You’ve heard of villains disguised as heroes, and leggings disguised as pants. But junk food disguised as healthy snacks? Sigh. It’s more common than you think.
Between sugar-free, gluten-free, low-carb, low-fat, organic, all-natural, and more, there’s an overwhelming amount of terms that get slapped onto food labels. The confusion around reading these labels makes it easy to mistake something for “healthy,” explains registered dietician Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting and author of Read It Before You Eat It. Oftentimes, the healthy snacks you’re reaching for at the supermarket are actually loaded with sugar, preservatives, and other *thumbs down* ingredients, she says.
Snacking for weight loss is something we highly encourage, so it’s extra important you make the right choices with your healthy snacks. Noshing on deceptively unhealthy snacks could be causing your weight loss plateau, or even pushing you into weight gain territory.
Rice cakes are an old-school weight loss staple. But the simple carbohydrates rank notoriously high on the glycemic index (GI)—a measure of how quickly blood rises in response to food on a scale of one to 100 (rice cakes come in at 82). High GI foods provide a rush of energy, but can leave you hungry within a few hours. Researchers at the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center found high-GI snacks caused excessive hunger and increased activity in craving and reward area of the brain—the perfect storm for overeating and weight gain.
Adding healthy fats or protein to a meal lowers its glycemic load. Swap a two-cake mini meal for one rice cake topped with a generous swipe of nut butter. The combo will keep you fuller for longer, and has the added benefit of being a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids.
Surely, a few chocolate chips will satisfy your sweet tooth, right? Researchers aren’t so confident. One study published in the journal Appetite showed that people consume an average of 41% more calories when snacking on unwrapped snacks. Researchers say peeling off a wrapper, or cracking the shell of a nut, slows us down, which gives the body more time to send out “I’m full” signals. Plus, the mounting pile of candy wrappers and nut shells serve as a visual reminder of just how much you’ve eaten.
Remember that “just a bite” still has calories, and we usually don’t stop at just one bite. While high-quality dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) can be a waist-friendly choice, you may want to stick with small, individually-wrapped portions instead of hand-to-mouth options like chocolate chips.
Sure, nuts are delicious and good for you. But, when they’re coated in a layer of sugary syrup, they’re far from a healthy snack. Planters Honey Roasted Peanuts contain 4 grams of added sugars per serving—which is 4 grams more sugar than you’d be eating if you chose an unflavored variety.
If you want some flavor on your nuts, opt for spices like cinnamon or cayenne. As for which type of nut, opt for in-shell varieties. Named “The Pistachio Effect,” research shows the act of shelling nuts can slow you down and give your body a chance to register fullness 86 calories sooner than you would otherwise.
If you’re not gluten-intolerant, there’s no good reason to cut gluten out of your diet completely—even if you’re trying to lose weight. “Many folks have fallen into the trap of thinking gluten-free is synonymous with healthier, but that’s not the case,” says Lisa Richards CNC, nutritionist and founder of The Candida Diet. (ICYDK, gluten-free also isn’t synonymous with carb-free—there are many carbohydrates that do not contain gluten!)
In fact, if you don’t have Celiacs or a gluten intolerance, omitting gluten could actually result in less fiber intake, says Jaramillo. And because fiber is responsible for keeping us full, cutting fibrous gluten products could result in increased snacking and therefore weight gain, she says.
Don’t quit gluten unless there is a medical necessity! Instead, satisfy your hunger with a fibrous, filling snack like oatmeal, whole grain crackers, or roasted chickpeas. Or, opt for naturally gluten-free foods like fruit and veggies.
Reaching for a portion-controlled packet of crackers or cookies may sound like a good snack strategy for weight loss, but the mini-packs may fill you out before they fill you up, research suggests. In fact, dieters perceived small snacks in small packages as diet-friendly and ended up eating multiple packets and more calories overall than when given a regular-size package, a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research found.