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8 So-Called ‘Health Foods’ That Aren’t As Healthy As You Thought – HuffPost

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If this green juice was made with a greens powder, there may be better options.

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If this green juice was made with a greens powder, there may be better options.

If you’re on a quest to eat a nutritious diet, you likely know that fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains are some of the best foods to incorporate. But beyond that, it gets tricky, especially when you’re talking about packaged foods.

The confusion stems from the fact that some packaged foods make claims — like low-sugar, high-fiber, plant-based or organic — that seem to suggest healthfulness. However, dietitians say these items are sometimes not actually nutritious.

“Many of these terms give the packaged food a health halo, but when you look closer at the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel, it may reveal that it is not a nutritious choice after all,” explained Sherie Nelson, a registered dietitian and wellness director of Elinor North America.

These foods might not contain as many nutrients as you’d expect or are packed with ingredients that you’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce, potentially suggesting they’re ultra-processed foods, she explained.

However, some health claims on product packaging are necessary. Ro Huntriss, a registered dietitian and chief nutrition officer of the wellness platform Simple, told HuffPost that if you have celiac disease, for instance, it’s crucial to know that something is gluten-free. Or a vegan label is helpful on items you might not realize are free from animal products.

While dietitians caution about labeling any food as good or bad, it’s important to note that some packaged foods might not be as healthy as you think. Here are some things you should know.

What to know about common health claims on packaged foods

The Food and Drug Administration does regulate many “buzzwords” on food packaging, explained Brookell White, a registered dietitian at health and fitness tracking app, MyFitnessPal. These terms are meant to provide information about the nutrients in the product, not necessarily to distinguish whether something is overall healthy or unhealthy.

For example, sugar-free candy may not have sugar, but it’s void of any beneficial nutrients, she explained. It could also be high in saturated fat, sodium and excess calories. It’s always best to examine a product’s nutrition label and list of ingredients to know what you’re getting, White said.

Some packaged foods that you might consider healthy may be classified as ultra-processed, meaning they contain preservatives, additives and artificial ingredients, which can be harmful to your health, explained Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, a professor at Northeastern University College of Science.

“The problem is there is no sign to say something is ultra-processed on the box,” said Barabasi, who helped create TrueFood, a database identifying the level of processing in foods.

Nearly 60% of the calories Americans consume come from ultra-processed foods. Recent research published in the British Medical Journal suggests that diets high in these foods are linked to dozens of health problems, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and mental health conditions.

Not all granola bars are created with the same nutritional profile!

Boris Zhitkov via Getty Images
Not all granola bars are created with the same nutritional profile!

The “health” foods that nutrition experts suggest avoiding or limiting

Some “healthy” foods may contain high amounts of hidden unhealthy fats, sugars and sodium that could lead to weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, Amar Shere, a cardiologist at Morristown Medical Center, part of Atlantic Health System, told HuffPost.

“It’s essential to be aware of these potential culprits and make informed choices when it comes to food products marketed as ‘healthy,’” he said. Here are some foods nutrition experts recommend limiting or avoiding.

Granola bars

Granola bars may be considered healthy snacks because of their association with whole grains, nuts and dried fruits, Shere said. But many contain high amounts of sugar, refined grains, hydrogenated oils, and artificial flavorings and colors. They’re also sometimes high in calories while being low in protein and fiber, which keep you full for longer.

Huntriss recommended comparing granola or cereal bar products, and choosing ones with the lowest sugar and highest fiber, and that list whole ingredients.

Flavored yogurt

Yogurt is often touted as a high-protein, low-calorie option. But the yogurt aisle contains an array of options. Barabasi said many flavored yogurts are loaded with sugar, artificial sweeteners and artificial flavorings. He suggested choosing unflavored yogurt as often as you can, or at least the lowest-sugar option. The American Heart Association recommends that men consume 36 grams (9 teaspoons) or less of added sugar, and women should have no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons). However, research shows that organic yogurts can average 13 grams of sugar per cup.

Deli meat

Lean turkey or other deli meat is sometimes recommended as a healthy snack before or after a workout. But not all deli meats are created equal. Some can be high in sodium and low in protein, and contain nitrates and nitrites, which have been linked to cancer, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The World Health Organization lists processed meats as carcinogenic.

“This class of meat is one that I highly recommend limiting or eliminating in one’s diet,” Shere said. It’s better to choose freshly cooked, unprocessed meat or low-sodium cold cuts — or load up your sandwiches with tofu, avocado or nut butter.

Anything containing powdered vegetables

Powdered greens for smoothies, such as AG1 or Your Super Green Mix, may contain some nutrients, but Huntriss said they typically lack fiber. Most people don’t consume enough fiber, which is found in whole produce, and is vital for gut and heart health.

The same goes for veggie straws and other snacks made with other powdered vegetables, Nelson said. These snacks may also contain salt and added sugar. It’s best to eat fresh (or frozen) fruits and vegetables.

Coconut oil

Coconut oil may be great for your hair and skin, Shere said. But it’s not the best cooking oil, despite the popular belief that it’s healthy. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol, causing plaque buildup in your arteries and increasing your risk for heart disease. Olive, canola and avocado oils are healthier choices, as they’re made mostly from unsaturated fats. If you want to use coconut oil in your cooking, use it in moderation.

Juices

Store-bought fruit juice often contains added sugar and other additives, so it’s always best to eat a whole piece of fruit, which contains fiber. A one-cup serving of orange juice can have about 8 grams of sugar, and apple juice can contain nearly 10 grams. It’s recommended that men have no more than 9 grams of sugar a day, and women, 6 grams. Still, if you want to drink fruit juice, just compare products to choose the lowest-sugar option with the fewest ingredients. Also, be wary of juice cleanses or detoxes, Huntriss said. “We have organs in the body that do this,” including your liver.

Plant-based meat replacements

Cutting back on meat can benefit your health, said Shere, who is vegan. But many plant-based meat replacements contain excess sugar, salt and fat, and some may even fall into the ultra-processed category, Nelson said.

As previously reported by HuffPost, Beyond and Impossible burgers contain coconut oil, giving it comparable saturated fat levels to beef: Beyond has 6 grams, Impossible 8 grams and beef 7.6 grams.

Instead, Shere suggested choosing avocado, beans, tempeh or tofu, which are highly nutritious plant-based proteins that are minimally processed.

Organic snack foods

Cookies, chips and other snacks labeled as “organic” may give the impression that they’re healthier than they are, Shere said. However, these items are often just as high in sugar, unhealthy fats and calories as non-organic versions. They also likely lack essential nutrients, like vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Here’s an example: Annie’s Organic Cheddar Bunnies contains 140 calories per 51 crackers (30 grams), 260 milligrams of sodium, 6 grams of fat and 18 grams of carbs. On the other hand, Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish Original crackers have 140 calories per 55 crackers (30 grams), as well as 6 grams of fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 20 grams of carbs.

Balance is the key to a healthy diet

While it’s best to limit excess salt, sugar and saturated fat, you don’t have to completely cut out these ingredients altogether, Nelson said. They can be convenient options, and sometimes you just crave them.

“It’s OK to consume less healthy food options from time to time,” White said. “Balance is key, and it’s necessary to enjoy the foods you love while also aiming to eat a diet focused on nutrient density and diversity.”

Less-than-healthy foods can be incorporated into a healthy diet in moderation, as long as most of your diet is full of “whole food, fresh, minimally processed foods as much as possible,” Shere said.

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