You work hard, pay your taxes, love your country. You exercise regularly and even sneak in a couple of runs a week. You believe looking good is important, and you'd sooner let Ozzy Osbourne perform your vasectomy than eat the fat and empty sugar calories found in a glazed donut.
Too bad you're probably falling for some of the biggest fake-outs to hit the supermarket since shopping music. We're talking about hidden junk foods. These victual villains can stymie your progress in the gym, leave you listless during the workday, and even put your health at risk. But if you follow our simple advice, you'll turn your pantry into a nutritional survival chest.
You buy: Instant rice or instant mashed potatoes.
You believe: Quality carbs, good source of fiber, low in fat.
The hidden truth: "There's not a lot of 'chew factor'--meaning you don't have to work that hard to eat it--so by the time you're feeling full, you've eaten 900 calories' worth," says Leslie Bonci, R.D., director of sports-medicine nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "Additionally, most people fail to look at the fact that a serving size is something like half a cup, and those packages are designed to serve four to six people. There's not much fiber, either."
A better bet: Have a sensible serving of whole-grain rice or a small baked potato with the skin on.
You order: A vodka tonic.
You believe: Fewer calories because tonic isn't sweet.
The hidden truth: Unlike club soda, tonic is loaded with up to 21 grams of sugar per glass. Then, when you add the alcohol, a typical vodka tonic can have up to 500 calories, depending on the size of the glass.
A better bet: A Bloody Mary. "Eight ounces of tomato juice has about 50 calories," says Bonci, "and because it's thicker, it tends to be more satisfying." Plus it contains assorted nutrients. You can also now purchase "diet" tonic water, which contains zero sugar.
You buy: A multivitamin with iron.
You believe: A little extra can't hurt.
The hidden truth: If you're predisposed to it (and more than a million Americans are), excess iron can lead to hemochromatosis, or iron overload, says Alison Eastwood, R.D., nutrition director for the San Francisco Bay Club, one of the top-rated gyms in the country. It can cause fatigue and joint pain (sayonara, workout!), as well as heart palpitations, stomach pain and impotence (sayonara, sex life!) As a rule, men normally don't require iron supplementation, so pump iron at the gym, not at the breakfast table.
A better bet: Choose an iron-free multi, such as Centrum Silver. At the very most, limit your supplemental iron to 10 milligrams daily.
You buy: Kosher hot dogs.
You believe: Kosher, ergo healthier.
The hidden truth: Kosher labeling refers mostly to a food's preparation methods and source of ingredients, not to its nutritional profile. A typical kosher frank's profile (150 calories, 14g fat, 6g saturated) isn't much different from that of a typical hot dog (180 calories, 16g fat, 7g sat. fat).
A better bet: Hebrew National 97% Fat Free Beef Franks are kosher and healthy. Each has 50 calories and only 11Â¼2 grams of fat. Our tasters thought they tasted more like regular franks than the fat-free varieties of other brands.
You buy: Ground turkey.
You believe: Less fat than ground beef.
The hidden truth: Ground turkey can have just as much overall fat and saturated fat as ground beef, if the meatpacker grinds in dark meat and skin along with the breast meat, Eastwood says.
A better bet: Most supermarkets carry 99%- lean ground turkey, which contains only white meat. If you can't find this at your market, buy a package of boneless, skinless turkey breast and ask the meat-counter guy to grind it for you.
You buy: Cracked wheat, seven-grain or multigrain bread.
You believe: Nutrient-packed snack that's loaded with fiber.
The hidden truth: "This stuff sounds healthy," says Sheri Barke, M.P.H., R.D., a registered dietician in Valencia, Calif., "but if it's not labeled '100% whole wheat,' it's likely enriched flour, which is the same refined stuff you find in white bread."
Enriched flour, Barke says, has been stripped of the germ, which is where the vitamins and fiber are. Refiners "enrich" the flour by adding vitamins B1, B2 and B3, along with folic acid and iron, but they don't put back other important compounds that were removed during the refining process, including essential fatty acids, chromium (which is involved in blood-sugar regulation) and magnesium (which helps control blood pressure).
A better bet: Read the ingredients list and select a bread made of 100% whole wheat and no enriched wheat flour. And don't assume a browner bread is any better for you; the color can come from food coloring, Barke says.
You buy: Stick margarine.
You believe: No cholesterol, and lower in saturated fat than butter.
The hidden truth: The process of turning liquid oils into solid stick margarine--known as hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation--results in high levels of trans fat. Trans fat has been shown to be just as damaging to your arteries and heart as saturated fat, and it may be even worse on your cholesterol levels, says Barke.
A better bet: Use soft margarine from a tub, recommends Barke. The softer the better, such as Fleischmann's Light Margarine. Better yet, just use canola or olive oil.
You buy: Low-fat peanut butter.
You believe: A great source of low-fat protein.
The hidden truth: The fat in peanut butter is considered a "good" fat, so you're actually doing your body a disservice by opting for low-fat PB over the standard kind. And since sugars are added to low-fat peanut butter to enhance taste, it contains the same number of calories per serving as regular. Your biggest concern is heart-harming trans fats that are added by manufacturers in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, says Barke.
A better bet: All-natural peanut butter. Barke recommends Laura Scudder's. You can reduce the fat even more by pouring off some of the oil that naturally accumulates at the top of the jar.
You buy: A smoothie.
You believe: Healthy afternoon pickup.
The hidden truth: At 500 to 600 calories, commercial smoothies are "a really high-calorie snack," says Eastwood. And don't count on one to boost your energy for long: "Your body will absorb all of the simple sugar in the fruit quickly and compensate with an insulin response, causing a lower blood-sugar level than you had before you drank the smoothie."
A better bet: Have whole fruit and a little peanut butter for a snack that digests more slowly. If you indulge in a smoothie, Eastwood recommends adding protein to allow more gradual absorption of the sugar. Lies on the Label
Despite more stringent requirements implemented over the years, food manufacturers are still largely free to make misleading label claims. Watch out for these:
- Lean means something entirely different to the meat industry than it does to you. Ground beef can be labeled "lean" as long as it contains no more than 22.5% fat by weight, not calories. Even 85%-lean hamburger meat has 15 grams of fat in a three-ounce cooked patty. Eat a couple of tiny patties, and you've sucked down one-half of your allotted fat intake for the day. To be called lean, meats other than ground beef must contain no more than 10% fat by weight.
- Natural means virtually nothing, as the Federal Drug Administration has never formally defined it. Even if a food's ingredients were natural to begin with, they may undergo so much processing that by the time they reach your plate, they're about as natural as Shania Twain's Super Bowl vocal track.
- Fresh does not mean that after being harvested the food is free of pesticides, acids, chlorine solutions, waxes, or "nonthermal technologies" such as irradiation or ultrahigh-pressure treatment. Fresh frozen also means little, except that the food wasn't deteriorated before it was frozen.
- Fat-free doesn't mean a food is completely devoid of fat; it simply indicates that there's less than a gram of fat in a single serving. The result: Eating five "fat-free" cookies when the serving size equals one cookie could net you well over four grams of fat.
- Smart has no boundaries. It's often used to imply that a food is low in fat or calories.