7 Trendy ‘Health Foods’ that Aren’t as Healthy as You Think

As you can imagine, I’m passionate about wellness and what it takes to improve our ‘healthspan.’ Along with good sleep, movement and relaxation, a healthy diet is a must-have essential. Although the idea of wholesome foods being great for body and mind is almost a no-brainer, what’s not always so clear is what, exactly, constitutes a truly healthy option versus one that seems good for you but, in reality, isn’t. With supermarkets, ‘health food’ stores and ‘fast casual’ restaurants bursting with foods marketed as ‘natural!’ or ‘heart-healthy!’, it’s easy to make a mistake if you’re not paying close attention.

The good news is that with the huge amount of health information now available online, people today are better versed in the nutritional basics than they were, say, a decade ago. However, especially when it comes to things like breakfast items, beverages and snacks, my wellness team and I often find ourselves having to debunk people’s misconceptions about ‘health-washed’ foods. So, which items consistently wind up on our must-debunk list? Read on:

1. Acai Bowls

Influencers love them. They’re loaded with fruit and they look so healthy and colorful in your Instagram feed but thinking of acai bowls as a health food is a stretch. While you do get antioxidants and some healthy fats from the base ingredient of unsweetened acai puree, most bowls also include ingredients like sugar-packed fruit juices, soy, or sweetened nut milks, ice-cream-like frozen yoghurts for texture and topped with high-sugar fruits like sliced mango and banana to pack an even sweeter punch. Throw in some granola or dried fruit toppings and you’re looking at a breakfast bowl sugar bomb, with anywhere from 500 – 1,000 calories a pop, a not-very-healthy way to start the day.

2. Granola

Another one that often comes as a shock to recovering cereal eaters thinking they’re making a breakfast upgrade? Granola. Unfortunately, thought the raw ingredients like oats and nuts are good for you, when they’re processed into granola, the stuff looses a lot of its health food status, particularly when it comes to the stuff made by the big-name cereal manufacturers. For the sake of argument, let’s put aside the preservatives and pesticides. The factory-farmed, genetically-modified ingredients in your average box or bag of the commercial stuff still will often include such health no-no’s as refined sugar, sugar alcohols, corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. Even the organic, non-GMO certified ones can pack a sugar punch of roughly 10 -14 grams per cup, so either make your own unsweetened version at home or skip it all together. Same holds true for granola bars.

3. Veggie Chips

Hate to say it but a bag of veggie chips or veggie ‘straws’ have little to do with actual vegetables and contain virtually none of their benefits. Those pretty colored but heavily processed, salted and fried slices of sweet potato, yucca, blue corn, and parsnips have little nutrition or fiber to offer and ultimately aren’t much different from the standard potato chip. The classic chip may actually contain a little less sugar (not that that’s a huge selling point). Here too, the low quality and/or genetically modified ingredients are one more reason to stay away, as are the must-to-avoid canola oil or vegetable oils almost all commercial chips are cooked in. As for bags of baked chips, they’re not much better -- best to just say ‘no’ across the board. Instead, bake up your own batch of kale chips with a little olive oil and a touch of mineral-rich Himalayan salt when you’re in the market for something that’s truly healthy – and crunchy.

4. Coconut water

When it comes to beverages, coconut water has a lot to like – antioxidants, vitamins and electrolytes like potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and calcium. And while it can help with rehydration after a sweaty workout, unless you’re drinking it fresh off the tree, chances are, you’re getting a lot more sugar in your brew than you bargained for. The sugar content in the bottled stuff comes in at a startling 22 grams per 16.8 oz container and, if you like yours with added fruit flavors, the grams ratchet up to 30 or more. Even the fresh stuff has plenty of naturally-occurring sugar – about 11 grams per cup – so you’d be wise to go easy. All told, when viewed through the sugar lens, coconut water becomes a tougher to love, more of a treat thank an everyday beverage. Sure, it beats a can of Coke but ultimately, your best bet is water or seltzer with a squeeze of lemon or lime when you need to top off your tank.

5. Kombucha

Like coconut water, kombucha, the fermented elixir, gets a lot of props for its beneficial properties, including a dose of gut health-supporting probiotics and antioxidants, with possible protective effects against cancers and heart disease to boot. All good. However, kombucha does have some potential downsides which may not make it quite the trendy cure-all it’s cracked up to be. For one, kombucha’s high acidity can trigger digestive distress. There can also be caffeine in the tea versions and even a small amount of alcohol. Not necessarily deal-breakers, but worth considering, depending on your body chemistry. But, again, my biggest concern is that the sugar in most bottled versions can be way too high, ranging from 10 – 18 grams or more per serving, depending on the brand. If you opt for a homemade version, the sugar levels drop down to about 7 grams, about 15 -20 grams of carbs, which is less than ideal if you’re trying to keep your metabolism in check. Here too, go for water or seltzer most of the time and think of a small serving of kombucha as a treat, not an everyday habit.

6. Plant-based burgers

Given a choice when craving a classic burger with all the trimmings, most people would not opt for a naked patty on a plate, with no bun, no pickles, lettuce, tomato or condiments. All the stuff that gets piled on is, for most people, part of the fun, and as a once-in-a-blue-moon treat, I get it. Though I don’t encourage burger eating multiple meals a week, but when made with high-quality, organic ingredients and some avocado instead of condiments, a burger every two weeks or so it’s not totally verboten. When it comes to plant-based burgers though, I really take issue with the patty ingredients. To get meat substitutes to taste like the real thing, you’re looking at an enormous amount of processing, loads of lab-created Frankenfood ingredients, questionable flavor enhancers and little actual plant benefits. Granted, plant-based burgers are a bit kinder to the earth but as a healthy, nutritious food, they’re a fail.

7. Agave nectar

This one still comes up all the time so let me be clear: agave is not a healthy alternative to sugar. Never has been and never will be. Not sure how agave took center stage as a so-called healthy sweetener, but whoever did the health-washing on this stuff did one heck of a job (right up there with that other crap ingredient, canola oil). Bottom line: agave is a must-to-avoid, particularly if you’re trying to manage your blood sugar. So, what’s the problem with the stuff? More caloric than a scoop of table sugar, agave is almost 90% fructose, which is rotten for your blood sugar levels not to mention the health of your liver as well.

Bottom line: Whenever you hear about a trendy ‘new’ health food, or see it popping up all over your social media feeds, dig a little deeper. Consider the source that’s promoting it and consider the sources, as in, what’s actually in the stuff. Ingredients matter, and the fewer of them the better.

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