Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietician and author of "10 Habits That Mess up a Woman's Diet" and "Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy" weighs in on these products and offers tips to add nutritional punch:
Toss More Nutrition Into Salad
Salads are a popular choice for people trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle, but Somer warns there are many fatty concoctions lurking beneath those healthy choices. "Salads that contain mayonnaise, whipped cream or cheese - like egg, pasta, potato or tuna salad - sound nutritious. But just because they contain the word 'salad' doesn't mean they are good for you," says Somer.
Her suggestion: Load the plate with dark leafy greens and strive for a minimum of four colors from vegetables or fruits. Don't top salad with lunchmeats, bacon bits or croutons. Try something healthier, like jicama for crunch or garbanzo beans and tofu for protein. Pour one ladle's worth of low-calorie dressing into a small container and then lightly dip your fork into the dressing before grabbing the veggies. Most of your dressing should remain in the container even after your salad bowl is empty.
See Cereal for What It Is
A popular topping added to yogurt is cereal or granola, giving it crunch. Cereals also have been marketed as a fast and convenient meal replacement for lunch or dinner and as a weight-loss tool. But look carefully at suggested serving sizes, as cereal manufacturers can make a high-calorie cereal seem harmless by stating a miniscule serving size.
"Cereal is a great way to start off the day if you choose the right kind," says Somer. Her suggestion: The first ingredient in cereal should be whole grain. Look for at least three to five grams of fiber and less than four grams or one teaspoon of sugar per serving. Rev up the nutritional content of cereal by adding fresh fruit and Horizon Organic Milk Plus DHA. Sweeten bland cereals with vanilla-flavored soymilk. Include a glass of orange or tomato juice on the side.
Replacement Bars and Drinks
Several shakes and bars touted as meal replacement plans and snacks are convenient for on-the-go lifestyles. How do the different brands compare? "They're pretty much the same nutritionally," says Somer. "But beware of some of the bars. While they may contain more vitamins and nutrients, they don't cut out the sugar. They're pretty much glorified candy bars."
If your diet can't do without a meal replacement bar, Somer likes many of the bars marketed toward pregnant women, such as Oh Mama! and Bellybar nutrition bars. The bars are loaded with vitamins, minerals and life's DHA, a vegetarian source of omega-3 DHA that's crucial for eye, brain and heart health.
Somer's suggestion: Save money by making your own meal replacement drink with a handful of fresh fruit and a cup of Silk Soymilk Plus Omega-3 DHA. Short on time? Prepare the night before and store in a blender pitcher overnight in the refrigerator and blend first thing in the morning.
Look for Low-sugar Yogurts
While yogurt is one of the best sources for calcium, some varieties can be full of sugar. A cup of yogurt naturally contains 12 grams of sugar. The fruited varieties can contain 10 teaspoons of sugar. Somer's suggestion: Look for low-sugar brands of fruited or plain, non-fat yogurt, particularly those that contain vitamin D and vegetarian-derived omega-3 fatty acids. For the plain varieties, add fresh or frozen fruit and a teaspoon of jelly, jam or honey to sweeten.
Fortify Frozen Meals
Frozen meals, in most cases, are a great way to control portion sizes. And they've come a long way from such classics as Salisbury steak and macaroni and cheese to include vegetarian and ethnic varieties.
Shoot for entrees containing 250 to 400 calories, no more than one gram of saturated and trans fats combined for every 100 calories and no more than three grams of total fat for every 100 calories. Also keep an eye on grams of sugar. "This will automatically cut out gravies and sauces high in sugar, and battered or fried meats, which are high in fat," says Somer. Her suggestion: Frozen meals are often high in sodium. Eat a large salad or add frozen veggies to help dilute the salt.
Avoid Pitfalls of 100-calorie Packaging
While you might find 100-calorie meals or snacks such as soup, cookies and crackers helpful for automatic portion control, remember to read the label, as products can contain more than one serving per package.
Somer recommends broth-based soups because they are lower in saturated fat and calories. Studies also have shown that they help curb hunger with fewer calories. But she also advises people not to limit themselves to soup when it's fine to add a salad or a peanut butter sandwich made with whole-grain bread. Dilute high sodium by adding frozen vegetables to the soup.
As for the snack packs, remember these are treats, not staples. "Junk food doesn't turn into health food just because it comes in a smaller bag," says Somer. Her suggestion: If you cannot live without chips or cookies, control your portions and your pocketbook by buying a larger bag of snacks and dividing it out into individual baggies with a scale or a measuring cup. Ideally, switch from these highly processed foods to baby carrots, frozen blueberries and other unprocessed foods.
Beware of Enhanced Waters and Sodas
What's the difference between plain old tap water and enhanced water? For one thing, the price: a glass of water in most cases is free. Enhanced water can cost around $1.50. While enhanced waters do contain nutrients and vitamins not contained in tap water, some also contain as many calories as a can of soda.
Beverage companies also offer diet sodas with vitamins, eliminating the calories, but they don't contain nearly the vitamins contained in a cup of whole strawberries, which packs only 46 calories.
"The body needs about 40-plus nutrients, and what you're getting from these enhanced waters and sodas is miniscule," says Somer. "An occasional diet soda or enhanced water is fine, but it does not add much nutritional value to your daily diet." Her suggestion: There are no quick and easy substitutes for a balanced diet and a good multivitamin. Drink flavored sparkling water, try zero-calorie waters or add a wedge of citrus fruit to plain water.
Save Room for Dessert
Dieters shouldn't deprive themselves of dessert. But when it comes to prepackaged desserts labeled as low-carb, low-fat or reduced sugar, buyers should beware. Some un-nutritious treats are disguised by smaller portion sizes.
To avoid sacrificing flavor, some treats with reduced fat and carbs contain more calories and sugar than their full-fat and full-carb predecessors. Labels can also disguise sugar with other names, including high-fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, glucose, sucrose, maltose, fructose, dextrose, maltodextrin, sorbitol, fruit juice concentrate, barley malt and carob syrup. Maltitol, a sugar alcohol commonly used as a sugar substitute because it contains fewer calories and does not promote tooth decay, is known to cause diarrhea, especially if consumed in large quantities.
"People may gain weight from eating these desserts because they think they can eat more," says Somer. Her suggestion: Enjoy a guilt-free dessert by keeping a close eye on nutrition labels and limiting portion sizes. If you need something sweet, consider eating fresh fruit or a frozen fruit juice bar.