As a now-fanatical clean eater, I have become a health food skeptic. Anytime the latest snack product is advertised to be delicious and nutritious, you'll find me with a raised eyebrow, Googling all the ingredients on the label.
I'm not a health expert. I'm just your average consumer who is sick of being sold junk dressed up with a healthy label.
From my years of unofficial research (read: doing my homework as I cut processed foods out of my diet), here are the popular "healthy" foods I've found to be most misleading. Turns out more than a few health and nutrition experts agree with me too:
I'm gonna go ahead and blame this one on the skinny margarita, one of my favorite low-cal boozy treats that put agave sweetener on the map. Because of its rising popularity, most of us (myself included) are under the impression that agave is way better than refined sugar, and that's where we would be wrong. Annie Lawless, Suja Juice cofounder, creator of Blawnde.com and certified holistic health coach, says, "This one seems natural because it comes from the cactus plant, so it must be better than high fructose corn syrup, right? Wrong! Agave is comprised of more fructose than any other sweetener (70-98 percent), while high fructose corn syrup is about 55 percent.
"Fructose in concentrated amounts is dangerous because it is metabolized much differently than glucose. Like alcohol, fructose is entirely broken down in the liver (while only about 20 percent of glucose is) and directly converted to the type of fat that is stored in the belly. Belly fat is the most threatening type of fat to heart health," explains Lawless.
When I think healthy, crunchy, earth-mama-hiker-type who wears natural deodorant, I automatically think granola. But even a nature lover's favorite eat may be less healthy than you have been led to believe — which you'll soon realize when you take a closer look at the ingredient label. Brigitte Theriault, avid label reader, health coach and CEO and personal chef at White Apron, says, "Granola is loaded with sugar, which makes it a high-glycemic snack and not a healthy breakfast or snack option."
Eat air-popped popcorn, they said. It will fill you up with a fraction of the calories, they said. Unfortunately "they" were wrong. Popcorn is a dieter's favorite that also happens to be high on the glycemic index, so it is quickly converted into sugar by your body. "Once your body has a spike release of blood sugar, it triggers the pancreas to release insulin (the carrier that takes sugar into the cells to be used as fuel for the body). If your cells have more sugar available than they can use, they store the rest as fat. So even though it is low-calorie, it could still be causing your body to store fat," explains Holly Stokes, The Brain Trainer and author of A Lighter You! Train Your Brain to Slim Your Body.
What could possibly be wrong with a healthy, natural and convenient meal replacement? In a word, everything. "A lot of people use protein bars as a breakfast replacement or post-workout snack. But these are often filled with a long list of unhealthy ingredients and cheap protein powder," cautions Theriault. Instead, "Eat nuts or yogurt if you are on the go and need a quick protein fix."
So now I'm going to ruin America's favorite low-cal dairy drink too? It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it. Lawless calls skim milk one of the biggest health food frauds because of its deceptive low-calorie label. In reality, Lawless says, "Skim milk is basically the ice cream cone with the ice cream removed. It lacks the best part — the cream. What's left is a watery, chalky-tasting liquid that really doesn't resemble milk at all. Studies have shown that whole milk drinkers actually have an easier time controlling and maintaining their weight. Whole milk has more healthy fats to satiate you, promote metabolic function and improve body composition."
Yummy yogurt is full of probiotics, and probiotics are good for you, right? I'm sure you can see where this is heading, but the answer is another big, fat nope. According to Stokes, commercial yogurts may be one of the greatest health food deceptions of all: "Often people think yogurt is healthy, but there is more added sugar to most commercial flavored yogurts than a candy bar. A popular yogurt brand touts 36 grams of sugar per serving, whereas a Twix candy bar is only 26 grams per serving."
Now I've officially gone off the deep end — is nothing sacred? When those newfangled 100-calorie snack packs first came out, I thought they were the answer to my prayers. Finally, finally, finally I could enjoy a preportioned junk food treat without having to worry about inhaling an entire bag. Shane Allen, personal trainer and sports nutritionist at PersonalTrainerFood.com, says these snack packs are truly misleading because they're missing the point: "All the newest science is saying it doesn't matter how much you eat — it's all about what you eat. And it's not about calories in versus calories out."
Allen explains, "These 100-calorie packs and 'fat-free' advertised foods are usually packed with processed, starchy carbs and sugar, which are immediately converted to fat by your body for energy. Even the British Journal of Sports Medicine recently said lack of exercise isn't the cause of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. It's starchy carbs and sugar."
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