Top Ten Most Overrated “Health” Foods
The astute eater knows that if a food comes with a laundry list of health benefits, it’s probably too good to be true. In some cases, foods are glorified because they do provide some pretty awesome benefits (blueberries, almonds), whereas others are a result of crafty marketing and don’t measure up (most protein bars, Lucozade).
In other cases, we fool ourselves into thinking certain foods or trends (vegan foods) are healthy because the media overstates the benefits. For example, the anti-fat movement has been slow to die, but it seems to be picking up steam: Sales of butter are up by 8 percent over the last five years, whereas margarine sales have dropped by 2 percent.
In the hopes of shedding the light on other overrated “health” foods, here is our list of the top ten.
#1: Breakfast Cereal
Many people think cereal is a healthy choice because it’s low in fat, contains grains, and is fortified with vitamins and minerals. But those grains are highly refined, giving you a quick blood sugar spike even if there is no added sugar—which is almost never.
A food being low fat rarely improves weight management. After all, meals that contain healthy fats and protein tend to be more satiating so that people eat fewer calories. Cereal doesn’t have this benefit and the high-carb content is known to trigger food intake, making it easy to eat a few servings of cereal at a sitting.
Eat This Instead: What you really want for breakfast is unrefined protein since it reduces hunger by improving release of gut hormones that keep you satisfied. Eggs, Greek yogurt, or salmon are better choices than cereal, especially if you pair them with sautéed leafy greens or a bowl of berries.
Among the less nutritionally informed, tofu and soy foods are generally thought of as healthier than the omnivorous alternative (tofu being healthier than meat and soy milk being better than cow’s milk). Amongst hardcore foodists, soy is one of the most controversial foods out there nowadays with some saying it should be avoided like the plague and others saying it’s a cure-all for health.
It is true that in Asian countries, soy intake tends to be associated with less disease risk. But you have to remember that the Asian diet and approach to eating is radically different from the standard UK diet and this may confound results.
For instance, much of the soy we eat in the UK is highly refined and from GMO crops. It’s also used as a filler for many processed foods such that consumption of soybean oil has increased more than 1,000 times from 1909 to the present day.
Eat This Instead: Tempeh, miso, and natto are all fermented soy products, meaning they provide healthy bacteria for the gut. Since they have not yet reached the mainstream, these foods are less likely to be tainted with other ingredients and can often be found organic so you avoid genetic modification.
#3: Veggie Chips
A lot of people think that the various vegetable and protein chips and snacks are smart choices, when in reality, they’re the same refined flour, corn, potatoes, oil, and salt as “regular” chips that everyone knows are unhealthy.
Marketers will take the “something is better than nothing” approach and tell you veggie chips are a great way to get picky eaters to eat their veggies. Don’t believe it—the tiny bit of veggie powder mixed into these chips don’t make up for the load of processed crap that provides the majority of calories.
Eat This Instead: Fresh veggies are cool! Chop real vegetables (cucumbers, celery, carrots, green and red peppers) into sticks for a nutrient-rich, fiber filled, low-calorie snack.
#4: Egg Whites
Despite abundant evidence that eggs are good for you and won’t raise your cholesterol or hurt your heart, people still think that egg whites are a better choice. Not so.
The egg yolk provides all the hard-to-get nutrients that make the egg the most affordable superfood on the planet: Vitamin D, B vitamins, choline, minerals, and fatty acids. It also supplies antioxidants that appear to lower inflammation and may preserve cognition as you age.
Eat This Instead: Whole eggs.
The French nickname for tuna is “la poubelle de la mer,” which means “garbage can of the sea,” because it is so contaminated with mercury. Mercury is incredibly dangerous if you’re exposed to enough of it, causing neurological problems, irritability, and numbness in the arms and legs among other things.
Eating tuna makes it easy to reach toxic levels of mercury—the FDA says it’s safe to get up to 7 mcgs of mercury a week for every 22 pounds you weigh (50 mcg for a 150-pound person). Some tinned tuna packs 40 mcg of mercury per 4 ounce serving.
Eat This Instead: Canned salmon tends to be wild caught, so it doesn’t come with the nutritional drawbacks of fresh farmed salmon (high omega-6 fat content and extremely polluted with PCBs and dioxins), and it’s low in mercury making it the perfect alternative.
Ask any nutritionist and they’ll wax lyrical about the wonders of oats—they lower cholesterol and improve satiety compared to breakfast cereal. These are valid points, but these benefits don’t mean that oats are better for you than a high-protein meal of eggs or Greek yogurt.
In fact, one study found equal beneficial effects on cholesterol from both eggs and oatmeal for breakfast, but the egg breakfast reduced inflammation and the oatmeal didn’t.
And then there are the lesser known problems with oats: First, oats elevate insulin much more than protein, nuts, or vegetables. Most people with body composition concerns want to avoid insulin spikes first thing in the morning.
Second, many people report oats make them bloated, which could be due to the carb content or could be due to a food sensitivity. Even though oats are gluten free they are often contaminated by gluten, making them problematic for anyone with celiac disease.
Eat This Instead: Quinoa. At first glance you might think quinoa is overrated but it lives up to its wonder status, performing just as well as oatmeal in improving cholesterol and satiety, and it is packed with anti-inflammatory compounds with health promoting effects. Quinoa can also be fermented to provide healthy probiotic bacteria for the gut.
#7: Fruit Juice
Fruit juice has to be a healthy alternative to a fizzy drink, right? Not so.
Most store bought fruit has just as much sugar and calories as fizzy drink (250 ml of apple juice typically contains 110 calories and 26 grams of sugar whereas 250 ml of cola has 105 calories and 26.5 grams of sugar).
In addition, high fruit juice intake is associated with a significantly greater diabetes risk than eating whole fruit due to the fact that it removes the fiber and is more quickly digested than fruit. It spikes blood sugar and insulin to a greater degree and may trigger additional food intake so that you eat more calories overall.
Eat This Instead: Whole fruit or homemade green vegetable juice. There’s a big difference in the fructose content in vegetable juice compared to fruit juice, but do be mindful of how much your drinking because juice of all forms is an easy way to consume a lot of calories.
#8: Chocolate Milk
Chocolate milk has been called the perfect recovery drink due to the ratio of sugar and protein it contains. It’s true that milk is a killer source of protein due to its high concentration of leucine, the most important amino acid for building muscle, but that doesn’t mean adding sugar and a little bit of antioxidant-poor chocolate make it a better choice!
Your average glass of chocolate milk has 30 grams of sugar (18 added) compared to only 12 grams of naturally occurring sugar in regular milk. And, many commercial brands of chocolate milk get those sugars from high-fructose corn syrup and have added artificial flavors and colors tossed in.
Eat This Instead: Whey protein is a superior recovery protein, maximally stimulating muscle building, and it’s less allergenic than regular milk being lactose free. Just watch out for added sugars or other artificial junk that is added to cheap whey powders. Opt for whey isolate because “concentrate” may contain other protein as filler.
#9: Whole Grain Flour
It’s baffling how food companies and nutritionists can pretend that highly processed flours made out of what were once whole grains are good for us. The whole thing reeks of deception since sugary cereal or wheat crackers are a far cry from boiled whole buckwheat, millet, or jasmine rice.
Another problem is that foods made from “whole” grain flour jack up blood sugar and insulin. Plus, these foods are packed with relatively empty calories compared to the nutrition powerhouses like green vegetables, dark colored fruit, fish, or organic eggs.
Eat This Instead: If you want to eat grains, make sure they are intact with the hull on. Millet, buckwheat, and amaranth are nutritionally rich (high in phosphorus, magnesium, and copper) and associated with better health outcomes than wheat and other grains.
#10: Non-Fat Yogurt
Fat is good for you. It’s satiating and improves absorption of antioxidants and fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D, and K.
In the case of yogurt, when manufacturers remove the fat, they often replace it with sugar, artificial sweeteners and flavours to make it taste good. This kind of yogurt is basically just junk food masquerading as health food. Plus, these yogurts are unlikely to contain any live probiotic bacteria because they tend to go through extensive industrial processing.
Eat This Instead: Whole fat Greek yogurt is your best bet, though it’s hard to find. Plain low-fat Greek yogurt is an acceptable alternative if you’re eating it for the protein. If you’re eating yogurt for the probiotics, you’re more likely to get living healthy gut bugs from fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kim chi, or pickled ginger.