Just because a restaurant bills itself as healthy doesn't mean that everything on the menu is up there with kale. Erin Winterhalter, a registered dietitian at MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education at Villanova University in Philadelphia, says to look out for the telltale signs that a food isn't as healthy as it sounds:
1. It's labeled gluten-free.
Unless you have celiac disease or you're sensitive to gluten, gluten-free foods are no safer for your diet or your body than the regular stuff. Look out for calorie bombs like gluten-free mac and cheese, and flourless cakes.
2. A component of the dish is maple- or honey-glazed.
These natural sugars may sound appealing and less refined than white sugar, but they still contain unnecessary calories that give sugar-sweetened candy and soda a bad rep. Instead, look for caramelized foods. They're cooked slowly, which creates a chemical reaction that breaks down natural sugars to develop a deep, nutty flavor.
3. "Creamy" is used to describe something on the plate.
While this could describe a frothy sauce or dressing that is blended for an extra-smooth mouth feel, it probably refers to an item made with milk or cream, which means it could contains a lot of saturated fat. If you're looking at a vegan menu, the item might contain coconut milk or cashew cream, which could have just as many calories as non-vegan versions. Just ask what's in the item and request sauce on the side so you can monitor your portions.
4. It's vegan.
Vegetarian proteins like tofu may be naturally low in calories, and high in protein and fiber, but they're also low in flavor. To compensate, chefs add sodium and sauces that contribute fat. Beware of menu items modeled after classic pub foods (like wings and nachos), which tend to be highly processed. And remember that your vegan "bacon" "cheese" "burger" could easily contain just as many calories as the real version.
5. It's dairy-free.
It's true that dairy-free items tend to contain less saturated fat than cheesy, creamy dishes. But if a chef swaps out regular cheese for vegan cheese, your dairy-free dish might contain just as many calories as a dish that contains cow's milk. Also, dairy-free foods tend to be full of fillers and foreign-sounding additives like carrageenan, maltodextrin, and mono and diglycerides. If you're lactose intolerant and crave some gooey goodness, dig in, but watch your portions.
The same warnings go for dairy-free desserts and coffee drinks made with flavored dairy alternatives like vanilla soy milk, which tend to contain added sugars that bump up the total amount of calories. Opt for unsweetened, unflavored alternatives, and remember that foods made with low-cal options like almond milk have less protein than regular cow's milk, so they won't really satisfy your appetite.
6. It's made with whole grains.
You know that whole grains like brown rice are better for you than refined carbs like white rice, which cause a blood sugar spike that can stoke your appetite shortly after you eat. But rice is rice—it's not free of calories or carbs. Look out for meals that feature starchy carbs like pasta as the main event—even if it's whole wheat pasta, you'll end up with a dish that's extra high in carbs. And if you do go with the pasta? Opt for the seafood special, which will contain lean protein and healthy fats to balance out your meal.
7. It's fat-free.
Unfortunately, low-fat often means low-flavor. To compensate, chefs add sugar, which is no better (and probably worse) than the healthy fats found in options like balsamic vinaigrette.
8. It's organic.
Organic foods aren't always healthier than non-organic foods, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The term itself refers to how a food is grown or produced: without chemical fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and antibiotics (in the case of livestock). In other words, organic foods might be cleaner when they enter the kitchen, but there's no saying whether they'll be healthier (i.e., richer in nutrients and lower in fat) than regular foods by the time they make it to your plate.
9. It's 100-percent natural.
"Natural" meat, poultry, and eggs are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients, according to the USDA. But natural doesn't mean low-calorie or low-fat. So you know that 100-percent natural bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich? It's probably dripping in unhealthy fats.
10. It's made from locally-sourced ingredients.
Restaurants that serve locally sourced foods support smaller farmers in nearby communities. It's not just a noble cause: Locally grown foods make it to your plate more quickly than foods that are grown across the country, which is a good thing because produce begins to lose nutrients after it is picked. In other words, locally grown food should, in theory, be healthier. The thing is, there are lots of factors that figure into the vitamin, mineral, fat, and calorie content of fruits and vegetables, including how they are prepared. So nutritionally, it doesn't really matter whether you grow an artichoke in your own backyard—deep-fry it, and it could sop up just as much fat as an order of fast-food fries. Don't be fooled!
11. It's raw.
Because raw foods are minimally processed, they may seem like your best bet. But because cooking can kill dangerous bacteria found in food, a dish made with raw meat, eggs, or unpasteurized milk products can actually make you sick. While raw food advocates claim that cooking kills enzymes in food and reduces the food's nutrients, science suggests that cooking some foods (like tomatos) can actually help your body absorb more of that food's nutrients. Another thing: Raw vegan meals tend to contain fewer calories and less protein than cooked dishes, so they might leave you hungry and craving some serious dessert.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.