato meal at home.

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