14 ‘Health Foods’ That May Not Be as Nutritious as You Thought

14 ‘Health Foods’ That May Not Be as Nutritious as You Thought

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Navigating the grocery aisles in search of nutritious foods has become increasingly complex as an increasingly large number of so-called healthy products fill the shelves.

Companies often use wording on product labels and in their marketing to appeal to customers who are trying to make healthier choices. You might see claims on labels like:

  • low fat
  • vegan
  • gluten-free
  • low carb

Unfortunately, just because a food uses words like these on its label or is generally thought of as healthier than other foods doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

Here are 14 foods that may not be as healthy as their marketing claims make them out to be.

People have championed granola and granola bars as “healthy” foods for decades.

Even though some granolas and granola bars are quite nutritious, many are packed with added sugar and very high in calories.

For example, a 2/3-cup (67-gram) serving of Nature Valley Oats and Dark Chocolate Protein Granola contains 7 grams of added sugar and 290 calories, while Quaker Chewy Yogurt Granola Bars pack 10 grams of added sugar per bar (1, 2).

The recommended Daily Value (DV) for sugar is 50 grams for a person who consumes 2,000 calories per day, according to the Food and Drug Administration (3).

For optimal health, it’s best to limit your added sugar intake as much as possible, as consuming too much added sugar can contribute to an increased risk of many health conditions in both adults and kids.

These health conditions include (4, 5, 6, 7):

  • obesity
  • fatty liver
  • heart disease

Instead of buying premade granola at the store, try making your own granola and granola bars at home. You can use nutritious ingredients like nuts and oats and add sweetness with dried fruit.

Yogurt can be a healthy choice, but it’s best to opt for unsweetened yogurt whenever possible.

Flavored and “fruit on the bottom” yogurts can contain a surprising amount of sugar in just a small serving.

For example, a 5.3-ounce (150-gram) container of Dannon Strawberry Fruit on the Bottom yogurt contains a hefty 15 grams of added sugar. Yogurts that have candy toppings and “flip-style” yogurts can have even more (8).

Instead of choosing sweetened yogurt, try topping unsweetened yogurt with fresh fruit for a bit of natural sweetness.

Many people are under the impression that the higher the protein content of a food or beverage, the healthier it is.

Some foods that are naturally high in protein, like fish, eggs, and beans, are without a doubt healthy choices. However, items like protein bars and protein shakes may not be as healthy as some people assume.

Many healthy people who consume balanced diets don’t need to get extra protein through supplements. Nevertheless, active individuals and those who follow vegetarian and vegan diets may benefit from more protein in their diets.

If you do need extra protein, you may be able to get this by eating more protein-rich foods. As such, for many people, eating supplemental protein products like bars and drinks may not be necessary to stay healthy (9).

Plus, many of these items are loaded with added sugar and unnecessary ingredients, like:

  • artificial sweeteners
  • artificial colors
  • oils
  • thickeners

While companies market sports drinks and energy beverages as ways to boost energy and athletic performance, these beverages are unnecessary for most people.

They can also be high in ingredients like added sugar, artificial colors, and large amounts of stimulants, such as caffeine.

While some athletes do need to replenish lost nutrients with sports drinks after intense exercise, most people who perform moderate exercise or just normal daily activity do not need to chug sports drinks to stay hydrated.

Many sports beverages contain a shocking amount of sugar. For example, a 20-ounce (591-mL) bottle of Fruit Punch Gatorade contains 34 grams of added sugar (10).

Likewise, energy drinks can be extremely high in added sugar. The popular Monster Energy drink contains 54 grams per 16-ounce (473-mL) can. That’s higher than the DV for added sugar (3, 11).

These beverages are heavily marketed toward children and adolescents, which is alarming because researchers have linked drinking sweetened beverages with health issues, including high blood pressure, fatty liver, and obesity, in kids and teens (12, 13, 14, 15).

For people with gluten-related disorders, avoiding gluten is necessary.

However, even if a food is labeled as gluten-free, it’s not necessarily healthier than gluten-containing foods.

Some processed gluten-free snack foods and sweets contain just as much, if not more, calories and added sugar as other snacks.

Additionally, studies show that gluten-free snack foods and other gluten-free items tend to be lower in protein, fiber, and certain vitamins and minerals than their gluten-containing counterparts. They’re also generally more expensive (16, 17).

Just because a food is low in fat doesn’t mean it’s a healthier choice.

Food manufacturers often replace fat with sugar in low fat and fat-free products to make up for the flavor loss (18).

What’s more, fat-free products may be less filling than their full fat versions because fat is a macronutrient that supports feelings of fullness and makes food more pleasurable to eat (19).

Fats are an essential part of your diet and eating nutritious high fat foods can help you reap their benefits.

Many people assume that breakfast cereals are a smart way to start their day. However, this isn’t always the case.

In fact, many breakfast cereals are made with refined grains, lack filling nutrients like protein and fiber, and can be very high in added sugar. Even cereals marketed toward adults can be packed with added sugar.

Honey Nut Cheerios, which is marketed as “heart healthy,” contains 12 grams of added sugar per cup. Eating large amounts of cereal like this one, particularly as part of a diet that’s already high in added sugar, doesn’t promote heart health (20).

In fact, diets high in added sugar likely have the opposite effect. Studies have linked high sugar diets to an increased risk of heart disease and heart disease risk factors, including high blood pressure and triglyceride levels (21, 22, 23).

Your body needs both omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats — like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — to function (24).

Unfortunately, modern-day diets have a ratio of about 20:1, far exceeding the body’s needs for omega-6 fats (25).

Research has found that this imbalance in the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is associated with systemic inflammation, and studies suggest it may contribute to disease risk (26, 27).

Most people who eat a Western diet consume too much omega-6-rich fat and not enough omega-3s. For this reason, it’s best to limit your intake of foods high in omega-6 fats. These include:

  • soybean oil
  • corn oil
  • sunflower oil
  • products made with these oils, including many processed, prepackaged foods

Another solution is to increase your intake of omega-3s. Good sources of omega-3s include (28):

  • flaxseed oil
  • fatty fish, like salmon
  • walnuts

Homemade smoothies can be a nutritious choice and convenient way to increase your consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Yet, premade smoothies and smoothies from certain chain restaurants contain massive amounts of calories and sugar.

If you buy a smoothie when you’re out and about, make sure to read the ingredient label before you order. Many smoothie stores offer items made with frozen yogurt, sherbet, and other sugar-laden additives.

Even though diet soda contains no sugar and generally zero calories, studies show that those who drink diet soda regularly are more likely to develop certain health issues than people who don’t drink it.

For example, it’s also associated with a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, a group of symptoms that include increased belly fat, blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood fat levels (29, 30).

Research suggests that diet soda may contribute to these health issues by altering brain responses to food, increasing the desire for highly palatable foods like calorie-dense sweets (31, 32).

Following a plant-centric diet and eating less meat can benefit your overall health, as well as the environment.

However, some vegan and plant-based meat replacement products are packed with ultra-processed ingredients, salt, sugar, and more.

Instead of relying on store-bought vegan meat products, try using whole-food ingredients to make your own at home. For example, you can make plant-based burgers out of ingredients like black beans, mushrooms, rice, and cashews.

While frozen yogurt (also known as fro-yo) may be delicious, it’s not always a healthier choice than regular ice cream. Frozen yogurt is generally lower in fat than ice cream, but it can be very high in added sugar.

Plus, most self-serve fro-yo establishments only provide large cups, which customers tend to fill. These stores also offer a variety of high calorie, sugary toppings, which can add significant amounts of added sugar and drive up the calorie count of your dessert.

While it’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy ice cream or frozen yogurt on occasion, one isn’t necessarily a healthier choice than the other. Choose whichever you prefer and consider sticking to smaller portion sizes to keep your calorie and added sugar intake in check.

Yogurt-covered snacks like pretzels and raisins are sold in most health food stores and sometimes marketed as a healthier choice than chocolate-covered snacks.

However, they’re very similar nutritionally. A 100-gram serving of yogurt-covered raisins contains 393 calories and 64 grams of total sugar, while the same serving of raisins covered in milk chocolate contains 390 calories and 62.2 grams of total sugar (33, 34).

Still, note that the sugar and calorie contents vary by brand.

Plant milks have grown in popularity as more people transition to a more plant-based diet.

Even though nut milk can be an excellent alternative to dairy products, especially for those who are intolerant to milk products, some nut milks may not be as healthy as you think.

Unless explicitly stated on the bottle, most plant milks contain added sugar to improve their taste.

For example, original Almond Breeze almond milk contains 7 grams of added sugar per 1-cup (240-mL) serving, with cane sugar listed as the second ingredient (35).

For this reason, it’s a good idea to choose unsweetened nut milks if you want to moderate your intake of added sugar.

Even though food companies market many foods and beverages as “healthy,” some may not be nutritious choices.

Many of these foods are packed with added sugar and other ingredients that may negatively affect your overall health. Plus, many foods marketed as “healthier” options are much more expensive than other products.

This is why it’s important to always read the label to investigate the nutrition facts and ingredients of food products, including those marketed as “healthy.” And, in general, try to stick mostly to whole, nutrient-dense foods.