“Free” Foods Aren’t Always Healthy

We’re always looking for ways to make our diets healthier. The thing we hear over and over again is to cut out processed foods. That’s a great rule of thumb. Processed foods have tons of added sugar, fat and salt that we don’t get to control. They also have chemical additives and preservatives we might want to avoid.

But, it’s not always possible to cook everything from scratch. Sometimes you have no choice but to grab pre-made foods. When reaching for processed and pre-made meals, it’s important to look at the ingredient list. The shorter it is, the better!

A marketing trick can make any of us make mistakes, which makes reading the nutritional information vital. Often, the packaging will use the word “free” to make a food seem virtuous. Foods can be fat-free or sugar-free and still be filled with calories and carbs. While something might sound very wholesome because it’s preservative-free or gluten-free, it doesn’t mean it isn’t packed with other things you don’t want. The wholesome-looking packaging tells you that you’re being healthy, but sometimes you’re missing the mark.

For instance, not only can “fat-free” products be high in calories and sugar, but full-fat products can be very healthy. Not all fats are bad for you! “Try to erase the mindset that you need to choose low-fat versions of food when available. Our country has followed the low-fat diet trend for several decades without seeing an improvement in overall weight status,” said registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Kristen Smith. “While you should still keep higher fat foods in moderation, the full fat version of a food may actually help to keep you more satiated. Fat can be a satiating component of foods. And some fats like avocado, olive oil and peanut butter can offer some benefits to your heart when consumed in moderation.”

And Ms. Smith stresses the importance of recognizing that these products being free of one thing doesn’t mean that they are healthy in other aspects. “Something labeled sugar-free doesn’t necessarily mean it’s calorie-free. I often see people make the mistake of eating excessive amounts of sugar-free foods (like cookies) with the mindset that they are eating calorie-free foods. The calories can still add up quickly with foods made with non-nutritive sweeteners – they do still contain other carbohydrate and fat sources.”

As for the gluten-free snacks and frozen meals that are so popular, there is no evidence that they are healthy unless you need them. If a doctor has told you to stop eating gluten, you should. But, if not, there’s no reason to believe there is a benefit to going gluten-free. “When more gluten-free products started hitting the shelves I saw more of my clients reaching for them in hopes they would provide another tool for weight loss,” said Ms. Smith. “Unfortunately, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support following a gluten-free diet for weight loss will help. With the rise of more processed and commercially prepared gluten-free products available, many of these gluten-free products contain a substantial amount of calories and fats.”

These foods are often sold with labels in warm earth tones and shades of natural-looking green that make you think they are wholesome and made from whole foods and natural ingredients. But, if you aren’t checking the labels, you have no idea what you’re buying. While it is possible to purchase healthy prepared foods, it takes effort. Don’t be fooled by the word “free” being stamped on the box!

Banner image: Henri Mathieu-Saint-Laurent via Pexels

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