Thursday, May 3, 2012

Unhealthy "Health" Foods

The amount of time dedicated to the topic of healthy eating in the standard education system is very minimal (at least it was when I was in school).  In elementary school, I was taught that as long as I drank my milk and ate an apple a day I would be healthy, like super hero healthy.  Unfortunately, by the time I got to high school the most popular items in the cafeteria were maple bars, brownies and cheesy breadsticks.  So much for super powers.

Since we are not really being educated on healthy eating at school, and it isn’t likely we are reading nutrition textbooks in our free time, where are we learning all of the nutrition facts that we have floating around in our heads?  When I began my weight loss journey, I figured out where I was getting most of my information, and it wasn’t pretty.

I didn’t start my weight loss journey by following any particular diet plan.  I started by simply trying to make healthier decisions.   I went to the grocery store and bought items I perceived as healthy, made meals I thought were healthy and ordered healthier items off of restaurant menus.  When I didn’t lose a pound, I took a closer look at what I was eating.  After doing a little bit of research, what I found was that most of my “health knowledge” was incorrect.  I thought that banana chips were at least a reasonably healthy snack.  It turns out that they are fried in coconut oil, loaded with saturated fat and contain only a small percentage of the nutrients found in bananas. Huh.

At first I felt like a complete idiot, but then I realized that there is a clear reason why I had believed all of these nutritional falsities.  Every day there are thousands of marketing campaigns aimed at me and my desire to lose weight. Smoothie companies spend millions of dollars on campaigns trying to convince us that their 400 calorie sugar bombs are the perfect addition to a healthy diet, and it works.  We, as consumers, need to learn to be more conscious of where we get our information and who we believe.  

I have listed some of the more common unhealthy “health” foods below:

“Fat Free” Foods-  When something is labeled as “fat free” it has been my experience that the manufacturers are trying to get you to ignore something less healthy about the item (like the high calorie content).  Nobody is labeling healthy things like fruit as “fat free”, but high calorie cookies and ice cream, certainly.  

Dried-Fruit-  Ocean Spray may be one of the most successful companies when it comes to marketing an unhealthy product as healthy.  I believe that most people think of Craisins as a health food.  From salads to trail mix, people include them in foods as an added “fruit”.  The problem is that 1/3 cup of Craisins has 130 calories, 26 grams of sugar and no vitamins (according to

Granola-  From what I have seen, the average store-bought granola has about 200 calories in 1/2 cup.  Where are all of those calories coming from? Sugar and oil.  Even recipes for homemade granola contain large amounts of sugar (honey, brown sugar, maple syrup) and oil.  In a bowl of granola with milk (1 cup serving of each), you could easily end up with a 500 calorie breakfast.  

Muffins-  We all know that donuts are unhealthy, but what about muffins?  Fruit muffins are often portrayed as a healthy alternative to other breakfast pastries.  The blueberry muffin at Dunkin Donuts has 460 calories and 44 grams of sugar, while the blueberry cake donut “only” has 340 calories and 21 grams of sugar (according to

Energy/Granola/Protein Bars- Clif bars may be sold at health food stores, but at 240 calories and 20 grams of sugar, they seem more like a candy bar.  Most energy bars are high in calories from added sugars, and can contain lots of sodium.  The snack bar that I like the best is the Kashi Honey Almond Flax granola bar.  It tastes good and has only 140 calories, 5 grams of sugar and contains 7 grams of protein.

It is also important to remember to check the nutritional content of items labeled as organic, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and all natural, and not just assume that they are health foods. I used to work for Whole Foods Market, and it amazed me how many customers thought that if something was labeled as “organic” it meant that it was healthy.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the benefits of organic products, but I assure you that organic macaroni and cheese still contains loads of calories and fat. The same goes for Vegan products.  Vegan cookies may not contain butter, but they do contain vegetable shortening and sugar.  I am not arguing for or against any of the above listed diets, I am simply stating that just because something is labeled as “vegetarian” doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthy.  

To avoid making the same mistakes that I did, remember to always read nutrition labels.  You will be surprised, even by items with which you think you are familiar.


  1. I love this article and I am definitely sharing it with my family. I was "lucky" because I was reading Self magazines since the 7th grade so I knew all of this info early. Unfortunately it made all of my bad decisions really conscious.

    Btw, I love granola but don't eat it because 1/2 a cup of that is nothing. Some people eat that like cereal, so they are having a 450+ meal at the start of the day.

  2. I'm going to buy a box of those Kashi Honey Almond Flax bars. I like to carry something in my purse/car/office just in case I get super busy and or forget my lunch, but the typical protein bars and other sorts of those are so packed with calories that I've given them up until I can really decipher which ones out of the millions I can rely upon. It's funny how I had dwindled my grocery list to like 10 items, and I am slowly adding well thought out items back in to increase variety. Thanks for this article! Very good reminder that I need to stay alert :D

    1. I also like keeping something in my purse. It keeps me from getting too hungry during the day, and making bad choices later on. I have found the Kashi bars to have the best calorie to protein/fiber ratio. There are about four varieties, but I like the honey almond the best. The peanut one is way too dry. I know what you mean about the limited groceries. I too used to keep 10 or less items on my grocery list. Eventually you figure out more things that you can trust. I bring a lot of variety into my diet with different fruits and veggies. It sounds boring, but I really do love roasted vegetables. Whole grains and legumes are another staple of mine.

      It sounds like you are doing a great job. I wish you continued success on your journey!

  3. I've also had the Rise Bars - especially the protein bars after my track workouts. I plan on writing a review at some point, but one thing you might like about them is there is no added sugar, and most of the bars have only 3 ingredients. Website:

    1. I haven't seen those, I will look for them. Sounds yummy, thanks! I really like the flavor, and whole/raw food concept, with KIND and Larabars too. I just wish they had more protein/fiber to fill me up.

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