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Ten “Healthy” Foods That Aren’t Really Healthy

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There are so many specialized health trends today, it’s enough to make your head spin. You can focus on avoiding gluten, a plant-based diet, a keto plan (eliminating carbs in favor of fats), paleo (mostly whole foods, with certain legumes and grains eliminated), Whole 30 (similar to paleo, but with some stricter rules), the highly rated Mediterranean or Dash diets, or you could be vegan or vegetarian. And that’s not to mention all the weight loss plans, which sometimes overlap with these, and sometimes don’t.

We can probably all agree that vegetables and lean meats are good for you. But from the myriad of “healthy” packaged foods, what’s really “HEALTHY” for patients who have diabetes and heart disease? Competing priorities can make “eating healthy” even more confusing, with the need to avoid four key things: salt, sugar, starchy/refined carbs, and saturated fat.

Just because something might be “healthy” for someone else (or at least better than a candy bar) doesn’t mean it’s healthy for you. Look at these two aisles of a typical convenience store on the highway; clearly the one on the right isn’t good for you, but is the one on the left a whole lot better?

Here are ten things that look healthy, sound healthy, but probably no longer merit a place in your daily food plans! Yes, they’re probably all better for you than a candy bar, but we’ve moved beyond that as a standard for eating, right?

  • Bottled juice blends: some of the all-natural, fresh-pressed juice blends can look SO healthy, especially when they include a variety of greens, some carrot juice, a bit of ginger, kale, etc. On the front, they tout kale, spinach, etc., But when you look closer, the first ingredient is often apple or pear juice (that makes it more palatable), or you’ll discover that the sodium content is a big chunk of your day’s allowance. In addition, juice is never an adequate substitute for the actual vegetables it contains. The two labels below show a “pressed” vegetable juice on the left (look at the first ingredient) and a mango juice blend on the right. Drinking these might give you bragging rights, and maybe it’s a teeny bit better than a soda, but the real value of vegetables is in the fiber and bulk they provide. INSTEAD: Unless your “juice” blend is actually pulverized vegetable blends with no added sugar or salt, and with all the vegetable included (like Medlie, formerly known as Zupa Noma), you are better off drinking water and getting your vegetables through munching.
  • Veggie chips: another case of “please read the ingredients.” These might sound like a good idea, but the truth is they’re often heavy on potato flour and sodium, and light on actual vegetables. Even Kale Chips can be high in sodium – and expensive! If you want kale chips, make them at home with your own fresh kale and healthy oil. The ingredients below are for veggie “straws,” but they are anything but healthy. Instead: consider actual vegetables as a snack, maybe dipped in flavored hummus or a healthy, low saturated fat dip.
  • Salad dressings: is your salad dressing your reward for eating lettuce? If it is loaded with sodium, saturated fat and/or hydrogenated vegetable oils, that salad is not helping you as much as you might like. A close look at the content of most commercial salad dressings might make you want to throw your hands up in defeat! INSTEAD: as a diabetic heart patient, you’ll want to look for vinaigrettes and consider making your own, when time allows. Creamy commercial dressings tend to be high in fat and sodium (and sometimes even sugar!) but vinegar-based ones, especially homemade, will rarely do you wrong. For instance, check out our Japanese Ginger Salad Dressing, and you can create your own variations as well.
  • Protein bars: protein bars are a popular addition to some low-carb diets, and were it not for the sodium and hydrogenated oils, they might be a great convenience. But read the labels! In addition, we have found many of them disappointing in taste and sensory quality. Below, we compared two packaged protein options. Check out the sodium and saturated fat levels! The convenience might not be worth it. Besides, if you’re going to “spend” some of your allowable sodium or saturated fat amounts, it should at least taste good. INSTEAD: If you really need protein on the go, consider some unsalted nuts, a little lower sodium cheese, or some lean turkey or chicken that you prepare at home and keep in an insulated lunch bag (check out our thoughts on deli meats, below, before you turn to those!).
  • High-sugar fruits: okay, what could be more pure than fruits, right? The only thing is, if diabetes is part of your life, you might not want fruit to be a constant in your life. It might be one of the healthiest forms of sugar, but it’s still putting sugar into your body. So pay special attention to the sweeter fruits, like bananas, mangoes, peaches and grapes, and consider using them more sparingly. INSTEAD: If you must have something sweet (and your blood sugar is under control) go with something like berries, and even then keep an eye on your blood sugar readings. Make exceptions when you must, but you’ll probably find that the sweeter fruits should no longer be a constant part of your life.
  • Butter or ghee: we understand the desire to resist using margarines (the older stick margarines had some awful ingredients, including trans fats!). But check out our blog post on butter, ghee and a newer, non-trans fat margarine. In the photo below, the top two options are non-transfat margarine products, the lower two are unsalted butter (left) and ghee. If you have a heart disease diagnosis, you need be cautious of saturated fat. Ghee is a tasty substitute for butter (it’s essentially clarified butter, meaning the milk solids have been strained out) that’s used a lot in Paleo and Whole 30 diets, but it is just as high in saturated fat as butter. INSTEAD: for cooking, olive oil and some of the other healthy oils are a much healthier alternative. For spreads or flavor, a soft margarine made with olive oil, avocado, or another healthy fat can be a great option. Otherwise, keep butter use to a minimum.
  • Yogurt with added ingredients: most people think of a container of yogurt as a healthy snack or breakfast option. But those prepackaged yogurts with added ingredients you mix in, fruit on the bottom or mixed in can pack a lot of sugar! One extreme example from a health food store was touted as all-natural, probiotic, no rBGH (a growth hormone), but it had pretzels, a bit of chocolate and nuts that you stir in. How bad could it be? Look at the label!  INSTEAD: look for unsweetened yogurt and add a dab of fresh berries. If you really need it to be sweeter, consider using just a small amount of one of the newer/safer artificial sweeteners.
  • Deli meats: these might be the first thing you thought of above, when we pointed out the problems with protein bars. Deli meats that are pure turkey, chicken or ham are probably much lower in saturated fat than blends, like bologna or salami. But watch out for the sodium! In the photo below, we checked out a package of lean, organic chicken, touting “no antibiotics,” at a healthy food store and found that it had 450 mg. of sodium per serving!
  • Veggie burgers: all it takes is a close look at the ingredients of these products to realize that some include a lot of sodium, as well as carbs, in many cases. If you want a healthier burger with vegetables in it, try our juicy Turkey Burgers! Our nutritional ingredients (shown in the recipe — including only 74 mg. of sodium) do include a bit more fat, because we were generous with the olive oil (and ours includes cooking it in a little oil, while the ingredients below include only what’s in the “burgers” themselves).
  • Trail mix or granola: yes they’re crunchy (both figuratively and literally), they keep well on the go, and they might even have fiber and protein. But check the sugar and salt content! With the one we looked at below, the contents don’t sound too bad, but watch the serving size. This is for only 1/4 cup; less than we think most people would eat for a snack. Instead: You might be better off replacing these with nuts and whole grain/high fiber snacks, like crunchy vegetables.

Lessons Learned

Read the labels! Look at the nutrition label, the actual ingredients, and the number of servings. Watch out for your four trouble spots – sugars, salt, starchy/refined carbs and saturated fat. “Natural” sources of sugar and “enriched” versions of salt are still sugar and salt, so be wise and when in doubt, use whole foods whenever possible. If it doesn’t need a label, it is probably better for you!

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