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So-Called "Health Foods" That Are Actually Unhealthy

October 05, 2019

"There are so many products that try to make you think they are healthy, but they just aren’t."

Over the years, marketers have dubbed so many foods as “health foods” which in reality are quite the opposite, making it easy for consumers to get confused, frustrated, or lost when trying to figure out what to eat.

In today’s part one of her two-part “unhealthy” series, Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD, shares the top so-called health foods to stay away from as well as some tasty, healthier versions that can be made at home. 

Video Highlights

  • 04:33: Label Terms
  • 06:21: Organic
  • 07:21: Natural or All Natural
  • 08:41: Free-Range or Cage-Free
  • 12:02: Low-Fat or Fat Free
  • 14:45: Light
  • 17:36: Top Unhealthy Health Foods
  • 17:45: Smoothie Bowls
  • 22:15: Granola
  • 26:47: Veggie Chips
  • 32:05: Pretzels
  • 35:50: Deli Meats
  • 38:56: Wrap-Up

There is so much attention given to the topic of what to eat, and we spend so much time talking about what’s healthy, and what’s not healthy, what to eat and what not to eat, that it’s really easy to get confused, frustrated, or lost when trying to figure out what’s really healthy and what’s not.

Well, fear not! Today, we’re going to try to clear up some of the fog. Dr. Nancy will share some of her top unhealthy health foods, and do a little myth-busting on the way. She’ll explain why these foods are thought to be healthy, but really aren’t, and provide some alternatives to these “unhealthy health foods” that are easy to make and actually are healthy — foods that will support your efforts to improve your health through a natural, or organic whole food diet.

Label Terms

Speaking of natural and organic, let’s take a minute to clear up some of the  confusion around several of the terms and labels on packaging and foods, which might make you think you are buying something healthy, when you actually may not be.

Other than organic and all natural, here are some other terms that get thrown around a lot: “free range”, “cage free”, “low fat”, “fat free”, “light”... they all sound healthy, but do they really mean what we think they mean?  Let’s take a look.

Organic

We’re always recommending you eat organic foods as often as possible. Products produced using exclusively organic methods that contain at least 95% organic ingredients may use the USDA Organic Seal. The other 5% must be non-GMO and on the National List of Acceptable Ingredients. They also must meet strict guidelines pertaining to how the soil is prepared, the pesticides and herbicides they use, and the types of foods and medicines they feed to animals and fish that will be used for meat.  

Natural or All-Natural

This label certainly gives the impression that something is healthy, right? It sounds healthy, but is it? Well, not always. Food labeled "natural," according to the USDA, does not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives and the ingredients are only minimally processed — which is a good thing. However, they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals, leaving room for a lot of harmful chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, and other toxins to be used in and on the food.  

Free-Range or Cage-Free

This is a label frequently used on eggs or poultry, and again, it sounds great, right? Eggs produced by chickens not cooped up in cramped cages are healthier, the chickens are less stressed, and you are getting a healthier product... right? In theory, yes, but in reality, unless they are labeled organic and cage-free, you are probably not getting the quality or nutrition you think that you are paying for.  

For a product to be labeled "free range" or "cage free", the animals cannot be contained in any way and must be allowed to roam and forage freely over a large area of open land. However, this labeling is very minimally regulated and USDA food labeling regulation only requires that the producer be able to demonstrate that the animals are allowed access to the outside and not contained, but applications, certification, or permits to be free-range or cage-free are not required; in other words, there are no requirements for the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access. 

Because Free Range and Cage Free is so loosely regulated, it allows producers to keep animals closely confined, but without cages, and still use the label "cage free." Again, look for organic and free range or cage free. You might also try to buy local too — buying eggs at your local farmer’s market cuts out the middleman and gives you the opportunity to have a conversation directly with the farmer who raises the chickens.

Low-Fat and Fat Free

Are foods labeled low-fat or fat-free healthier than “regular” versions? These labels are really, really misleading. Years ago, when the first news about the dangers of saturated fat and trans fat came out, then quickly all fats were demonized. Marketers rushed to create products that were low-fat or fat-free, leading us to believe they must be healthier than the regular version. 

But here’s what was missed on the label: just because it’s low fat or fat-free doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is healthier for you! In fact, many manufacturers of processed foods make up for lack of flavor lost by removing fats by adding more additives, chemicals, salt, and especially sugar (which is fat-free). And many low-fat or fat-free versions often contain way more calories per serving when compared to the full-fat or regular product. So make sure you are reading ingredient labels on any packaged foods that you buy.

Light

Products are frequently labeled light, what do you think of when you see the light” version of something? A healthier version right? Less calories, less sugar, less fat? That might be true, but it also might not be true — you need to be real careful with this one.

A food label may say a product, like olive oil, is light, but manufacturers have been known to use the term to refer to the flavor rather than the ingredients, meaning they are saying it has a lighter flavor, not that it’s lighter in terms of fat or calories. It’s a dirty little trick, that is actually used to make you think something is better for you, when in reality, a food labeled “light” might not have any health benefits at all. However, to actually be considered a light product, a product must contain 50% less fat than the original comparable product. Always double check by reading labels, and remember to look for added ingredients that might be added to compensate for the loss of flavor in the lower fat or light version of any product.

Top Unhealthy Health Foods

Smoothie Bowls

But wait, didn’t Dr. Nancy just show us how to make a smoothie bowl in one of her shows?  The answer is yes, and her versions are extremely healthy, and made with organic whole fruits and veggies and is a sensible portion size.

Here’s the problem with many of the smoothie bowls out there — especially the ones found in juice shops and restaurants: they are monster portions and absolutely loaded with excess calories, added sugar. Plus, they don’t always use the healthiest of ingredients — including fruit juices, purees, sugar, and sweetened yogurt. When you consider all of those ingredients, you get a bowl that has a lot of added calories, much more sugar than you should have in your diet, and probably fruit or products that are not organic and may be genetically modified, meaning you are eating a higher than normal concentration of pesticides, herbicides, and other toxins.  

Smoothie bowls are really popular right now, and they can be healthy, but just make sure you know what’s going into them or better yet make your own!

The Ultimate Raw Smoothie Bowl

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1 ½ cups berry mix or frozen fruit mix of choice
  • 1 ½ fresh banana (use the other half sliced on top)
  • 2 tablespoons almond or natural peanut butter or 1 scoop vegan protein powder, optional
  • ½ cup water
  • 3 – 4 ice cubes

Optional toppings

  • Granola
  • Chia seeds
  • Coconut
  • Cacao nibs
  • Natural nut butters (almond, peanut, etc.)
  • Banana
  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Hemp hearts
  • Chia seeds
  • Pomegranate seeds
  • Almonds
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Protein powder

Instructions:

Place berry mix, banana, nut butter, water and ice cubes in a blender. Blend until thick and creamy. Pour into serving dish and top with whatever toppings you like. 

Granola

Granola is one of those so-called “health foods” that has pulled the wool over our eyes for years — maybe more so than any other health food out there. Granola and granola bars have fooled us all into thinking they are a healthy snack, when really most are loaded with sugar, additives, processed oils, and candy — which adds tons of empty calories, unhealthy fats, and tons of added sugar. Take a look at most store-bought granola: a cup of it averages nearly 600 calories, 30 grams of fat, and 24 grams of sugar!

Fortunately, there is an easy fix. You can make your own healthy granola or trail mix in just a few minutes.  Remember, granola and trail mix is generally made with nutrient-dense ingredients, including nuts, seeds, and coconut, so a little bit goes a long way — make sure you are measuring out your portions, or you will find yourself eating a lot more than you should!

Healthy Granola Recipe

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 2 cups old-fashioned organic gluten free rolled oats
  • 1 cup raw nuts (pecans, walnuts, almonds, etc.) and/or seeds (hemp, chia, pumpkin) 
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt 
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ cup melted coconut oil 
  • ¼ cup maple syrup 
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup dried fruit (apples, cranberries, dates, apricots, etc.)
  • ¼ cup organic coconut flakes

Instructions:

  • Preheat oven to 350°F and line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Mix all ingredients except dried fruit in a large bowl
  • Spread onto baking sheet, bake 20 minutes stirring halfway.
  • Let cool for 30 minutes, add dried fruit, give it a good stir and that’s it — you can use right away or store in an airtight container.

Veggie Chips

Veggie chips or veggie straws sound so healthy right? They aren’t potatoes, so that’s good — and they are usually made from some of the best, healthiest vegetables, like beets, sweet potatoes, and even broccoli. What’s not to love?  

Well, here’s the problem: you know how veggie chips claim to contain actual vegetables? They do, but often in the form of dried, processed vegetable powders and mostly to give these chips bright colors similar to beets and sweet potatoes.

In addition, these chips have more sugar and salt than regular potato chips and are usually fried the same way regular chips are. We’re sorry to burst your bubble on the veggie chips, but they are usually high in fat, sodium, sugar and have no benefits we’d associate with fresh vegetables. They are just not healthy alternatives to chips!  

But fear not! There is a solution. You can make the most amazing homemade sweet potato chips, from real sweet potatoes and only three other ingredients: organic olive oil, sea salt, and pepper. You have to make these, you are going to love them!

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 2 organic sweet potatoes
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • Fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Instructions:

  • Preheat oven to 400°F (121°C) and position oven rack in the center of the oven.
  • Rinse and dry your sweet potatoes, keep the skins on and slice them as uniformly thin as possible. If you have a mandolin, use it. Otherwise, use a very sharp knife to get these uniformly thin. 
  • Toss slices in an olive oil to lightly coat, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Lay out in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for about 20-25 minutes until crisp, flipping chips once at the halfway point to ensure even cooking. 
  • Remove once crisp and golden brown. Some may feel a little tender in the middle but take them out and let them rest for 10 minutes or so to crisp up.

That’s it!  Simple, real, healthy veggie chips — your family is going to love these.

Pretzels

While we are talking about snacks, let's talk about another health myth: “pretzels are healthy”. Where in the world did this one come from? Sure they might not be fried, which makes them lower in unhealthy fat content than potato chips, so in that one regard, they are healthier than potato chips. But to say they are a healthy snack simply isn’t true. Pretzels are made from refined white flour and loads of salt, and they have almost no nutritional value. So, let’s all get off the “pretzels as a healthy snack” bandwagon. Two quick, easy, delicious organic alternative to pretzels and chips are oven-roasted crispy chickpeas and baked kale chips — both delicious, healthy snacks that the whole family will love.

Click here to learn how to make the crispy chickpeas, and keep reading to learn how to make these awesome Organic Kale Chips!

These are super simple, but super delicious. Here’s what you need:

  • 1 large bunch of organic kale 
  • 1-2 Tbsp of olive oil
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 1 Tbsp seasonings of choice (black pepper, garlic powder, curry powder, nutritional yeast, turmeric, cumin, etc.)

Super simple to make — here’s all you need to do:

  • Preheat oven to 250°F 
  • Rinse and thoroughly dry kale, then tear into small pieces and discard any large stems.
  • Add to a large mixing bowl and drizzle with oil and seasonings of choice. Toss thoroughly to combine.
  • Spread the kale over a large baking sheet or maybe two (just make sure the kale isn’t touching each other).
  • Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the pans around and lightly toss/stir kale to ensure even baking. Bake for 5-10 minutes more, or until kale is crispy and very light golden brown. Keep an eye on it as it can burn easily.
  • Remove from oven and let cool. Chips will crisp up even more once out of the oven.
  • Enjoy!   

Deli Meats 

We love deli meat, especially in sandwiches and salads. In fact over 50% of us eat a sandwich or salad with deli meat every day — and why not? They are fast, easy, taste good, and are low in fat and high in protein; what’s not to love, right?  If only it were that simple. Dr. Nancy included deli meats, including turkey and ham, on her unhealthy health food list because they are absolutely loaded with sodium, contain excess sugar, and are often loaded with additives, fillers, and several preservatives, including nitrates, which we know to be a potential cancer causing agents. 

We recommend skipping the deli counter and the extra additives and preservatives, and looking to get your protein for your sandwiches and salads by using freshly roasted organic turkey and chicken. Try roasting a chicken or turkey breast on a Sunday, slicing it, and keeping it in the fridge to use in a quick sandwich for the kids or on a salad for lunch or dinner. 

Wrap-Up

We hope you enjoyed these healthy alternatives for unhealthy health foods! There are so many products that try to make you think they are healthy, but they just aren’t — and most, if not all, are processed foods that are being marketed as something they are not.

You can never go wrong by opting for fresh, organic, whole foods: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and organic lean sources of protein. You can also make sure you are getting all the essential vitamins and minerals by supplementing your diet with a daily multivitamin.  Be careful with vitamins and minerals too — they are marketed in all different ways, with many offering mega-dosing (which is really not good for you), or making outrageous claims. Dr. Nancy takes and recommends taking Smarter Nutrition’s Smarter Multi — it sources most of its vitamins and all its minerals from the highest quality organic plant-based sources. That makes a huge difference in how your body absorbs essential vitamins and minerals. Supplement with Smarter Multi every day, to ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need.

Remember, when it comes to nutrition, you have to take an active role in your health: read labels, ask the tough questions, and don’t just take a label at face value. 

We hope you take a few minutes to make some of the recipes we shared with you today. We think you will really like them!

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