10 Foods You May Think Are Healthy, But Aren’t (Part 1)

Energy Bar

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 5 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 I and my Be Well nutrition team often have to engage in some re-education, to guide patients on their journey to sustainable and optimal health. What follows is my two part post on 10 foods most often mistaken for health foods – and the truly healthy, nutrition options to trade them in for:

1. Put Down the Juice Box

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 loads of extra sugar you don’t need, unless perhaps 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 phyto-greens drink, coconut water or plain water. If it’s fruit flavor you crave, top a 2 oz. 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.

2. Stop Guzzling the Gatorade

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 Are More Like Candy Bars in Fancier Wrappers

Most of the “energy bars” you’ll find within easy reach – those sold at the supermarket or the deli—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, yoghurt, 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 Doesn’t Make It Healthy

Millions of people are still fooled by the idea that anything with whole wheat slapped on the label means it’s good for you. In a nutshell: it’s not. The overwhelming majority of our whole-wheat products these days are, like the energy bars mentioned above, 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, which much of the population is either sensitive or allergic to, 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.

5. Soy’s Not Exactly a Health Food Either

A few months back I wrote a post on the numerous 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.

Watch out next week for 5 more foods most often mistaken for health foods – and what to eat instead. 

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  • Great list – can’at wait to see Part 2! I don’t know what’s in energy bars that would make them addictive but I believe I used to be addicted to them. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

  • Ray Wall

    The sugar, most likely.

  • Ray Wall

    The sugar, most likely.

  • Laurie Gerber

    Thank you, this is so spot on.

  • leecoyne

    Soy advice is only partially true– explanations weak. The others are spot on.

  • Soy is certainly a bit more complex and as Dr.Lipman points out our biggest concern is with processed soy and the GMO soy. It is a common food sensitivity so a lot of people do best without it all together, while others enjoy and feel good eating some fermented soy in the form of miso, tempeh, natto or tamari.