8 “Health Foods” that Aren’t So Healthy
These provide fewer nutrients and/or more sugar and fat than you think
Put down that gluten-free pretzel and listen up: Many so-called “health foods” are not all that great for your health.
The health-food business is booming; the gluten-free sector alone is expected to hit $15 billion in U.S. sales next year. But some of these products have a “healthy halo” they don’t really deserve, says Sarah Krieger, MPH, RDN, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
When manufacturers reduce one ingredient, such as fat, they often boost sugar, sodium or both to improve taste. And consumers may mistake a health-food label as permission to pig out. “Unfortunately, people think, the more I eat, the healthier I’ll be,” says Krieger, an obesity expert.
Here are some “guilt-free” foods that can trip you up.
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Agave, honey, and raw sugar
Yes, these natural sweeteners are not as processed as white table sugar. But “our bodies metabolize all sugars the same way,” says Krieger. (Agave, obtained from the same cactus that brings us tequila, and honey are both more caloric than sugar, in fact. If that means you use less, fine — otherwise, the calories still count.)
Related: Should You Say Sayonara to Sugar?
If they’re loaded with added oils, sugars, sugary dried fruits and chocolate, these convenient snacks can pack almost as many calories as candy bars. Krieger suggests you shop for lower-calorie versions that list quality sources of protein, such as cashews, walnuts and soy, ahead of sweeteners like sugar, molasses, or anything ending in “ose.”
Related: The Best Nuts for Your Health
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People with celiac disease need to avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and other grains, at all cost. But that doesn’t mean every gluten-free cookie, bagel or pizza is a smart choice for everyone. According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, “There is no scientific evidence to show that eliminating gluten promotes weight loss.” What’s more, “Following a gluten-free diet may potentially cause a decrease in the amount of beneficial bacteria in the gut (Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus), which can negatively impact the immune system.”
While many wheat products are enriched with nutrients, some gluten-free products may lack these vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins and iron. If they rely on ingredients like white rice flour, potato starch or tapioca flour instead of other gluten alternatives such as quinoa or amaranth, they probably don’t have the same amount of fiber a similar wheat-containing product would. And many manufacturers add extra oil and sugars, making the calorie count as high or higher.
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Yes, you can have too much of a good thing, as this tasty Middle Eastern dip demonstrates. Made of chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), vegetable oil, salt and lemon or other flavorings, hummus is a stellar source of protein, “good” fats and complex carbs that won’t spike your blood sugar. Limit yourself to two tablespoons, scooped up with raw veggies, and you’ll get a nutritious snack of 50 to 80 calories. But a cup weighs in at a whopping 400 to 500 calories — a meal’s worth, in other words — not counting the pita chips you may be wolfing with it.
For safety‘s sake, don’t let fresh hummus sit out for more than an hour, and use it within a week of opening for best quality.
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Juices and smoothies
The neon-green juices and hot-pink smoothies that beckon from so many supermarkets and storefronts these days may not be such nutritional bargains. For one reason, bottled versions that have hung around for a while may have lost some nutritional punch. For another, some commercial concoctions may contain 500 calories or more in a 16-ounce serving, thanks to sugars and fats.
“Many commercial smoothies are made with so much fruit juice that they become liquid candy bars,” Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, a Las Vegas-based dietitian, told SafeBee for our story on smoothies.
Moreover, a lack of fiber may leave you hungry.“Chewing your food is always better than sipping it,” Krieger says.
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Multi-grain breads and cereals
They may boast “multigrain”, “7 grain” or “honey wheat” on the package, but that doesn’t mean these products contain heart-healthy whole grains. Make sure the word “whole” and the name of the grain (wheat, rye, oat, etc.) appears first on the ingredients list. You can also look for the gold-and-black stamp from the Whole Grains Council, which certifies the food has a minimum of 8 grams whole grain per serving.
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Unless you’re sweating through an hour or more of intense exercise, you probably don’t need to replenish your electrolytes with one of those much-hyped sports drinks or coconut waters. They add calories (not to mention sodium) to your diet, and some also include caffeine, which you may or may not want. Unlike water, sports drinks also threaten tooth enamel (as does fruit juice, coffee and soda).
Related: 9 Habits That Can Wreck Your Teeth
Including fish in your weekly diet is a smart idea for your health. It’s a staple of the Mediterranean diet, which reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure and may even offer some protection against Alzheimer’s disease. Fish is a splendid source of protein, and most types are low in calories and “bad” saturated fat.
But people who eat a lot of sushi may also consume large quantities of white rice (a refined carb) and salty soy sauce. (Choosing the low-sodium soy sauce? Don’t feel too much better about it. A tablespoon still packs 1,150 milligrams — 75 percent of the American Heart Association's recommended daily intake for adults.)
If you favor albacore tuna, sea bass and King mackerel, you may also be increasing your mercury exposure. (Safer choices include salmon and freshwater trout, says Lori Zanini, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.)
And if you opt for Westernized creations featuring mayo, cream cheese and fried ingredients, you may be getting more calories than you realize.