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When is healthy food not so healthy?

By Sara Browning. Published in the Utica Observer Dispatch.

Link to the original newspaper article.

You may have been there - you've finished your workout or run or two-mile jaunt with the dog and refuel with a handful of trail mix, a protein bar or some whole-grain crackers. And you think you're refueling with healthy food.

But you may not know that just one serving of trail mix has the same number of calories as four bite-sized Snickers bars. A high-protein Carb Solutions Chocolate Fudge Almond bar has 230 calories - the same amount as a bag of M&Ms. And those reduced-fat Wheat Thins with 11 grams of whole grain per serving? Nearly 300 milligrams of sodium - more sodium than one serving of Original Fritos Corn Chips.

Many "healthy" foods are labeled as such because of small portion sizes or because they have been enriched with protein or fiber.

But nutrition labels don't lie - there might be some unintended consequences to eating those foods. That low-cal, low-fat frozen dinner contains huge amounts of sodium to preserve taste. And several high-protein power bars contain as many calories as a serving of ice cream.

Are healthy foods really healthy? Dieticians say the key to healthy eating is learning to become a savvy shopper.

Marketing at the supermarket

Part of shopping smart is becoming acquainted with food marketing.

Food-packaging labels that read "reduced-fat," "low sodium," "whole grain," "high fiber" and "organic" are designed to catch the eye. But they aren't always telling the full story.

"Marketers will often tell consumers what they want to hear in order to sell a product," says Kelly Powell, a registered dietician and certified diabetes educator at Southern Illinois University.

"A reduced-fat label does not necessarily mean healthy," she says. "The food may have zero grams trans fat but 13 grams of saturated fats, which are unhealthy for the heart."

A more recent trend is to market food as "organic." Shoppers often associate organic food with health food.

"The organic marketing label simply refers to the way a food is grown - without herbicides or pesticides," Powell says. "But the nutrient composition doesn't change. Organic foods are not necessarily health foods."

Shoppers may also choose to avoid snacking on foods, such as chocolate, in favor of what they believe are healthier, lower-calorie foods, such as a serving of high-fiber cereal. However, some cereals, such as Raisin Bran, when eaten with a half-cup of skim milk, contain more calories than a Hershey bar.

Defining 'healthy'

So why eat Raisin Bran when a Hershey bar has fewer calories? Dieticians say nutrition density helps define which foods are healthy.

Sara Lopinski, a registered dietician with the Center for Living at St. John's Prairie Heart Institute in Springfield, Ill., says consuming foods such as Raisin Bran is healthier than eating a chocolate bar because Raisin Bran is dense in nutrients.

"Nutrient-dense foods give us more bang for our caloric buck," she says. "Limit foods high in calories with little nutritional value."

Determining what is "healthy" also revolves around a person's personal diet goals. Focusing on personal health goals helps individuals determine exactly how much sodium, fat, calories, carbohydrates, fiber and protein they should eat on a daily basis - in other words, what is "healthy" or "unhealthy" for specific individuals.

"A person requires about 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day," Powell says. "Knowing this, eating one healthy frozen dinner a day that has no more than 600 milligrams of sodium would not be considered unhealthy as long as the person does not exceed 1,500 milligrams.

"On the other hand, if a doctor tells someone to watch his salt intake, he would be better off eating a lower-sodium meal."

Lopinski says a person's RDA - or recommended daily allowance - for things such as sodium or fat varies depending on an individual's caloric needs.

"We're always looking at the context of a person's overall diet to determine what is healthy or unhealthy," she says. "It's all about balance and goal-setting."

Learning how to read nutrition labels can help consumers determine which foods are best for them.

For example, when counting carbohydrates, Lopinski recommends looking at dietary fiber.

"Don't be deceived by 'whole grain' labels on breads," she says. "Instead, look at the dietary fiber content. Some high-fiber breads have at least 3 grams of fiber per slice."

For more information on healthy eating, visit

Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA):

Calories: 1,000 mgs
Sodium: 1,500 mgs
Fiber: 20-25 grams
Protein: 60 grams
Carbs: Based on total calories and specific needs -- should total a little more than half your calories per day
Fats: No more than 20 grams of saturated and trans fats per day

Comparing food choices

A quick survey of some popular brands of food marketed as healthy or organic show that the calorie or sodium differences may be minimal - and in some cases, the "healthier" choice may have a higher calorie or salt content.

Healthy Choice frozen dinner (Beef Pot Roast with Potatoes): 500 mgs sodium
Small bag of movie popcorn (no added salt): 440 mgs sodium
Trail mix (1/4 cup): 160 calories
One serving bite-size miniature Snickers bars (4 bars): 170 calories
Bagel: 250 calories
Doughnut: 300 calories
1 cup Raisin Bran cereal with 1/2 cup skim milk: 230 calories
1 cup Lucky Charms cereal with 1/2 cup skim milk: 150 calories
Hershey chocolate bar: 210 calories
Carb Solutions Chocolate Fudge Almond Bar: 230 calories
One serving Hershey's Kisses (9 Pieces): 210 calories
Healthy Life white bread (2 slices): 70 calories, 210 mgs sodium
Butternut Bread (2 slices): 60 calories, 130 mgs sodium
Organic Cheetos: 1 serving/32 chips: 290mgs sodium; 150 calories
Regular Cheetos: 1 serving/32 chips: 290mgs sodium; 160 calories
One serving organic macaroni and cheese: 530 mgs sodium
One serving regular macaroni and cheese: 580 mgs sodium
One serving organic canned chicken noodle soup: 880 mgs sodium; 80 calories
One serving regular canned chicken noodle soup: 660 mgs sodium; 60 calories


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Disclaimer: As a Health Coach, I will never attempt to diagnose, treat, make claims, prevent or cure any disease or condition. I advise my clients that Health Coaching is not intended to substitute for the advice, treatment and/or diagnosis of a qualified licensed health care professional.