If you haven’t figured out already, there is a lot of nutrition nonsense out there. Savvy marketing and false health claims are to blame for most of the confusion. Unfortunately there aren’t many regulations on the labeling and marketing of foods. Therefore, many consumers shop under the spell of food manufacturers who have found several ways of promoting their products as “healthy” which in many cases is absolutely not true. Here are 8 foods and beverages commonly believed to be healthy that may actually be harmful to your health:
1. Vitamin Water. The first 3 ingredients listed on a product make up the majority of what’s in it. Ingredients 2 and 3 (after water) on every flavor of this popular “health” drink are sugar…and sugar. If you’re drinking Vitamin water for the nutrition benefits, you may want to reconsider. You’re better off taking a multivitamin and drinking regular water. Better yet? Focus on getting these essential vitamins and minerals from real food.
2. Granola. Although granola does offer a decent amount of fiber and typically contains more protein than the average breakfast cereal, it’s often very high in sugar and calories. If you’re a granola lover read labels carefully to avoid loads of added sugar and stick with the recommended portion sizes (which are usually pretty small). Using a small amount of granola as a topping on fruit or yogurt is usually the best bet.
3. Sports Drinks. These are drinks fortified with electrolytes and marketed as an essential part of your post workout recovery. It is very important to re-hydrate after exercise and it is equally important to maintain normal electrolyte balance. But the body loses water a lot faster than electrolytes so drinking regular water is usually good enough for the average person. Unless you’re someone with a very high sweat rate, are working out vigorously in extreme heat or suffer from frequent muscle cramps, it is usually unnecessary to replenish electrolytes during workouts lasting less than an hour. Sipping on a sports drink can actually offset your workout by providing unnecessary calories (usually from sugar) that you just worked so hard to burn off.
4. Salads. This is a tricky one. Salads can and should be insanely healthy offering fiber and essential nutrients found in vegetables and fruit. The problem lies in the toppings, dressings and other add-ons that can quickly pack on unnecessary sugar and calories. Carefully read labels of salad dressings as these are often high in sugar, chemicals and other unwanted additives- especially the fat-free ones! Make your own dressing at home or use oil and vinegar instead. Other healthy alternatives to traditional dressing are cottage cheese, fresh salsa or guacamole. Toppings you should avoid or use in small amounts are: cheese, bacon, croutons or crispy noodles, candied nuts and dried fruit. Aim for a variety of fruits and vegetables, add lean protein and some healthy fat- such as raw nuts, avocado or a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
5. Smoothies. Although they may seem like a delicious way to get in recommended fruit servings, some smoothies can pack the same amount of calories and sugar as a milkshake. On top of it, studies show beverages are less filling than whole foods. If you’re a smoothie lover, make your own or look for those made with whole fruit and no added sugar.
6. Energy Bars. Although these popular snacks can provide protein and fiber, they are also typically highly processed and high in sugar and calories. As with everything, read your labels! More often than not you’re better off opting for real food. Equally convenient alternatives are a piece of fruit with nut butter, plain Greek yogurt topped with berries or raw nuts, string cheese, cottage cheese or veggie sticks with hummus.
7. Diet Soda. No calories and no sugar so it must be good for you right? Wrong! Diet sodas are loaded with harmful chemicals, dyes and artificial sweeteners. Studies show that drinking diet soda is associated with kidney problems, metabolic syndrome, weight gain, cell damage, tooth decay and reproductive issues (to name a few). Avoid it at all costs.
8. Low-fat Foods. Low fat almost inevitably means “high sugar.” Many people still equate low fat in their food to lower fat on their body but this is simply not accurate. Eating fat does NOT make you fat! In fact, refined grains and sugars are more likely to cause weight gain. Low-fat foods are typically laden with sugar, artificial sweeteners and other unwanted additives that are harmful to our health. Low-fat dairy (milk, cottage cheese, yogurt) can be an exception to this, but always, always, ALWAYS read your labels to be sure!
Take away message: Things are not always as they seem. Food is no exception. Ignore the “health” claims made on the front of any food package. Instead, turn the package around and read the ingredients. Opt for products with short lists of easy-to-pronounce ingredients. Use the guidelines in my blog post Identifying Hidden Sugar to avoid added sugar as much as possible. If partially-hydrogenated oil- of any kind- shows up on your ingredient list, this means is contains trans fats- safely place the item back on the shelf and walk away. Your best bet is always to focus on eating fresh, whole, natural foods that don’t require a nutrition label at all.