Back in high school my friend and I used to go to the gym together after the final bell. We’d hit the ellipticals, mess around on some weight machines, then split a protein bar as our recovery meal. Weird that I was starving about an hour later huh?
This was before labels like organic, gluten free, non GMO, etc. etc. etc. hit the mainstream. We believed in our hearts that these gross cardboard rectangles (and of course, 30 minutes on the elliptical) held the keys to lasting weight loss. I also grew up on (fiber-rich!) Special K cereal, and the notion that Rice-A-Roni (whole grains!) could be considered a health food. Low calorie trumped everything else, not to mention the promise that dinner would be on the table in under 30 minutes.
The U.S. has evolved a bit since those days, in terms of understanding what actually constitutes a health food. But we still have a long way to go. We’ve still got big food companies marketing products as “healthy” that aren’t all that healthy.
Just because a claim like “all natural” or “organic” is slapped across the package doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
I know right, wtf?
What to Look for on a Food Label
As with a lot of things in food/diet industry, it’s all very confusing. But after years of working in the nutrition industry, countless books and documentaries, and our own personal experiments, if we had one single piece of advice regarding food around here, it would be to avoid processed foods and stick to whole foods as much as possible. That means eating food that doesn’t come in a package or has minimal ingredients ingredients that you can recognize on the label.
Processed foods (from frozen dinners to jarred pasta sauce) are typically high in sugar, trans fat and artificial ingredients, and a whole lot lower in nutrients. Studies have shown links between processed food and an increased risk for chronic diseases such as cancer.
The good news is that the simpler you eat, the easier it is to avoid all this garbage. That means we can spend less time decoding food labels, wondering what’s ok and what we should avoid. You’re not gonna see a long list of ingredients on a carton of blueberries, ya know?
7 “Health” Foods that Aren’t Actually Healthy
For the sake of identifying a few common “healthy” foods that aren’t all that healthy, here’s a quick list of products that are often marketed with bold nutritional claims.
Oh and hey by the way, I used to work in advertising, selling fake health food to the masses. Trust me when I say marketing – and massive ad budgets – are 100 percent at play here, and it’s no surprise we’re all a little confused. As for my career choices, glad that chapter has since closed.
Ah yes, my go-to high school snack. Chocolate chip cookie dough was my flavor of choice. The problem is these puppies are packed with sugar that spike your insulin and crap like processed soy that’s difficult to digest. Amanda over at Healthy Wifestyle has a great recipe for homemade protein bars.
You know those parfaits at Starbucks or airport stores, the ones that layer on seemingly innocent items like yogurt, granola, fruit and honey? It may seem like a good option in comparison to pastries, but the reality is the huge spike in blood glucose will lead to a sugar crash, aka say hello to hangriness about an hour later. If you can, opt for something with more protein and fat, or make your own chia pudding and homemade granola with minimal ingredients and sweeteners.
Sweetened Nut or Soy Milk
While nut milk can be a great in smoothies or other recipes, especially if you can’t tolerate dairy, most store bought brands contain a lot of additives, not to mention the sugar in sweetened versions (are you noticing the sugar theme here?). They also often contain carrageenan, a food additive used to emulsify or thicken milk. It’s been shown to increase the risk for stomach ulcers. Look for an plain, unsweetened brand without carrageenan or make your own.
Low Fat Foods
Are people still eating fat free foods? IDK, but seems worth including in this list. Guess what’s lurking in that low fat yogurt or skim latte in place of the fat? It rhymes with smugar. A bunch of other fun highly processed stuff too like high fructose corn syrup. Time to stop fearing the fat, my friends. In fact, that whole mentality has a lot to do with why you might be gaining weight and feeling sick all the time.
This is the one that surprises most people. Gluten free is good, right? Sorta. While many people have Celiac or a gluten sensitivity and truly can’t eat it, a lot of people choose to simply avoid it for health reasons, and buy all the gluten-free crackers, chips, cereals, pastas and breads. The issue is that a lot gluten-free foods, even the organic, natural, vegan ones, are filled with empty calories, and will spike your blood sugar just as much as their gluten-heavy counterparts.
Fruit Juices and Smoothies
Another surprising one. Smoothies?! Come on. Hear me out though: I’m talking those bottled smoothies you’ll find at CVS, or even homemade ones that pack in fruit without any vegetables or healthy fat. Sure you could drink worse things, but starting your day with a fruit juice or smoothie without protein or fat, will spike your blood sugar, and in the case of juice, will leave you real hungry thanks to the lack of fiber. Reach for a green smoothie instead with leafy greens and healthy fats like coconut oil, nuts or nut butter. Add in the fruit, just try not to make it the only ingredient.
Man do I love a good sandwich. I used to crush turkey sandwiches and PB&Js in college. So it’s a real bummer to report that conventional deli meats are typically laced with nitrates, sodium, saturated fat and fillers. You’re better off with lean protein, and if you’re trying to cut out processed carbs, go for a lettuce wrap. Sometimes you gotta pick your battles, so if deli meat is your thing, look for brands that are eliminating nitrates and other harmful ingredients.
Do any of these “healthy” foods surprise you? Which foods would you add to this list? Tell me below in the comments!