On the whole, this is a good list — check it twice to see how it compares to your daily routine.
By Kris Gunnars, Popular Science
Nutrition is full of nonsense.
You will find bold health claims for all kinds of foods, most often based on zero evidence.
Here are the top 11 “health foods” that are actually very harmful.
1. Fruit Juices
The fruit juices you find at the supermarket aren’t always what they seem. They may have small amounts of real fruit in them, but often they are little more than water, artificial flavor and sugar. But even if you’re drinking real fruit juice, it is still a bad idea.
Fruit juice is like fruit with most of the good stuff removed. All that is left is the sugar and a few vitamins. Orange juice, for example, contains the same amount of sugar as Coca-Cola. There’s no fiber in it, no chewing resistance and nothing to stop you from downing massive amounts of sugar in a short amount of time.
Eating too much sugar is associated with all sorts of diseases. These include obesity, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many others (1, 2, 3). It is much better to avoid fruit juices and eat real fruits instead.
Bottom Line: Most fruit juices contain the same amount of easily digestible sugar as sugar-sweetened soft drinks. It is best to eat whole fruits instead.
2. Whole Wheat
It is true that whole wheat is healthier than refined wheat. But this does not mean that whole wheat is healthy. It’s kind of like saying that because filtered cigarettes are healthier than unfiltered cigarettes, everyone should be smoking filtered cigarettes. It’s flawed logic.
There are plenty of good reasons to avoid wheat, both the refined and the whole variety. For example, wheat is the main source of gluten in the diet and a large part of the population may be gluten sensitive (4, 5, 7, 8, 9).
One study shows that wheat fiber can make you vitamin D deficient, making you burn through your stores of this important vitamin much faster (10). Another study shows that whole wheat raises small, dense LDL (the truly “bad” cholesterol) by a whopping 60 percent (11).
Bottom Line: Whole wheat is rich in gluten and can cause digestive problems and various symptoms. It may also cause vitamin D deficiency and elevated small, dense LDL cholesterol.
3. Agave Nectar
In the health food aisle at the supermarket, you will definitely find some “sugar-free” products that are sweetened with agave. This sweetener is touted as a healthy alternative to sugar because it is natural and has a low glycemic index.
But the harmful effects of sugar have little to do with its glycemic index; it is harmful primarily because it is loaded with unnatural amounts of fructose. Too much fructose in the diet can cause all sorts of problems, especially in people who don’t exercise much.
All fructose is metabolized by the liver. If the liver is full of glycogen the fructose will be turned into fat (11, 12). This can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and all kinds of metabolic problems like resistance to the hormones insulin and leptin, which will ultimately lead to obesity and diabetes (13, 14, 15, 16).
While regular sugar is 50 percent fructose, the fructose content of agave is as high as 90 percent. If anything, agave is even worse than sugar!
Bottom Line: Agave nectar is loaded with fructose and therefore causes all the same problems as regular sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
4. Sports Drinks
Sports drinks were designed for athletes who have just finished an intense training session with massive sweating and glycogen depletion.
For this reason, sports drinks contain:
- Water: to replenish lost fluid.
- Electrolytes: to replenish electrolytes like sodium that were lost via sweat.
- Sugar: because athletes need energy after an intense workout.
You don’t need any additional electrolytes unless you’ve been doing a very intense workout, and most people are already eating too much sugar. One bottle of Gatorade contains over 30 grams of sugar.
You’re better off sticking to plain water, which you should certainly drink plenty of, especially around workouts.
Bottom Line: If you’re not doing super intense workouts, then you should avoid sports drinks. They are not needed and contain sugar.
5. ‘Heart-Healthy’ Vegetable Oils
As the fear of saturated fat took hold of the world, consumption of all kinds of nasty ingredients increased. Prime examples are industrial seed- and vegetable oils like soybean, corn, and cottonseed oil.
These oils are extracted from seeds using very harsh processing methods and include high heat, bleaching, and the toxic solvent hexane. These oils contain very large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, way more than humans ever consumed throughout evolution.
We need small amounts of these fatty acids in the diet, such as the amounts found in meat and nuts. However, if we eat way too much like is the case with Western populations, this causes problems (17). Eating too much of these fats can lead to inflammation, which is a leading cause of many chronic diseases (18). These oils get incorporated into our body fat stores and cellular membranes, where they are highly sensitive to oxidation and damage.
To top it all off, the industrial vegetable oils that you find in the supermarket contain 0.56 to 4.2 percent of their fatty acid as trans fats, which are highly toxic (19). (This does not apply to olive oil, which is good for you!)
Bottom Line: Vegetable oils are unhealthy and lead to inflammation. They are potential key players in the epidemic of Western diseases.
6. Low-Fat or Fat-Free Foods
When the anti-fat message first came out, food manufacturers started producing “healthy” products that were low-fat or fat-free. The only problem is that foods that have had the fat removed taste like crap.
The food manufacturers then loaded their products with chemicals, artificial sweeteners and massive amounts of sugar. What they basically did was remove the good stuff (fat) and replace it with bad stuff (sugar). This is how they managed to turn perfectly healthy foods like yogurt into very harmful products filled with unhealthy ingredients.
Bottom Line: Avoid everything labelled “low-fat” or “fat-free.” These are highly processed products loaded with sugar and other harmful substances.
7. Gluten-Free Foods
Many people have started to avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, spelt, rye, and barley (and a few other grains). Almost a third of the U.S. population currently wants to cut back on gluten or go gluten-free.
Food manufacturers have caught up on the trend and have started offering all sorts of gluten-free “health foods.” The problem with these foods is that they’re usually not healthy at all.
Instead of a gluten grain, they’re made with other starches like potato starch, tapioca starch or some others. These starches are usually highly refined, void of nutrients and spike blood sugar fast, just like wheat. But these products are often also loaded with sugar and other harmful or artificial chemicals.
This does not apply to foods that are naturally gluten free, like meats or vegetables. If a product says “gluten-free” on the package, then it’s probably bad for you.
Bottom Line: Gluten-free foods are highly processed foods that are not much healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts. It’s best to avoid them.
8. Margarine And Fake Butters
“I wish butter tasted more like margarine, said nobody ever.” – Danny J. Albers
Another side effect of the anti-fat hysteria is a plethora of so-called “healthy” butter alternatives. The most notable example of these is margarine. It used to be loaded with trans fats; now it tends to contain processed vegetable oils instead. Butter consumption went down, margarine consumption went up.
The problem with this is that butter is healthy. Margarine is not.
Grass-fed butter, in particular, is an excellent source of the fatty acid butyrate and vitamin K2, both of which can have powerful positive effects on health (22, 23). Margarine is a processed food with harmful ingredients that can make you sick. In one large study, replacing butter with margarine lead to a drastically increased risk of death from heart attacks (24).
This is one great example of where blindly following the mainstream advice can put you in an early grave.
Bottom Line: Margarine is a processed food that contains unhealthy, artificial ingredients. Avoid it, use real grass-fed butter instead.
9. Energy Bars
Energy bars are in the same boat as sports drinks – most people don’t need them. If you’re an elite athlete who desperately needs to keep protein intake high and eat every two to three hours, then these bars can definitely be convenient.
However, most people don’t need to eat that often, and these bars don’t contain anything that you can’t get from real foods. Energy bars and protein bars are often highly processed products. Even though they may be higher in protein than chocolate bars, they often still contain the same unhealthy ingredients. Sugar, white flour, artificial flavor; you name it, they’ve got it.
Of course, there are some healthier brands available, but if you want to avoid the crap then you must read labels! If you’re starving and far away from home, then healthier types of energy bars can certainly be better than a burger and a Coke, but your money is still better spent on real foods.
Bottom Line: Energy and protein bars are often highly processed products. Most people don’t need them and they tend to contain sugar and other nasty ingredients.
10. Low-Carb Junk Foods
As people have changed their mind on fat being the root of all evil, some people have started cutting back on carbs instead. Again, food manufacturers have caught notice and brought all sorts of low-carb junk foods to the market.
Even though something is low in carbs and sugar, it can still be very unhealthy. Great examples are the low-carb Atkins bars. These are nasty, highly processed products that nobody should be eating. Just check out the ingredients list for this Atkins Advantage bar. This isn’t food.
If you’re going to do a low-carb diet, stick to real, unprocessed foods.
Bottom Line: There are some low-carb processed foods on the market that are extremely unhealthy and loaded with artificial ingredients.
11. ‘Healthy’ Breakfast Cereals
Most highly processed breakfast cereals are not healthy. In fact, they are among the worst foods you can eat. They’re often loaded with sugar and refined carbohydrates. Then the manufacturers fortify them with some synthetic vitamins and put tiny amounts of whole grains in the mix, then market their products as healthy.
Don’t be fooled by the labels: low-fat, fat-free, whole grain, etc. Just check the ingredients list on these products. They’re usually loaded with sugar.
Starting the day with a high-sugar cereal will set you up for a blood sugar crash later in the day, followed by hunger, cravings, and another high-carb meal.
12. Anything Else?
If the packaging of a food tells you that it is healthy, then it probably isn’t.
Feel free to add to the list in the comments!