Top 10 Most Overrated Health Foods

by | Mar 3, 2014

Photo by Paul Holloway

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

1. Yogurt

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.

2. Soy

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.

4. Margarine

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).

5. Bananas

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.

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61 Responses to “Top 10 Most Overrated Health Foods”

  1. Tammy says:

    Darya, I love your blog. This is a great article and I wish it was required reading for anyone who works for a fitness magazine. Personally I get annoyed at “protein shakes” of any kind. Having read the ingredients, I really have to wonder if this stuff is actually providing much in the way of nourishment. And I doubt that most people drinking them are actually putting in enough hours at the gym to warrant a need for all that extra protein. But hey, what do I know?

    A couple of questions for you: Do you think eating fat free yogurt with nuts or some other fat stirred in allows the vitamins to be available? Maybe that’s a silly question, but I am always skeptical about adding things back into food that should have been there in the first place.

    Also, in your section about soy, you didn’t say anything about tofu. Do you think of tofu as a nutritious food or just another “fake meat?”

    • Darya Pino says:

      Tofu is definitely better than fake meat, since the ingredients are fairly minimal. Re: yogurt, it doesn’t matter that much since dairy is so highly processed that all the fat is removed then added back anyway. I just didn’t want to promote the illusion that less fat is somehow better.

      • PALOMA says:

        Darya, I love your blog – perfect balance of informative and extremely practical. Have your book on pre-order. Now my question – any thoughts on whether Greek yogurt – particularly Fage – is an improved choice over the traditional Americanized (read: Dannon/Yoplait) counterpart? It SEEMS like a much less processed, sweetened option – but is this hype or fact?

      • Darya Pino says:

        I think it’s better because it’s not sweetened and not lowfat. That said, I still get acne from eating it, which doesn’t happen when I get pastured dairy from Straus Organic.

      • PALOMA says:

        I’ll check it out. Thank you!

    • Jen says:

      Many protein powders do have a lot of junk in them, but did you know that not all protein powders do? You CAN get minimally processed protein powders from online specialty retailers (such as The Protein Factory and True Nutrition) that don’t have anything extra added, unless you request it. They don’t even add sweetener or flavors if you don’t want it! No, I don’t have any connection with those retailers, except for the fact that I buy and enjoy their products, and I grow weary of the bad rap protein shakes have because of the junky powders commonly found in grocery stores.

    • Amy Blitchok says:

      Eating too much soy can also affect estrogen levels in women. While it can be a healthy source or protein, even soy should be eaten in moderation.

  2. Utterly awesome article as always Darya!!

    One thing about dairy – I totally agree with you about the fat being taken and added back in most of the time. In the UK however organic whole milk, that hasn’t been homogenised, is pretty widely available and – as far as I’m aware – the fat hasn’t been removed and re-added. As someone who made themselves pretty ill following a traditional low fat diet – and restored health by eating more saturated fats – encouraging people to choose full fat products, and maybe eat a little LESS if ness, is a big tirade of mine…

    My least favourite ‘health food’ is most DEFINITELY rice crackers… totally unsustaining, processed beyond belief and utterly disgusting. The fat free ‘prawn cocktail’ ones sold in the UK are the bane of my corner shop shopping existence…

  3. Jon says:

    I agree with much of the list but I heard Dr. Oz (I know how much you love him) say recently that egg yolks have a constituent that increase cholesterol absorption in our blood. My cholesterol is high enough.

    As for yogurt, I cant seem to find a quick easy breakfast so I started eating plain yogurt (reluctantly) with Fiber One cereal mixed in and some rasberries on top. Never makes me full though.

  4. I COMPLETELY AGREE WITH THIS ENTIRE LIST… Although I do love egg whites, LOL! Not that I shy away from yolks AT ALL, I just love that Egg Whites EXTEND breakfast recipes! :)

  5. Laura says:

    This is a great list. As relates to yogurt– my family have often made our own Greek-style yogurt at home for years. Now that the “Greek yogurt” craze has hit the USA, I hear so many people say they eat only Greek yogurt because it is more healthy… then they show me what they mean by Greek yogurt and I see a cup of ‘low-fat’ sweetened, flavored yogurt. In my opinion this completely negates the supposed benefits of eating Greek yogurt (or any yogurt), namely that it is high in fat and protein and void of added sugars, flavors, etc. Personally, I think it is a shame that people think of yogurt as a sweet food only… plain yogurt is delicious with a bit of fruit added, but you can take it another route and use it to marinate meat, or blend it into delicious dips and condiments such as tzatziki sauce for example.

    As for protein bars and juices, you and the commenters above are right that this many calories/nutrients would only need to be consumed either as a meal replacement or for someone who is doing some serious manual labor/workouts/running, etc. Unfortunately many people don’t realize this and think of these calorie-packed items as healthy snack choices because on the surface they seem better than soda and candy. I myself use almonds and dried fruits for an occasional energy pick-me-up, but I find that these extremely delicious and therefore easy to overeat. Do you have any tips on avoiding the overeating of healthful meals and snack foods? Since the nuts and dried fruit are so energy-dense, what constitutes a healthful portion?

  6. Bruce says:

    All of your jabs, pokes and upper-cuts at “stealth-food” have me chuckling. I am negotiating the maze of fads, and just plain dumb diet(?) lessons right now. I have experienced all of your list.
    Over the last year my gastro-life has taken a beating. First, had heart failure–cut salt, meat, liquor, butter, good ‘comfort foods’. Then when I was getting my heart fixed, they told me I had diabetes 2. There went the rest of anything good to eat. I am still in denial and sneak hard processed sugar in artificial flavors–candy. Going out to eat entails reviewing nutrition tables first.
    Now, after a month of vibrating the weighing scale a couple kilos, my one true take-away piece of knowledge (missing from your lesson) is “moderation.” Over-consumption has been the biggest culprit in my health style. I takes a while to overcome habits and shrink a stomach and brain.

  7. John Simms says:

    I love non-fat yogurt. I just don’t like the pectin that Dannon and some of the other yogurt companies add to their product.

  8. Boheme Chinois says:

    Yeah, I always thought bananas were overrated in nutrition. They have a lot of calories and anyone with basic nutrition sense would see it’s just a starch.

    One food that doesn’t seem to get enough attention are tomatoes. I read in this book that they are a superfood.

    Check it out:

    [link removed]

    • Molly says:

      Unless you have an auto immune reaction to nightshades, then tomatoes may not be your friend. Along with white potatoes, eggplant and peppers.

    • Trajayjay says:

      Really, bananas are not that high in calories compared to a 2 oz bag of potato chips, or 4 oreos. Yes, they have about 120 calories, which is more calories than blueberries or kiwis, but they are totally not high in calories. And, this is for a whole 8 inch banana. When someone discovers that bananas have 250 calories, then, I’ll say they’re high in calories.
      Even calorie-wise, they’re not the worst of fruits, dates, raisins, and large apples have more calories than bananas. And a food isn’t bad if it’s high in calories either. Some people need to consume 3500 calories a day, and it would be more beneficial to them to eat a banana than a grape.
      Bananas are not “just a starch” they have 14%DV for fiber, 20% for vitamin C, 25% for vitamin B6, and 18% for manganese. So they are not just starch. Anyone with basic nutrition sense would see that a banana is not just a starch, but has quite a bit of other vitamins and minerals.
      So what if it has starch. Our bodies like having carbs to fuel our muscles.

      • Hilary says:

        Agreed about the banana’s! (though everything else is pitch perfect!)
        While many of us should probably be having a grapefruit over a banana for caloric reasons – I think they should fall into the same reasoning as fat – sure bananas are higher in calories but they still nourish us, and they are much more filling than grapefruit.

      • Angela says:

        Agreed! You don’t need to be eating 3 or 4 bananas a day, but as a substitute for sweets,they’re awesome. I’ve been cutting down on refined sugars and bananas have been my heroes. A banana at the end of the night is worlds better than the scoops of ice cream I used to eat!

      • Jen says:

        Yes… bananas are awesome!! They’re convenient to take to work (non-messy and in their own wrappers), taste great, and provide a good energy boost before a workout. They’re also great in smoothies and in baked products.

        I also agree that 120 calories is not bad at all.

  9. You really are the voice of reason. There is so much bad information with regards to food. The egg white one has always flummoxed me. Tofu and artificial meat I’m completely with you. Just give the banana a break – yes it’s sugar but I would prefer my kids eating that to something processed.

  10. Daxel says:

    Good article. I agree with quite a lot of these, especially margarine and protein bars. I’d like to emphasise though, that a lot of these foods (such as bananas, egg whites, yogurt…) aren’t bad for you per se but, just overrated as health foods.
    I don’t get the one on fat-free salad dressing. If fat-free dressing doesn’t make your salad healthier but instead less nourishing, does that mean that a salad without dressing is …less healthy than one with a fatty dressing??

  11. Yum Yucky says:

    I’m feeling ya on this list. Soy and fake meat make me fart (although maybe it’s just my age). I don’t use margarine or drink bottled juice, and protein bars bloat me. I do NEED my morning banana, but only because it’s a post-workout food that has never failed me. I don’t even really like bananas, but they’re the best fuel for me after a workout.

  12. Chris says:

    Yay! Love this list! When I saw the title of this post, the first thing that popped into my mind was yogurt. I feel like I have been on a one-woman anti-yogurt crusade for the past couple of years, so I am super excited to see yogurt make your list. So often yogurt is touted for its protein. For me, even the highest protein yogurt doesn’t have enough protein to offset the effects of the sugar and dairy consumption.

  13. bk says:

    Would you add protein shakes to that list?

  14. John Simms says:

    I love bananas and I need the calories. I suppose a little fat is good for a person. But what if a person is trying to avoid atherosclerosis? I think people should eat more fish. I believe our ancestors probably did. And yes plain yogurt is best. I love 100% whole wheat four.

  15. Pepperkorn says:

    Egg whites…
    I have to share my pain. At a weekend family gathering we brought a dozen eggs from our pasture raised chickens – these guys have the run of our yard, not just a little pen. They have the richest healthiest tastiest yolks and my sister-in-law used them all making everyone egg white omelettes. Everyone was so proud of themselves. I sobbed quietly at the waste. They’re Oz-aholics. Because he makes it so easy to ignore the kernel of truth in what he says by offering up this quackery – of course everyone ignores the science and latches onto his quick-fix BS. Why does he have so little faith – that he slips in this “marketable” crap? Daria – you’ve been so awesome. Had my Farmers Market epiphany and then found Summer Tomato, as if to confirm everything I was going through…*insert weeping* I love you man!!

  16. Dava says:

    Even in this uber-information day and age, it still amazes me that there are people who think sugar-filled yogurt, protein bars and “energy” drinks are a healthy option. And I’m tired of getting looked at like I’m a monster from mothers who disagree when I say apple juice is probably not much better than soda.

    Happy Anniversary, Darya! Keep up the good work!

    • Jen says:

      At least apple juice has a little bit of nutrition (Vitamin C and potassium), and soda has none. You don’t want to drink too much of it due to the sugar of course, but drinking a glass here and there isn’t so bad (for most people).

      Also, you actually CAN get protein bars that don’t have a lot of extra junk in them. You won’t find them in most grocery stores, but health food stores have some that are primarily made of good things like nuts, oats, fruit, and honey – no corn syrup or any of that nasty stuff. There’s much, much more variety than Power Bar, Special K, and SlimFast bars nowadays. Just read the labels! (Granted, I usually make my own protein bars, partially to control what goes in them, and partially because it’s a lot cheaper).

  17. Elaine says:

    Gluten free. Now don’t get me wrong, I have friends with celiac and I know how serious it is for them (and how careful they have to be). But have you looked at the ingredients in the gluten free products out there? Most of them are full of xanthan gum and other unpleasantries. People buy this stuff somehow thinking it’s healthier for them than wheat, not necessarily because they have a true allergy. I once had a houseguest announce she was ‘gluten free’ – when what she really meant was she was on a low carb diet.

  18. I wholeheartedly agree with most items on your list. Removing the fat from yogurt only to add a lot of sugar instead, so that you end up with as many, or even more calories, seems grotesque.
    I wonder about your including whole grain flour to the overrated foods, though. Why would that be highly processed? Surely, a “Wonderbread” made with some whole grain flour might not be any healthier that other highly processed supermarket breads, but home made breads or pastries with (at least part) whole grain flours are certainly healthier than all-white ones.

  19. Tanya says:

    Great post!

  20. MSB says:

    Along these lines, my top eight for kid food:
    smoothies
    bars–granola, etc
    veggie crisps–like snap pea crisps, “Veggie” chips
    yogurts
    rice cakes
    fruit leather
    soy nut butter
    instant oatmeal
    juice

    I can’t get over how many parents I know–and these are parents with atleast a masters degree–think that they are doing their kids a favor by giving them this stuff instead of chips,cookies, soda or candy bars. The kids at my son’s preschool often have lunches entirely composed of those items.

  21. Dee says:

    Bananas and Fruit in general … People think they’re being healthy by eating tons or fruit and pure fruit smoothies…when it’s just making them fat-ter…

    With regards to fake meat, soy and other VEGETARIAN dry goods – all faux products and other things made from soy, wheat, grains, soy chunks, that are being passed off as healthy for vegetarians – I feel like I’m more of a vegetarian than my (vegetarian = no meat) counterparts because of the fact I believe i eat ALOT more vegetables …. i am a vegetarian that eats meat basically.

    Almond milk and faux milk… Well, I know that there are people who are grown up and lactose intolerant… But I really don’t see the benefit since it lacks nutrients and protein of milk….

    …. separating egg whites from the egg yolks were only necessary when you want to achieve a certain consistency/ texture in a recipe….

    Anything named ‘healthy snack’ these days I believe that the habit of snacking is unhealthy …

    • Jen says:

      I’ve lost A LOT of body fat since I started drinking fruit smoothies and eating more fruit. Though, that’s probably because I use them to replace the ice cream, candy bars, and cookies I was eating before. ;)

      When it comes to fruit, it’s all about how you eat it and moderation! Of course you don’t want to eat it all day long, but having a blueberry and banana smoothie for dessert is a much healthier option than an ice cream sundae, depending on the recipe (the one I make runs about 200 calories).

  22. Greg says:

    I have pre-orderd your book and am wondering… does it contain recipes? If not, are there cookbooks that you would recommend to go along with it? Thanks – happy anniversary!

    • Darya Pino says:

      There are recipes, but most are things already here on the blog. I will be adding more here in the coming months, but in the meantime I love Smitten Kitchen, Sprouted Kitchen, 101 Cookbooks, Simply Recipes, Gluten Free Girl, Jenn Cuisine, Not Eating Out in NY, A Year in Food, Ruhlman, Bittman, Ottolenghi, Dr. Weil, and all the others I link to in Friday posts.

  23. Rachael says:

    This is brilliant! You are so right, I have realized the impact that these foods have on your body, the sugar, the processed ingredients, people just don’t realize and they so need to be educated, thanks for the share!

  24. sunil says:

    We make yogurt at home with milk.So no sugar,salt just yogurt.

  25. Lauren says:

    I am not into salad thing but I love salad and fruit juices. Yummy :)

  26. Kassi says:

    This article is rife with misconceptions about these foods.

    Protein bars are just fine, and there are many on the market now that don’t contain sugar or high fructose corn syrup. They are certainly better than eating a candy bar.

    Low fat salad dressing is just fine, especially if you eat lots of salad. You get nutrients from the greens you are eating.

  27. Aqiyl Aniys says:

    I just eat bananas and whole fruit juice. I eat a plant based diet and I love the calorie denseness of bananas. I eat around bananas a week and they help load me up with needed nutrients. When I saw fruit juice, I was like what is wrong with fruit juice, but the I saw you were talking about the juice the juice from fruits. I am not into juicing and I blend everything. I blend fruits into juices so that I keep all the nutrients.

  28. Caroline says:

    There are so many ethical issues related to eating bananas. It’s ridiculous that they are a daily food for so many people in North America when they are shipped from so far away. We are meant to eat food that is in season where we live and bananas do not fit the bill.

    Watch Bananas!*, documentary about a conflict between the Dole Food Company and banana plantation workers in Nicaragua over alleged cases of sterility caused by the pesticide DBCP

  29. duryodhan says:

    How bad is the egg beaters stuff? (not the egg white mix, just the standard egg beaters liquid)

    I don’t really want the processed stuff, but every morning, uncaffeinated I will screw up cracking and making eggs. Egg beaters is just more convenient.

  30. Candy says:

    Actually bananas could be underrated. Adults need them for potassium. When you hit middle age and have high blood pressure, the docs emphasize grains, nuts, and bananas for missing minerals. The body does not seem to absorb potassium very well from supplements. Hence, natural sources: bananas, oranges, potatoes, and quite a few more.

  31. Alexandra says:

    Hi Darya,

    What are your thoughts on cottage cheese? Is it a good choice?

    • Darya Rose says:

      Like most things it is fine in reasonable quantities. My personal concern would be the hormones in the dairy, so I would try to find a trustworthy (non-industrial) source if possible. These tend to cost a lot more though. And not everyone is as sensitive to dairy as I am (it really messes up my skin).

  32. Jane says:

    As a vegetarian I have to comment on the fake meat. I guess I should comment that even before I became a Vegetarian I was headed toward the less processed is better diet. So store bought “fake meat” is a lazy food for me, yeah I buy it but I consider it on par with the $1.00 pizza’s I just can’t give up. Actually I buy $1.00 pizza’s more than fake meat. It’s also something I sometimes feed to visiting family although I try to feed them real food since I want them to see what I really eat.

    Instead I make my own “fake meat” mainly ground meat is lentils or mushrooms (both on your underrated list.) And I also eat a decent amount of Tofu which I see as a minimally processed bean product.

    So I guess I want to say I don’t think “fake meat” is better than real meat. It’s just a convenience food.

  33. munibul2357 says:

    fine thought about food.i think bananas and fruit juice is much beneficial for health especially for young.bananas contain magnesium and fruit contains minerals which are essential for good health.

  34. George says:

    This is great. Literally all I tell my clients. I always try to stay clear of fruit unless accompanied by natural Greek yoghurt, it is nowhere near as nutritious as we’re led to believe and usually contains so much sugar.
    Fat-free foods are the devils work too.

    Although I think Canola Oil isn’t actually too bad for you. Read a lot of articles touting it’s abundance of omega-3 & omega-6 fatty acids and gluten doesn’t really have any disadvantages unless you’re gluten intolerant of course! But I do love this little blog!

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