Food marketers these days are on their game. Everyday we buy foods with labels like “natural” and “7 grain” and “high fiber” because these words indicate that something is good for us. But oftentimes food products can be wolves in sheep’s clothing, or not so awesome for us foods disguised as health food. In this post I’ll go over a few commonly misnamed “healthy foods” and discuss why we think they’re healthy, why they aren’t, and what to eat instead.
Energy and Cereal Bars
Why we think they’re healthy They contain protein, are typically low in fat, and are sometimes made with whole grains (think Kashi’s super secret “special blend of 7 whole grains). They are marketed extensively as healthy meal replacements, healthy snacks, or the perfect pre workout snack for athletes.
Why they’re not While they are marketed as healthy, they are in reality just glorified candy bars. Take Luna Bars for example. They have names like “Peppermint Stick” “Oatmeal Raisin Cookie” and “Key Lime Pie”. Each one has about 180-200 calories and over 10 grams of sugar. So while yes, they do have more protein than a candy bar (9 grams compared to Snickers 4 grams) and less sugar (Snickers packs 30 grams), for the most part they are added calories and won’t fill you up. Trust me, I’ve eaten my share of Kashi bars, Luna bars, and Special K bars before a workout and they just left me hungry an hour later. And on top of that, all these “health bars” have the same additives found in your Three Musketeers and Mounds bars. Shared ingredients in a Snickers and Special K protein bar for example include sugar, corn syrup, soy lecithin, and artificial flavor (fun fact: snickers has fewer ingredients).
Better Options: If you’re eating a cereal bar because you’re really craving a Milky Way, my advice is grab a few pieces of dark chocolate and move on. If you’re eating it because you need a quick pre or post workout snack, try almonds and dried fruit, yogurt with fruit mixed in or on the side, or a banana and glass of milk.
Why we think it’s healthy It’s calorie and sugar free! We can drink as much as we want and add 0 calories to our total daily intake, and diabetics can drink it with no impact on their blood sugar.
Why it’s not Despite the calorie free, it calories to your daily total, it can still add to your waistline, at least according to the research. Several studies have linked consumption of diet soda to greater risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome (a condition in which a person has multiple risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high BMI, etc), and diabetes. In one study, consumption of soda including diet sodas was associated with significantly higher stroke risk in men and women and another study found that drinking more than 2 diet sodas per day doubled the risk for kidney function decline in women. In addition, research at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio found that compared to regular soda drinkers, those who drank diet drinks saw their waist circumference increase 70% faster. This may be because the artificial sweeteners in diet soda actually make you crave sugar, which means you may be adding sugar to the diet in other ways. According to research at the Institute of Food, Nutrition, and Health in Zurich, high intake of fructose and artificial sweeteners changes the bacteria in your gut that are responsible for signaling satiety and influencing metabolism. In the end, diet soda is made from carbonated water, caramel coloring (made from heated cane sugar), aspartame (an artificial sweetener), Potassium benzoate (a substance that, when combined with vitamin C and sodium, can form benzene, a carcinogen) and caffeine.
Healthier Choices The best thing you can drink is water. If you need a caffeine boost, drink a cup of coffee. A bunch of new research has indicated there are actually benefits to drinking coffee. And if you need a little flavor boost try more natural options like coconut or seltzer waters. Personally, I like Polar Beverages seltzer or Poland Springs Sparkling Water.
Why we think they’re healthy What, you’re telling me fruit and protein powder isn’t healthy? But yes, I am.
Why they’re not Unless you make it at home in your own blender (and don’t get caught up in throwing everything fruit and dairy related from your fridge into the blender), your smoothie can top 400 calories and 50 grams of sugar. For instance, Jamba juice “Berry Banana Classic” is 420 calories and 86 grams of sugar for the medium (24 ounce) size.
Better Options Make it at home and keep it simple. A basic smoothie with 1 cup of strawberries, ½ cup of blueberries, and 1 cup of 1% milk (plus some crushed ice) will give you 200 calories, 35 grams of carbs, and 9 grams of protein. Have this pre or post workout, or drink it with a few eggs for a balanced breakfast.
Why we think it’s healthy Because it’s oats and fruit and nuts. Those are all healthy. And it’s always on a box with hikers and active people.
Why it’s not Because it’s actually candy, and is borderline addictive (as anyone who’s polished off most of a bag of Naked Granola on the way home from the grocery store will tell you). Granola is basically oats, dried fruit (sugar), nuts (fat), oil (more fat), brown sugar, and honey ( more more sugar) mixed together and baked to deliciousness. One cup of the stuff is 600 calories, 30 grams of fat, and over 60 grams of carbs. So it’s high in calories, not super filling, and way too easy to over eat.
Better Choices If you have a sweet tooth, grab some dark chocolate. If you’re looking for a good addition to your plain yogurt, try whole raspberries and lightly salted almonds. And if you need a good portable snack or treat, try a homemade mix of almonds, dried fruit, and maybe a few dark chocolate chips.
Why we think they’re healthy. Because they are PALEO! Obviously Paleo is code word for super healthy.
Why they’re not Despite being made from mostly natural ingredients, “Paleo” treats are often higher in calories and fat and just as high in sugar as the real thing. And let’s be real, the caveman probably didn’t have almond meal, jarred honey, and stevia on hand. Nor did he have baking tins and ovens).
Better Choices: If you’re craving something sweet, like I’ve said before (can you see a pattern here) have a little dark chocolate! If you’re really craving that brownie/cupcake/pie, just have a small portion. Satisfy your craving with the real thing, and move on.