Nutrition

9 “Health” Foods That Can Be Very Unhealthy

We look at nine foods that have earned a healthy reputation, but can undermine your diet if you aren’t careful.

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On paper, eating for better health and fitness performance can seem like an easy undertaking. After all, what could be so hard about stuffing your grocery cart with nutritious foods like yogurt, whole grain bread, and veggie patties? If only it was that simple. Even for the savviest athlete out there, it’s easy to be duped into purchasing foods and drinks that turn out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing. That’s because food manufacturers are brilliant at making items appear healthier than they are and taking what should be a wholesome food and turning it into something closer to a nutritional dud than superfood. Here’s how to spot some of the biggest health food imposters at the supermarket and ways to sidestep their deceptive ways.

Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt parfait.
Photo: Taylor Kiser / Unsplash

Packed with protein, bone-building calcium, and gut-friendly probiotics, deliciously thick Greek yogurt can be a near-perfect snack option for athletes. But be aware of the deluge of added sugar that can be present in those tubs of vanilla or mixed berry. Flavored versions of Greek and other types of yogurt often have a surprising amount of add sugar — 3 to 4 times the amount found in plain flavored thanks to the liberal use of sweeteners by manufacturers.

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To scale back your intake of added sugars, choose Greek yogurt that is labeled “plain” with two simple ingredients: milk and live cultures. If you need some sweetness, add it in the form of fruit such as berries with some nuts or seeds to provide a satisfying crunch. Here is a pro tip: if you enjoy the flavor of vanilla but not the sugar it usually comes with, simply stir a couple dashes of pure vanilla extract into your yogurt bowl. 

Multigrain Bread

Slices of multigrain bread.
Photo: Bruno Thethe / Unsplash

Before you grab that loaf of 7-grain for your lunch sandwiches, scan the ingredient list carefully—or you just might be fooled into buying white bread in disguise. Breads and other grain-based items like crackers touting slogans such as “made with whole grains,”  “7-grain,” and “multi-grain” often contain high amounts of nutritionally inferior refined white flour and, in turn, give you a lower dose of fiber and essential micronutrients. Manufacturers will include some whole grains in the mix, but the total amount added is anyone’s guess. And don’t give products sporting the yellow Whole Grain Stamp on the front of the package a free pass. A Harvard School of Public Health study found they can, go figure, be higher in sugar and calories than those without the label.

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When buying bread be sure to scan the ingredient list with a wary eye. The first item should be whole wheat flour or another whole grain, rather than wheat flour or enriched flour which are just euphemisms for white flour. A label that uses the regulated term “100% whole grain” cannot include any heavily refined flour.

Kombucha

Kombuchas in tin basket on beach.
Photo: Tyler Nix / Unsplash

Driven by the desire for more alternatives to soda and raising awareness about the potential health benefits of probiotics, sales of this ancient brew have skyrocketed in recent years. But despite the social media chatter, it’s not the ultimate panacea. For starters, the strain of probiotics in the fizzy fermented tea might not be the ones you specifically need most or at levels shown to be beneficial in research papers. Some data suggests probiotics can help athletes side-step upper respiratory conditions, but what are the chances your ginger kombucha has the same microorganisms shown to be effective at fighting off the sniffles or at useful levels? The drink can also be another supermarket sugar bomb. Not everyone craves the slightly sour, vinegar-like taste of kombucha so many brands bump up the sweetness via added sweeteners to make it more palatable. This is problematic considering research suggests that sugary drinks are particularly harmful to health, including this study which found drinking one or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day may raise for heart disease by a lofty 20 percent.

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There is no denying that kombucha can be a convenient way to get a dose of probiotics, especially if you don’t eat much yogurt and other fermented foods. It can also be a more interesting way to stay hydrated than tap water. So if you’re reaching for a pricey bottle of booch make sure it’s not glorified soda by choosing one with less than 6 grams of sugar per serving, keeping in mind that some bottles base their nutrition facts on two 8-ounce servings. Chug back a whole bottle and you could be into the sugar danger zone.  

Coconut Oil

Coconut and coconut oil.
Photo: Shutterstock

This tropical oil has experienced a big-time renaissance and is hogging shelf space in health food stores. But the sales pitch for saturated fat-laden coconut oil doesn’t jibe with the science. You may have heard that coconut oil is a healthy choice for your ticker and waistline–not likely. A meta-analysis in the journal Circulation of 16 published studies found that regular coconut oil consumption leads to higher levels of low-density lipoprotein and total cholesterol compared with other vegetable oils. These are two big risk factors for heart woes. The research also showed no evidence linking coconut oil to lower triglyceride and fasting plasma glucose levels or lower rates of inflammation or obesity. Champions for coconut oil will boast about its fat-zapping powers because it contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a form of fat that is typically burned off as energy instead of being stored in the body. But most of the research cited in favor of the pound-shedding benefits of coconut oil has been done on pure forms of MCT, and since less than 20 percent of the fat in coconut oil is MCT you shouldn’t expect much fat-loss success by blitzing it in your smoothies. 

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If you’re fond of the tropical flavor of coconut oil, go ahead and use it sparingly for cooking and baking purposes. Just don’t allow it to crowd out other healthier oils like olive oil or to think that it will bulletproof your health.

Oat Milk

Front view of a jug and a drinking glass full of oat milk. The glass and the jug are at the right side of the image on a rustic wooden table, next to the glass its a heap of oat flakes.
Photo: Getty Images

First, there was soy, then almond, and now oat. The rise of no-moo milks has been a boon to the plant-based crowd. Yet, these milk alternatives benefit largely from an undeserved health halo. By themselves, most oat and other dairy-free drinks have a poor nutritional profile. For instance, a cup of oat milk has only about 2 grams of protein and none of the naturally occurring calcium and vitamin A in cow’s milk (it does have a couple of extra grams of fiber, though). Brands fortify their drinks with nutrients like calcium and vitamin D but there remains a question of how well the body absorbs these add-ins compared to what is naturally present in foods. Sugar can be another sour note, too. Many cartons are weighed down by added sugars including rice syrup and cane sugar. And emulsifiers like carrageenan and gellan gum not found in regular milk push plant-based milks more toward processed than truly wholesome. 

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Overall, there is nothing wrong with floating your morning cereal in oat and other plant milks as many are indeed tasty, but make sure to choose those that are labeled “unsweetened” which don’t contain added sugars. Even “original” versions typically contain extra amounts of the sweet stuff. And, unless you are using soy milk which has protein levels nearly on par with regular milk, you’ll need to make sure you make up for the protein shortfall elsewhere in your diet. Some brands including Elmhurst are eschewing emulsifiers and gums while using production methods that extract more nutrients from the grain or nut for less watered-down results. 

Granola

Homemade granola
Photo: Heather Barnes / Unsplash

The original hippie food can be a great way for athletes to get the necessary carbs to power workouts but in many cases, granola is not worthy of the nutritional pat on the back it receives. For many brands, the problem arises in the oils and generous amounts of sweeteners used in the baking process. Think of those clumps of oats fused together by caramelized sugars. A mere ½ cup serving can easily add 300 calories (without milk) and 15 grams of sugar to your cereal bowl. And who just eats a half-cup serving? So crunch your way through too many bags and you may notice weight creep unless you are training like a pro. And too often, store-bought granola skimps on healthy nuts and seeds in favor of extra amounts of cheaper ingredients like oats and sugar-coated dried fruits. In other words, you’re essentially being sold sugar-coated baked oatmeal. 

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There are better-for-you brands out there. You’re on the hunt for one that delivers no more than 270 calories and 8 grams of added sugar per ½ cup serving and has at least 3 grams of dietary fiber. If a brand lists an unrealistic ¼ cup or 1/3 cup serving make sure to do the math to see what you are actually eating with your typical serving size. It helps if you get about 5 grams of protein in a serving and if nuts and seeds are visually abundant in the mix as they provide beneficial fats and make the granola more satiating. Don’t get swayed by add-ins like probiotics that likely don’t do much for you in the end. Also, consider opting for muesli. It’s also made with oats, nuts, and often dried fruits, but is rarely baked with oils and sugars so it’s easier to find options with lower calorie and sugar numbers.

No-Meat Meat

Impossible burger.
Photo: Joanna Stolowics / Unsplash

With the rise of plant-based eating among the masses, meat-free burgers and chicken nuggets are suddenly everywhere, from mega-marts to fast-food drive-thrus to even white-tablecloth restaurants. But just because a ketchup slathered burger stuffed into a bun is made from pea protein doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for you. Yes, they are higher in protein and taste pretty darn close to the real thing, you can’t lose sight of the reality that they should be considered ultra-processed grub with a lengthy ingredient list that only a chem-whiz could decipher. Ten bucks you would not be using methylcellulose or cultured dextrose to make your own veggie burgers. The products often have about the same number of calories and saturated fat as what you’d get in meat-based fast-food options and typically deliver higher levels of sodium. An industry-funded study did find that people who replaced most of the animal-based protein in their diet with a commercial plant-based alternative for two months improved their metabolic risk factors for heart disease. But so what. It’s easy to argue that replacing meats with less engineered forms of plant-based protein like legumes could bring on similar (or even more pronounced) results. 

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If a burger or sausage craving strikes but you are trying to cut back on your meat intake for health and environmental reasons go ahead and enjoy one of these new-age faux meats. But just like other highly processed foods, only do so in moderation instead of making it a habit. You’re much better served to get most of your plant protein from whole foods like lentils and nuts instead of something made using an extruder. 

Veggie Chips

Colourful roasted chips made of yellow and lila sweet potatoes and parsnips.
Photo: Getty Images

When it comes to health foods, vegetable chips and puffs prove the trendiness-as-truthfulness model doesn’t always apply. Clever marketing may leave you believing that crunching through a bag of veggie chips are a way to snack your way to an extra daily serving of vegetables. But here we have a case of something being too good to be true. Most products lead with a starchy ingredient — like potatoes, white rice, or tarro — that end up being a delivery vehicle for oil so the calorie count is not much less than what’s found in a bag of regular potato chips. Some chips are made with a powdered veggie blend that can include everything from kale to broccoli, but in the end, this ends up largely as an afterthought as one of the last ingredients on the nutrition label. (Read: you are not getting a serving of veg.) Plus all that processing that vegetables need to go through to be stuffed into shelf-stable packaged foods likely takes a big bite out of their nutrient levels. Yes, many veggie chips are now baked instead of being fried, but people may just end up eating more as they feel less guilty about polishing off a bag of crunchy beets. 

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If a sweaty workout leaves you needing a chip fix pronto opt for brands made with baked sliced veggies instead of veggie powder. That means a simple ingredient list that may include just sweet potatoes and salt. That better guarantees you fewer greasy calories and that you’ll be consuming some of the nutrition bound up in the vegetable. But don’t forget that a few handfuls of packaged veggie chips will never be a substitute for more nutrient-dense fresh vegetables. In other words, load your grocery cart with real beets and carrots instead of crispy versions.

Low-Calorie Ice Cream

Chocolate ice cream
Photo: Irene Kredenets / Unsplash

Those tubs of calorie-stingy ice cream seem like a dessert lover’s dream. Sadly, it might be time to put down that spoon. The core ingredients of these 21st century subzero creams tend to be skim milk, milk-protein derivatives and sugar alternatives like erythritol, which work in tandem to keep fat levels low and slash calories down to about 300 to 360 per pint—about half the amount in regular ice cream. The real risk here is that people will consider these a guilt-free treat and polish off an entire pint in one sitting which is still more processed calories than you want while binging Netflix at night. One study discovered that when foods were hyped as being low-fat, subjects ate up to 50 percent more than when no claim about fat content was made. The zero- or low-calorie sweeteners used in these slimmed-down frosty treats may lead to GI woes when eating too liberally and research calls into question just how well sweetener alternatives help in weight loss pursuits. A pint of sweet-tasting low-calorie cookie dough ice cream may just serve to stoke your sweet tooth leading, you to overeat other sugary foods. 

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If you are going to indulge in any of these ice creams on occasion be sure to scoop out your portion into a bowl and toss the rest back into the deep freeze. This makes it much less likely you’ll be staring down at an empty pint. In the end, if you’re craving ice cream, find a way to wedge in a serving of the real stuff into your daily calorie allotment. You’re taste buds and bank account will thank you.