Advise Me

These 4 Foods Don’t Deserve Their Healthy Reputations

If you’re trying to make healthy choices in your diet, don’t be fooled by foods that only sound healthy. “We tend to assume that foods sold in health food stores or with labels like ‘organic,’ ‘natural,’ ‘low-fat,’ or ‘no added sugar’ are healthy,” said Elise Heeney, RD, a clinical dietitian with Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center in Sun City West, AZ. But foods that might start out healthy can be transformed into unhealthy foods with added fat, sugar and salt and large portion sizes. “Highly processed foods are the biggest culprit,” Heeney said.

And food labels can pull your focus away from what’s important. For example, a low-fat food could be loaded with sugar and high in calories. A multigrain food contains more than one type of grain, but it might not contain any nutritious whole grains. And organic or natural labels don’t tell you anything about a food’s nutritional value. “Organic potato chips are still potato chips, and they are still full of fat and sodium,” Heeney said. “It’s important to read nutrition labels to know exactly what is in the foods you’re buying and if they’re as healthy as they claim to be.”

If you’re trying to choose healthy foods, be careful with these four.

1. Trail mix

What to watch for: Added sugar and large portion sizes

When you buy trail mix, check the ingredients. A lot of varieties include candy, which adds extra sugar. “Opt for mixes that are just nuts and dried fruit, and be mindful of the portion size you eat,” Heeney said. Nuts are rich in healthy fats, but they also have a lot of calories. Dried fruit contains most of the nutrients you’ll find in fresh fruits, but its sugars and calories are more concentrated.

2. Snack bars or protein bars

What to watch for: Added sugar and a long list of ingredients

You might reach for these bars as meal replacements, so make sure you’re getting the nutrients you expect. Heeney recommends choosing brands with five easily recognizable ingredients or less—think dates, nuts, seeds and egg whites. Look for bars that are high in protein and fiber and low in sugar.

3. Restaurant salads

What to watch for: High levels of calories and fat

“Depending on the toppings and the salad dressing you choose, the calories and fat can add up fast,” Heeney said. For example, Applebee’s oriental chicken salad has 1,580 calories, and Cheesecake Factory’s barbecue ranch chicken salad has 2,020 calories—that’s more than a day’s worth of calories for many women and some men.

Heeney shares these tips to make your restaurant salads healthier:

  • Choose grilled meats instead of fried
  • Pick light dressings or vinaigrettes instead of high-fat dressings
  • Order the dressing on the side, so you don’t use as much
  • Take half your salad home to enjoy later to scale back the portion size and the calories

4. Sports drinks

What to watch for: Large servings and high levels of sugar and sodium

“Sports drinks can be useful for athletes, but for people with low to moderate activity levels, it’s similar to drinking soda,” Heeney said. A 32-ounce bottle of Gatorade contains 2.5 servings, 220 calories, 55 grams of sugar and 440 milligrams of sodium. She recommends drinking water instead. If you choose sports drinks, stick to a smaller serving size.

The bottom line

You don’t have to eliminate these foods if you enjoy them. Most foods can be part of a healthy, balanced diet if you eat them in moderation—read food labels to educate yourself, so you know what these foods contain. That way, you can decide how often and how much you would like to eat them. If you would like to connect with a health care professional who can help you evaluate your food choices, visit

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