Why Your “Healthy Foods” Aren’t as Healthy as You Think

7 minute read

By Lauren Brown

If you were to ask 20 different people what they think makes a food “healthy,” you would probably get 20 responses. And sometimes those answers would be wrong. Fortunately, you can learn about foods that are actually healthy with a search online.

What we do know is that science, fads, diets, and what your cousin says on social media, all contribute to the ever-changing set of qualities that influence your grocery store purchases. With this in mind, let’s look at “healthy” foods that aren’t.

Science can’t make up its mind

The cool thing about science is that new and exciting discoveries are constantly being produced, which help to advance our world and promote human health. Research in the field of nutrition has also produced data which has continuously influenced our choices and our understanding of how food is related to our well being. But science and research also produce a lot of confusion.

Take coffee, for example, you can likely find an equal number of scientists stating it can promote health as those who believe it hinders it. It feels like what research deems “healthy” one minute, could possibly be contradicted the next. It can feel so confusing and frustrating! What’s a person to do?

Fads are powerful beasts

The popularity of some things, like pet rocks, just can’t be explained. The same thing can be said for many diets. Some of us can claim to have working knowledge of the cabbage soup diet, the blood type diet, or even the werewolf diet (!?!). Then there are the more mainstream eating fads which require us to block out entire macronutrient groups: i.e. the no-fat or the no-carb diets.

Many of these are so alluring because they promise amazing results, but require strict adherence to a regime which becomes too challenging to maintain over time. Most of us end up throwing in the towel and give up … until the next weight-loss “miracle” comes across our social media feeds and we jump back in the cycle to likely be disappointed all over again.

Some diets require a lot of work

When we refer to a vegetarian or paleo diet, for example, we are using the word “diet” in the context of its original meaning, i.e., a style of eating practices. These particular diets are not unhealthy per say, but one must be diligent at making sure to get enough of the proper nutrients the body requires. So, that means getting educated, and possibly working with a nutrition specialist to make sure you are setting off on the right course for you and your body’s own unique needs.

Now, let’s get into particular types of “healthy foods” and discuss how we’ve possibly been misled by all of the hype:

1. Smoothies

In the last 5 years, one of the top must-have appliances has become high-powered blenders, and they’re not just for margaritas anymore. Smoothies, and smoothie food outlets, have grown exponentially in popularity as they offer a quick and potentially nutritious option for those of us who don’t have time for a sit-down meal. Or, to possibly even chew. When smoothies contain a healthy balance of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, they can serve as a wonderful meal replacement, but all too often, this isn’t the case.

To make smoothies so darn delicious, fruit is usually a main ingredient. Fruit, when it’s whole, is incredibly healthy, but when a large amount is pulverized into your smoothie, you end up consuming way more than you would normally in one sitting. And, since the blender has taken care of all the chopping, you aren’t required to chew any of it. This means you are not only getting a lot of fruit at once but it’s also being consumed very quickly.

Once it hits your GI tract this causes your blood sugar and insulin levels to spike, meaning you’ll not only crash in no time flat, but will also feel pretty hungry sooner than later. To help prevent this, scale back the fruit to ½ cup and up your other macronutrients with 2% Greek yogurt, avocado, and all-natural protein powder.

2. Juice

The same logic that explains why smoothies aren’t so healthy can also be applied to juice. And don’t get tricked by food marketers stating their juices have “no sugar added.” If you flip over the carton, you’ll see that the ingredients will include concentrated ___ juice, and all this means is the water has been removed so you’re getting a huge hit of fructose and the fruit’s natural flavoring.

Although fructose is a naturally occurring sugar found in fruit, many of us get WAY too much of it in our traditional North American diets already (and not because we OD on fruit salad). And, unlike glucose, fructose is not used as energy for our muscles but is turned into liver glycogen and fat instead. “Fatty liver syndrome” was once associated mainly with high levels of alcohol consumption, but is now present in 30% of American adults who are not alcoholics.

Although science has yet to find a direct link between this and fructose consumption, an association is beginning to develop. Stay tuned.

3. Fancy “probiotic” yogurts

Here’s an insider secret: all yogurt contains probiotics, the healthy bacteria we need for digestion, healthy immune systems, and serotonin production. On every ingredient list you’ll find something like “live/active bacterial cultures,” as these are needed to convert milk into yogurt. So, it turns out you don’t actually need to shell out oodles of money on high-end yogurt, which not only claims to make you more regular, but can also enhance your hula-hooping skills!

And what’s even worse is that many of these brands contain 15g of sugar (or more!!) per tiny carton. Too much sugar causes yeast, the naturally occurring fungus in our bodies, to flourish – which creates a very unhealthy environment for those populations of good bacteria you’re attempting to increase.

Take control by having your yogurt plain and add some fresh fruits and raw nuts for a healthy, satisfying treat.

4. Fat-free anything

There is a magical roadmap laid out over our tongues in the form of our taste buds which are wired directly to our brains. When foods contain the proper amounts of fat, sugar, and salt, these little guys are activated in such a way that the pleasure centres in our brain light up and make us want more. And if this magical combination is out of synch (i.e. anytime a food is missing one of these components), the brain doesn’t do this happy dance quite as vigorously.

So, when food manufacturers cut out fat, they have to up either, or both of, the other components to compensate. The next time you’re standing in the dairy aisle, check out the nutrition labels on milk and you’ll notice as the fat goes down, the sugar goes up.

5. Artificial sweeteners

As we all know, sugar is one thing that is VERY hard to quit, and also not a healthy addition to any diet. Too much sugar can make us gain weight, which is why many of us to turn to artificial sweeteners to get that flavour hit we’re so desperately craving.

Currently, there are six artificial sweeteners which have been approved for use by the FDA, all of which are much sweeter than regular sugar. This might help people use less of them, but research is starting to show that zero or low-calorie substitutes might mess with our brain’s response to food, and could actually cause us to gain weight instead.

6. Gluten-free, processed foods

For those who have Celiac disease, or are gluten-intolerant, the recent increase in the availability of gluten-free foods has been a lifesaver. For others, the gluten-free way of life could be deemed a fad diet (see previous point about fad diets).

When you remove gluten, you eliminate many different types of grains and the foods that contain them (like bread, cookies, and even beer). Taking these out of your diet also lessens the need for insulin and its fat-producing ways. This, if done properly, can provide health benefits.

But when gluten-free foods are mass-produced in the name of convenience and variety (and sold at very high prices, by the way), it doesn’t guarantee that these items are actually good for you. Checking ingredient lists helps. If you see a lot of words you can’t read, it might be best to put the food item back.

7. Foods that contain “whole grains”

Wait, what? Doesn’t the health lady on the news keep telling me that I need to eat more whole grains because they’re a source of fiber? How can they be bad for me then?

Well, when food manufacturers start slapping “whole grains” on the front of conventional packaged food, it’s wise to check the ingredient list and nutrition label. More often than not, the source of whole grains appears way down in the list, and can be so highly processed that much of the fiber benefits are removed.

Or, said food item also contains a lot of sugar and salt to make the food actually palatable because as we all can all imagine, grains in their natural state are bland, dry, and can be pretty darn chewy.

8. Color-coded food products at your grocery store

Depending where you shop, you might have noticed, and/or purchased an in-house food line at your local grocery store which has been identified by the color of its packaging as healthy. These foods are not only more expensive, but are also often full of hype.

Although they might be a better option than a similar, standard item (see soups and sodium content), it doesn’t guarantee that they’re actually good for us. There are occasions where there is no difference when a food is compared to its counterpart at all, but it’s just color-coded to highlight some nutritional benefit (this can be seen in canned salmon in regards to omega-3 claims).

Remember, these lines have been created by a company in hopes that you will purchase them, so it’s always best to be a savvy consumer and check those food labels and ingredient lists. Sometimes they might be worth the money, and other times, not so much.

Lauren Brown MSc. WWHP, is a certified Health & Wellness Coach who loves teaching about all facets of health and wellbeing. Much of her time is spent in workplaces, helping empower employees to get healthy through the wellness programming initiatives and educational sessions she delivers. Please see www.inspiringhealth.ca for more information.

Lauren Brown