9 “Healthy” Foods That Aren’t Always as Healthy as You Think
Some so-called healthy foods on your supermarket shelves may not deserve a place in your cart—so make sure to read the nutrition label first.
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When good food could be better
There’s really no “good” or “bad” foods. Most nutrition pros hesitate to demonize any one food, saying what matters most is how much of it you’re eating and the composition of your overall diet.
However, they do admit to pet peeves about products that persistently get labeled “healthy,” while having a few issues that are less-than-healthy, such as high sodium or added sugar.
These are just a few of the so-called healthy foods that you may want to keep an eye on if you are paying attention to how many calories, carbohydrates, or other nutrients you are consuming.
Yogurt’s healthy rep is justified, for the most part: It’s got tons of filling protein, calcium, and gut-friendly probiotics. Maybe that’s why a 2017 review in Advances in Nutrition found an association between eating yogurt and lower body weight.
But flavored varieties pack loads of added sugar, says registered dietitian Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, author of Finally Full, Finally Thin: 30 Days to Permanent Weight Loss One Portion At a Time.
A diet that contains too much sugar, calories, and refined carbohydrates can—over time—increase your risk for type 2 diabetes, points out Young. (Here’s an explanation of the dietary factors linked to type 2 diabetes.)
“It’s a better idea to buy plain yogurt and add your own toppings—things like nuts, hemp seeds, and fresh fruit,” she says.
In Young’s view, so much of the soy in supermarkets is overly processed and not very nutritious—think chips, burgers, milk. The added sugar and salt can harm your heart and your waistline. She recommends sticking with unprocessed versions like edamame, tofu, and tempeh, a fermented product that has the additional benefit of digestion-aiding probiotics.
Dairy is often demonized, but cow’s milk remains a top source of protein, vitamin D, and calcium. Most milk alternatives are fortified to achieve some or all of those vitamins and minerals, but compared nutritionally to cow’s milk they sometimes come up short.
A 2018 study from McGill University published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology compared four popular plant-based alternatives (almond milk, soy milk, rice milk and coconut milk) to cow’s milk and found that they didn’t come close to moo juice’s nutritional profile (though soy milk was the most nutritious of the four).
If you can’t or don’t consume dairy or cow’s milk, check the label to make sure your plant-based milk is providing the nutrition you need, or make an extra effort to get it from other foods.
Light salad dressing
Bottled dressings can already be high in added salt and sugar. But light versions that skimp on fat tend to have even more sodium and sugar to keep them tasty—two substances that are already way too plentiful in the American diet and happen to be big contributors to high blood pressure, weight gain, and heart disease, says Young.
Consider that your body actually needs the good fats in salad dressing to synthesize all the fat-soluble vitamins in veggies like lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes. You can avoid store-bought dressings by mixing your own from olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, and seasonings. (Here are 19 recipes for homemade salad dressing.)
Processed lunch meats
A turkey sandwich may sound like a nice light, healthy lunch, but some deli meats contain sodium nitrate and nitrite as preservatives. The World Health Organization (WHO) found a connection between a diet high in processed meats (the equivalent of four slices of bacon a day) and colorectal cancer.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cool it with the cold cuts. “As long as you’re varying your sources of lean protein and not eating it every day, you should be fine,” says Angel Planells, RD, a Seattle-based nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.
Some canned vegetables
Although lots of manufacturers have stopped lining cans with hormone-disrupting chemical BPA, some have not made the switch, because BPA-free cans are more expensive. The issue with BPA is that it can leach into the food inside, especially acidic foods like canned tomatoes; the chemical may interfere with the healthy development of the brains and bodies of children, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Be sure to look for cans that say “BPA free.” And if it’s the convenience you like, frozen vegetables may a good option. In fact, frozen vegetables are comparable to fresh in terms of taste and nutrition.
Still, the fish has plenty going for it—healthy polyunsaturated fats that are good for your heart, skin, and eyes, as well as lean protein. If you consume the canned variety, that can be hard to beat in a handy, shelf-stable can. Whatever variety you choose, canned or fresh, so long as you’re not eating tuna more than two to three times a week, you’re OK says Planells.
Yes, it’s the original crunchy health food, but your hippie favorite is calorie-dense and can be full of added sugar—raising your risk of weight gain and other problems, warns Planells.
That’s why a “serving” is only about a quarter-cup—which can lead most of us to unknowingly eat too much of it. Granola is the poster child for so-called health food that you cannot just eat with abandon thinking it’s good for you, he says.
Sure, it may seem like a convenient, shelf-stable way to reach your five-a-day produce goal, but dried fruit is not the optimal way to get your daily servings. It’s often packed with added sugar—how do you think they make tart cranberries edible? Some varieties have enough of the sweet stuff that they’re closer to candy than produce, says Planells.
These sugary snacks quickly raise your blood sugar—and then it plummets. This rollercoaster strains your body’s ability to process sugar, and may, over time, increase the risk of insulin resistance and pre-diabetes. Stick with fresh fruit when possible, or look for dehydrated versions that have no added sugar.
- Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, author of Finally Full, Finally Thin: 30 Days to Permanent Weight Loss One Portion At a Time
- Advances in Nutrition: "Associations between Yogurt Consumption and Weight Gain and Risk of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome: A Systematic Review"
- American Cancer Society: "Soy and Cancer Risk"
- Journal of Food Science and Technology: "How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk?"
- Journal of Applied Phycology: "The carrageenan controversy"
- Frontiers in Pediatrics: "The Role of Carrageenan and Carboxymethylcellulose in the Development of Intestinal Inflammation"
- Environmental Protection Agency: "Drinking Water Health Advisory for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "FLAVORINGS-RELATED LUNG DISEASE"
- Ashley Koff, RD
- American Cancer Society: "World Health Organization Says Processed Meat Causes Cancer"
- Angel Planells, RD, a Seattle-based nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: "Bisphenol A (BPA)"
- World Health Organization: "Mercury and health"
- Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research: "Evaluating Total Mercury and Methyl Mercury Contents in Canned Tuna Fish of the Persian Gulf"
- Nutrients: "Non-Nutritive Sweeteners and Their Implications on the Development of Metabolic Syndrome"