In the pursuit of optimal vitality, many health-motivated people reach for food they think is good for them. Unfortunately, many such so-called healthy choices turn out to be less beneficial than we assume. Because they often involve swapping fats and sugars for a slew of chemicals, they may actually undermine, rather than support, your health goals.
Not quite sure how well you’d score on a healthy-eating pop quiz? Here are the subjects on which many well-intended eaters remain confused, and a review of the often misunderstood gaps between hype and reality.
1. Low-Fat Dressings
Hype: When studies in the early ’90s found that salad dressings were a surprisingly high source of fat in women’s diets, food makers rushed in to offer low-fat options. Today, dozens of low-fat and fat-free salad dressings crowd supermarket shelves, and one in three women (and one in five men) say they always opt for low-calorie dressings. The appeal of low-fat and fat-free dressings is the notion that they are in some way “heart healthy,” cholesterol reducing or helpful in supporting weight loss.
Reality: You’re better off making or buying salad dressings with a healthy dose of high-quality oils or natural fats such as olive oil or grape-seed oil, and even augmenting your salad with additional ingredients rich in healthy fats (think nuts, seeds and avocado). That’s because a well-built salad not only tastes great and satisfies longer, it’s a smorgasbord of vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients. Striving to keep your salad fat-free, or even low fat, not only reduces the pleasure you take in eating the salad, but it reduces your body’s ability to make use of those nutrients.
It turns out that the human gut simply can’t absorb key nutrients, such as carotenoids (organic pigments that give orange and red fruits and veggies their bright colors), without a dollop of fat. Researchers estimate that the gut needs roughly 6 grams of fat to wrestle carotenoids from their plant moorings and whisk them into the body.
Another reason to pass on low-fat and fat-free dressings? Peruse the ingredient list of most fat-free ones and you’ll likely see artificial flavors and a hefty glob of high-fructose corn syrup. The syrup is particularly hazardous, since studies suggest it lowers metabolism while shutting off the brain’s master switch for appetite control. Some low-fat salad dressings also contain hydrogenated oils (trans fats), which you want to avoid at all costs.
“Fat-free dressings rob you of the chance to integrate healthy fats into your diet,” says Michelle Babb, RD, a nutritionist at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle. Moreover, she notes, “A salad with fat-free dressing will leave you hungry an hour later because you didn’t get the satiety that comes with eating fat.”
This last point is important, because a lack of eating satisfaction can lead directly to unhealthy snacking and overeating of sugars and refined carbs, both of which pose a larger threat to lipid profiles and healthy-weight maintenance than the fats found in most salad dressings.
Better choice: Give preference to dressings that have an olive oil or other healthy-oil base and that contain only natural, whole-food ingredients. It’s easy to make your own single-serving dressing. Start with a tablespoon of high-quality, extra-virgin olive oil and mix in a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Add a couple teaspoons of your favorite vinegar, plus sea salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste. Prefer a creamy dressing? Add smaller amounts of the ingredients above to a base of plain, full-fat yogurt.
Not a fan of salad dressings? Get many of the same benefits (and then some) by adding avocado to your salad. At 115 calories and 10 grams of fat, one-half of an avocado will help your body absorb good stuff from the salad, as well as deliver vitamin B6, vitamin C, folate, potassium and omega-3 fats.