I don't know about you, but I am tired of trying to navigate through a minefield of 'low fat', 'low cal', '0 sugar' labels on what is supposed to be 'healthy' food products. Even down to the high protein cereal, that only has 1g of protein more than the original, yet charges twice the price... I am tired of being sold a load of over hyper, over priced so called health food, that is actually less beneficial than the natural, cheaper, raw ingredients. So I have decided to bring you a list of my top 9 unhealthy 'healthy' snacks & some great alternatives to try to help you navigate through the minefield of labels & discover why certain foods are not all they claim to be.
- Sugar - If something says low fat, or low calorie, always check the sugars! Quite often sugar is used as a substitute & can often be worse for you than the natural fats - for example in yogurts. These type of products will quickly tip you over your daily sugar allowance, causing bloating, making you feel sluggish & prevents you from reaching your fitness goals.
- Low Calorie / Carbs - Often weight loss products or 'healthy' snacks can be so low on the essential carbs & energy needed to keep us focused, it will cause our energy levels to plummet, making it more likely for us to snack. Instead opt for a snack that has a suitable amount of energy in, think natural carbs, like in bananas or natural fats & carbs like hummus & pittas. These are far healthier & will keep energy levels consistent, unlike something like rice cakes or low calorie crisps, there's nothing nutritious to them & act only as a quick fix for energy.
- Clean Over Processed - Most of the times a natural food product will be far healthier than a processed one, because of what is added to the processed food. For example a high fat or carb snack, such as nuts are far more beneficial than an oat & seed cereal bar with all it's hidden sugars & preservatives.
So here's my top list of the popular 'healthy' foods to avoid & why, & their far healthier alternatives...
1. Low Calorie / Natural Cereal Bars - Like with everything, there are good & bad versions out there, the trick is to know what to look out for. A lot of these cereal bars are very high in sugars, so check the labels! After all, that is what binds them together, the syrups! Despite them appearing to be a healthy snack, the high sugar levels really do counteract the benefits of being low calorie etc. However, some of these bars can be fantastic before the gym, as your body will actually use the energy, otherwise, I would stay clear. HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE - PITTA & HUMMUS - A fantastic, long lasting energy boost. Try to get wholegrain pittas & a low fat hummus, toast 1 pitta & cut into dipping slices & enjoy with 1tbsp hummus. This snack is a great source of long lasting energy (complex carbs) & natural fats.
2. Low Fat Yogurt - Once again it's sugar you need to watch out for! Sugar is worse than the fats you'll find in yogurts, just remember that. HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE - ICELANDIC YOGURT - You still need to watch out for added sugar, but Icelandic yogurt is naturally high in protein & low in fat. They come in plain & fruity flavours, but usually are low in added sugar - I particularly like Lidl's Skyr Yogurt. Greek yogurt is another option, for example Fage Total 0% Fat Free Greek Yogurt, but watch out with the Greek yogurts, as they're not quite as good when it comes to added sugar in the fruit flavours.
3. Coke Zero / Diet - It annoys me how this is marketed as a healthy option. I respect how the companies have developed a healthier option & cut out the sugars, but they're then replaced by sweeteners, which some argue are just as bad. My main issue with fizzy drinks is how gassy they are, which will of course cause bloating & discomfort if drunk too much. Although Coke Zero won't necessarily cause weight gain, it equally has no healthy benefits to it at all. HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE - LEMON WATER - So to counteract the bloating from carbonated drinks, I suggest drinking lemon water. Water is great for hydration, but add lemon & it can really help detoxify your body & prevent bloating. Another favourite of mine for debloating is green tea. Both of these drinks have fantastic health benefits & make you feel great too.
4. Weight Watchers Ready Meals - Just one example of the weight loss ready meals available. I admit, some brands (Sainsbury's in particular) do fantastic healthy living ready meals, that are well balanced, with enough energy to keep you satisfied. Meanwhile others, despite tasting good, have so little in them that quite frankly I'd need 2 to fill me up! No wonder they're good for weight loss, they have very little carbs, very little fat & very little calories in - therefore nothing to keep your energy maintained. It's a very savage way to lose weight & one that can be very hard to maintain in the long run. HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE - HOMEMADE HIGH PROTEIN CHILLI - Just one example - batch make a turkey mince chilli con carne, with added kidney beans, homemade tomato sauce & natural seasoning (if you do by packaged seasoning, watch out for sugars again, some have 20g of sugar per serving in, where as others only 2g!). Honestly it is such an easy, go to meal to prep for the week. Freeze some, eat it in a wrap, on a potato, with wholegrain rice or with veg... It's low in fat, has a good amount of carbs to maintain energy, enough calories to keep you satisfied & high in protein, which will keep you fuller for longer. Plus a great meal for gym days. Just remember, homemade is always better than processed & there's so many good, clean recipes out there - Lean in 15 in particular. Don't think you have time to meal prep? Well have a read of this - 'My 5 Go To Meal Preps - Easy, Healthy & Budget'.
5. Muesli / Granola - Muesli in particular you need to watch out for the sugars. It may be quite a natural cereal, but they do add a lot of syrup, plus with the dried fruit, your daily sugars will soon reach it's limit. There are some great Granola brands however, but just be careful as to how much sugar is added. HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE - BANANA PANCAKES - Heat up 1 banana & mash, add 1 Egg & mix together. Cook in a frying pan. You can then add 1 tsp honey & cinnamon or add 20g oats to add carbs for long lasting energy. A perfect pre gym snack or start to your day, just like cereal, there is a healthy amount of carbs to fuel your day, but this option allows you to cut out the added sugar & is 100% clean & natural.
6. Fruit Smoothies - Would you eat a banana, 5 strawberries & half a punnet of raspberries all in one sitting? No, because that would be to much, but you'd happily drink it... Fruit smoothies are such a dangerous thing - they're delicious, nutritious & 100% natural, BUT contain tones of sugar. Fruit is naturally high in sugar & is a good source of sugar, but as with everything, you have to eat it in proportion. Don't overdo your daily sugars on one smoothie. Much like with orange juice unfortunately, you wouldn't sit & eat 3 oranges, but you could easily drink it! HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE - GREEN SMOOTHIES / FRUIT - If you love your smoothies, try opting for one a little less sweat, check out some green smoothie recipes or vegetable smoothies, there are tones out there. A little trick to try, is add all the ingredients to an App like My Fitness Pal to determine just how healthy or unhealthy a smoothie recipe is. Alternatively, reach for a piece of fruit if you have a sweat tooth. For example an orange, some pineapple, strawberries or banana - but just the one piece, not a portion of each & everyone fruit.
7. Instant Oatmeal - Once again the processed option adds a tone of unnecessary sugars, even the plain oatmeal sachets/pots do!!! There are a couple however that are quite natural & low in sugar (I've found Kellogg's Ancient Legends porridge pots to be a healthy option). HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE - OATS - It really doesn't take long to make porridge & is a lot cheaper than instant oats. My weekly oats cost me 39p! Either leave your oats overnight to soak & they're ready in the morning, or do them in the microwave for 3-4 minutes while doing something else if you're in a rush. Need to take them with you? Put overnight oats in a Tupperware! My favourite for breakfast is 60g Oats + 150ml Coconut Milk left over night - the sweetness in the coconut milk gives the oats a beautiful flavour, without needing to add anything else. If you like yours sweet, add 1 tbsp honey & cinnamon for a natural sweet touch. Just like with smoothies however, don't add heaps of toppings to your oats, or your just blowing your calories & sugars for the day! Just because it's healthy, it still needs to be eaten in moderation! Moderation is key!
8. Tomato Soup - It wasn't until a year ago I discovered my tomato soup had 20g sugar in!!! Why does a savoury soup need that much sugar - it's the 4th largest ingredient in the soup! And I was having that every lunch, consuming 26% of my daily sugars in 1 sitting! HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE - CHICKEN SOUP / HOMEMADE SOUP - If you have the time, homemade soup would be the best option to control what goes into it, but I don't have much luck making soup! So instead I opt for chicken noodle, chunky chicken soups or spicy curry chicken soup. Meat broth-like soups are great, they're high in protein & quite low in everything else, keeping you full all afternoon. Also, surprisingly, broccoli & stilton is healthier than tomato! So check your labels & get experimenting with flavours, you'll find at least one healthier alternative you enjoy.
9. Dried Fruit & Nut Mix - Be warned that dried fruit is higher in sugar than fresh & actually looses some of it's beneficial nutrients in the process. Plus too many nut or salted / roasted nuts can blow out your fat & salt allowance for the day. So know your portion size. Nuts are extremely good for you (natural, not salted or flavoured), but you're only meant to have roughly 25g per serving. HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE - BANANA & PEANUT BUTTER - A good healthy sauce of carbs, to provide slow release energy, a source of protein & a fantastic pre workout snack. Just remember portion control with the addictive peanut butter - 1 tbsp is recommended! If you wanted a healthier option, opt for some 100% nut peanut butter to reduce sugar intake. For example Meridian peanut butter is quite sticky & runny, good for dipping or spreading, or there's Whole Earth peanut butter, which is a bit drier, with more crunchy bits in the crunchy version if that's more your taste.
Now let's talk protein bars & energy drinks. These can both be good & bad. If you know how to use them & when to have them, they can be a fantastic asset to your workout, otherwise they can end up causing weight gain. Let's start with protein bars - usually high in carbs & protein, great as a pre workout snack before an intense workout (say heavy lifting, HIIT training or cross fit) or post workout if you are trying to build size & muscle. Others may use them as meal replacement, but I'm not keep on that idea. As for protein powder, this is consumed post workout to help repair the muscles. Some is specifically for bulking & building muscle, while others are meant to be a leaner option. Once again, watch out for sugars - there are some great natural, low sugar options, such as Good Hemp Pure Protein. I personally prefer to have a can of tuna & 1 tbsp salad cream, chicken or yogurt post workout to get my protein intake. Finally there's energy drinks & sports drinks - these are completely unnatural & normally high in sugar! But can prove a great boost before & during workouts, as they provide a quick release energy. If you're doing an intense sport or workout, your body will burn through this fuel source - for example you'll see cyclists, boxers, rugby players drinking them to help maintain energy levels quickly. If however you aren't using that energy, they are quite an unhealthy option.
As always, I hope this has been insightful. I have learnt so much about food & eating a truly balanced diet, that I wanted to share all I can with you. In particular how you can eat more of the good stuff, keep full & in fact loose stored fat, all by having the knowledge of what to avoid. If you have any questions or other healthy suggestions, I would love to hear them!