In helping people find new, nourishing ways to eat, whether it’s for weight loss or overall health improvement, I’m often surprised to learn what people believe to be “healthy choices.” It’s not realistic to expect a layperson to decipher all of the misinformation about health and nutrition swirling around the webosphere, but even folks with medical and health education backgrounds can get stuck on outdated strategies for a healthy lifestyle, following and recommending advice to their patients that is no longer backed up by the research. So I’m going to pick my jaw up off the ground and set straight some of the misconceptions out there about food — what’s healthy, what’s not, and why.
A major challenge in this whole “good vs. bad” food approach is unlearning old information, so that’s where I’m going to start today. Get ready as I unpack some foods you thought were healthy but aren’t.
Foods You Think Are Healthy But Aren’t
1. Skim Milk
Remember when I mentioned a potential rant coming about skim milk? Behold! Here it is. Skim milk is the first on my hit list, because it’s my biggest rant. Not only is fat-free dairy flavorless and disgusting, it’s the concentrated byproduct leftover when the best part of milk (the CREAM!) is removed. It’s touted as a health food, and it’s simply the opposite — full of sugar, void of nutrients, and not a joy to eat. (And yes, I believe that a food must be a joy to eat to qualify as a health food!)
The fat-soluble vitamins found in whole milk (namely vitamins A and D) need fat to be absorbed into our bodies, and the protein and calcium found in all milk need the vitamins to be absorbed. When the fat is removed, so are the vitamins, which causes us to have to deplete our own stores of vitamins to absorb the protein and calcium in skim milk. On top of that, the process of creating skim milk includes adding milk solids created through a high-heat process that oxidizes the naturally occurring cholesterol in milk, thus creating a food that’s heart hazardous, rather than heart healthy. (source)
Skim milk also doesn’t promote fat loss — in fact, it promotes fat gain. Farmers give pigs skim milk to fatten them up (source 1, source 2), and unfortunately, studies show that the same is true of our children. In a huge study of 10,700 children, those who drank 1% or skim milk had higher BMIs (body mass index) than children who drank whole milk (source).
What to eat instead:
If your digestion can handle dairy, stick with full-fat. Always choose organic dairy products. Opt for non-homogenized if you can find it, and best of all, if your state allows the sale of raw dairy, give that a try.
2. Diet Drinks and Artificial Sweeteners
One of the seemingly obvious strategies people use to watch their sugar and caloric intake is to replace sugary drinks and desserts with diet drinks and artificial sweeteners. Due to the mistaken belief that because these choices are calorie-free, they either “don’t count” or they’ll help with weight loss, this strategy is one I constantly have to debunk.
Artificial sweeteners like saccharine and aspartame are not only implicated in serious diseases (source 1, source 2), they also create disruptions in hormonal and metabolic responses in the body as compared to sucrose or glucose. They disrupt our ability to recognize caloric vs noncaloric sweet foods, which can often result in overconsumption and energy dysregulation in the body. They are implicated in an increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, heart disease and metabolic syndrome, not a decrease (source).
Make no mistake, too much real sugar is a major culprit in these diseases as well. I’m not at all saying that it’s preferable to drink a regular Coke over a Diet Coke. I’m saying skip the Coke. This is an instance of ditching the fake and the real thing in order to move closer to a healthy lifestyle.
What to drink instead:
A great alternative to sugary drinks (real or fake) is to add a squeeze of lemon or mint to soda water, or purchase something like a Soda Stream (affiliate link) and make bubbly water with a splash of 100% fruit juice. Which brings me to my next “health food” …
3. Fruit Juice
Did you see how I used the word “splash” up there? A full glass of fruit juice is not a healthy choice. I went to a symposium on the rising rates of diabetes in children, and Dr. Robert Lustig was there presenting on the dangers of too much fructose in the diet. He told is a great little story, which I’ll share with you here:
Two kids were called to the front of the classroom to demonstrate the difference between oranges and orange juice. One kid was given 6 oranges to squeeze into an 8 oz glass of juice. He drank it right down and was ready for more. The other kid was told to eat the 6 oranges. He made it through 3 before he threw up.
That’s a gross story, but it illustrates the difference between a whole food and a juice. The juice is missing the fiber – the filling part that slows down the naturally-occurring sugars in the fruit. Take away the fiber, and you have a fructose bomb. No one eats 6 oranges, but plenty of people drink far more than 8 oz of juice.
Fruit juice is a high glycemic food. It’s dense in calories but does not satisfy hunger. Skip it.
What to drink instead:
If you really want to drink your fruit, make a smoothie that includes no more than one serving of fruit, and add some veggies in there while you’re at it. Otherwise, just stick with water. If you want something bubbly and sweet, see my recommendations for replacing diet soda – just a splash, not a whole glass.
4. Diet Meals and Snacks
Those among us who hate to cook but are watching their weight might opt for frozen or packaged diet foods such as Healthy Choice, Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers products, “low-carb” powdered peanut butter (yuck!), or 100 calorie snack packs (just to name a few). The problem with these foods is multi-fold, but a big one is quality of ingredients. These packaged products are made with cheap, low-quality ingredients sourced from factory farms and actual factories. I like using one of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules (affiliate link) to illustrate this point:
“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”
Another major issue with these foods is what it takes to make these cheap, processed ingredients taste good. When engineering a diet food — one with low- to no-fat, low- to no-sodium — what are you using to make this product taste good? MSG? Sugar alcohols? High fructose corn syrup? all manner of other unpronounceable ingredients? What’s ungodly chemicals are in these boxes?
I’ve ranted about products with health claims on the labels before. I shared the front and back label of a product claiming to be healthy, even though the first few ingredients were sugar, sugar, and sugar. The same goes for these diet foods.
What to eat instead:
If you really can’t cook for yourself, consider getting a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and pairing it with a fresh salad. Or try baking a sweet potato and topping it with 1/2 a can of Amy’s Organic Chili(affiliate link). For a snack, try an apple or celery with REAL nut butter (the kind where the ingredients are nuts and salt), or a full-fat greek yogurt with fresh fruit. There are alternatives to boxed meals and snacks that don’t require a lot of fuss. Get creative!
5. Soy Products
Soy, of pretty-much any kind, is also a “fake health food.” Soy protein isolate is actually the byproduct of other mass-produced soy products and is extremely difficult to digest. It’s also phytoestrogenic and can disrupt the balance of sex hormones in both men and women. Protein powders in the health foods stores with soy protein in the ingredients are absolutely not a healthy choice.
Tofu is also a processed soy product with the same phytoestrogenic qualities and should not be consumed as a “meat replacement” in the quantities that typical American vegetarians consume. Cultures that include soy in their diets do so in tiny amounts, and it’s almost always fermented — natto and miso in the case of Japan, or tempeh. These are also meant to be consumed in small quantities. The phytates innate in soy beans are antinutrients and prevent the absorption of protein, leach calcium, and can create digestive upset (gas). Additionally, although it’s a controversial topic, it’s worth mentioning that nearly all soy grown in the US is GM (Genetically Modified), which means that it was bred to handle excessive pesticide use and destroys the farmland. Whether or not you believe that GMOs have long-term human health consequences, GMOs are not good for our ecosystem or the health of our soil. They facilitate the use of broad spectrum herbicides like Roundup, which not only kills every living plant present but the GM seeds, it also promotes mutations that lead to herbicide-resistance weeds (think antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a result of too much antibiotic use if that didn’t make sense to you).
What to eat instead:
There are myriad other protein choices for vegetarians if that’s what you’re looking for. Even broccoli and leafy greens are high in amino acids. Other beans and whole grains are great for a meal, and the choices for soy-free vegan protein powders are plentiful. Here are a few of my favorites (all affiliate links):
6. Whole Wheat Breads and Cereals
Wheat just isn’t what it used to be. As agriculture has changed over the last few decades, so too has the wheat grain. Preferentially bred to contain more gluten (protein) for greater yield and greater resistance to pests, today’s wheat is more difficult to digest than its ancestors. Some believe these breeding practices are in part responsible for the rise in gluten sensitivity (source).
You probably already read my cereal rant, but just in case you missed it, most cereal is garbage. Whether it’s made out of wheat, corn, soy, or rice, whether it’s a flake, an “o”, a charm, or a “pop,” extruded cereals are neurotoxic, high-glycemic, high in sugar, and not part of a balanced breakfast.
As far as “whole wheat” bread, bread is made from flour, whether it’s white or wheat. Flour (especially grain flour, which is carbohydrate-dense) is quickly digested and turned to sugar in the body.
What to eat instead:
If you can skip bread, or treat it like a treat rather than an every-day staple, that’s the way to go. There are some pretty great alternatives out there though. Stone-ground whole-grain breads that don’t start with finely milled flours (like this one), paleo breads (like this one), and even paleo options to wrap up your sandwich ingredients (like this one, which I’ve been using a lot lately) are all great options. (all but first links are affiliate links)
7. Low-fat/Fat-free Salad Dressings
Store-bought salad dressings in general are full of cheap refined oils, sugar, and other unpronounceable ingredients. And the low-fat/fat-free varieties aren’t any better. In fact, often the low-fat/fat-free version is higher in sugar (usually in the form of high fructose corn syrup) than its full-fat counterpart. If you’re eating a salad to be healthy, why not dress it with something healthy?
Low-fat foods need to make up the missing flavor somewhere, and salad dressings are no different. Compare labels next time you’re at the grocery store, and then opt to make your own with ingredients you can feel good about.
What to eat instead:
Check out my video to learn a simple formula for a delicious, quick homemade salad dressing. You can get super creative with it, so don’t be shy! Mix up the mustards, blend in 1/2 an avocado, change up the oils, add in some vinegar. What matters is that you are in control of the quality and what goes into your dressing. Don’t sabotage your salad with a garbage dressing.
FTC DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive monetary compensation for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog. I only link to products that I USE and LOVE. All opinions are my own.