When you're constantly bombarded with the latest health fads and wellness trends, trying to separate the ones that are actually healthy from the ones that aren't can be a veritable gamble; one day they're in, and the next day they're out. The same fickle nature applies to food too. That pineapple mango juice you thought was loaded with nutrients actually contains almost eight teaspoons of sugar.
So to help us decipher the good from the bad, we consulted holistic nutritionist, health coach, and founder of Frolic and Flow, Carly Brawner, to finally set the record straight. As someone who helps people transition to a real food diet, we know she's encountered a few of these so-called "healthy" foods along the way. Ahead, she shares the common food items disguised as healthy and why we should minimize them in our diet.
Conventional Corn Products
This one might come as a shock to many of you: We were left aghast at learning one of our favorite foods isn't as healthy as we first thought. According to Brawner, corn used in commercial food items is on the rise. With more of us adopting a gluten-free diet, food companies are incorporating more and more corn in their products as a gluten-free alternative, and many see it as a healthy alternative over processed carbs. But this is why it's unhealthy.
"People believe corn is a vegetable, but corn is a grain," she explained. "It has little nutritional value, they're empty calories and it's often chosen as the filler to thicken or preserve foods because it's so cheap. For the amount of corn Americans eat, the nutritional return is not worth it."
The other concern for Brawner is the fact that 92% of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. "Corn (specifically) has been altered to tolerate heavy herbicide and pesticide spraying and has also been altered to be insect-resistant," she said. "I have concerns with plants that have been genetically modified to repel insects, and I don't believe plants sprayed with glyphosate (found in herbicides) are fit for human consumption.
"Corn also contains prolamins, a type of protein that is difficult for the body to break down. People with digestion issues and gut problems should stay away from corn products. Too much corn can cause these issues as well."
But if you really can't give up corn for good, Brawner said occasional and limited organic corn chips or corn tortillas are "not the worst thing you can eat, but who can limit themselves with chips?" She adds: "One serving is about 10 chips, and I know very few people who stop after 10. It's a food that's way too easy to get carried away with. I recommend organic corn only, and maximum two times a week for people without digestion problems (none for those with digestion issues). If you do buy corn chips, I recommend buying Jackson's Honest brand. They are cooked in coconut oil."
For years, fat was banished from our diets as bad for our health, but while we lowered our intake and switched to low-fat, we cut out all the good fats too. "Over the last 30 years, the medical community and the public were under the impression that we should eat a low-fat diet because fat was believed to cause high cholesterol and make people overweight," Brawner told MyDomaine. "We now know this is not the case and are making the move to embrace dietary saturated fat as healthy and necessary for brain, gut, and overall health."
Brawner says canola oil was considered healthy because it's low-fat oil, meaning it's low in saturated fat. But there's a lot of conflicting information and confusion around it. "Some see it as the the healthiest cooking oil because it’s low in saturated fat and contains omega-3 fatty acids," she explained. "Others see it as poison and inflammatory. In my opinion, If you’re using or eating canola oil, it’s time for an oil change."
According to Brawner, canola oil is an unhealthy fat to cook with and consume. Why? "To become shelf ready, it goes through a process of refining, bleaching, and deodorizing, which destroys the majority of its beneficial properties," she adds. "Think about it, anything that needs to be deodorized before consumption probably shouldn’t be eaten."
Canola oil is also sensitive to light and heat. When exposed to either of these elements, it becomes rancid or oxidized. "Consuming oxidized food means damaging free radicals in the body," she said. "Oxidized fats also cause inflammation. Excess inflammation is linked to things like leaky gut, autoimmunity, heart disease, and cancer. A large focus in nutrition right now is eating an anti-inflammatory diet and canola oil does not fit in this category."
Another reason why she urges us to give it up is because 93% of canola oil in the United States is genetically modified (GMO). "This means the plant is scientifically altered to have the ability to withstand heavy pesticide and herbicide spraying," she stressed. "Glysophate is a common herbicide sprayed on GMO plants and one that has been classified by the World Health Organization as probably carcinogenic to humans. This is one more reason to avoid canola oil and GMOs."
For more on this topic, Brawner recommends this article by Doctor Hyman.
We're certainly all familiar with the delicious yet highly addictive nature of sugar. Our cravings for saccharine treats are sweet to the taste but not on our health. In a bid to cut back, we've replaced the traditional refined sugar with natural sources; agave being one of them. But don't believe the hype. According to Brawner, people think agave is healthy because it's a refined, sugar-free sweetener that comes from a natural, plant-based source.
It's also low in glucose, so many assume it’s a low-glycemic food, but it’s actually high in fructose, which is just a different type of sugar. "It has been crowned the refined-sugar free sweetener of health foods, and I see it in many natural product brands and organic packaged foods that claim to be healthy," said Brawner. "However, it’s not healthy, and I would go so far as to say it’s worse than sugar."
So what is fructose you ask? It's the type of sugar you find in fruit and honey. Most fresh fruits are 1–5% fructose, but depending on how agave is processed, it can contain 55% to 85% fructose. "While glucose is used on a cellular level for energy, fructose has zero bodily benefits," said Brawner. "Fructose is broken down in the liver (just like alcohol) where it’s turned into fat that gets sent to our fat cells. Consuming too much fructose puts one at risk for obesity and weight gain, insulin resistance, and appetite control."
If you're still not convinced, agave has more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup (55% fructose), which is the ingredient nutritionists, parents, and doctors, have endlessly fought the food industry to remove from food completely." A little fructose is fine, however, just ensure it's enjoyed in moderation via fresh fruit which has many health benefits.
You probably throw them in your smoothie most mornings and add them to your child's fruit bowl, and you'd be right in doing that because berries are incredibly nutritious. They're considered beauty foods, thanks to their high levels of antioxidants and vitamins, while also being low in sugar. In fact, Brawner even recommends berries as part of a healthy diet, but just as long as they're organic. Conventionally grown berries are among the foods Brawner avoids because of the toxin load they bring with each bite. "They contain more pesticides than any other produce, even when washed," she said. "This year the Environmental Working Group topped their dirty dozen list with strawberries. This means they categorized strawberries as the single most important produce to buy organic."
According to their website, almost all samples (98%) "had detectable residues of at least one pesticide" while 40% had "residues of 10 or more pesticides." And the dirtiest strawberry sample had 17 different pesticide residues. "I love sharing facts about berries with my clients and readers because they are always so surprised by their dirty secrets," she said. "Keep berries what they should be—healthy and non-toxic—by buying organic."
Raise your hands if you thought frozen yogurt was a healthy treat. Guilty as charged. But don't stress, because as Brawner explains, we're not alone. "Many consider frozen yogurt a low calorie, sugar-free alternative option to ice cream," she explained. "Thanks in part to labels such as dairy-free, sugar-free, low calorie, low fat, all natural, and others, consumers believe they're treating themselves to a guilt-free dessert." But that's just simply not the case.
"Fro-yo consists of mostly chemicals, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, and colors so it’s no wonder they are able to label it as free-of-everything," she said. "However, it’s not chemical-free. I would be willing to bet you could recognize three to four foods listed in fro-yo’s scary ingredients. I’m adamant that my clients prioritize a food's ingredients over the calories. Our bodies are not equipped to handle the chemicals and preservatives are rampant in most foods today." So a word of warning, always read the ingredients on the label before consuming.
Who doesn't love a crunchy granola bar in the morning or as a mid-afternoon snack? It has got to be better than having chocolate right? Wrong. While they do contain nutritious grains such as oats, most of them are then rolled in honey or sweetener. "Granola bars do not contain much fat or protein, which means they are not a satiating snack," said Brawner. "In fact, they spike blood sugar and actually make people crave more carbs and sugar just a few hours later. This is even worse when granola bars contain dried fruit. That's definitely not the kind of snack we want to fuel our bodies with."
On another note, Brawner said oats also contain some anti-nutrients that prohibit mineral absorption. "Phytate is an anti-nutrient present in oats which binds to minerals and prohibits their absorption," she said. "Sugar spikes coupled with anti-nutrients? No thanks."
Anything Labelled "Reduced Fat" or "Fat-Free"
So you're trying to cut back and get your weight on track by cutting out some high-fat foods. While we certainly commend you for that, just don't go swapping them for the reduced-fat and low-fat versions. "People still believe that eating fat makes you gain weight, so they try to avoid foods that contain fat in order to keep a trim waistline and lose weight," said Brawner. "But this couldn't be further from the truth. The unscientific nutritional dogma that fat makes us fat is on its way out."
Since the message is still getting out there about good fats versus bad, products labeled “fat-free” or “reduced-fat” are still seen as a healthy option to many. "In reality, it is sugar, vegetable oils, and preservatives that make people fat," she said. "When a company makes something 'fat-free' it removes all saturated fats and replaces them with unhealthy vegetable oils, as well as sugar to compensate for taste. A packaged product that's 'fat-free' is filled with sugar, unhealthy oils, and should be avoided. Be weary of 'fat-free' foods, and low-calorie packaged foods, as they will typically spike your blood sugar and increase your risk of gaining weight, all while delivering little nutritional value."