I wish I had a dime for every time someone said, “I know what to eat, I just don’t do it.” It usually comes about 30 seconds after meeting someone and telling them that I’m a dietitian. I never contradict; I just nod and smile, keeping my comments and thoughts to myself. I’m not in the business of giving free advice or trying to convince someone that most of what they think they know is wrong. So I continue to nod and smile as they say things like, “I never eat fast food, only Chick-Fil-A.” Or they tell me about that one time they lost 20 lbs. taking bee pollen but their hair was falling out and they felt like they were going to pass out because their heart was beating out of their chest so they stopped taking it and gained all the weight back. Nod and smile. Nod and smile.

I know that most people who believe they know how to eat healthy “but just choose not to,” attempt to go on a diet an average of 6-10 times per year. I know that if I went to their homes and checked in their refrigerators and pantries while they were trying to diet, I would find things like reduced-fat peanut butter, “light” bread, Weight Watchers ice cream, Lean Cuisines and Smart Ones, fat-free cheese, rice cakes, gluten-free crackers and Special K bars. If they were paying me, I would ask them how many times buying products like these has helped them to lose weight and keep it off. I would ask them if foods like these made them feel satiated and satisfied and if so, why they continued to go back to their old habits so quickly? I would give them this list and encourage them to throw out everything they think they know about healthy eating and work with a dietitian to learn how to eat to fuel their body, satisfy their appetite and leave them feeling energized and happy instead of deprived and depressed.

"But it's gluten-free!"
“But it’s gluten-free!”

1. Gluten-free everything! Crackers, cookies, pasta, flour, hot dog buns. I won’t be surprised if there’s Coke labeled gluten-free soon. I want to stress that IN NO WAY do the words gluten-free equal healthy, more nutritious or less “fattening.” Having a triple cheeseburger but opting for the gluten-free bun makes zero difference. If you have Celiac’s disease or a proven gluten intolerance, of course you should be going out of your way to find gluten-free items. But for the general population, you have been duped. You have been duped into buying products that are twice as expensive and offer you no additional nutritional benefits. A handful of gluten-free crackers made with 35 ingredients (most of which you can’t pronounce) are not good for you. A gluten-free chocolate chip cookie is no better for you than a regular old Chips-Ahoy.

2. Fat free cheese. It’s Taco Tuesday. You opt for the fat free shredded Mexican cheese because you’re on a diet. Good choice right? Wrong! You’re more likely to use twice as much of the flavorless fat-free cheese trying to achieve the same flavor or texture of the real stuff and you’re probably still not satisfied. Have you read the ingredients in those types of cheeses? Depending on the brand, you can find things like potato starch, “processed cheese food,” inulin, cellulose powder, artificial colors, yeast, xanthan gum, locust bean gum…. do I need to go on? You know what I want in my cheese? Cheese. Cultured milk, enzymes (which turn the milk into cheese) and maybe some spices. If you read an ingredient and your brain doesn’t register it as food, neither will your body.

3. Reduced-fat peanut butter. Newsflash: nuts have GOOD, healthy fat. Why would you want a product that takes out the good fat and adds in more sugar? If you’re looking for a healthy peanut butter, go to the bulk section of the grocery store and find the stuff that’s ground right then and there, with the only ingredient being peanuts. No added oils, sugars, salts, nothing. Just nuts, the way it should be.

4. Fat-free Ranch and fat-free mayo. Similar to peanut butter, most of these dressings have the fat taken out and sugar added. They’ve got to make the product palatable and taste good somehow, so they take out the fat and sneak in more sugar. Your best bet is balsamic vinegar and a splash of extra virgin olive oil on a salad. As far as mayo goes, most of the fat-free versions’ first three ingredients are water, sugar and high fructose corn syrup. No thanks.

Try adding some healthy fats to your sandwich and use avocado in place of your creamy spread. Add hummus or whole grain mustard if avocados aren’t your jam.

Fat has been demonized in the past few decades, leading us to buy anything and everything labeled reduced fat or fat free. The irony is, we’ve only gotten fatter.

5. Rice cakes. One question: why? Does anyone actually enjoy eating rice cakes? Sure, they’re 3 calories a pop but have you ever had a rice cake then thought, “Damn, I’m glad I ate that?” Stop eating filler foods that have no actual nutritional value just because they’re low in calories or fat. Go for whole, natural, un-processed food filled with nutrients that’s going to satisfy your tummy and your taste buds. If you’re hungry, truly hungry, then eat something! Pay attention to your body and listen to your hunger cues. There’s a difference between a craving and hunger. When you’re having a craving, you want a particular food like chips, chocolate or lasagna and only that food will curb the craving. Hunger is satisfied by any food: an apple, a bowl of cereal, a steak, whatever. If you’re trying to decide whether you’re hungry or you’re having a craving, ask yourself, would an apple satisfy me? If the answer is yes, then you’re probably hungry. If the answer is no but a Snickers bar would, then you’re just having a craving.bowl.of.apples

Manufacturers make crazy claims to make us think their products are healthy. There’s always a new hot topic news feature touting some new diet or super food. Celebrities are endorsing their favorite quick fixes and Dr. Oz finds a new supplement that will help you lose 10 pounds in one week every other day. Nutrition information (and mis-information) is everywhere. If there was one tip I could give anyone trying to live a healthier lifestyle, it would be to start reading ingredient labels and questioning where your food comes from and what’s in it. The closer you can get to a cleaner, more natural diet and steer clear of boxed foods and drive-thru’s, the healthier you will look and feel.