When patients first visit my office, I always make it my business to find out not only about their health histories and lifestyle habits, but also what they eat. Fortunately, these days patients are more knowledgeable about nutrition than they were even five or 10 years ago, so that makes the job of turning their health around a bit easier.
However, many people still have some rather retro ideas about what’s a health food and what’s not, so my team and I often have to engage in some re-education, to guide patients on their journey to sustainable and optimal health.
What follows is my list of 10 foods most often mistaken for health foods — and the truly healthy, nutrition options to trade them in for:
1. Fruit juice
These days many people are dropping sugary sodas in favor of juices like blueberry, black currant and cherry, which are perceived as healthier because of their high concentration of antioxidants. Problem is, most fruit juices come up nutritionally short, because they deliver little in the way of fiber, plus they're loaded with extra sugar you don’t need (unless you’re chasing your juice with a 20-mile run).
If you want fruit, eat whole fruit. If you want a drink, pour yourself a glass of organic tea, a green juice, coconut water or plain water. If it’s fruit flavor you crave, top a 2-ounce shot of unsweetened organic fruit juice with plenty of water or seltzer and enjoy.
But whatever you do, don’t kid yourself into thinking that juices are an even nutritional swap for whole fruits, because they’re not. Instead, set a good example for your kids (and yourself!) and eat your fruit, don’t drink it.
Unless you’re wearing a Super Bowl ring, or have just finished an Ironman race, strike commercial sports drinks from your list. They’re full of sugar, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and numerous mysterious ingredients that do little to support health and could be undermining it.
In fact, until recently, Gatorade contained brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, a suspected carcinogen used in flame-retardants! Instead, try quenching your flames of thirst with my simple home-made sports drinks. They’ll help replenish your body with health supporting fluids, not chemical cocktails!
3. Energy bars
Most of the “energy bars” you’ll find at the supermarket are essentially glorified candy bars masquerading as health food. Convenient as they may be, they’re crummy substitutes for real food. Even the “good” high-end bars tend to be heavily-processed sugar-bombs with hardly enough protein or fiber to make them worth eating.
And lower-end bars are worse, made with cheap, genetically-modified and/or pesticide-soaked ingredients (soy, oats, nuts, fillers, etc.), then glued together with seemingly “healthy” but actually sugar-packed coatings like chocolate, yogurt, honey, maple syrup, etc.
My advice? Eat them only if you’re stuck on a desert island and there’s nothing left to eat except your shirt. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and make your own, nutrient-dense bars or assemble a few small bags of organic trail mix and keep a supply in your briefcase, gym bag and desk to squash hunger and boost energy.
4. Whole wheat
Millions of people are still fooled by the idea that anything with "whole wheat" slapped on the label is good for you. It's not. The overwhelming majority of our whole-wheat products these days are heavily-processed, sugar-packed and made with factory-farmed, sometimes genetically-modified ingredients, raised in nutrient depleted soil and drenched in pesticides.
If that weren’t enough, modern wheat is our biggest dietary source of gluten, to which much of the population is either sensitive or allergic, whether they’re aware of it or not.
Gluten-sensitivity can trigger digestive problems, chronic inflammation and disease, making whole-wheat, anything but a health food. Ideally, the wisest way to support your health is to kick all wheat altogether. But if bread is an absolute must for you, make every bite truly nutritious and make your own — it’s easier than you think. Here’s the Be Well gang’s favorite gluten-free paleo-bread recipe from Elana’s Pantry.
A few months back, I wrote a post on the concerns that I and many of my colleagues have with soy, and why I regularly advise my patients to avoid it. When I say soy is not a health food, I’m talking about the typical genetically-modified, pesticide-doused soy you find blended into countless processed foods found at the supermarket.
The easiest way to purge soy from your diet is to eliminate processed foods, as well as the more obvious sources like soy milk, soy cheese, etc. However, if you’re not willing to give up soy, aim to eat only organic fermented soy products, such as tempeh, miso and natto, that are also marked non-GMO, gluten and pesticide-free. Keep portion sizes small and don’t eat it every day; once or twice a week is plenty.
6. Faux butter, chemical spreads and margarine
No matter what your momma told you, margarine isn’t a health food — and might be better used as floor wax than a foodstuff. Though you may have grown up thinking that yellow glop was healthier than butter, those man-made spreads, sprays and faux-butter substitutes are filled with cheap, processed vegetable oils, fillers and artificial ingredients, all of which can take a serious toll on your heart and arteries. Worse, they don’t even taste good! So what’s the point of eating them?
Instead of faux, switch to real, grass-fed, organic butter. It’s delicious, satisfying and full of good fats. It’s also a good source of health-enhancing conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which helps protect against cancer and encourages muscle growth, plus vitamins A, D and E, all of which are essential to good health.
7. Fish from the farm
Everybody knows that fish is a good way to get your protein and good fats. Problem is, we’re often not eating the right stuff, which is wild fish, preferably pole-caught. Instead, most people eat factory-farmed fish, meaning fish that is raised by an industry whose sole mission it is to produce more fish quicker, faster, larger and cheaper.
Raised in cramped, filthy tanks and pens, factory-farmed fish are prone to illness, which necessitates feeding them drugs, antifungals and/or pesticides to encourage survival till harvest time.
With a life like that, it’s easy to see why these stressed-out, drugged-up, poorly fed creatures make an unhealthy meal — even more so when the fish is then processed, battered, fried, rolled in breadcrumbs, frozen and shipped to market. Compared to their wild-fish counterparts, farmed fish deliver roughly 20% less protein, twice as much inflammation-boosting omega 6 fatty acid, fewer omega 3’s and nutrients — so I say leave those fish down on the farm. Instead, choose certified wild fish whenever possible, or look for fish from smaller-scale, artisanal or boutique-style fish farms, which practice sustainable and eco-friendly techniques.
8. Diet Coke
If you’re still drinking diet soda, you might want to have your head examined, and perhaps get a bone-density test while you’re at it. Diet drinks are foul-tasting, man-made chemical cocktails, devoid of nutrition, full of sodium and made with artificial colors that only a mad scientist could love. They’re also loaded with anything-but-natural sweeteners, which have been shown to have an appetite-triggering effect — so you’re likely to eat more, not less!
My advice? Drop the pop, both diet and sugared, and switch to water, or teas like rooibos, hibiscus or green, all of which deliver wonderful health — and taste great too!
9. Pretzels and popcorn
Crunch, crunch, crunch. We are a nation of snackers. Problem is, most of us are snacking way too much on things that were once touted as healthy but ultimately wound up having the opposite effect. A case in point: pretzels. A favorite among dieters for their seemingly nominal fat and calorie count, pretzels have a dark side: they’re a food bomb loaded with salt, corn oil and flour, which spikes blood sugar and delivers no nutritional bang for your buck.
And 20 minutes after scarfing down a few fist-fulls, you’re hungry again, so what’s the point of eating them in the first place? If it’s that crunch you crave, munch on raw veggies, baked apple slices, kale chips, dried seaweed, or a handful of nuts. As long as your snacks are delivering nutrients, and not chemicals or blood sugar spikes, you win.
10. Fro-yo, Pinkberry, and most smoothie chains
Everybody likes a treat now and then, but it seems like these days there’s a frozen treat on just about every corner — and the wise eater should just keep walking.
Most commercial fro-yo and smoothie joints pack their treats with sugar, so they can easily hook you and keep you coming back for another fix. Trade fro-yo for a small container of unsweetened, plain full-fat yogurt and add a scoop of nuts and/or chopped fruit from the salad bar.
And if it’s a smoothie you’re craving, tell them to hold the sugar, which often gets tossed into the blender when you’re not looking. Among hidden sources of extra smoothie sugar that can easily turn a good smoothie to a sugar bomb: apple, mango, passion fruit, orange juices; simple syrup, ice cream and bananas.
Ask for your own custom, simple smoothie made only with unsweetened almond milk or water, ice, fruit and powered greens or protein if available to insure you’re getting only the essentials. Ultimately, though, the best ones you can make are the ones you make yourself!
Click here for some of my favorite smoothie recipes.
Bottom line: When it comes to food, keep it real and eat it whole — and if it’s faux, just say no! Strike the 10 tricksters from your shopping list and swap ‘em for truly healthy, nutritionally-valuable foods that will sustain and optimize your health.