It is hard enough to stick to a diet or fitness regimen, or to simply eat more healthfully. The lure of binge-watching Netflix and eating Shake Shack can be pretty strong, after all. But sometimes even if you are doing everything right, too much of a good thing can hurt you.
For example, we know that drinking water is important to our health. But as Dr. Shawn Tsuda, a bariatric surgeon at miVIP Surgery Centers, tells me, “Drinking excessive water” (as in multiple times more than a 64 ounce a day minimum) can actually be “toxic” to your body because it can negatively affect your electrolyte balance.
Then there are things we consume that we think are healthy, but are not really good for us at all. In fact some of the food, drinks, and supplements you take in might be downright bad for you. Here’s a look at some of the so-called health products out there that are anything but.
Yogurt has a positive reputation as a health food, due to its high protein content (especially Greek yogurt) and wealth of probiotics. But some yogurt is better than others. “It is important to read the labels,” wellness expert Carol Michaels of Recovery Fitness told me. “There are many brands with a high sugar content.”
Consider the nutritional information of plain yogurt as opposed to fruit-flavored yogurt. Eight ounces of Stonyfield Farms plain full-fat yogurt has 170 calories, 9 grams of fat, 9 grams of protein, and 12 grams of sugar. But when you add fruit, the sugar content goes up — way up. Just eight ounces of Chobani strawberry-blended yogurt has 190 calories, 19 grams of protein, 0 grams of fat, and 24 grams of sugar.
When you are buying yogurt, registered nutritionist Michelle Jaelin recommends looking “for less than 8g of sugar per serving, and don’t be afraid of fat.” She says, “It will keep you full longer and you need fat to help absorb fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.” CEO of Zevia, Paddy Spence, who has worked in the natural food industry for over 25 years, told me, “If you want blueberry yogurt, you’re much better off stirring fresh blueberries into plain yogurt. They’re naturally low in sugar.”
Some of us love the taste of potato chips, even though we know they are terrible for us. A one-ounce serving (about 12 chips — and let’s face it, nobody stops there!) of Frito-Lay’s Ruffles Potato Chips contains 160 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 160 grams of sodium.
Enter veggie chips, springing up to provide a healthier alternative to their classic potato cousins. Popular brand Terra Chips markets all sorts of exotic vegetables, in addition to potatoes, in their snacks. Their original blend contains batata, parsnip, sweet potato, taro, and yuca. But they contain 150 calories in one serving, with 9 grams of fat, and 110 grams of sodium. Not much of a nutritional savings at all. Sensible Portions Garden Veggies Chips have 130 calories per serving, with 7 grams of fat, but a whopping 230 grams of sodium — much higher than even traditional potato chips!
Dr. Adrienne Youdim, a physician nutrition specialist, delivers the sad truth when it comes to veggie chips. “A fried chip is a fried chip,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a potato or a taro chip.” Bummer.
Did you know that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary supplements in the same stringent way that they do drugs? Dietary supplements are treated more like a food when it comes to their regulations. The FDA’s own website states in bold print that the “FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed.” Instead, it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to make sure the product is safe.
The $37 billion supplements industry cashes in on weight loss supplements in particular. But the National Institutes of Health notes that, “Dietary supplements, can have harmful side effects and might interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications.”
“The fact that dietary supplements tend to be considered safe is precisely what makes them dangerous,” Jonas Sickler, marketing director for ConsumerSafety.org, said in an interview. “Every year, over 23,000 consumers end up in the emergency room due to unsafe consumption of supplements.”
As far as particular supplements to avoid, Sickler named the following as the worst, because he said they don’t offer enough benefits to justify the risks: “Germander (Teucrium), Coltsfoot (Coughwort), Pennyroyal Oil (Hedeoma pulegioides), Lobelia (Asthma weed), Comfrey (Blackwort), and Kava (Ava).” He also noted that you should check with your doctor before trying any such supplements, and that pregnant or nursing moms should exercise extra caution.
Granola, a quintessentially “healthy” product, with high fiber, and whole grains, may not be exactly what it seems. Sarah Jacobs, a certified holistic nutritional counselor, explained that “many think of [granola] as the holy grail of health food.” But she points out that “granolas are super high in sugar and are very caloric.”
It certainly isn’t diet food. Natural foods expert Spence told me that if you’re avoiding sugar, “Steer clear of cereal,” pointing out that that while some cereals such as Frosted Flakes and Honey Nut Cheerios “are obvious sugar pushers,” we also shouldn’t “be fooled by seemingly healthy options like granola.”
For example, while a 2/3 cup serving of Cascadian Farms Fruit and Nut Granola has good ingredients like whole grain oats, sunflower seeds, and cranberries, as well as 6 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber — it also packs 270 calories, 9 grams of fat and an incredible 14 grams of sugar. To put that in perspective, a 3/4 cup serving of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes contains only 10 grams of sugar.
“If you’re going to eat granola, I suggest getting the most basic variety you can find, making sure it’s relatively low in sugar,” Spence says, “And then adding your own ingredients like nuts, seeds and berries to make it more interesting.” Jacobs suggests extremely small portion sizes of granola. Instead of eating it as a cereal, she recommends “sprinkling it on yogurt or chia pudding.”
Over the last few years, coconut water has grown in popularity as both a refreshing substitute for soda, and as a sports drink. It is high in potassium, but according to the Mayo Clinic, it is not the best choice after “vigorous exercise” because it does not have enough carbs and protein, two things needed for recovery after exercise.
Zico Coconut Water labels itself as “natural” and Vita Coco as “pure,” and while both are made from coconuts and are relatively low in calories, they also contain sugar from the coconut itself. An 8-ounce container of Vita Coco has just 45 calories, but 11 grams of sugar. Zico has 50 grams of calories, and 9 grams of sugar. Coconut water may be delicious, but just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s sugar-free.
Most of us need to eat more fruits and vegetables, so juices and smoothies sound like an ideal way to get those nutrients. But these healthy products can be problematic for several reasons. As anybody familiar with “liquid lunches” knows, it takes a much shorter time to drink something than to eat it.
Registered nutritionist Andy DeSantis points out that “to manually consume an apple, an orange and a banana could take upwards of 10-15 minutes, but when you blend or juice these items you can probably finish it in 10-15 seconds.” Not only does this mean that you consume more calories all at once, but, “You are delegating the important task of digestion away from your digestive system,” he says, “And giving that task to some high-powered machine instead.”
Andit juices, as nutritionist Michelle Jaelin told me, fruit juices can have about 25 grams of sugar, or more, per serving — and no fiber. That drinks more like a soda, than a health food, she points out. For example, eight ounces of Minute Maid Apple Juice contains 140 calories, with 32 grams of sugar from the apples. To contrast, eight ounces of Coca-Cola has only 100 calories, and 26 grams of sugar. Even though the apple juice does have vitamins, it is still a sobering comparison. Jaelin recommends eating the fruits themselves, instead — for the fiber.
Thinking about ditching those pressed juices? Look out for your breakfast smoothie, as well! For instance, Jamba Juice’s smoothies are even higher in calories than their juices are. A small, 12-ounce Aloha Pineapple Smoothie has 310 calories and an incredible 67 grams of sugar and 7 grams of protein, while a small Apple ‘n Greens Smoothie is still 250 calories, with 45 grams of sugar and 4 grams of protein. And don’t even start with the large Amazing Greens Smoothie, weighing in at 610 calories!
De Santis says calling these drinks “dangerous or unhealthy may be a bit of a stretch, but smoothies and juices are far from the nutritional messiahs that they have been made out to be,” — especially when the drinks are designated as “detox diets,” or “cleanses”. He says that while they are better than not eating fruits and veggies at all, they are “not an ideal replacement.”
Organic, non-GMO, or gluten-free baked goods
Much like we want to eat potato chips and feel decent about it, we also may feel that way about consuming baked goods. It’s tempting to get a baked treat at Whole Foods and feel noble, as if we’re somehow saving the world by eating expensive cakes. Especially when the ingredients list “organic”, “non-GMO”, or “gluten-free” on the label.
“Gluten-free has become synonymous with healthy, but that’s just not the case,” Dr. Youdim told me. Gluten-free was originally meant for those with Celiac Disease, or a wheat sensitivity. She says that simply removing gluten does not automatically make a baked good become healthy.
Healthy lifestyle blogger Mandie Mutchie points out that “many people turn to vegetable oil or canola oil as an alternative to butter as a heart healthy option, when in actuality, these manufactured oils can be one of the worst things for us.” Nutritionist Jaelin warns, “Don’t be fooled with health-washing messaging…Just because it is labeled organic and non-GMO, it is still high in fat and calories.”
Reduced-fat peanut butter
For those of us who love peanut butter sandwiches, the nutrition content on a typical jar of regular peanut butter is daunting. For example, two tablespoons of Creamy Skippy Peanut Butter contains 190 calories, 16 grams of fat, and 7 grams of protein.
So, Skippy and other peanut butter brands are now marketing reduced-fat peanut butter. But it doesn’t really make any sense: Reduced Fat Skippy Peanut Butter Spread offers you just 10 fewer calories, and 4 fewer grams of fat. And it has 1 gram more sugar, and a laundry list of added chemicals.
Dietitian Jaelin recommends avoiding these spreads, saying, “Reduced- fat peanut butter strips away some of the heart-healthy monounsaturated fats found in natural peanut butter, and often has sugar, palm oil, salt, etc. added.” Instead, she suggests choosing natural peanut butter, and making sure there aren’t a lot of additives listed in the ingredients. Smaller portions can help with the calorie load, too.
Whole wheat breads and pastas
When buying these products, it is important to read the labels and make sure that they are actually whole wheat. Just because something says it’s “made with whole grains”, doesn’t necessarily mean it really is.
Wellness expert Michaels shared, “A common misconception is that it is OK to eat ‘whole wheat’ pastas and breads.” She says, “Don’t let the brown color fool you,” as they may not be whole wheat. Worst than that, Michaels says, is that “some of these whole wheat breads and pastas are loaded with sugar and preservatives and other chemicals.” And they may “sabotage weight loss efforts” as well. She said to make sure to closely read labels.
Author KJ Landis of the Superior Self wellness series says, “The finer the grind of the wheat berry, the higher the sugar content — called the glycemic index. This raises the glucose sugar levels in our bloodstream during digestion.” This can work well if we are exercising, but it is “not so good if we are more sedentary,” and our bodies can only hang on to “about a teaspoon of glucose…at any one time.”
None of the health and wellness experts I spoke with were into fad diets. Instead, they emphasized whole foods — as in actual real foods, not necessarily as in the grocery store. They also talked about things like eating fruits and vegetables and not drinking them. And they recommended avoiding junk food even if it is made with so-called “healthy” ingredients.
Most importantly, make sure you read labels and nutritional information, and don’t get caught up in the latest superfood or quick fix item. When you have optimum wellness in mind, it’s worth a little extra effort to make healthy happen!