Diet Foods That Make You Fat
Thanks to confusing labels and unearned reputations, it's difficult to know what's good for you
If you're reading Prevention.com, you're probably interested in buying the healthiest foods. Just like us, you may even reach automatically for items with a "health halo," such as spaghetti sauce (love that lycopene!), or labels like reduced fat!, low sodium!, and whole grain! But unless you're a supersavvy shopper, be warned: Your diet may conceal some nasty surprises. That low-fat cottage cheese you love? It could be higher in sodium than potato chips. And the low-fat dressing you drizzle on your salad? It could contain nearly as much sugar as two chocolate chip cookies.
The truth is that no manufacturer wants to compromise on flavor, so even healthy-sounding products can contain appalling levels of sugar, salt, and bad fats. To save you time, we've flushed out some of the most surprising diet food offenders—and found some truly healthy alternatives.
Even foods that sound healthy can be loaded with salt—and that can spell trouble. Most Americans already consume double the recommended amount of sodium—currently set at 1,500 mg, or about 2/3 teaspoon of table salt. (The limit was just lowered by the National Academy of Sciences and the American Heart Association from 2,300 mg a day.) If you're in the high-intake group, that could significantly escalate your blood pressure and increase your risk of strokes and heart attacks (even if your blood pressure is normal), says Elisa Zied, RD, author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips.
Fast Food Chicken Caesar Salad
Culprit: McDonald's Premium Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken contains 890 mg of sodium—more than half the recommended daily limit. And that's without the Caesar dressing, which can pile on another 500 mg. (Select the low-fat Italian and it's even 30% higher!) In these ready-to-go salads, says Lona Sandon, RD, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, "the worst part is usually the chicken, which is often cooked in a high-sodium marinade for flavor and may also be injected with a sodium solution to keep the meat moist."
Smarter choice: Skip the entrée salad and go for the burger with a garden salad on the side. A McDonald's plain hamburger has 520 mg of sodium (250 calories, 9 g fat); add the side salad (20 calories, 0 g fat, 10 mg sodium) or snack-size fruit-and-walnut salad (210 calories, 8 g fat, 60 mg sodium).
Frozen Chicken and Pasta Dinner
Culprit: Bertolli Roasted Chicken and Linguine packs a whopping 1,350 mg of sodium in a serving. And if you eat both servings in the 24-ounce package (it's not a stretch), you'll consume almost double your daily sodium in one sitting. Like other manufacturers, Bertolli uses the preservative sodium phosphate—in addition to table salt to flavor this frozen entreé.
Smarter choice: Amy's Kitchen Light in Sodium Black Bean Enchilada has just 190 mg of sodium per serving.
Boxed Rice Pilaf
Culprit: Near East Spanish Rice Pilaf contains 910 mg of sodium in its 2.5-ounce serving (240 calories, 0.5 g fat)—nearly two-thirds of the recommended daily dose (and more if you add butter as suggested). That's high, even by the standards of these supersimple dishes, which generally contain about 500 to 800 mg of sodium.
Smarter choice: Near East Original Plain Whole Grain Wheat Couscous contains no salt; simply season with your own spice blend. Bonus: Many herbs and spices like cilantro and turmeric are packed with disease-fighting phytonutrients.
Fat-Free Cottage Cheese
Culprit: Breakstone's Fat-Free Cottage Cheese has 400 mg of sodium per 4-ounce serving (70 calories). That's like eating 2 ¼ 1-ounce bags of Lay's potato chips. In order to give cottage cheese its curds-and-whey consistency, manufacturers must add salt during production. This salt, plus the natural salt contained in the milk used to make the cheese, gives this typical health fixture a surprisingly high sodium level.
Smarter choice: Equally creamy and still diet friendly, Sorrento Low-Fat Ricotta (140 mg sodium and 100 calories per 4 ounces) is worth trying.
You know that treats such as soda, ice cream, and cookies are loaded with the sweet stuff and could derail your diet plan. But various forms of sugar—especially high fructose corn syrup—sneak into a wide array of savory items, too, where you would hardly expect to find them. "When you remove fat, you also remove moisture, so manufacturers add sugar to help retain moisture and flavor," notes Sandon.
Besides the obvious danger to your teeth and your weight, excess sugar ups your risk of heart disease. Remember: Your recommended limit is 25 g of added sugar a day (about 6 teaspoons, or 100 calories).
Regular Jarred Tomato Sauce
Culprit: Prego Traditional Italian Sauce sounds like a healthy food. (How could "traditional" marinara be anything other than wholesome?) But its third ingredient is sugar, which is added to balance out the acidity. Combined with the natural sugars in the tomatoes, that makes for a total of 10 g.
Smarter choice: Muir Glen Organic Garlic Roasted Garlic Pasta Sauce has only 4 g of sugar. For an option that's also low-salt, try Amy's Organic Low Sodium Marinara Sauce (5 g sugar and just 100 mg sodium).
Fruit Juice Cocktails
Culprit: At 33 g per 8-ounce glass, Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail has as much sugar as a can of soda. (The word cocktail is a red flag.)
Smarter choice: For a refreshing (and guilt-free!) alternative, try flavored seltzer, such as Vintage Raspberry Seltzer (0 g added sugar).
Low-Fat Ice Cream
Culprit: Häagen-Dazs Low-Fat Vanilla Frozen Yogurt has 21 g of sugar in a half-cup serving—nearly double the amount in real ice cream such as Edy's Grand French Vanilla (11 g) and close to your limit for the entire day.
Smarter choice: Edy's Whole Fruit No Sugar Added Fruit Bars will satisfy your sweet tooth with just 2 g of sugar and only 30 calories per serving (0 g fat).
Fat-Free Salad Dressing
Culprit: Maple Grove Farms Fat Free Honey Dijon Salad Dressing has 8 g of sugar in 2 tablespoons. That's like tossing 10 jelly beans into your salad.
Smarter choice: Newman's Own Lighten Up Balsamic Vinaigrette has just 1 g of sugar (and 4 g fat). Wish-Bone Light Italian has 2 g of sugar (2.5 g fat).
If low-fat foods add sugar to make up for missing flavor, then full-fat varieties must be healthy and satisfying, right? Not when you look over labels with an expert eye. One pitfall is heart-stopping saturated and trans fats, which increase blood sugar levels, blunt insulin resistance, and decrease your ratio of good to bad cholesterol. Then there's the serving size, which can trick you into thinking you're getting a dollop of fat—when you are actually getting most of a day's serving. Overall, try to keep fats to 35% of caloric intake. (In a 1,600-calorie diet, that's 62 g.)
Baked Veggie Chips
Culprit: Calbee Snack Salad Snapea Crisps may be vegetable-based—and baked—but they still have 8 g of fat per 1-ounce serving. That's almost as much as a small bag of Lay's potato chips.
Smarter choice: For a chiplike feel with a protein bonus, try Glenny's Lightly Salted Soy Crisps, which have just 1 g of fat per serving (5 g protein and only 170 mg sodium). If you're looking for vegetable chips as a healthy snack, try Just Tomatoes, Etc.! Just Veggies, a mix of freeze-dried carrots, corn, peas, peppers, and tomatoes that has 1 g of fat (4 g protein and just 40 mg sodium).
Culprit: Fage Total Plain Classic Greek Yogurt has 23 g of fat (18 g saturated) and 300 calories in 1 cup. That's not to say there aren't good reasons to buy this ultrathick and creamy yogurt. It's a great source of calcium (you'll get 25% of your daily value in a 1-cup serving) and protein (15 g), plus it has those good-for-your-gut live active cultures. But the whole-milk variety has 5 times the fat content of the 2% fat version and twice the calories (300, versus 150 in the 2% product).
Smarter choice: Fage Total 0% Plain Greek Yogurt is made with fat-free milk so it still provides all the calcium and cultures, and it even has a power-packed 20 g of protein, all with no fat and just 120 calories.
Movie Theater Popcorn
Culprit: When you survey the king-size choices at the concession stand, a smaller size popcorn seems like a smart choice. But think again: According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Regal (the country's biggest movie theater chain) serves a medium-size popcorn with 60 g of saturated fat (and 1,200 calories)—as much as five Burger King Whoppers. The problem: It's popped in artery-clogging oils, then topped with even more offending fats in the buttery topping. "They don't call them tubs for nothing," says CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley, RD.
Smarter choice: BYO. Newman's Own 94% Fat Free Microwave Popcorn has just 1.5 g of fat per serving, none of it saturated or trans fat. (Just don't get caught.)
Culprit: Aidells Smoked Chicken and Apple sausage has 11 g of fat (3.5 g saturated) and 160 calories per link (and really, who eats just one link?). Many brands of poultry sausage have only slightly less fat than typical sweet Italian sausage (12 g) because they're often stuffed with some of the fattiest parts of the chicken, including the skin and dark meat.
Smarter choice: Low-fat grilled chicken breast has only 3 g of fat (and 140 calories) in 3 ounces.
Frozen Meatless Indian Dinners
Culprit: Amy's Indian Paneer Tikka has 19 g of fat (and 320 calories) in a 9 1/2-ounce serving. You'd think going meatless would be a healthy choice, but you can blame the cheese (made with whole milk), as well as the oil the dish is cooked in.
Smarter choice: You don't need to swear off Indian completely. Amy's Indian Mattar Tofu provides protein (12 g) and also delivers fiber (5 g) with just 8 g of fat.