Healthy-sounding food labels can often hide calorie traps that can undermine your healthy eating plan. “Superfoods,” low-fat options or light varieties of your favorite foods can actually trick you into eating more calories than you otherwise would. As you start eating healthier and paying more attention to your food choices, you’ll need to be able to spot misleading food labels and health claims. Hidden calorie traps could be the reason that you’er stuck on a weight loss plateau even though you’re working hard to burn calories through walking and get your 10,000 steps.
We’ll cover 3 different categories of hidden calorie traps, including how food labels can mislead you about the contents of your food and encourage you to eat more calories than you might expect.
Get Pacer! If you don’t have Pacer yet, download Pacer for FREE! (on mobile)
“Health” foods can lay hidden calorie traps
As there’s increasing attention to eating healthier and the ingredients in common foods, more and more foods are positioned as health foods or superfoods. Not all health foods are actually low in calories, and eating too much of even healthy foods can bump up your calorie intake. There’s unfortunately no magic food or ingredient you can add to your diet and immediately make it healthier.
While you can get healthier and lose weight by making better food choices, not every healthy choice will actually reduce your calorie intake. Choosing whole wheat bread over white bread is generally healthier, but may actually not reduce the calorie count. According to the USDA, 100g of white bread is around 1130 calories while 100g of whole wheat bread is around 1060 calories. That’s only about a 6% difference, and in many cases the numbers are identical. Whole wheat bread has more nutrients, vitamins, and crucially usually more fiber which can help you feel full longer. You’re usually better off choosing whole grains, but you should understand that you’re usually not saving calories by doing so.
Here are some additional hidden calorie traps in common “health” foods.
Low-carb, low-fat, or light labels
Products advertised as low-carb, low-fat, or light seem intuitively like better options. Who doesn’t want less sugar or less fat in their diet? Unfortunately knowing something is “low-carb” doesn’t necessarily tell you if it’s health or not. Many people do well on low-carb diets or low-fat diets, and if you’re doing well with such a diet that’s totally fine. Just make sure that you’re not overly influenced by labeling, rather than your own food choices.
Knowing that something is low-carb or low-fat doesn’t necessarily tell you if it’s healthy. Particularly because of the recent popularity of low-carb diets, many foods throw “low-carb” into the packaging. Pork rinds, for instance, are pork skin that’s generally deep fried in oil. While they’re fairly high in calories, they’re also basically carb-free. Cotton candy, on the other hand, is essentially pure sugar but contains zero fat.
If you’re making an effort to lower the amount of fat or carbs you eat, you probably already know which foods are low in these nutrients or you can check the nutrition label to find out. Highlighting a low-carb or low-fat statement on the package might make you think that a particular product is somehow healthier than normal. In actuality, pork rinds have always been low-carb and cotton candy has always been fat-free.
When you see these kinds of labels, it’s often good to go straight to the nutrition label to see what that particular food is actually HIGH in. You also want to ask yourself why low-fat cookies would be healthier than regular cookies.
Light versions of your favorite foods
The FDA actually does regulate the use of “light” or “lite” on food labels. Light foods need to have one third or one half the calories of the original version, depending on the amount of fat in the food. Many packaged foods actually don’t have such a large calorie reduction, so they use other words that aren’t regulated by the FDA.
While reducing the calories by half to a third is great, if the original item had a huge calorie count it can still mean that the light version is a high calorie food. Light cheesecake may be better than regular cheesecake, but cheesecake can run from around 400 calories for a regular slice to over 1500 calories (!) for some decadent restaurant slices.
This reduction assumes that you’re getting an actual light version with a large calorie reduction. The light versions of many foods which don’t use the specific word “light” may actually only have 10-20% fewer calories than the original version.
“Superfoods, “supports health,” and other buzzwords
You’ve almost certainly heard of a variety of “superfoods” that are supposed to have great health benefits when added to your diet. They’re often an exotic berry or extract from a faraway country which are then added to smoothies, yogurt bowls and all sorts of treats. While adding a variety of foods to your diet is usually a good thing, incorporating them into a 700-calorie smoothie usually can do more harm than good.
Acai berries, chia seeds, green tea extract and even more common foods like blueberries and nuts have been called “superfoods” at various times. The important thing to note is that there is no scientific research or consensus of what a “superfood” is. Since superfood is not a technical term, anyone can claim that any food is a superfood. There are a few ways superfoods can trick you into eating extra calories.
First, it can be tempting to look for a quick solution to a healthy eating plan. It’s true that vegetables like kale are packed with nutrients and vitamins and foods like salmon contain good fats and other heart-healthy nutrients. For most people, simply adding a handful of berries to a poor diet will not suddenly make a huge change.
The health benefits of many so called superfoods either haven’t been extensively studied or may have limited effects in a real-world setting. You may not even be getting any real benefits, plus many exotic superfoods are very expensive.
Finally, superfoods are often packaged into things like smoothies or yogurt bowls which are extremely high in calories. While drinking green tea seems to have health benefits, green tea ice cream or a green tea smoothie is probably light on actual benefit ingredients and heavy on sugar.
“Supports health” or “clinically shown to…”
Food companies often make important-sounding health claims that are actually carefully worded to avoid scrutiny by the FDA. The FDA regulates products that make definitive health claims or claims to cure or treat diseases. If a product claimed to “treat heart disease,” this statement would fall under FDA jurisdiction. A company could face fines and be forced to retract the statement if it was false.
Saying that a cereal or supplement “supports heart health,” however, is vague enough that it doesn’t fall under FDA jurisdiction. There may be a study or two that show some benefit, but you can’t be sure how well those studies were done and whether they hold up in the real world. Likewise, “clinically shown to…” just means that at least one experimental study has shown a result. You don’t know how the study was done, how many participants were involved, and whether there were other studies that showed the opposite result.
While it’s perfectly fine to eat foods with similar labels, reading these kinds of claims might cause you to take in more calories than you otherwise would. Who doesn’t want a stronger heart, brain or other health benefit?
Portions and servings make the difference
While there are some foods and drinks (like soda and trans fats) that are almost always bad for you, most foods are just fine in moderation. Many snacks and desserts are very calorie-dense, which means that 100 calories is way smaller than you may think. Choosing lower-calorie or “healthy” versions of your favorite snacks can be a great start to healthy eating, but you need to make sure that you don’t actually use “low-calorie” as a license to overeat and end up taking in more calories.
Low-calorie doesn’t mean just eat more
Lower-calorie versions of your favorite treats can be very tempting. They promise that you can still enjoy your guilty pleasures, but in a healthier way. The problem is that “lower-calorie” options often still have 70% or more of the calories of “regular” foods. That means that you’re often not actually saving many calories at all with some lower-cal options.
The calorie count of even low-cal desserts and snacks can tempt you to order that extra dessert or buy that package of snacks that you otherwise wouldn’t. If you would ordinarily eat half a meal and save half for later, finishing up the (slightly) lower-cal option in one serving can actually increase your calorie intake.
Look for filling, lower-calorie foods
Fortunately there are plenty of naturally low-calorie foods and snacks that can fill you up so that you can keep the sweets to an occasional treat. Snacks like cut veggies and (hopefully) low-cal dip, air-popped popcorn (without the butter), hard-boiled eggs and more can keep you feeling full. You can still eat those occasional treats, but keep the servings small.
If you haven’t downloaded the Pacer app yet, download Pacer now for free (on mobile)! You can also check out our website (mobile or desktop) or follow our blog for more great walking and healthy lifestyle tips.