In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan reported that in today’s ever-in-motion America, one out of five meals are consumed in a moving vehicle. It’s the type of food that’s most apt to be junk—when you’re on the go, what you’re eating isn’t your primary focus, so your vigilance about keeping a healthy diet goes right out the driver’s-side window. What’s worse, buzzwords like “grilled,” “antioxidants,” and “freshly made” have become staples of America's takeout cuisine. But many portable meals that seem healthy are anything but. Here are nine meals you’ve probably grabbed on the fly, mistakenly thinking you were doing right by your body.
• Japanese: California Rolls
Sushi is generally a pretty healthy option, with one exception: If you’re ordering California rolls made with artificial crab and white rice, then smothering the whole thing in soy sauce, what you’re eating is sub-par McSushi. Instead of ingesting beneficial omega-3’s from fresh fish, you’re only taking in empty calories. Not only is artificial crab meat highly processed with added starches, vegetable oil, and MSG, it also contains high amounts of sodium. Whenever possible, opt for real fish, and sneak some extra fiber into the roll by swapping in brown rice instead of plain.
• Indian: Chicken Curry
Chicken can be a lean source of protein and, when not in fried form, a great healthy choice. But the culprit here is the curry itself. Curry sauces often include large amounts of cream, coconut milk, or ground cashews to thicken the sauce. Instead, choose anything prepared tandoori-style, especially if that dish includes turmeric, which many doctors say helps prevent cancers by blocking a biological pathway needed for the development of melanoma and other cancers.
• Soup: Broccoli Cheddar Soup
We’ve all read the studies about how people who eat soup before a meal are thinner. This is not always the case, and not all soups that are stocked with vegetables are good for you. Among the worst offenders is the takeout favorite, broccoli cheddar. It has a base of cheese and cream, and sky-high amounts of sodium. One 12 oz. serving of broccoli cheddar soup at Au Bon Pain will set you back 21 grams of fat, 50 milligrams of cholesterol, and nearly 1000 mg of sodium—nearly half your entire recommended daily allowance. If you can find it, opt for a soup with a legume base like lentil or black bean. If you’re still not sure, stick to soups that have a clear broth rather than ones with thick and creamy bases.
• Chinese: Tofu and Mixed Vegetables
Navigating a Chinese menu can be the trickiest takeout feat of all. If you think you did the right thing by choosing sweet and sour tofu, think again. On average, this dish packs up to 900 calories and 2,200mg of sodium. You can thank the deep-fried soy product and a generous dose of sauce for this. Do yourself a favor and ask for this dish stir-fried instead. Or opt for Moo Goo Gai Pan and brown rice. At only 600 calories and 4 grams of saturated fat, it’s a much lighter option.
• Salad Bar: Grilled Chicken With Creamy Dressing
Amid all those fresh veggies at the salad bar lie nutritional landmines like bacon bits, croutons, and vats of dressing that are easy to go overboard on when you’re serving yourself. When it comes to pre-made salads, steer clear of toppings: Cheese, meats, salted nuts, and creamy dressings can counter all the nutrients those veggies are adding to your diet. Case in point: Chili’s Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken. But salad with grilled chicken is healthy, right? Wrong. This salad comes with a 1,010-calorie price tag and 76 grams of fat (blame it on fried croutons, gloppy dressing, and cheese). When in doubt, make sure that dressing comes on the side, and only choose salads that include one additional non-fruit or veggie topping.
• Liquid Lunch: Smoothies
Smoothies may seem like perfectly healthy post-workout pick-me-ups, but they’re often loaded with sweetened syrups and fat. Don’t even think about downing one of these drinks as a protein boost. Smoothie King’s “The Hulk” smoothie will set you back 1,030 calories (which, unless you ran a half marathon, is likely more than you burned during your workout.) It also contains 32 grams of fat—an insane way to round out an exercise routine. It’s time to stop thinking of smoothies as meal substitutions and choose lighter versions that include only fruit and low-fat yogurt.
• Snack Time: Yogurt
But it’s yogurt. And yogurt has calcium. And, um… active cultures? While it’s true that there’s nothing wrong with yogurt itself, the extra helping of high-fructose sweetener at the bottom of those single-serve cups adds an extra 100 calories. And don’t think it’s better just because it’s organic: Stonyfield Farm is one of the worst offenders, notorious for its heavy hand when it comes to added sugars. A 6 oz. container of their Chocolate Underground yogurt has 220 calories, 36 grams of sugar, and 20 mg. of cholesterol. Instead, take control of how much sugar goes into your snack and go for plain Greek yogurt with fruit, which contains only 90 calories per 6 oz. serving, and the added bonus of extra protein.
• Outdoor Eating: Trail Mix
It’s associated with hiking, camping, and other vigorous activities, but “trail chips” is probably a more appropriate name for this snack. These days, store-bought trail mixes are often loaded with banana chips, chocolate chips, and apple chips -- none of which do your body any favors. One oz. of banana chips packs in 150 calories, 9.5 grams of fat (8 of them saturated), and 20 grams of carbohydrates. As a reference point, the same amount of potato chips contains the same amount of calories and fat (with only 3 of them saturated.) If you’re craving a crunchy snack, go for lightly salted almonds or cashews, which at least deliver high amounts of protein, potassium, and iron along with their higher calorie counts.
• Baked Goods: Banana Bread
This seemingly innocent grab-and-go breakfast may come off as a healthy option first thing in the morning, but just because bananas are involved doesn’t mean it’s good for you. One slice of banana bread at Starbucks packs a whopping 490 calories, 19 grams of fat, and 46 grams of sugar--three components that, together, are otherwise known as the holy trinity of weight gain. Instead, lose the bread and just eat an actual banana.
Divya Gugnani is the CEO and founder of BehindtheBurner.com, an emerging culinary media brand that creates expert-based content about food, wine, mixology, and nutrition. She is the author of Sexy Women Eat: Secrets to Eating What You Want and Still Looking Fabulous.