Like it or not, we tend to believe whatever we are exposed to in the media and in advertisements. In nutrition this usually means that as a society we all follow the same diet fads, glorifying some foods over others in the quest for better health. (It’s okay, I love salmon and coconut water as much as you do).
Problem is though, more often than not the news or the health claims made by food manufacturers vastly overstate any potential health benefits, because it makes a more compelling story and sells more products. Our own confirmation biases tend to make us believe what we’re told, we confidently share our insight with our friends, and suddenly our grocery stores are filled with health foods that really aren’t all they are cracked up to be.
Here are my 10 picks for the most overrated health foods.
Top 10 Most Overrated Health Foods
There is nothing innately wrong with yogurt, the natural product. But the real stuff is not nearly as easy to find as the hyper-sweetened dessert versions filling supermarket shelves. Though yogurt can contain beneficial probiotics, friendly bacteria are also present in other fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and miso. And if you are worried about acne, dairy is probably not your best choice.
Oh, and the overratedness is doubly true of frozen yogurt.
If you’d rather keep yogurt as your breakfast staple (something I’m certainly not opposed to), go for plain yogurt that is either full or low-fat. Don’t fall for the vanilla trap, it is not plain and has even more sugar than most fruit versions.
Soy is another one of those foods that can be perfectly healthy, but can also be processed into oblivion until it’s an unhealthy product. Hydrogenated soy oil is among the most common sources of trans fat. Processed products are often touted as healthy just because they contain soy, but evidence suggests soy is not exactly the health panacea it is often made out to be. For a healthier version, stick to fermented soy products like miso, natto or tempeh.
3. Egg whites
It baffles me that Americans continue to vilify the most nutritious part of the egg while glorifying the less impressive half. Sure egg whites are a good source of protein on their own, but you’re probably not lacking protein and would likely benefit from the rich nutrients of the entire egg.
Why we need a man-made source of processed oils when there are so many naturally healthy sources of fat is beyond me—that is assuming you can even find margarins that do not contain hydrogenated oils/trans fats. If you really want more stanols and sterols in your diet try eating more nuts, avocados and vegetables. If you want to add buttery flavor, just use real butter (preferably from grass-fed cows).
Though I have a bit of a reputation for picking on bananas, I really don’t think they’re all bad and they definitely taste yummy. My biggest problem with them is that they are produced industrially and are one of the most calorie dense fruits you can buy. When is the last time you saw a banana at the farmers market anyway?
Bad for you? Not really. Overrated? Definitely.
6. Fake meat
Next time you get a chance, check out the ingredients in your favorite meat substitute. It’s usually a lot of gluten, some processed soy, canola oil, corn starch, and a few bizarre ingredients like “natural vegetarian flavors” (mmm…. vegetarians). Call me crazy, but real meat sounds a lot more appealing.
7. Protein bars
Remember back in the day when PowerBars tasted like crap? Well they would all still taste that way if manufacturers didn’t fill them with sugar or fake sugar substitutes. Look at the ingredients, the vast majority of protein bars are the same processed junk that’s in everything else, just with a few more vitamins, some added soy protein and possibly some added fiber. Adding nutrients to junk food does not a health food make.
8. Whole grain flour
Ah, whole grains, how controversial be thy name. Though I’m not as anti-grain as some folks, I don’t pretend that highly processed “whole wheat flour” is actually good for me. Grains that don’t look like grains are not your friends.
9. Low-fat salad dressing
Fat is good for you.
Yes, fat contains more calories than protein or carbohydrates, but it also enables you to absorb more vitamins from the foods you eat and makes your meals more satisfying. Fat-free dressings do not make you healthier, they make your salad less nourishing.
10. Fruit juice
I’ve explained before how I’ve warmed up to vegetable/green juices, but I still have trouble condoning even fresh squeezed fruit juice as a health food.
Juicing fruit concentrates the sugar while stripping out the filling fiber. When you remember that one 450 ml bottle of orange juice is equivalent to six whole oranges, you can start to see where the problem is.
What are your least favorite health foods?
Originally published March 28, 2012.