The media tends to have a huge influence on what we eat. As soon a food is deemed a "health food," it starts to fly off the shelves at warp speed. But as I mentioned in my post about nutrition labels, the media and food manufacturers are free to make over-glorified health claims where they are often unjustified. Unfortunately, as a result, health-conscious consumers often get duped into buying these products, thinking that they are making a healthy choice. I call this the "health trap."
Here are 10 "health" foods that aren't healthy at all:
Fortunately, the "gluten-free foods are healthier" craze is ending and people are finally realizing that gluten-free doesn't = healthy. People who have been diagnosed with either Celiac Disease or a gluten sensitivity need to avoid gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley, rye and some oats. With more awareness of Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance over the past few years, has come more demand for gluten-free food options, which has spurred the food industry to capitalize in a big way. What once was a tiny section of the organic aisle in the grocery store is now entire aisles of gluten-free crackers, breads, cereals, cookies and granola bars. Most gluten-free processed foods are low in fibre, vitamins and minerals but are loaded full of calories. If you do not have to avoid gluten, do yourself a favour and don't. If you must, stick to whole foods that are gluten-free and go very easy on processed gluten-free foods.
In Canada, flour manufacturers can call their flour "100% whole wheat" when it's really not. In most cases, whole wheat flour has had the wheat germ (the most nutritious part of the grain) removed during processing. The germ houses the grain's phytochemicals, protein, vitamins, minerals and fatty acids and is removed to extend the flour's shelf life. There are two things you can do to avoid this health trap: you can add 1 Tbsp of wheat germ to each cup of whole wheat or whole grain flour that you use, or you can buy flour that still contains the wheat germ such as Highwood Crossing's Stone Ground Whole Grain Flour. I love this flour because the entire whole grain is ground into a flour (nothing is removed), therefore none of the nutrition is lost.
For busy families, breakfast cereal seems to be the go-to choice for quick and easy breakfasts. It's fast, kids like it, and there is next to no prep time. But, for the most part, breakfast cereals suck in the nutrition department. Cereal is highly processed, and has had a lot of sugar, additives and preservatives (such as BHT) added in to increase the shelf life and make it taste good. Yes, there are higher fibre, lower sugar options out there, and having cereal occasionally won't do much harm, but do not be fooled–processed breakfast cereal is not a health food. Cereal often packs a punch in the calorie department, yet it doesn't fill you up for very long. This is why you may feel hungry soon after downing your bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, only to go for a second bowl or something else carborific. If you want to make the most of your breakfast, stick to whole foods that contain more protein and naturally-occuring vitamins and minerals (such as eggs and fruit). Research shows that including protein in your breakfast will prevent unhealthy snacking later on. Here are some healthier breakfast options that are also kid-friendly.
Egg whites are one of the most overrated health foods out there. I actually cringe a little bit when I hear someone order an "egg white omelette" or "egg white breakfast sandwich". Besides the fact that egg whites alone are tasteless and boring, the yolk is the nutrition powerhouse of the egg! Most of the egg's protein, Iron, Vitamins A, D, E and B12, Folate, Selenium, Lutein, Zeaxanthin, and Choline--all important nutrients for optimal health--are found in the yolk. The yolk also contains the fat, which helps to keep us fuller longer and gives the egg its delicious flavour and texture. Now that we know that the fat and cholesterol found in eggs does not in any way increase the risk of heart disease, we no longer have to swear off the yolks. Eggs are one of natures most nutritious foods. Leave it intact, the way nature created it.
I remember when I used to run 10 km races and half marathons often, relying on some energy-dense convenience foods to get me through training sessions or to recover from a long run. I remember specifically resorting to gross-tasting protein bars when I didn't have anything else on hand. Protein bars have come a long way in the taste department, but I wouldn't touch one these days. Unfortunately, most protein bars contain a tonne of sugar (or artificial sweetener), calories, processed soy protein, and about a million additives and preservatives. Basically, most protein bars are junk food with some added vitamins and minerals. If you are really active and work out a lot, focus on whole foods to fuel up and recover from your workouts. If you find that you just can't give up your protein bar habit, choose one that contains only natural ingredients (ie. nuts, seeds, dried fruit).
Muffins have long been thought of as a healthier option at coffee shops–especially bran muffins because bran=healthy, right?! Not in this case. I still remember my health-conscious Mom choosing a bran muffin on Sundays when we stopped off at a donut shop for a treat. The truth is, her bran muffin likely contained more calories and even more fat than our donuts. Coffee shop or store-bought muffins are one of the worst "health traps" out there. Most of these muffins will contain at least a meal's worth of calories (often more) and contain as much sugar and fat as a giant piece of cake. Some even contain huge amounts of hydrogenated oils (trans fats) which most definitely puts your health at risk. If you love muffins, make your own where you can control the portion size and ingredients.
Although unsweetened fruit juice is "natural", it contains about the same amount of sugar, gram for gram, as coca cola. When fruit is juiced, the sugar is concentrated and the fibre (that fills your up) is stripped right out. Some argue that fruit juice contains vitamins and minerals, nutrients that aren't present it pop, but I would argue back that these vitamins and minerals should be consumed from whole fruits and vegetables instead of juice. The biggest beef that I have with fruit juice is that it is often recommended, and over-consumed (especially by children) in the name of nutrition. Fruit juice is not a health food. Whole fruit with the skin is. The Canadian Pediatric society recommends that kids consume no more than 1/2 cup of fruit juice per day because of its high sugar content (for good reason), but I've found (in my nutrition consulting practice and in my own home) that this can be a slippery slope. Juice is tastier than water or milk, so of course your child will want to drink it often if it's available. Most of the time, eat your fruit, don't drink it.
I love sushi just as much as the next person, but I am well aware that it is not a health food--sushi rolls at least. Most rolls contain some sort of delicious mayonnaise-type sauce as well as tempura battered shellfish. YUM. If you're a frequent sushi eater like me, focus on sashimi and sushi (raw fish alone or on top of rice) first and go easy on the tempura-battered rolls. If you go once in a while, don't worry so much about it.
Dairy foods naturally contain fat, and although this type of fat is saturated, which often gets a bad rap for it's supposed relationship with heart disease, it should not affect your overall health or weight in a negative way if you're not overdoing it. In fact, fat is satiating, meaning that it helps us to feel fuller longer because it digests slowly. It also adds a pleasurable "mouth-feel" to foods. And we NEED dietary fat for proper health. Yogurt that has had the fat removed completely will not be nearly as satisfying and filling as yogurt that contains fat. When you add an artificial sweetener in there such as aspartame or sucralose, you've got a full-on diet food that will likely spur sugar cravings and unhealthy snacking later on. Although fat-free yogurt is typically lower in calories, 9 times out of 10 you will make up those calories (plus some) by the end of the day. Instead, choose a 2% or 3% plain or lightly sweetened yogurt, either Greek (more protein and thicker texture) or regular. If you buy plain (the best), add a bit of honey or maple syrup or good old fruit to sweeten it.
Vegetarian "meat" products are often filled with a long list of interesting ingredients such as gluten, processed soy protein, canola oil, caramel coloring, whey protein and xanthan gum. If you are a vegetarian, and rely on meatless meals, choose whole protein sources such as beans, lentils, eggs, dairy, fermented soy, nuts, and seeds most of the time, and be wary of meat substitutes in a package, making sure to always check the ingredients list.