Here’s a secret in the food industry: many healthy foods are no better than their alternatives. Some have little nutritional value, some actually contain harmful chemicals, and some even pose as “healthy” when they’re downright bad for you.
Go beyond the labels and scrutinize the ingredients. Breads labeled as “whole wheat” or “whole grain,” for example, can pack as much as 70% refined flour. But because it includes some whole grains, it can advertise itself as the real deal.
And challenge the myths. You don’t need many fat-free or cholesterol-free options because, in its unprocessed form, fat doesn’t make you fat and cholesterol doesn’t clog your arteries.
In this article, we list twelve of the worst health foods; stay clear and stay healthy.
For Americans who eat breakfast, 31% start their morning the same way: a bowl, cereal, and milk. Yet many cereals aren’t nutritious—even the self-proclaimed “healthy” ones. Cereals like Honey Nut Cheerios and Raisin Brain, for example, contain as much sugar as Fruity Pebbles.
To produce those cute flakes of corn, manufacturers inadvertently destroy many of the original vitamins and minerals; to compensate, companies add synthetic ingredients to fortify the cereal.
But even with fortification, cereals aren’t as healthy as whole foods.
2. Skim or Low-fat Milk
Avoid the low-fat options and choose whole milk instead.
While skim and low-fat milks have fewer calories, whole milk has more saturated and monounsaturated fats to keep you feeling full, support metabolism, and improve your body composition. Without the fat, skim and low-fat milks also have less fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K than whole milk.
Even worse, producers add powdered milk into skim milk to improve its consistency because skim milk doesn’t resemble real milk when it’s harvested; that process introduces oxidized cholesterol, which damages your arteriesworse than regular cholesterol.
Nor does research support the health claims of low/non-fat milk versus whole. In 2012, researchers correlated low-fat and non-fat milk with higher obesity levels among children than whole milk.
3. Synthetic Oils
Ditch synthetic oils like Crisco, margarine, etc.
The popularity of synthetic oils grew because of the myth that fat makes you fat: if fat is bad, then fat-free oils and spreads are good. Thus, companies pushed those options (and Fabio graced millions of TV sets with his iconic, “I can’t believe it’s not butter”).
Unfortunately, food companies hydrogenate many of the fake oils you buy, which maintain their shelf life and shape at room temperature and make them trans fats. This process, however, makes the oil harder to digest and increases your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Then, the oil is bleached and artificially flavored until you can’t believe it’s not butter.
4. Vegetable Oils
How do they make corn oil? (They don’t pick the ripe ones and squeeze them.)
Vegetable oils like canola, corn, grape seed, etc. come from chemicals: producers blast the seeds at high heat and dump solvents to extract the oil. In later stages, they inject other chemicals to improve color and odor. This elaborate process transforms the vegetable oil into an unstable fat called polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA).
Your body doesn’t digest PUFAs well because your cells consist mostly of saturated and monounsaturated fats. Also, vegetable oils also have a high ratio of Omega-6 PUFA to Omega-3, which create inflammation within the body and can increase risk of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
5. Protein Bars
Many protein bars are candy bars in disguise. They’re filled with sugar and high-fructose corn syrup and include trans fats and artificial sweeteners. While the protein content is commendable, there’s just too much extra.
6. Most Sports Drinks
They claim they’re the ultimate thirst quenchers and even better than water—research says otherwise. A study from the University of Oxford found:
There is a striking lack of evidence to support the vast majority of sports-related products that make claims related to enhanced performance or recovery, including drinks… Half of all websites for these products provided no evidence for their claims, and of those that do, half of the evidence is not suitable for critical appraisal. No systematic reviews were found, and overall, the evidence base was judged to be at high risk of bias.
A glance at the nutrition facts also reveals a lot of sugar along with their electrolytes, and a lot of calories too.
7. Wheat Bread
Not all wheat breads contain pure, whole grains. For example, even those with labels of “multi-grain” or “seven-grain” may still use refined flour; “whole wheat” or “100% natural” breads may have few real, whole grains.
Worse, many contain partially hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives to improve shelf life, and even food coloring.
Don’t rely on the labels—search the nutrition facts and make sure the first ingredient is either “whole grains” or “whole wheat.”
8. Egg White-Only Anything
Egg yolks are healthy.
Forget the cholesterol. First, as part of a healthy, balanced diet, eggs won’t hurt. Second, your liver produces more cholesterol per day (about 1-2 grams) than you ingest. Third, dietary cholesterol doesn’t strongly correlatewith blood cholesterol: in a study of 136,905 patients hospitalized for heart attack between 2000 and 2006, almost three-quarters didn’t have cholesterol levels that indicated cardiac risk. Finally, cholesterol produces muscle-building testosterone.
Also, the egg yolk boasts fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), choline (an essential nutrient with a wide range of health benefits), and half of the egg’s total protein.
Avoid the yolk and you’ll shortchange yourself.
9. Fruit Juices
While fruit juices have some vitamins, it has too many calories and sugar. One 8 ounce of grape juice, for example, has about 170 calories, 42 grams of carbs, and 40 grams of sugar. (That’s more calories and sugar than a 12-ounce can of Coke.) You can’t build lean muscle with that many empty calories and sugars.
Even the “all-natural” ones may contain high-fructose corn syrup and additives.
10. ‘Fat-Free’ Anything
This also spawns from the “fat will make you fat” myth. Fat doesn’t make you fat, a bad diet and a lack of exercise do.
Fats support everything from brain and metabolic function to quicker fat loss. If you avoid fats, you’ll struggle to get the right ratio of macronutrients (carbs vs. proteins vs. fats) because more calories will have to come from carbs; that will skew your macronutrient ratio and cause more fat gain.
Also, to make foods fat-free, companies often add trans fats and artificial sweeteners, which cause can health problems.
11. Most Yogurts
Many low-fat and fat-free yogurts have high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and starch. Some have as much sugar as a candy bar, and others use artificial sweeteners, which may spike your insulin.
Also, avoid the ones with fruit inside—the fruit is either soaked with sugar or from concentrate. Instead, buy plain yogurt and add your own fruit.
12. Dried Fruits
Ignore its deliciousness and imagine dried fruit as candy with fiber. It contains a lot of sugar and chemicals to improve shelf life, and because it’s dried, packs more calories per bite than a piece of fruit.
BY ANTHONY J. YEUNG, CSCS