Image: diet soda
Darron Cummings  /  AP file
Skip the diet soda in favor of flavored seltzer water.
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updated 12/31/2008 9:55:06 AM ET 2008-12-31T14:55:06

Even if you haven't bought full-fat mayo or sugary soda since blue eye shadow was in style (the first time), you may be getting duped into less-than-stellar food choices at the supermarket. The culprit? The "health halo." "From a distance, some foods seem like healthful choices because of the way they're packaged or labeled," says Janel Ovrut, MS, RD, a Boston-based dietitian. "But just because a product's marketing gives it an aura of health doesn't necessarily mean it's good for you." Here, eight notorious health food impostors, plus smarter swaps that up the nutritional ante and still give you the flavor you crave.


Baked potato chips
Yes, they're lower in fat. But they're still high in calories and low in nutrients, with little fiber to fill you up.

Smarter sub: Popcorn. You'll get the salt and crunch of chips plus fiber, and around 65 percent fewer calories per cup. Look for oil-free microwave popcorn or brands that are air-popped or popped in healthful oils such as olive or canola.

Health bonus: Heart-healthy whole grains. Adults who eat popcorn take in as much as 2 1/2 times more whole grains than people who do not, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Try: Good Health HalfNaked pre-popped popcorn, made with olive oil. One serving (4 cups) has 120 calories, 0 g sat fat, 4 g fiber.


Gummy fruit snacks
Although these products may contain some juice, they're usually nothing more than candy infused with vitamins. They also contain high fructose corn syrup, which is linked with obesity, and heart-unhealthy partially hydrogenated oils.

Smarter sub: Fresh or dried fruit. Both are packed with filling fiber, which you'll miss if you opt for gummy snacks.

Health bonus: Cancer-fighting antioxidants. Real fruit is loaded with immune-boosting nutrients that fruit-flavored snacks could never mimic. A recent Greek study found that women who ate the most fruits and veggies were the least likely to develop any type of cancer.

Try: Peeled Snacks Fruit Picks dried fruit (peeledsnacks.com). One serving (one bag) of Go-Mango-Man-Go has 120 calories, 0 g sat fat, 2 g fiber.


Light ice cream
Light ice cream can have fewer calories than regular, but there's no guarantee. Take Häagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche light ice cream: With 220 calories per 1/2 cup serving, it's still higher in calories than the average full-fat ice cream, which has around 140 calories per serving. What's more, some light ice creams can lack the rich taste you crave, so you're less satisfied and may be inclined to eat more than one serving.

Smarter sub: Dairy-free ice cream. Soy and coconut milk ice creams may save you a few calories, and they have a creamy, satisfying texture.

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Health bonus: Digestion-friendly fiber. Some dairy-free ice creams are made with chicory root, a natural source of inulin, a prebiotic fiber that can increase healthy bacteria in the gut and help the body absorb calcium and iron.

Try: Turtle Mountain Purely Decadent, made with coconut milk. One serving (1/2 cup) of vanilla has 150 calories, 7 g sat fat, and 6 g fiber. (Studies show that the saturated fat in coconut may not raise cholesterol like the saturated fat in butter and meat.)


Diet soda
In a 2008 study, researchers linked drinking just one diet soda a day with metabolic syndrome — the collection of symptoms including belly fat that puts you at high risk of heart disease. Researchers aren't sure if it's an ingredient in diet soda or the drinkers' eating habits that caused the association.

Smarter sub: Flavored seltzer water. It has zero calories and is free of artificial sweeteners but provides fizz and flavor. Beware of clear sparkling beverages that look like seltzer yet contain artificial sweeteners — they're no better than diet soda. Or try a sparkling juice; we recommend watering it down with seltzer to stretch your calories even further.

Health bonus: Hydration (without chemicals). Water is essential for nearly every body process.

Try: Your supermarket's low-cost seltzer brand. The taste is the same as the bigger name brands.

'Calorie-free' spray margarine
Even though some spray margarines claim to be "calorie-free," labeling laws allow products with fewer than 5 calories per serving to claim to have zero calories. So, while one spritz may be inconsequential, the whole bottle could have as much as 900 calories.

Smarter sub: Spray-it-yourself olive oil. In this case, a bit of real fat is more healthful and flavorful — and within a reasonable calorie range if you watch your portions. Investing in an olive oil mister ensures you don't put on too much.

Health bonus: Decreased inflammation throughout the body, which helps your heart and lowers cancer risk, thanks to monounsaturated fatty acids.

Try: Misto olive oil sprayer. Find one at any kitchen store for around $10.


Nonfat salad dressing
Fat-free salad dressings are often packed with sugar — so your dressing may be loaded with calories. Ironically, a salad without fat is not living up to its potential. "You need a little fat to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K and other nutrients," says Katherine Tallmadge, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Smarter sub: Oil-based salad dressings. You'll get good-for-you fats instead of the saturated fat found in some creamy dressings. Look for ingredients like olive oil, vinegar, and herbs.

Health bonus: Vision protection. As many as five times more carotenoids — antioxidants that are essential for eye-sight — are absorbed when salads are consumed with fat rather than with no fat.

Try: Newman's Own Olive Oil & Vinegar Dressing. Two tablespoons have 150 calories, 2.5 g sat fat, 0 g fiber.


Low-fat cookies
Do you remember the SnackWell's craze? Low-fat cookies are still popular, and many dieters think they can indulge guilt free. The problem is that most of these snacks are made with extra sugar, which means they often have just as many calories as the full-fat version, if not more.

Smarter sub: Oatmeal cookies. These are a great way to indulge a cookie craving while also getting whole grains. Not all are created equal, though: Skip those made with high fructose corn syrup, white flour, and butter in favor of varieties made with honey or cane juice, whole wheat flour, and oil.

Health bonus: Lower cholesterol. The fiber found in oatmeal keeps your body from absorbing bad cholesterol.

Try: Kashi TLC Cookies. One cookie has 130 calories, 1.5 g sat fat, 4 g fiber.


100-calorie snack packs
You might want to skip these if you're trying to lose weight. A recent study showed that people may eat more food and calories if the portions are presented in small sizes and packages. With smaller serving sizes, study participants didn't feel the need to regulate their intake, so they ate more than one portion before feeling satisfied.

Smarter sub: A small serving of almonds. Their healthy monounsaturated fat, fiber, and protein will tide you over until your next meal.

Health bonus: Stronger bones. Almonds are an excellent source of bone-building magnesium, as well as the immune-boosting antioxidant vitamin E.

Try: Blue Diamond Natural Oven Roasted Almonds. A 1 oz serving has 160 calories, 1 g sat fat, 3 g fiber.

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