Your body loves vegetables. Not only are they rich in vitamins and nutrients, they also help ward off heart disease and certain types of cancers, and their low calorie count fits seamlessly into any weight loss plan. But when you're rushing from work to carpool to evening activities, it may seem next to impossible to get near a vegetable, much less a kitchen in which to cook it.
Although our fast-paced world isn't always conducive to home cooking, it has given rise to modern convenience foods, including many touting veggies as their primary ingredients. While nothing trumps a freshly prepared meal, these shortcuts are billed as healthy alternatives when time is in short supply.
But are those veggie foods really as healthy as the packaging would have you believe? Registered dietitian Toby Amidor says they can be—sometimes. "Veggie-based foods can absolutely be part of a healthy diet," she says. "The issue is finding nutrition-filled products that haven’t destroyed all the good-for-you vitamins and minerals found in the original vegetables."
But as Amidor explains, the level of nutrition depends on the level of processing. A vegetable that's made into a chip doesn't have the same benefits as the raw version, but a dried or freeze-dried vegetable with minimal processing—for example, just the water has been removed for preservation—actually does count as a veggie serving and contains many of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants found in its original, fresh form.
Before choosing a veggie snack, look at the nutrition information on the label. "You want to see as few ingredients added as possible," says Amidor. "Also check to see if any vitamins or minerals were added. Some companies may do that to make up for the nutrients lost during processing. If you find that the food contains a high amount of calories and saturated fat, but very few good-for-you nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and minerals, then skip it."
Digging into a Dozen Veggie Foods
We dug into some purportedly healthy vegetable-based foods to find out if they live up to their nutritious names, or if they're just junk foods posing as veggies.
1. Corn Chips
Corn chips might be made from corn, but they're also fried in oil, and usually not the healthy kind, says Sarah Bright with Bright Fitness. They're also loaded with fat, making them a bad choice for dieters.
When you're craving a crunchy snack, try these Garlic Pita Chips instead. They're low in fat but high in flavor.
2. Corn-Quinoa Pasta
Pasta is a staple of any busy family's kitchen. Corn-quinoa pasta promises to deliver the texture and taste of noodles without the gluten. However, registered dietitian Laura Dilz points out that it contains only half the amount of protein and iron as whole-wheat pasta, as well as less fiber. It's also slightly higher in calories and carbohydrates.
3. Spinach Dip
You might think you're sharing a healthy hors d'oeuvre, but that spinach dip may not be as healthy as its name implies. Quite the contrary, says Lisa Andrews, registered dietitian with Sound Bites Nutrition—particularly if it's made with mayonnaise, sour cream and Knorr's vegetable soup mix. "The spinach is a powerhouse, but it's drowning in fat and sodium from mayonnaise, sour cream and salty soup mix," says Andrews.
For a cleaner version, Andrews suggests substituting plain Greek, non-fat yogurt for the sour cream, and light mayonnaise instead of regular. To slash the sodium, use just half a packet of Knorr's soup mix.
4. Potato Chips
The potato is perhaps one of the most underrated health foods—but the way it's prepared can dramatically alter its good-for-you factor. Amidor breaks down the difference:
A cooked potato contains 100 calories, three grams of fiber, four grams of protein, 45 percent the recommended daily amount of vitamin C, 10 percent of vitamin B6, eight percent of thiamin and six percent of iron. It’s also free of total fat, saturated fat and sodium.
With processed potato, you get more calories and sodium. One ounce of potato chips (around 15 chips, depending on the brand) contains 160 calories, 10 grams of total fat, one gram of saturated fat, 160 milligrams of sodium (seven percent of the recommended daily amount) and one gram of fiber. Also, since vitamins are easily destroyed during processing and heating, there are far fewer of those. One ounce of potato chips contains 10 percent the recommended daily amount of vitamin C, six percent of vitamin B6, two percent of thiamin and zero iron.
Get all the good things about potatoes and none of the bad with our Spicy Sweet Potato Chips: Just 34 calories and almost no fat per serving.
5. Veggie Chips
Are Terra Exotic Chips really as healthy as the carrots, beets, potatoes, yuca and parsnips from which they’re made? Although they do contain fiber and vitamin A, SparkPeople’s registered dietitian, Becky Hand, says they shouldn’t count as a veggie serving.
“Don't be deceived into thinking you’re getting a boost of vital nutrients when selecting these over regular potato chips,” says Hand. “In a one-ounce portion, you’re only saving 10 calories and one gram of fat. Depending on the variety of Terra Exotic Chips you select, you may get slightly more vitamin A or vitamin C when compared to potato chips—but way below the amount contained in an actual whole potato, white or sweet.”
6. Beet Chips
A convenient alternative to cooked beets, these dehydrated beet chips are packed with potassium, fiber and protein. Beet chips are a better, nutrient-dense option compared to traditional potato chips, says Dilz. Low in calories and high in fiber, they provide 15 percent of the daily value of potassium, four percent of iron and calcium and a significant amount of folate. The deep purple color of beet chips comes from the antioxidant Betalain, which helps fight inflammation in the body.
7. Zucchini Bread
"Most quick breads are fairly high in sugar and calories," says Andrews. "Just because a vegetable has been shredded into the batter doesn't make it health food." As a lighter alternative, this low-fat zucchini bread recipe is veggie-heavy and only 87 calories per serving.
8. Artichoke Dip
Artichokes provide essential prebiotics in your diet, which help to feed healthy probiotic bacteria in the gut. But most artichoke dips are laden with cream cheese, mayonnaise and parmesan cheese, to the point where it's hard to even discern the presence of a vegetable. For a healthier version, Andrews suggests adding Greek yogurt cream cheese, light mayonnaise and one-third less cheese in the recipe. We can’t get enough of this veggie-heavy version.
9. Carrot Cake
This may seem obvious—after all, it's cake—but many people assume that just because it contains carrots (and maybe raisins), it must qualify as a health food. "Carrot cake is still likely loaded with sugar," warns Bright.
A healthier alternative uses applesauce in place of some of the sugar, but you're unlikely to find this outside of specialty stores, notes Bright. Try our Low-fat Carrot Cake Muffins, which are sweetened with applesauce, pineapple and raisins instead of loads of sugar.
10. Broccoli & Ramen Noodle Slaw
It seems like it should be healthy, but Andrews blows the whistle on this dish. "Broccoli slaw is very nutritious and a good source of vitamin C and fiber, but when it's paired with Ramen noodles, butter, slivered almonds, canola oil and sugar, it shouldn't be featured as health food," she says. Ramen noodles are already high in sodium and saturated fat by themselves, but when you add the seasoning, the sodium content goes through the roof.
This super-light Orange Broccoli Slaw gets its citrusy sweetness from mandarin oranges.
11. Kale Chips
For those who can't get on board with raw kale, it's also available in a convenient chip form. “Kale chips can be a good source of vitamin K, vitamin A, calcium and iron, but be sure to read labels carefully,” Hand warns.
Although Rhythm Kale Chips aren’t deep-fat fried like traditional potato chips, their higher calorie count could interfere with dieting goals. The sunflower seeds and tahini paste bring a one-ounce portion to a whopping 150 calories. If you mindlessly munch away on the small two-serving bag, you’ll tack on 300 calories to your daily total. In comparison, a two-serving portion of leafy green kale contains only eight calories.
12. Sweet Potato Fries
They're a healthy alternative to white potato fries, right? Not necessarily, says Bright. Sweet potato fries are deep fried and often covered in salt, which can raise blood pressure in salt-sensitive people.
"These are easy to make at home in a healthy way," says Bright. "Baked sweet potato fries are excellent and a great source of vitamin A, among other nutrients." Try our Spicy Baked Sweet Potato Fries.
Which of these veggie foods are part of your diet?