7 'healthy foods' that are making you fat

Which healthy foods are making you fat? Low-fat yoghurt with sugary cereal definitely isn't the best start to the day.
Which healthy foods are making you fat? Low-fat yoghurt with sugary cereal definitely isn't the best start to the day.  Photo: Rocky89

Running late to work, you grab a tetra-pack breakfast drink from the fridge to down on the train. You smugly turn down office birthday cake from Adriano Zumbo, and snack on a mini chocolate protein bar instead. Over a weekend catch up, you turn down bacon and eggs in favour of a "healthy start" smoothie. You're being good, you tell yourself.

Yep, food marketers have nailed the busy-but-healthy market, slapping buzz words such as "healthy", "organic" and "protein-packed" all over processed foods promising to help you beat the bulge. There's a reason why fruit, vegetables and nuts don't have fancy marketing campaigns. You may not make much money from a mandarin, but cover a chocolate-like bar with a shiny wrapper and feel-good phrases, and you have a nice little meal ticket.

Aside from robbing your wallet, those packaged foods, generally lurking in the health aisle of the supermarket or perched on the shelves of a natural foods store, are packed with artificial nasties and sugars, which affect your energy levels, metabolism and err, bottom line. In fact, they are probably contributing to that fetching winter coat some of us are prone to form.

We asked nutritionists to break down the worst offenders, so you can save your calories for food that actually taste good.

1. Low-fat flavoured yoghurt

Yogurt and fruits. Which healthy foods are making you fat? Nutritionists analyse low-fat yoghurt, dairy-free spreads, protein bars, breakfast drinks, smoothies and other products.

Which healthy foods are making you fat? Low-fat yoghurt doesn't stack up. Photo: Ivan Bajic

Don't believe the ads starring slim young things laughing over tubs of skim yoghurt; this stuff ain't great for you at all. As any chef will tell you, fat equals flavour, so yoghurt manufacturers have to bump up the sugar content to keep things tasty.

Nutritionist Jacqueline Alwill, director of the Brown Paper Bag, said that "low-fat" written on packaging of any food, not just yoghurt, should throw up a big red flag.

"Just because something is low fat doesn't mean it is nutritious," Alwill said.

"What it can mean is that where fat created flavour or stability in the product, a manufacturer may have substituted it with sugar, salt, thickeners, artificial sweeteners, preservatives and other such added nasties that our bodies don't process or eliminate well."

So out with the fat and in with the sugar, goes the production process, but why is that bad for us?

"What many people don't realise is that sugar converts to fat if it is not efficiently utilised as energy by the body. So you're really not doing yourself any favours thinking that low fat means less fat or less chance of weight gain," she said.

"Fat is actually satiating - sugar is not. So whilst a food is low fat, and potentially high sugar/artificially sweetened our bodies are given a spike in blood glucose and then a rapid fall leading us to reach for another energy pick me up - the result is we eat even more.

"While if you simply ate a small portion of the full fat product, this would stabilise blood glucose and energy levels, balance hormones and leave you feeling more satisfied with your meal and less likely to reach for something in between. Make sense?"

Switch your flavoured low-fat yoghurt for full-fat natural yoghurt instead, with fresh fruit or nuts for flavour.

2. Protein bars

Istanbul,Turkey - February 12, 2013: Some different kinds of protein energy bars on white background. Protein bars are targeted to people who primarin Which healthy foods are making you fat? Nutritionists analyse low-fat yoghurt, dairy-free spreads, protein bars, breakfast drinks, smoothies and other products.

Protein bars aren't the easy healthy snack that they're made out to be. Photo: Sami Sert

It's a pretty cruel trick for food manufactures to play. Package protein bars in shiny foil, label them with flavours "cookies and cream", "salted caramel" or "rocky road", and stick them smack bang in the middle of the health food aisle, where dieters cruise for sweet treat alternatives.

Nutritionist Jessica Cox, founder and director of JCN Clinic, said that the bars might be marketed as post-workout fuel, but the average consumer uses them as snacks instead.

"Most of these bars are super dooper calorie gainers," she said.

"People see the protein component and think, 'Oh that's good', but it's only one part. Those bars can be very misleading, they may be quite high in sugar and very calorie dense, particularly if the bar is made to eat during exercise. These are not everyday snacks."

Her suggestions? Switching the bars for a handful of nuts is a much better alternative, or a tub of full fat yoghurt with a fresh passionfruit.

3. Smoothies

Girl with glasses drinking milkshake. Outdoor lifestyle portrait of woman A takeaway smoothie for Good Food's healthy foods making you fat story

Smoothie can be crammed with calories. Photo: JohanJK

A big health halo - a combination of the bright lights, loud music, wheat grass punnets and doe-eyed staff members - sits above popular smoothie bars, adding extra shine to your brekkie-blast protein-powered slimming superfoods smoothie. But the reality? A regular protein-boosted smoothie from a major chain contains more than 47g of sugar and 12g of fat per serve.

Cox said that not all smoothies are terrible, but you need to be vigilant about checking what's actually going into your drink.

"Smoothies are predominantly made on a concentrated juice base, essentially like a 99 cent juice you'd get at the supermarket, and then have low-fat sorbet and yoghurt added, so the sugar content is just ridiculous," she said.

"At an airport juice bar, I've tried to pull the ingredients together to make something healthy and it's actually really hard. It's a better option that McDonald's, but there is a misconception about how healthy they really are."

Jacqueline Alwill also points out the healthy halo, combined with the large serving sizes, can lead to overeating, which is a major factor for weight gain.

"People overeat them thinking because it is low fat they can ignore the serving size recommendations. Large portions and overeating is one of the greatest contributors to weight gain in our western society. We could all do with being a little more mindful with our eating and focus more quality over quantity."

What to have instead? Make your own at home, with a handful or two of greens, or have a deconstructed smoothie - i.e. fruit and vegetables in their natural form.

4. Nut bars

Multigrain Granola Bar close up Which healthy foods are making you fat? Nutritionists analyse low-fat yoghurt, dairy-free spreads, protein bars, breakfast drinks, smoothies and other products.

Nut bars are often loaded with sugars. Photo: 4kodiak

Another culprit lurking in the health food aisle, nut-based bars are popular lunch box fodder, or food-on-the-go snacks. Also, those honey coated macadamia ones taste pretty good. Jessica Cox admits that while the bars aren't quite as bad as a chocolate bar, they definitely aren't healthy.

"There's three different types of sugar in some bars - honey, liquid glucose, rice malt syrup - they're just trying to trick you. Again, you get a little bit of protein from the nuts, but it's not a healthy lunch box snack," Cox said.

"Go for nuts on their own, maybe with a few dates or goji berries for sweetness, without a huge hit of sugar."

5. Gluten-free white bread and baked goods

Lemon muffins isolated on white Which healthy foods are making you fat? Nutritionists analyse low-fat yoghurt, dairy-free spreads, protein bars, breakfast drinks, smoothies and other products.

Gluten-free muffins are pretty much the same as regular muffins, unless you are coeliac. Photo: MarkGillow

Gluten-free does not always mean healthy. Repeat: gluten-free does not always mean healthy. Since the poor little protein became public enemy one, gluten has become a neat divider of healthy and unhealthy for some people. But, just like that cheese and bacon roll isn't doing you any favours in its natural state, its gluten-free doppelganger isn't either.

Cox said that will these products (particularly the gluten-free chocolate-coated biscuits) are a nice treat for coeliacs, there's not much point to them for the rest of us gluten-digesting folk.

"These products are filled with white refined flours, sugars and low quality oils," she said.

"Essentially, these products provide a high level of refined carbohydrates, but without the fibre, vitamins and minerals. Because there isn't much fibre, it's going to be absorbed by the body a lot quicker as an energy source, and you can only use so much energy before it converts and stores as fat."

So there's not much point to eating a gluten-free muffin if it's going to potentially spike your insulin and cause increased storage of fat, just like its mainstream muffin mate.

"Go for wholegrain bread flours, maybe brown rice, buckwheat or sorghum, and avoid white rice flour and starchy flours," Cox suggests.

6. Ready-to-go breakfast and protein drinks

West Palm Beach, USA - July 25, 2015: A group of three Premier Protein Energy Drinks. These beverages contain thirty grams of protein and are recommended for athletes who do heavy training. The product shown is a chocolate flavored protein shake.  Which healthy foods are making you fat? Nutritionists analyse low-fat yoghurt, dairy-free spreads, protein bars, breakfast drinks, smoothies and other products.

Chocolate drink for breakfast are pretty much just Coco Pops for adults. Photo: NoDerog

When you have to up and go first thing, it's easy to reach for a tetra-pack of food-like substances. Mmm, the sweet taste of soylent. While these new, convenient foods-of-the-future are okay for super active athletes or labour-intensive periods, for the average desk dwellers, these drinks are going to make the kilos creep on.

"They are super calorie dense with a lot of hidden sugars, so if you're using them as a healthy breakfast option, they could contribute to weight gain," Cox said.

"Some are sold as a muscle recovery drink or an in between meals thing, to keep you full, but unless you're using them right after a workout, you're not going to utilise them properly."

7. Dairy-free spreads

A knife spreading butter on bread Which healthy foods are making you fat? Nutritionists analyse low-fat yoghurt, dairy-free spreads, protein bars, breakfast drinks, smoothies and other products.

I can't believe it's not butter. Photo: Larisa Bozhikova

We've all graduated from thinking that margarine is actually good us, right? Hosing one gremlin down isn't going to fix the whole picture. Now, there's olive, soy and seed oil-based spreads, and they're just as bad as the old marg.

"A lot of my clients ask me about these and they certainly aren't healthy," Cox said.

"The spreads still use poor quality oils and when heated, they create transfats, which are definitely going to cause problems metabolically, which will contribute to weight gain."

The good news? The alternatives - avocado, pure nut butters and seed spreads, such as tahini - are much healthier and way more delicious. Fatty, yes, but a healthier form of fat that the body can utilise in a beneficial way, according to Cox.