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Sunday
Jul132014

15 Foods That Don’t Deserve Their Health Halo

The produce department manager, George, at my local grocery store once told me he’s responsible for about 500-600 fresh produce items, most of which he has to turn over (arrange and sell) within 36 hours to meet store standards for freshness and appearance. He takes pride in his job, and he says he would much rather work with produce than (in his words) “deal with the mess of the other 40,000 packaged crap customers think is food.” The way George sees it, if food isn’t fresh then it doesn’t deserve any hype. In a way, I think he’s got it right. The wrong foods tend to get the most promotion in our marketing culture, while the best choices remain the proverbial wallflowers. Check out 15 foods below that don’t deserve their health halos, and add your thoughts on food product fanfare.

Breakfast Cereal

When did cereal become “part of a healthy breakfast”? Actually, the crispy, ready-to-eat variety of cereal grains became popularized when William K. Kellogg fed it to patients at his Battle Creek, Michigan Sanitarium starting in the 1860s! The cereals were thought to possess excellent cleansing properties due to their wholesome ingredients and fibrous, bowel-regulating grains. Today, breakfast cereal is promoted as having “as much protein as an egg” and being “made with whole grains.” There are even “challenges” suggesting you replace each breakfast and lunch with a 260-calorie serving of cereal and low-fat milk. (There's a recipe for all-day hunger!) Any product can carry the “made with whole grains” label as long as the grain ingredients are no more than 49% refined. Additionally, last time I checked, an egg also has “as much protein as an egg” without any refined ingredients or added sugar. There are so many better choices for breakfast. I’d recommend leaving this one on the shelf.

100% Fruit Juice, Dried Fruit (or Even Liberal Amounts of Fruit)

Juice is liquid sugar, whether it’s 100% real or not (and that’s a surprisingly complicated matter in itself). It’s simply the fastest way to spike blood sugar known to man outside of intravenous access. Dried fruit gives us an almost equal ability to jack up blood sugar because we can eat so much of it compared to the fresh stuff. How many grapes can you eat before you’re full?  How many raisins? See? Lot’s of people lump fruit and veggies together in one category, but that’s kind of like saying lemon water is the same as lemonade. There’s a measurable difference in sugar content between fruit and most vegetables, and ignoring that difference could put you over your sugar budget pretty quickly. Let me be clear. I’m not anti-fruit. I love fresh fruit. However, I recommend including small rather than liberal servings in your diet.

Egg Substitutes

The incredible, edible egg was rudely benched after the famous TIME magazine article proclaiming dietary cholesterol and saturated fat play a causal role in the development of heart disease. Science (and even TIME itself) has since explained this relationship with more detail, but not soon enough to boot the yolk-less substitutes off of the “heart-healthy” section of the menu. The truth is, eggs in their natural form – especially from chickens raised on pasture – are one of the most nutrient-dense, health-promoting foods on the planet!

Yogurt

Most yogurt is semi-liquid sugar. This fermented dairy (and sometimes non-dairy) wonder was introduced to the U.S. with good intentions, but its sour taste clashed so badly with our culture's sweet preference we whipped it into a dessert-like concoction and slapped a breakfast label on it. These days these sugary versions are even marketed as low-calorie weight-loss solutions and bowel-regulating gems! On the other hand, no-sugar-added, full-fat, Greek style (strained) yogurt is something deserving of health hype. Try topping it with some cinnamon and a small handful of fresh or frozen berries, and you’ve got something worth including in your healthy diet.

Most Other Dairy

It’s amazing how anything dairy carries an entourage of health claims, such as “good source” of calcium, vitamin D and protein. On the other hand, most of the dairy on U.S. shelves can’t be given away in most countries that have more discerning standards for the quality of milk products. Cows are eating things they weren’t meant to because it makes them fatter more quickly, but they also end up getting sick more easily. Sick cows are given antibiotics. In fact, even healthy cows are given antibiotics! Most dairy cows are additionally treated with an anabolic steroid of sorts to make them produce more milk than naturally possible. (Yuck.) Go organic for sure whenever it’s possible, and, even better, consider pasture-raised, 100% grass-fed if you can track it down at your grocer. Many people, because of the cost or limited availability of these varieties or because of personal dairy sensitivities, choose to forgo most if not all dairy. Despite conventional messaging, this is a safe and (for many people) even healthier choice.

Soy

Oh boy, soy. After the “eggs-are-bad-for-you" debacle, we became convinced that all things soy were a great alternative because soy in its wholly natural state can be a good source of protein, fiber, and phytonutrients. The fact is, however, the overwhelming majority of soy we consume is a franken-food version of its original self. Highly modified before being planted to resist the chemical pesticides applied liberally while growing, highly processed into various food products, and highly preserved for long shelf life, soy is a hotly-debated and thoroughly researched food that carries positive health labels not because it deserves superpower status in the plant world but because it carries blockbuster status as a big agriculture cash crop.

Vegetable Oils (e.g. corn oil, cottonseed, canola oil, soybean oil, etc.)

There was a time when I was giddy over these vegetable oils because they contain some omega-3 fats and have less saturated fat than even olive oil does. Oh, how times have changed! We’ve eaten more of these oils (because they are used in almost every processed food item) than ever in the past 40 years, but we’ve only become fatter and sicker as a populace. Additionally, we’ve even taken on a different fatty acid profile in our own body fat. Some scientists believe the large amounts of omega-6 fat and other highly-processed polyunsaturated fats consumed today are literally suffocating our cells’ mitochondria, rendering them unable to efficiently burn fuel for heat and energy. We’re much better off choosing unprocessed, clean, naturally stable (often old-fashioned) fat sources.

Most Roasted Nuts

Many health authorities encourage including nuts in your diet for the fiber, healthy fats, and proteins they offer and because they’ve been shown to promote heart health and satiety. However, most commercially available nuts you see on the shelves are roasted in various vegetable oils (discussed above), coated with a sweet shell, and/or combined with sugar-added dried fruit, which means many of these crunchy treats become a vessel for delivering junky oils and high doses of sugar. If you enjoy nuts, about 1 ½ ounces of raw or dry-roasted nuts will carry the maximal benefits. Skip the honey-roasted and chocolate-covered health-imposters.

Whole Wheat Anything

Choosing whole wheat versus refined grain choices is sort of like putting a filter on a cigarette and calling it healthy. Wheat - whether whole or processed - is one of those foods that has a significant and violent impact on blood sugars, which means it’s bound to produce erratic energy and hunger levels in most people. It’s also rather addictive and inflammatory to many people as cardiologist Dr. William Davis explains in this interview. Don’t believe me? Try going wheat-free for a week, and tell me how you feel.

Gluten-Free Alternatives

I have to say, the lipstick on a pig image comes up for me with this one. I’m exaggerating, but putting a boastful “gluten-free” sticker on a box of cookies or on some highly-refined cereal or cracker brand doesn’t garner a health halo. While they avoid the particular pitfalls of wheat, these GF varieties often have just as much, if not more, sugar and total carbohydrates in them than their standard wheat-based cousins. Veggies, meats, and unprocessed nuts are also gluten-free and are always a better choice.

Frozen Meals

Every time I see one of these in the breakroom at work I’m tempted to staple a business card to the box. The idea of convenience is great, but these entrees, generally speaking, offer little more than empty promises. With a few greens beans here, a few broccoli chunks there and often questionable chicken cutlets, frozen meals will rarely if ever provide you with the nutritional intake you need or the basic satiety you deserve from your food. They may taste passable because they’re swimming in salt and flavor-enhancing chemicals to hide the fact that 90% of the food is cheap starch that probably tastes like the box itself.

Quinoa

Before you tune out, read on. Quinoa is a seed from a grass-like plant. It has all the amino acids needed to make any protein in our bodies - but in amounts smaller than we often believe. It’s a starch, with some fiber, that gets labeled a great source of protein. The fact is, you’d have to eat one full cup of cooked quinoa to equal the protein of a single egg. This means, unfortunately, you’d have to consume the carb equivalent of two pieces of bread to get what’s really a relatively small dose of protein. Don’t get me wrong: quinoa is a great grain alternative and even a pretty healthy food. That said, its nutritional profile is misunderstood and doesn’t ultimately deserve a halo.

Restaurant Salads

We’d assume they’re the healthiest thing on the menu, but we’d be wrong in many cases. Every time I travel, I debate ordering an anemic restaurant salad or just going hungry. Let me put it this way - I travel hungry more often than I eat salads on the road. Common sense tells us to order a restaurant salad because it looks like the biggest pile of veggies in sight. However, when you factor in the vegetable-oil-based dressing, processed croutons, ample iceberg lettuce and even candied (i.e. sugar-coated) nuts, you’re truly better off catching the cooks off guard and ordering a protein (e.g. chicken breast) with a side of steamed broccoli. Bonus: I find that oftentimes the cooks are pretty liberal with their “sides” of veggies.

Granola Bars

How many of us think of granola every time we see a mountain hiker with a backpack? The images used in granola bar commercials lead us to believe there’s nothing more natural to be had! In reality, processed granola bars are nothing more than glorified candy bars (or solidified blocks of breakfast cereal, which is generally the same thing). It really makes no difference if it’s sprinkled with dried fruit or chocolate (although that doesn’t help). Either way, there’s a ton of sugar in these supposed on-the-go “health foods.”

Protein Bars

Holy cow, has the market for protein bars exploded in the past several years! Many protein bars attempt to show they’re better than their granola grandparents, but in reality they can be just as guilty and junk-loaded. Next time you pick one up, check out the length of the ingredient list as well as the nutrition breakdown. Most of the bars I examine have far less protein than carbohydrates and contain several different types of sugar (in order to list each one lower on the ingredient list). To boot, many use highly-processed vegetable oils to create a somewhat decent texture. While some are clearly better than others, and a few actually offer what they claim, protein bars as a collective whole don’t deserve a halo.

What foods or food products would you add to this list? Offer up your suggestions, thoughts and feedback, and thanks for reading.

Written by Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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