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14 Ways To Eat What You Want And Still Be Healthy

Yes, delicious snacks are part of the deal.

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It would be great if every snack and meal we ate was a healthful balance of whole foods we cooked at home. But also, it wouldn't, because packaged and processed foods are delicious, and also sometimes convenience trumps all.

So, to find out how to still eat your favorite stuff while maintaining a healthy, balanced diet, we reached out to registered dietitians Jessica Jones, of Food Heaven Made Easy and co-author of 28-Day Plant-Powered Health Reboot, and Brian St. Pierre, director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition.

Here's what they told us:

1. First of all, you can totally still eat packaged food and be ~healthy~.

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There are plenty of processed foods that dietitians would consider part of a healthy diet, says Jones. The trick is to gravitate towards the minimally processed options, because as a food gets more processed, it has less nutrition, more calories, and typically way more sugar and/or salt.

Ultra-processed foods (like cookies, candy, doughnuts, soda, and chips) give you lots of calories, little nutrition, and limited satiety, says St. Pierre. They also stimulate the hell out of your brain's pleasure centers which throws off your internal hunger cues (which is one reason you can eat half a pan of brownies without noticing you're getting kinda full) and causes you to keep seeking out foods that make your brain feel so good, says St. Pierre.

2. So you want to look for products with fewer ingredients...that you actually understand.

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Generally speaking, says Jones, the fewer ingredients an item has, the less processed it is. And while ingredients you don't recognize or can't pronounce aren't necessarily harmful, per se, says St. Pierre, erring on the side of foods that contain mostly stuff you can identify and recognize will guide you towards healthier options.

So, for example, peanut butter that's just peanuts and maybe a bit of salt would be a healthier choice than peanut butter that has sugar and oils added. A fruit and nut bar containing only nuts and fruit only would be better than a bar with a bit of fruit plus fruit flavorings, sugar, and so on.

3. And pay attention to serving sizes, because sometimes they are HILARIOUS.

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What's considered a single serving on a nutrition label is not always what a reasonable human person would eat in one sitting.

Some examples: A serving of bread is often a single slice (wtf). One serving of Pringles is 15 chips (lol). One serving of Pop-Tarts is a single Pop-Tart (no). Basically, make sure that you're looking at the nutrition info for the amount you actually eat.

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4. Pay attention to the part of the label that notes percent daily value (%DV).

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Percent DV is the simplest way to tell if a serving is high or low in a certain nutrient, says Jones. The number is based on the FDA's daily recommendations for a 2000-calorie diet.

Here's how to understand what it means. If a label reads 15% for %DV of dietary fiber, this means that a single serving of the product provides 15% of the dietary fiber recommended for one day (for a 2,000-calorie diet). For every nutrient on a label, 5% percent is considered low and 20% is considered high. So, for example, if you're looking to eat a lower-sodium diet, you'd want to look for products with 5% DV or lower of sodium.

5. Make sure you're getting a decent ratio of fiber to carbs.

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Fiber helps you feel fuller and slows the absorption of sugar, helping to regulate your blood sugar, says Jones. To make sure that you're getting a relatively balanced snack with enough fiber, you want your packaged snacks to have a ratio of carbs to fiber no greater than 10 to 1, says St. Pierre.

So, a Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Larabar, which has 28g of carbs and 3g of fiber, would meet St. Pierre's recommendation since it has about a 9-to-1 carbs-to-fiber ratio. On the other hand, a single Frosted Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Pop-Tart contains 35g of carbs and less than 1g of fiber.

6. Also look for items with twice as much protein as fat.

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It's not about having stuff that's low in fat per se. It's about trying to get a balance of macronutrients in each item if possible, says St. Pierre. So look for a 2-to-1 protein-to-fat ratio.

For example, a Quest chocolate peanut butter bar has 20g of protein and 7g of fat, while, on the other hand a Nature Valley Peanut Butter Crunchy Bar has 8g of fat and 4g of protein. A better choice here would be the Quest bar.

7. Basically disregard any claim of something being "natural."

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Unlike the actual nutrition label, the word ~natural~ doesn't tell you anything about the nutritional profile of the item, says Jones. "It means absolutely nothing in the world of nutrition," she says.

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8. Try to stay away from foods that contain trans fats.

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Trans fats are mostly found in processed foods like frozen pizza, creamer, and crackers, deep fried fast food items, and baked goods like cakes, pie crusts, doughnuts, muffins, and cookies.

As we've reported, they raise your bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol. The FDA has declared them unhealthy. Trans fats don't occur in nature in significant quantities; they're created by adding hydrogen to a liquid fat to make it solid (like margarine and other spreads).

9. Oh ALSO, "trans fat free" is sometimes a lie. So read that label closely.

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As St. Pierre explains, the law allows food companies to round down amounts of trans fats of 0.5g or less to 0, which means a package can say that the product contains no trans fats and still contain partially hydrogenated oil in small amounts that nonetheless accumulate each time you eat such products.

So steer clear of any foods with "partially hydrogenated oils" in the ingredients list, even if you see the phrase "trans fat free" or "no trans fats" on the package.

10. Just skip the low-fat and fat-free products.

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Two things about fats. First: We do need to eat them. As we’ve previously reported, they help you absorb vitamins, make you feel full, and provide your body with energy. Second: When foods are stripped of their fat to make low- or fat-free food products, the fats — which provide nutrition and satiety — are replaced with sugar — which provide calories and no nutrition.

Eating full-fat products will make you feel fuller without the empty calories that come from sugar which, btw, often come with an energy spike followed by a crash that makes you crave more sugar.

11. Try to be ~mindful~ when you eat.

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The way you eat is as important as what you eat, says St. Pierre. Whether you’re eating a processed snack out of convenience or because you just really freaking wanted it, eating it slowly and thoughtfully (and preferably while not doing anything else like watching TV or texting or tweeting or scrolling through Instagram) will help you enjoy it and feel satisfied.

And that might prevent you from going to town on more food you’re not hungry for later on. Plus, you won't be so distracted that you miss your internal hunger cues telling you to stop eating when you're full.

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12. Avoid sweetened drinks. (Sorry.)

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Soda, juice, sweetened teas, and fruit drinks provide a lot of sugar and calories with virtually no nutrition and no satiety. Your best bet would be to seriously limit your intake or, best case scenario, eliminate them altogether, says Jones. She recommends zazzing up seltzer with slices of lemon and getting into unsweetened iced tea.

13. Remember these quick and handy guidelines for finding healthier options of your favorite foods.

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Here are Jones' quick recommendations for specific foods:

Cereals and breads: Look for less than 6g of sugar and at least 3-5g of fiber per serving. Look for the word "whole" (before grains, wheat, etc.) as the first ingredient listed.

Dairy alternatives: Whether you're buying almond, soy, or coconut milk, make sure you're getting the unsweetened version. Protip: It should say "unsweetened" on the package, no sugar or sweetener should be listed as an ingredient, and one serving should have less than about 1g of carbs.

Yogurt: Go for plain Greek yogurt, which generally has half the sugar and twice the protein of regular plain yogurt.

Nut butters: Ideally your nut butters should contain only the nuts and a bit of salt. These are healthier choices than anything with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, other sweeteners, and added oils.

Dips and spreads like hummus and guacamole: Look for simple ingredients that make sense and mimic how the item would be made at home. This often means choosing hummus, guacamole, and salsa over dips like ranch or onion dip. And when it comes to dips, always pay special attention to the %DV of sodium.

14. But also, don't go bananas analyzing every single number on the label.

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Yes, it's great to read labels because you can get a sense of WTF you're eating. But St. Pierre says that the info on the label should only be part of your decision. Having healthy eating habits that make you feel good physically and emotionally are the result of a complex interplay between your mind and your body.

For example, a 100-calorie snack pack of cookies might help you keep your calories under control, but it might not make you full or satisfied. On the other hand, that doughnut might be high in fat and have added sugar but you know that if you eat it and enjoy the shit out of it, you will feel satisfied and not deprived and therefore won't be tempted to really binge on something else later on.

So, instead of obsessing about each individual thing, try to keep the big picture of your diet and your life in mind.