“While generally considered a healthy breakfast options, some overnight oats recipes I see online look more like desserts,” shares Nutritionist Kayleen St. John, RD at Natural Gourmet Institute, a health-supportive cooking school in New York City. “The World Health Organization recommends consuming no more than 6 teaspoons (or 24 grams) of added sugar per day to reduce the risk of chronic disease,” she adds. To avoid these sugar and calorie bombs, read on for the top unhealthy culprits to avoid in your overnight oats.
Fruit Flavored Fat-free Yogurt
You might like adding fat-free yogurt to your overnight oats for a richness that milk alone can’t provide — but resist the urge to turn to flavored yogurt for texture. “Fruit-stirred yogurts can be laced with so much added sugars that some pots pack 50% of your daily recommended intake into one small serving,” warns Peggy Kotsopoulos, RHN, nutritionist, and author of Kitchen Cures. And if you thought the fact that it was fat-free made it good for weight loss, think again: “When fats are removed from foods, they’re typically replaced with excess sodium, refined sugars and chemical fillers to make the food taste good — all which contribute to weight gain,” says Kotsopoulos. “These foods also tend to have the same number of calories as the fat-free versions, so your body will store the unused calories as fat anyway,” she adds.
Eat This! Tip
Don’t forget, your body needs fat to function. In fact, healthy fats serve as a powerful satiation signal to keep cravings at bay. Reach for plain regular or Greek yogurt with 2% fat instead. In addition to helping you feel full, the milk fat will help your body absorb vital fat-soluble vitamins.
Sweetened Coconut Flakes
You may have heard that coconut is good for you and your waistline thanks to its healthy fats, but be careful of the sugar lurking in this overnight oats topping: “Two tablespoons of sweetened coconut flakes can pack as much as two teaspoons (8 grams) of added sugar,” says St. John. When in doubt, just remember that added sugar = adding trouble. Excess sugar intake has not only been shown to promote gain weight but also harm your mental health and increasing your likelihood of diabetes and heart disease. Note: Sweetened coconut flakes are pliable and chewy (they get mixed with sugar and partially dried in the production process), expect unsweetened coconut flakes to have a harder texture.
Eat This! Tip
“Be sure to look for unsweetened coconut flakes,” cautions St. John. Scan packages carefully at the store, and don’t trust what the front says. Always verify that there’s no added sugar by checking out the list of ingredients on the back panel.
Jams & Jellies
You’re gonna wanna steer clear of the commercially-made varieties, which are often loaded with added sugars and preservatives. “While jams may stir nicely into your overnight oats, and are a convenient way to add fruit and sweetness, they’re just another form of refined sugar,” says Kotsopoulos. “In fact, up to half of a serving of jam can be made up of nutrient-void sugar,” she adds. While many of the fruits that build the base of jams like raspberries and blueberries are rich in vitamin C, the heating process used to create jam actually strips the product of this essential nutrient.
Eat This! Tip
Top your overnight oats with sliced fiber-filled fruit, and try to reach for some of the best fruits for weight loss like berries, peaches and apples. Or, try Kotsopoulos’ no-effort recipe for instant jam: Mash up some berries and stir in some chia seeds for a faux jam that’s low in sugar and high in fiber.
Flavored Nut Milks
Milk alternatives may be lauded as the classic’s healthier cousins, but that’s only when we’re talking about unsweetened cartons. The reality is: Whether you’re adding strawberry milk from a cow or chocolate milk from almonds to your oats, what you’re really getting is sugar. “Many flavored nut milks are also sweetened with cane sugar, which is often listed as evaporated cane juice. One cup of sweetened, flavored nut milk may contain as much as two teaspoons of pure sugar,” says St. John. Nut milks fortified with added protein (such as from rice or pea protein) are fine to use as long as they’re unsweetened, and will help bulk up your serving o’ oats.
Eat This! Tip
If you’re craving flavored milk, St. John recommends adding a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract to unflavored or homemade nut milks. You can also experiment with adding cinnamon, unsweetened cocoa powder or a dash of maple syrup. And if you’re in a rush, seek out varieties of unsweetened vanilla almond milk, which are increasingly available at chain supermarkets.
Another seemingly healthy choice that masks itself as a dieter’s friend, it’s better to avoid this alluring overnight oats topper completely. “Since the water is removed to make dried fruit, you can often eat three to four times more dried fruit than fresh before you start feeling full,” explains St. John. “Also, many dried fruits are doused with extra sugar. It’s better to opt for whole, sliced fruit to increase satiety,” St. John continues.
Eat This! Tip
If you’re looking to add fiber to your overnight oats but don’t have fresh fruit on hand, try adding a tablespoon of ground flaxseed, which boasts beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in addition to its high fiber content.