Nine Worst Convenience Foods for Your Wallet and Waistline
"I don't think people are really aware of the calories" they consume in convenience foods, said Manuel Villacorta, a registered dietician in San Francisco who is a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association.WalletPop talked with Villacorta and other dietitians about which convenience foods are the worst for people's wallets and waistlines -- and add up to $73 billion that obesity costs U.S. workers. When not cooking at home, which foods do people buy on the go that cost the most and are the most unhealthy? We skipped the typical fast-food chains because, as Villacorta put it, most people already know by now that most of those meals are bad for their health.
"This is sort of the new fast foods," he said of convenience foods.
Along with McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants, we also skipped junk food that you should already know is bad for you, like candy and other such snacks.
For a guide to compare these items, it's worth noting that for someone who does moderate exercise of an hour a day for four to five days a week, the average female should consume 60 to 65 grams of fat a day, and that the average male should have 65 to 70 grams of fat per day, said Villacorta, who runs Eating Free, an online diet plan.
Recommended caloric intake is 1,800 calories for a woman and 2,000 for a man; and sodium should be 2,300 milligrams per day. Sugar intake should be no more than 10% of daily calories.
Here are the worst convenience foods that can be found at grocery stores, local restaurants and coffee houses, among other places. We try not to pick on chain stores, and note that these items can be bought at mom-and-pop places as well as the big name restaurants or stores. They may be convenient, but they aren't cheap, so we list healthier and cheaper alternatives too.
1. Movie Theater Popcorn
Going out to the movies once a month and splurging on a bucket of popcorn doesn't sound like a big indulgence that will hurt your waistline, until you add up the calories: 16,800 over the course of a year.
A medium to large container of theater popcorn has 1,200 to 1,600 calories and 100 to 126 grams of fat, Villacorta said. That could lead to a weight gain of five pounds if you don't change your diet and adjust for those extra 16,800 calories coming in during 12 films.
Cheaper and healthier alternative: Instead of paying $10 to $12 for a big bucket of popcorn, forgo it and eat the popcorn you make at home. Microwave popcorn or a bag of popcorn kernels can cost $4 or less.
2. Burritos With Everything
Whether it's at a fast-food taco restaurant or any Mexican taqueria in town, a super burrito with everything on it -- chicken, beans, rice, guacamole, sour cream and cheese wrapped in a flour tortilla -- has 1,200 calories and 51 grams of fat, Villacorta said. And that's with chicken -- the leanest meat on the menu. If you're going to have any of the extra fat from cheese, guacamole or sour cream, he recommends choosing the avocado for its fat and making the burrito at home
Alternative: Taking the $8 that would have been spent on one burrito will help buy groceries for enough burrito making supplies to feed a family dinner. And try whole beans instead of refried for a healthier alternative.
3. Ready-made Salads
These are found almost everywhere food is sold, and are supposed to be a convenience because they save you the trouble of cutting up vegetables. But the prepared salads can have 700 to 800 calories and 40 grams of fat after meat, cheese, nuts, seeds, eggs and dressing are added, making cutting up veggies sound like not so much of a task.
Alternative: Instead of buying a ready-made salad that can cost up to $12, make a salad for a lot less at home with 5 to 10 grams of fat and monitor what you put in it.
4. Coffee Shop Treat
Whether it's a muffin, scone or flavored drink, the calories and fat add up even if this is only a weekly habit. A muffin or scone typically has 500 calories and 25 to 30 grams of fat, and a low-fat muffin still has 350 to 400 calories, Villacorta said.
And a stop for such a treat doesn't end there. "They don't just grab the muffin," he said. A large, flavored eggnog latte is about 600 calories, and flavoring a drink with eggnog or other flavors triples the calories of a regular drink, Villacorta said. Having a scone and a flavored drink adds up to 1,100 calories, which is more than half of what active people should consume in a day.
"People are not thinking that this is really horrible," he said of the breakfast stop. "You might as well get sausage and eggs."
Alternative: Home brewed coffee costs pennies to make, saving $5 on a drink at a coffee shop, and toast is cheap.
At first thought, a smoothie has the connotation of a healthy drink because it's full of fruit. The harm comes when concentrated juices are added, adding calories and sugar. A 24-ounce smoothie costs about $5 and has 500 to 800 calories, and 60 to 75 grams of sugar. Villacorta recommends them as a way for marathoners to fuel up before a race, but not for the average person who isn't burning those calories off.
Alternative: As with everything else on this list, making a smoothie at home is a lot cheaper and healthier. You can buy a lot of fruit for $5, and can keep the sugary fruit juice out of your drink.
6. Sports Drinks
Vitamin water, Gatorade and acai berry drinks are some of the sports drinks that people swallow because they think they're healthy. A 16-ounce bottle of water with vitamins in it has 120 calories and 30 grams of sugar. That's about as much as a can of soda. Drinking one can a day of vitamin water can add up to 12 pounds of weight gain in a year, Villacorta said.
"People are doing it to just kill thirst, because it has vitamins," he said.
Alternative: Water is free, so why pay $3 for a sports drink bottle? And if you're looking for vitamins, fruit is inexpensive.
7. Frozen Meals
Even with frozen organic meals, which many people think should be lower in calories or fat, you have to be careful, said Villacorta, who had an organic enchilada with 30 grams of fat in front of him during this interview.
"You need to read the label and look at what you're getting and not just thinking it's healthy because it's organic," he said.
Also read how many serving sizes are in the package. Eating what you think is 500 milligrams of sodium is 1,000 milligrams if the container has two portions and you're eating all of it.
GoodGuide.com rates frozen foods, among other foods, according to a nutritional analysis it did. The site lets users search for variables such as foods that are low in sugar or low in saturated fat, for example.
Alternative: Save the $7 on a frozen meal and use it to buy groceries to cook, and freeze, meals at home.
8. Nutrition Bars
These are everywhere and are seen as a healthy alternative to a meal. One of the first ingredients can often be high fructose corn syrup. The bars, which have a lot of grain in them, are usually not bad in fat and calorie amounts, but are bad for your wallet because they're expensive, Villacorta said.
"If you're going to use the bar on the go to eat, grab a banana and go," he said.
Alternative: Fruit, as Villacorta recommends, or try making granola at home.
9. Beef Jerky
Most leading jerky's contain monosodium glutamate (MSG) and sodium nitrate-both know for their carcinogenic effects when ingested, according to nutritionist Stella Metsovas. A 1-ounce serving can yield upward of 700 mg of sodium, making jerky an absolute no-no for people who suffer from high blood pressure or cardiac issues. Jerky contains protein, but with so many preservatives, it doesn't have many of the antioxidants and fiber that you'd expect.
Alternative: Beef jerky is expensive, and if you have the time you can make it at home and save money.