Health Food Impostors

| Posted On Apr 15, 2014 | By:

true or false.shutterstock_129704294Have you noticed how many “health foods” there are in the grocery store lately?  It’s hard to ignore the advertising and all of the “expert claims” that promise to make you healthier, help your body to work better, and give you more energy.  With so many magic foods and beverages available to us, it’s a wonder we aren’t all super-human!  So should you jump on the bandwagon and believe all the hoopla, or are these products really health food impostors? Here are some common products that nutritionists see many people using, and how we feel about them.

Fiber-enhanced bars, brownies, cookies, etc.: “I don’t eat enough fiber, so can’t I just get extra from these foods?”

Unfortunately, these are desserts, not health foods.  Most of these products are enhanced with inulin, a processed starch that’s usually made in a lab.  It does up the fiber content a bit, but unfortunately, inulin doesn’t provide the same health benefits as naturally-occurring fiber from fruits, vegetables and whole grains. To get the cholesterol and blood sugar lowering benefits of fiber, you’re much better off adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet.  If you’re craving a fiber brownie (really?), have an apple first, and then if you’re still hungry have the brownie.

Coconut water and sports drinks:  “We need to replace electrolytes when we work out, right?”

Sure, if you’re working out at a high intensity for more than an hour and you’re really sweating, you could probably stand to replace some electrolytes.  But if you’re like the other ninety-nine percent of us, a better choice is a banana before your workout to boost your potassium and carbs, and a Greek yogurt after your workout to give you some additional carbs, good quality protein, and plenty of the minerals you may have sweated out.  Sports nutrition is more about what you eat than the fancy beverages you drink.  For most of us, they’re really just a waste of calories and lots of added sugar, so skip them, eat healthier, and drink water instead.

Veggie sticks, wraps, noodles: “They’re better for you and they count as a vegetable, don’t they…?”

Products like spinach lasagna, sun-dried tomato wraps, and many brands of veggie sticks and chips contain just a trace amount of vegetable puree or powder, so no, they definitely don’t count as a vegetable, and they aren’t necessarily better for you.  A better choice is plain low fat popcorn (a great whole grain), or whole-wheat wraps or pasta.  Top the wrap or noodles with some chopped or shredded vegetables and that really will be good for you.

Sugar-free cookies:  “They’re lower in carbs!”

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a free lunch – or a free cookie.  They might not have sugar, but they still have refined carbs from flour as well as unhealthy fats and a boatload of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols to make them taste sweet.  The downside of eating too much sugar alcohol is that it has a laxative effect.  Instead of a few sugar-free chocolate chip cookies, have one full graham cracker sheet spread with a tablespoon of peanut butter and a sliced strawberry.  Even if you splurge and have two, it’s still the healthier option.

Smoothies:  “They’re an easy way to get a day’s worth of fruits and vegetables in quickly.”

Yes, you can get some fruits and vegetables, but many store-bought smoothies also provide lots of calories and sugar even if it’s natural fruit sugar.  If you’re drinking a smoothie in place of a meal, make it yourself so you can be sure it has a good dose of protein, fiber and some vegetables, not just fruit and juice.  That way it’s more balanced and won’t spike your blood sugar so quickly.  Another thing to keep in mind: if you’re drinking it after a workout, you’re probably replacing all of the calories you just worked off…and then some.

One more important thing to know if you’re trying to get all of your produce in at one time: recent research suggests that it’s important to have the protective “phytochemicals” in plants circulating in your body all day, rather than all at one time.

Bottled tea: “I drink it for the antioxidants.”

Tea is an excellent source of polyphenols, or plant compounds that may have certain health benefits, but to get them, it’s best to brew it yourself.  Research from the American Chemical Society showed that most bottled teas contain just a fraction of the beneficial compounds as a cup of brewed tea.  Some brands tested contained such small amounts that consumers would have to drink 20 bottles to get the polyphenols present in one cup of tea.

Just some food for thought!


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About Anne Danahy, MS, RD, LDN

Anne Danahy, MS, RD, LDN has been a Nutritionist with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates for the past 15 years, and she currently works as the “Virtual Nutritionist." Her professional interests include weight management, heart disease, and women’s nutritional issues. When she isn’t working, you can usually find her in the kitchen testing recipes that are healthy AND delicious.