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Beware of Packing on the Pounds with Food Fake-Outs!

Recently I had the pleasure of wearing my WebMD Lifestyle Expert hat on CBS’s Early Morning Show. (Click here to view the show.)

CBS anchor Erica Hill and I attacked the problem of food fake-outs. That means foods that sound or look healthy but in reality aren’t. Instead, you’re getting baited with enticing words like “lite”, “healthy”, “low fat”, “sugar free” or “low calorie”, when you’re really buying items loaded with processed foods, fat and sugar. For example, that Caesar salad looks pretty innocent (the bait is “salad”), until you drown it in Caesar salad dressing yielding over 30 grams of fat. Heck that’s equal to a couple of burgers with fries. These fake-out foods carry a phony “Health Halo” and you need to be aware of the nutrition land mines out there, especially at restaurants.

A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that when people eat out at a restaurant that claims to serve “healthy” food, they seriously underestimated their caloric intake, claiming to eat only 56% of the calories they actually consumed. Worse still, feeling on top of their dietary game, these same folks then rewarded themselves by eating more chips, fries, and desserts. Now there’s a pound packin’ double whammy!

To help you navigate these challenges, here are some examples of food fake-outs complete with Health Halo and tips about how you can adapt and adjust with healthier options.


Problem: Something about that word “smoothie” just makes you want to down one right now. Buyer beware! You’ll often end up guzzling 80 grams of sugar and over 300 calories in the blink of an eye.

Solution: Know what goes into that drink. Be assertive. Ask for the list of ingredients if it’s being made for you. Most smoothies have no protein, are all sugar, and use fruit concentrates instead of fresh fruit. If you’re making one yourself, or having one made for you, you don’t need to drink any more than 8 ounces, use water, skim milk, or yogurt, and add fresh fruit and protein powder. If you’re buying one premade, read the label carefully for number of servings per container, as well as total fat, carb and protein. I prefer fresh smoothies made under my watchful eye and control.

Energy Bars

Problem: It says “energy” and “healthy” and you go for it, not realizing that most of these are glorified candy bars. You can take in up to 500 calories and never know it. Women, please be on the lookout for fancy marketing campaigns that focus on “woman-healthy” bars, to bait you into buying one.

Solution: If you want to try one, read the label. Make sure the total calories doesn’t excess 200, the total fat is not more than 10 grams, and no more than 4 grams of saturated fat, no more than 20 grams of carb and you want to see at least 5 grams of fiber and 10-20 grams of protein. I tend to recommend energy bars for those people who really need a snack to carry them over in places where they can’t access whole food. For instance, road warriors who are stuck on planes and trains and travel delays and need a tie-me-over food. In my book Body for Life for Women, I have a listing and review of most of the major energy bar groups. Otherwise, make your own! My favorite is simply taking 2 thick multi-grain crackers and using organic peanut butter and adding a little dollop of blueberry jam. It’s a simple PBJ that I place in a ziplock and it’ll last all day. I travel with these all of the time. It’s the perfect combo of whole grain, healthy fat and protein. On another note, many people think that athletes down these bars all day. Wrong! Most smart athletes stick to whole foods throughout the day.

Sugar Free, Fat Free or Lite Foods

Problem:These words will try to snag you every time. You see the word “free” or “lite” and you’re hooked. Watch out! If a food is sugar free, then it’s probably loaded with fat and if it’s fat free it’s loaded with refined sugar. That’s because there are three macronutrients — protein, carb, fat — and only the last two have any real taste. Raw protein (think tuna packed in water) doesn’t have much taste, so carb and fat take on that burden. As for “lite”, that food is lighter relative to what? It could be a high fat item that’s 10% less in fat, leaving it still a high fat item, but relatively speaking, it’s lighter.

Solution: Personally, I eat real whole foods in balance. I eat a real cookie made by myself or a trusted source, avoid processed foods, and watch my servings. I use real salad dressing, but just drizzle a small amount for taste. I try to avoid processed foods and recommend that to my patients. If you do find yourself in a position of buying one of these fat/sugar free or low fat/sugar or “lite” items, please read the label carefully! If it’s a “lite” food, make sure the total fat is low and the carb content (esp sugars) is no more than 20 grams or so, and hopefully there’s at least 5-10 grams of protein per serving. For the fat/sugar free items, watch out for high fat (greater than 10 grams, and more than 5 grams saturated fat) or refined sugar content (greater than 25 grams). Most “low fat” yogurts have up to 30 grams of refined sugar in them. If you’re a diabetic looking for low carb content foods, check WebMD’s Diabetes Health Center for smart eating suggestions. If you’re someone with high cholesterol and heart disease and want to stick with lower fat and still control the amount of refined sugar you’re consuming, Click into WebMD’s wonderful Heart Disease Guide for great food selection suggestions.

Fancy Water

Problem: It looks perfectly innocent and heck it’s water for crying out loud. What could be wrong? Everything! Many of these “enhanced” waters can be loaded with sugar.

Solution: Read the label! I’m sounding like a broken record, but you need to know what you’re consuming. Many of these drinks can easily be 125 calories of diet wrecking sugary water per serving. If you’re an athlete who is really sweating up a storm and is working out vigorously for hours on end, then they need these sports drinks to replenish glucose fuel and fortify with electrolytes. For everyone else, drink plain water when you’re working out. At home, pour water into a pitcher and float some sliced cucumbers or lemons or orange pieces for a refreshing drink. Doing it yourself will definitely save you some money!

Salad Bar

Problem: You’re feeling particularly saintly as you head to the salad bar to grab some lunch. You’re entering a field of potential food landmines. You pile everything on your plate and munch away without realizing the amount of salt and fat you’re ingesting.

Solution: Those artichoke hearts, olives and chick peas were usually taken out of cans where they were preserved in lots of salt. If you want to consume them, wash them first. Also, steer clear of high fat items like coleslaw (a small cup has 260 calories and 21 grams of fat). Choose low salt options like lettuce, and fresh produce like peppers, mushrooms, onions, spinach, carrots and cucumbers. At home, if you select beans from a can, wash the salt off prior to eating. Try to avoid canned foods when possible and stick with whole foods (beans in bulk you can cook).

Are any of these food frauds a surprise to you? Talk about it on the Diet Community.


The opinions expressed in WebMD Second Opinion are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Second Opinion are... Expand


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