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Are Health Foods Making You Fat?

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 15/07/2015 K. Aleisha Fetters

“Unfortunately, most people decide what's healthy by looking at the front of the package.” © Image Credit: Getty Images, Provided by U.S. News & World Report “Unfortunately, most people decide what's healthy by looking at the front of the package.”

Supermarkets are filled with more “health foods” than ever before. Still, America’s collective waistline has also reached record proportions. Unfortunately, there may be a link.

Of course, that’s not to say every food lining your supermarket’s health-food aisle is the nutritional equivalent of a deep-fried cream puff, but some of them are far less healthy than you might expect. And, even the truly good-for-you ones could be causing you to unwittingly gain weight. How, exactly? Check out these three ways health foods can wreck your diet – and how to make sure your chosen items help you lose, not gain.

1. Sporting Misleading Labels

“Zero fat,” “reduced sodium,” “sugar free.” “Manufacturers use these claims on packages to show how ‘healthy’ they are, which in reality might or might not be true,” says registered dietitian Alexandra Caspero. “’No fat’ can be used to describe bagels, sorbets, sugar and jelly beans. Obviously, these foods aren't healthy, but they are no fat.”

Meanwhile, the labels probably don’t even mean what you think they do. For instance, when a food is advertised as containing zero calories, fat, sodium or sugar, it can really contain up to 5 calories, 0.5 grams of fat, 5 milligrams of sodium or 0.5 grams of sugar per serving, according to Food and Drug Administration regulations. And foods labeled “light” can contain up to half the fat or one-third the calories of the original version. “Whole grain is another one that sounds healthy, but instead I look for 100 percent whole grains,” Caspero says. “Companies can put 10 percent whole grains in and call them 'whole grain.' OK, but what are the other grains?”

And that’s among regulated labels. Labels such as “low-carb,” “natural” and “energizing” aren't regulated, so you can find them on foods that are anything but what they claim.

Most importantly, however, all of these labels only speak to a very small portion of the food’s overall nutritional content. “Unfortunately, most people decide what's healthy by looking at the front of the package,” Caspero says. Instead, check out the back to look at the nutrient breakdown as well as the ingredients list. Remember, the shorter the ingredients list (and the farther unhealthy ingredients are from the top of that list), the better off you’ll generally be.

2. Containing More Fat, Sugar or Calories Than You Think

Some gluten-free foods are higher in fat, calories and sugar than their gluten-containing counterparts. © AP Photo/Jon Elswick, File Some gluten-free foods are higher in fat, calories and sugar than their gluten-containing counterparts. No matter how healthy a food is, it doesn’t mean much to food manufacturers if it won’t sell. So, when food manufacturers take something out of their products, they replace it with something else. “It’s necessary to maintain the texture, color, flavor and mouthfeel of a product,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Vandana R. Sheth, a spokewoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. No wonder that low-fat ice cream tastes so good.

For instance, some gluten-free foods are higher in fat, calories and sugar than their gluten-containing counterparts. Fat-free foods are notoriously high in sugar and sodium. And, on average, while foods displaying the yellow Whole Grain Stamp contain more fiber, they also contain more sugar and calories than do whole-grain foods without the label, according to research from Harvard University.

And while food manufacturers aren’t tinkering with the nutrients in your avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil, they all do probably contain more calories than you’re counting. “Extra calories can easily add up and affect our overall calorie intake and weight whether they are from healthy or unhealthy food,” Sheth says.

Case in point: Slice an avocado in five sections. One of those slices is a single serving, weighing in at 50 calories. End up eating the whole avocado, which is easy if you’re making guac, and you’re looking at 250 calories before you even factor in the chips, she says. Meanwhile, 1 cup of olive oil contains 1,910 calories. That’s not to say you shouldn’t eat it as part of a healthy weight-loss plan – you absolutely should – but it’s best to measure it out rather than drizzling to your taste buds’ content.

3. Making You Overeat

© 2/Ocean/Corbis Those extra calories and grams of fat and sugar become an even bigger problem once you start looking at portion sizes. “People are naturally more conscious of portion sizes when something is perceived as rich or highly caloric,” Caspero says. “There is a perception that ‘healthy’ means, “I can eat as much as I want without gaining weight.”

In fact, in one Cornell University Food and Brand Lab study, when researchers labeled M&Ms as “low-fat,” participants ended up eating 28 percent more than those who thought they were full-fat. Overweight participants ate nearly 50 percent more when they thought the M&Ms were low in fat. Meanwhile, a 2013 study from The University of California–Los Angeles found that people eat just as many calories at Subway as they do at McDonald’s.

Unfortunately, healthy foods don’t just lead to overeating; they also lead to under-exercising. According to new research published in Journal of Marketing Research, the more fitness-branded foods consumers purchase (think: pictures of athletes and words like “fit,” “active” and “sports”), the more they eat and the less active they become. Rather than getting people in the mood to exercise, they act, at least in consumers’ minds, as exercise substitutes, says co-author Jörg Königstorfer, chair of sport and health management at Germany's Technische Universität München.

“It’s important to focus on the quality and nutritional profile of your food,” Caspero says. “But eating healthy foods doesn’t give you the leeway to start eating more than you were before.” Well, at least if you want to lose, not gain, weight.

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