You always opt for a bar of dark chocolate over a Snickers, order avocado on your sandwich instead of mayo, and sip red wine as opposed to white at happy hour. These are all nutritious — and delicious — choices, right? You might be surprised at the negative effects some of your seemingly sensible eating habits could be having on your health, not to mention your waistline if you overdue it, which can easily happen. “Even healthy foods and beverages are best consumed in moderation,” says Sara Haas, R.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Eating any one food excessively can equal too many calories or create a nutritional imbalance.” Read on to discover what seemingly good-for-you fare you might be abusing — and how to adjust your habits to keep enjoying it healthfully.
1. Dark Chocolate
Got a sweet tooth? Good news for you: This treat contains powerful antioxidants called flavonoids, as well as calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium, magnesium and vitamins B, C and E. “A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that small amounts of dark chocolate and reduce blood pressure and improve insulin sensitivity,” says JJ Virgin, C.N.S., author of The Sugar Impact Diet. “But most bars provide several servings, so you need to remind yourself to go easy.” You can quickly overdo it and get overloaded with sugar, calories, and fat. Plus, warns Haas, chocolate can lose some of its antioxidants with processing.
Choose options that contain at least 70 percent cacao; that should also be the first ingredient printed on the packaging, with just a short list of others (such as vanilla extract, milk and sugar) following it. Limit yourself to one-and-a-half ounces, or a few squares from a bar, per day.
2. Red Wine
It’s true that red wine, with its antioxidants like flavonoids and resveratrol, can help prevent heart disease by increasing your levels of HDL, the “good” cholesterol. “It’s also full of polyphenols, which might help protect the lining of blood vessels in your heart,” says Elyse Wagner, nutritionist and founder of My Kitchen Shrink. “So it does seem to be more beneficial than most other types of alcohol.”
But don’t top off your glass just yet! A serving is only five-ounces, and you can’t polish off a bottle by yourself — even splitting one is pushing it. Women should stick to no more than one glass a day, and men should cut themselves off at two. Any more than that ups your risk for liver cancer, high blood pressure, and certain kinds of cancer, says Haas.
“Nuts are packed with healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, plus protein, and fiber,” says Wagner. However, throwing them back by the handful (or spoonful, if you’re dipping into a jar of nut butter) can pack on the fat and calories quickly and throw your diet out of whack. “If you’re eating nut butter, you also have to be careful that the variety you choose isn’t full of sugar,” she says. Some versions contain hydrogenated fats too, the bad kind that you want to avoid, to prevent the butter from separating, says Haas.
Look instead for “natural” options; the ingredient lists typically contain only the nut (and salt if you prefer). Whether you’re nibbling on whole nuts or a butter, walk away after one to two tablespoons.
Your go-to takeout dinner is a great source of lean protein and whole grains, if you opt for brown rice. Choose rolls with tempura or spicy sauces, though, and you can take in too many calories and grams of fat quickly. “People tend to overdo it with sushi because of its health halo and how light it tastes,” says Haas.
She suggests putting down the chopsticks between bites and taking a sip of water before deciding if you need more. It’s also advisable to limit your intake of types of fish that are high in mercury, such as tuna or marlin, especially if you’re eating sushi multiple times a week.
Rich in monounsaturated fat, avocado is a great substitute for fatty dressings or mayo on dishes like salads and sandwiches. It’s a good source of vitamins B, C, and E, plus potassium, folate, and fiber, which helps keep you feeling full.
Those benefits are by no means your green light to load up on the fruit, though: Sorry to burst your guacamole-loving bubble, but one serving is equal to only one-fifth of a medium-sized avocado. “That portion contains four-and-a-half grams of fat — including half a gram of saturated fat — and 50 calories,” says Haas. “So even though avocados have a lot of good fats, eat too much and you’ll consume excess calories fast.”
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6. Dried Fruit
Munching on dried mango, cranberries, peaches or apples is a better bet than potato chips, but don’t go downing the whole bag. “Dried fruit can be filled with processed sugar and sulfites, which can cause a stomach ache or a flushed face if you’re allergic,” says Wagner.
Limit your serving to one-fourth of a cup. And you might want to keep in mind that even fresh fruit can potentially become a problem if you’re really eating it excessively. “Though rich in fiber, nutrients and antioxidants, fruit also contains fructose, a natural sweetener that only your liver can metabolize,” says Virgin. “If you constantly graze on bananas and pears all day, your liver can become overloaded and release triglycerides into the body, which can increase your risk of heart disease.”
She recommends sticking with two to three servings a day and choosing options that contain less sugar, such as berries.
7. Store-Bought Smoothies
Blended drinks seem like a great on-the-go snack or replacement meal, but many are overflowing with calories and as much sugar as a Slurpee.
Avoid any varieties with processed sweeteners or syrups. Wagner recommends blending your own at home with these simple guidelines:
1 cup greens (think kale, spinach or Swiss chard)
1/2 cup frozen berries or other fruit
1 cup liquid (almond milk is a high-calcium, low-sugar option)
1 tablespoon nuts or nut butter
1 or 2 tablespoons fermented foods (such as yogurt or kefir, for probiotics to promote healthy bacteria in your gut)
2 scoops DailyBurn Fuel-6 Protein
These salty treats are a good source of monounsaturated fat, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, which promote brain health and fight inflammation. Those benefits don’t mean, however, that olives should be the main ingredient on your Greek salad.
“They do contain salt and fat, so you should limit yourself to about five small olives or three to five Kalamata,” says Haas. And make sure you buy fresh rather than canned varieties, advises Wagner, because most olives are sold in cans that are leaking Bisphenol phosphates or BPA, which has been shown to disrupt hormone levels and up your risk of various cancers and diabetes. “Fresh is best,” she says, “but if those are unavailable, go for olives bottled in glass.”
For more information about healthy serving sizes of your favorite foods, check out eatright.org.