Health Food Phonies (and what to eat instead)

It’s official, the peak of the so called “health craze” may very well be upon us.  There are more “health” foods on the market today than ever before.  For example, organic food sales increased 11.5% in 2013, making it a $35.1 billion dollar industry- and sales are predicted to grow another 12% in 2014.  It’s not just specialty natural food stores that are carrying these “health” foods, either.  In 2010, large chain retailers like Walmart and Kroger surpassed natural foods based retail stores in sales of natural and organic food. Traditional chains now own 54% of the natural and organic market. 

What does all of this mean for the consumer? It means that there are more food choices than ever, most of which are surrounded by a health food halo.  When manufactures begin to brand and advertise their foods as health foods, it creates a problem.  The most apparent issue being that, most of these claims are one dimensional or just simply untrue.  Yes, this means that “all natural” cookies are still, in fact, full of sugar and fat.  If it seems like it’s too good to be true, it probably is.  This creates a tricky situation in that people are unknowingly purchasing these supposed health foods under the assumption they are making the nutritionally optimal choice.  Let’s bust through the health food halo and take a look at some of the most common health food phonies and identify what to try instead.   

Vitamin enhanced water/drinks.  Most of these drinks are high in unnecessary sugar.  One popular brand has 31g of sugar per 20 oz. serving. That’s more sugar than is recommended to have in an entire day (25g). Just as a reminder, a diet that is higher in sugar is more likely to lead to heart disease, insulin resistance, diabetes, cancer, and weight gain.

Try this instead.  Simply drinking water and eating a healthy diet should be a sufficient source of vitamins and minerals. If you really want an extra boost of vitamins and minerals, have a piece of nutrient dense food like blueberries or kale.

Granola Bars.  One of the most well-known and the quintessential outdoorsman’s snack, granola bars have long touted a reputation among health foodies.  Most are made of oats, nuts, and fruit. So, you may be wondering why they are on the phony list? Unfortunately, in addition to their core ingredients, most granola bars are loaded with sugar and fat. Check the ingredients label and you’ll likely see chocolate, high fructose corn syrup, and many other artificial ingredients. 

Try this instead.  You’re better off to make your own granola from whole oats, nuts, seeds, and non-sugar sweetened dried fruit. If you’re not into making your own or would just rather buy something, make sure to look for a granola bar that has a small ingredients list, at least 4 grams of fiber, no more than 8 grams of added sugar, and is around 150 calories per serving. 

Flavored Yogurt.  We’re not talking about the plain type.  We’re talking about the kind of yogurt that has fruit on the bottom, sprinkles on the top, and some of the “fruit flavored” varieties as well.  These kinds of yogurt are usually high in sugar and lower in protein than plain yogurt. 

Try this instead.  Plain yogurt with fresh fruit.  You can also throw in some spices to make your own delicious combinations (i.e. apples and cinnamon).  Plain Greek yogurt is an even healthier choice. It packs nearly twice as much protein and half as much sugar in the same amount of calories as regular yogurt.  Bonus:  Greek yogurt undergoes a process to remove the liquid whey, lactose, and sugar, making it the best choice for people with lactose sensitivity and those monitoring their blood sugar.

Instant flavored oatmeal.  Normally oatmeal is a great choice, but instant flavored oatmeal differs nutritionally from its steel cut oats relative.  Manufacturers often add a very large amount of sugar and other ingredients to instant flavored oatmeal.  Another difference lies in the glycemic index, which is a measurement of how quickly a food increases your blood sugar within a two-hour period. Because instant oatmeal has been processed to cook more quickly, it is also broken down and digested more quickly by your body, giving it a higher glycemic index. Eating a lower glycemic index diet may help improve your cholesterol ratios as well.

Try this instead:  Throw some fruit and spices in with steel cut oats (pumpkin pie spice and pumpkin puree add some festive Fall flavor).  Or if you don’t have time to cook steel cut oats, buy plain instant oats.  You won’t get the same slowly digesting, glycemic index friendly benefits as with steel cut, but it’s a much better choice than the flavored kind. 

Protein/Energy bars.  Not all bars are created equal.  However, most contain high amounts of sugar and saturated fat. Some have the same amount or more than a candy bar!  Most people who eat protein bars are doing so because they need a quick, portable source of energy to sustain them before/during/or after exercise. The problem is that all that sugar causes blood glucose levels to quickly soar before abruptly crashing.

Try this instead.  A piece of whole fruit with source of protein like a cheese stick. If you really want a large source of supplemental protein, there are some protein powders out there that don’t contain added ingredients like sugar and salt.  Make sure to read the label!

Sushi.  Sushi is notinherently unhealthy. The issue is that we don’t realize how many calories and fat are in some of the rolls. Some of the specialty rolls that include cream cheese, mayo based sauce, and are tempura based (aka battered and fried) can pack an additional 300-500 additional calories per roll- most of which comes from fat. 

Try this instead. The good news is that sushi doesn’t have to be a health food phony! Simply order rolls that are wrapped in cucumber, seaweed, or rice paper instead of rice.   Stick to rolls with ingredients primarily consisting of vegetables or fish.  This will help to ensure that your sushi is packed with protein and nutrients and lacking added calories and fat from the fatty sauces and coatings.

Juicing.  In spite of what all those infomercials and celebrities are trying to sell you or tell you, juice cleanses and diets are not an effective way to lose weight or detoxify your body.  Simply eating a clean diet enables your body to detox itself and maintain a healthy pH all on its own.  If you think about it, juice based diets are high carb (sugar), low protein diets which will cause a spike in blood sugar and likely lead to headaches, mood swings and fatigue; not to mention wreaking havoc on your metabolism.    

Try this instead.  Eat the whole fruit or vegetable.  It’s that simple. When you eat the whole piece, you’re getting all the fiber and nutrients contained in the skin which will help your food digest more slowly and lead to a slow steady release of energy which won’t cause you to crash later on.

Egg substitutes. like “Egg Beaters”.  Boasting the same nutritional and protein packed power of eggs, without the cholesterol, egg substitutes may seem healthier than regular eggs, but egg substitutes often have a plethora of added ingredients such as xanthan gum and maltodextrin (sugar).  Granted, some manufacturers claim to add back in vitamins and minerals that are normally provided by the yolk. We’re guessing that most people would still prefer to eat their eggs without a side of sugar.  

Try this instead.  Eat the whole egg. Unless you have high cholesterol, eating the whole egg is a great nutritional source of protein and contains a Vitamin D and B-12.  For those who need to limit cholesterol, there are a few brands of egg whites that are 100% egg whites. Check the ingredients. There shouldn't be anything listed except for egg whites. 

100 calorie packs.  Studies have shown that people will still eat the same amount if not more calories when they are eating 100 calorie snacks. Plus they cost more, and are typically made from the exact same ingredients as a full portions size, meaning they are not any healthier than their full size counterparts. 

Try this instead. One or two pieces (about 1.5 oz.) of at least 70% or higher dark chocolate.  Dark chocolate is nutritionally different from other varieties of chocolate because it has less fat and sugar and more heart healthy, overall good for you food, antioxidants and fiber.  Check out this nutritional comparison of dark chocolate to milk chocolate and other sweets and you’ll be a believer too!

Pretzels.  Thankfully the pretzel health food halo is starting to fade on its own.  It’s no doubt that pretzels used to be the go-to ” healthy” snack for social gatherings. Now, more people are aware that pretzels are little more than carbohydrates coated in salt. Not only do they offer very little nutritional value in the way of vitamins and minerals, but they are also low in fiber and high in sodium.  All those quickly digesting carbs without any fiber means that you will get hungrier sooner after eating them…oh and that’s after your blood sugar spikes from all the white starches.

Try this instead.  Have a piece of fruit and a source of protein like cheese or peanut butter. If you’re really in the mood for a crunchy snack, try making your own apple chips or zucchini chips. If you’re in hurry or hosting your own social gathering, try some nuts like almonds, walnuts, or pistachios.  Make sure to get the raw, unsalted or sweetened kind. Words like “honey-roasted” should be a red flag.   

Many “Healthy” Cereals.  Divert the advertisement trap. Many seemingly healthy cereal brands are sold in boxes that are covered with health claims and buzzwords from popular fads that boast things like “whole grain”, “organic”, “with Greek yogurt!”, and “added protein”.  But, if you read the label, you’re likely to see it’s all an illusion.  All that added protein? 1 gram. Many cereals have more sugar in one serving than is recommended for the entire day. What you probably won’t see is any decent amount of protein or fiber.

Try this instead.  Steel cut oatmeal. With no added ingredients, you’re sure to get a wholesome start to your day.  For those who are more of a fan of cold cereals, aim for a cereal that has at least 4 grams of fiber and less than 8 grams of sugar per serving.  The first few ingredients should be whole grains, whole oats, etc. Sugar or any of its derivatives should not be!  And remember, if you eat more than one serving (like most people) don’t forget to take that into account too. 

Orange juice vs. orange nutrition source :;

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