'Healthy' Alternatives

In our efforts to drop pounds, lower disease risks, boost energy levels, and generally lead healthier lives, many of us are trying to avoid some of our favorite foods—especially those that are high in saturated fat, low in fiber, or too full of processed sugar.

So we’re turning to alternatives that promise us both comparable taste and health and convenience. But are these “healthier” stand-ins truly better for us than the originals? Three experts weigh in on some diet doppelgangers.

1. Patty Battle: Hamburger vs. Turkey Burger vs. Veggie Burger

The undisputed king of the fast-food menu, the hamburger packs a muscle-building, energy-enhancing punch, with around 24 grams of protein in one quarter-pound, 80 percent lean serving. But because it also comes in at 250 calories and a whopping 20 grams of fat, this American favorite can wreak havoc on blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol level. And that’s not counting the fat it’s often fried in and its traditional accoutrements of calorie-packed cheese, a starchy white-flour bun, sugary ketchup, and sodium-loaded pickles (not to mention the danger of disease a pink burger can present).

So many of us are opting for a turkey patty, which we believe to be leaner. But that's not always true, according to Katie Ferraro, a registered dietician and assistant clinical professor of nutrition at the University of California, San Francisco. “Turkey burgers can be worse for you than beef burgers because often the dark meat and skin are ground up [and used in the burger]. And that increases the saturated fat. If you order a turkey burger in a restaurant, you usually get more calories and fat than you would in a regular beef burger.”

Dr. Lauri Wright, assistant professor of community and family health at the University of South Florida, agrees. “If you go for a beef burger, go with ground sirloin, which is naturally lower in fat. If you’re looking at the turkey burger, go for the turkey that’s made from the breast.”

But what about the packaged veggie patty, which offers burger lovers a conveniently microwaveable meatless alternative? It’s higher in fiber than the beef or turkey options, with three grams per serving (comparied with 0 fiber in the animal options), but its sodium content is, comparatively, through the roof—with approximately 350 mg per serving being typical (compared with about 60 mg in a turkey burger).

Wright and Ferraro agree that a lean turkey burger trumps the high-sodium veggie burger. “Lean ground turkey is going to be better because the veggie burger is so processed, and there’s so much sodium,” says Ferraro.

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2. Crunch Conflict: Potato Chips vs. Kale Chips vs. Sweet-Potato Chips

Though many popular brands of bagged kale and sweet-potato chips are similar in calorie and fat content to traditional potato chips (around 130 calories and 9 grams of fat per one-ounce serving), these options do offer benefits that typical chips lack, such as high amounts of immunity-enhancing vitamin A, collagen-boosting vitamin C, blood-friendly vitamin K, and dietary fiber.

Still, says Ferraro, “A fried and salted vegetable is a fried and salted vegetable.” Whether that vegetable is a white potato or kale, we still have to be mindful of saturated fat and sodium levels, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that we keep under 2,300 mgs a day.

Ferraro suggests we go for whichever product is lower in sodium.

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3. The Dip Debate: Hummus vs. Guacamole

When seeking a healthful accompaniment for chips or raw vegetables, we found vitamin-rich guacamole and protein-packed hummus to be nutritionally superior to the classic full-fat, sour-cream-based onion dip. Even in packaged form, these two dips were significantly lower in saturated fat and virtually free of artificial flavors; moreover, they boasted impressively short and pronounceable ingredients lists.

The hummus, however, contained 60 calories per two-tablespoon serving (as much as the same serving of the sour-cream dip) to our guacamole’s lighter 25 calories.

Is this difference in calorie content really significant? “People are used to eating a lot more [than the suggested serving],” says Ferraro. “The calories may not matter per serving listed, but if you’re eating three or four those servings, it does matter.”

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4. Which Comes First? Egg Whites vs. Egg Substitutes vs. Whole Eggs

The high cholesterol content in egg yolks has caused the versatile breakfast favorite to fall from grace, and many health-conscious consumers are ditching the yolks or opting for pricey egg substitutes at the market. But is either worth a scramble? 

Alison Boden, RD, who teaches nutrition at the University of San Francisco School of Nursing, doesn’t think so. “Eat the yolk!” she says. “The yolk gets vilified a bit because of its saturated fat content and its cholesterol content, but the yolk is really where the nutrients are. While both the white and the yolk contain protein, the yolk is where we also find beneficial vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin A, B12, D, and choline. The addition of the yolk also gives people a greater sense of fullness, which is helpful for weight management.”

When choosing eggs, quality does matter, says Boden. “Pastured eggs, from chickens that are out on the pasture eating grass and bugs, are best. The yolks from these eggs are darker in color—deep orange versus pale yellow—and contain more beneficial vitamins. These eggs will also be a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. And they are much better tasting! If you can't find pastured eggs or if they are too expensive, the next best is omega-3–fortified organic eggs.”

But if cholesterol is a big concern for you, our experts say you should go with the egg whites. Many commercial egg substitutes are just egg whites with some yellow food coloring and sometimes added flavoring, says Wright. “You could make your own. It’s cheaper."

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5. Fight for the Plate: Mediterranean Diet vs. Vegan Diet

Those of us who are concerned about maintaining health and managing weight are avoiding the Standard American Diet (SAD) that many of us were raised with. Also known as the Western Pattern Diet, SAD includes processed carbohydrates and saturated fats way above recommended consumption levels.

Two popular alternatives to SAD are the Mediterranean diet and a vegan diet.

The Mediterranean diet is composed mostly of whole grains, fresh vegetables, nuts, legumes, and lean proteins—such as fish—in small quantities.

Though there are many varieties of the vegan diet, all are united by an absence of animal products, including dairy and eggs.

Purely for reasons of health, which of these diets do our authorities favor?

Our experts say yes to the Mediterranean. “The vegan diet doesn’t have enough Vitamin B-12, which comes only from animal sources, says Ferraro. “So vegans have to supplement with B-12. And most [people on a vegan diet] also have to supplement with calcium and vitamin D. With supplements, the vegan diet could be complete, but if you eat a well-balanced Mediterranean diet, you don’t have to supplement.”

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“The Mediterranean diet is more sustainable for people because it involves a greater variety of food,” says Boden. “You can have fish, you can have some lean protein. With vegan diets, it really depends on what people are eating. Some vegan diets are really healthful and have a lot of vegetables and have a lot of good-healthy fats, and some vegan diets are just full of processed foods."

Wright says, “The Mediterranean diet is hands down the most healthful diet we see today. We have long-term studies of people on the diet that show it’s very protective against heart disease. We also have a growing body of evidence that shows it can be protective against diabetes and high blood pressure, and there are even some studies that are looking at [its positive effect on] brain health and incidence of Alzheimer’s. We need more research, but the Mediterranean diet shows promise in these areas.”