When are best intentions are thwarted by tricky marketing, shifting science, and other random bits of misinformation.
You know what makes me sad? When I think I am eating something healthy, and I have neglected to check the label (probably because I was so seduced by some some slickly targeted packaging) only to later realize I ate a bunch of junk. Having been writing about food and health for over a decade, it doesn't happen that often, but still. The food industry is so whacky and convoluted, one needs to be ever vigilant in order not to succumb to the tantalizing offerings of crummy food wrapped in faux healthy propaganda. Especially with food waste and food security being such pressing issues, eating the most nutrient dense foods we can seems like an important endeavor. So I try my best (most times) ... here are some of the mistakes that I aim not to make.
1. Not checking that whole grain items are actually whole grainUnfortunately, whole grain labels often require a decoder. If an item says "made with whole grains," for example, that could mean that it has one percent whole grain and the rest is nutrient-stripped refined grains. Look for ingredients that are described as "whole [grain]" at the top of the ingredient list.
For a more complete rundown of what to look for, see: How to identify whole grain foods.
2. Opting for low-fat versions that have sneaky ingredientsWhen choosing between a normal something and its "low-fat!" cousin, many might opt for the healthier sounding low-fat version. If you fall into this camp, be sure to check the label to see if the fat has been replaced with a whole lot of added sugar or artificial ingredients added to mimic the fatty mouthfeel. (I promise to never write "fatty mouthfeel" again.) A little healthy fat is better for most of us than a bunch of sugar and a handful of synthetic ingredients.
3. Thinking that all nut milks are a healthy optionThe explosion of non-dairy milks has been wonderful for people choosing to cut out dairy. The cows (and the planet) thank you. But unfortunately, many a non-dairy milk is rife with added sugar, oil, and a whole litany of stabilizers, thickeners and emulsifiers to give it that milky texture. Aim to consume products with the simplest ingredient list, or make your own!
Here is an easy recipe for oat milk: 8 things to know about oat milk (plus how to make your own.
4. Eating just the egg whitesAt some point, eating just the egg whites became all the rage. Fear of cholesterol and calories led people to shun the yolk, which is a shame. Not only does it add to the food waste problem if alternate plans for the yolk are not made, but it cheats the body of some powerful nutrients as well. While the yolk does contain a fair share of the egg's calories and just under half of its protein, it is chockfull of essential minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients, including the naturally occurring carotenoid, lutein, which plays a role in eye health. And about that cholesterol? Yes, we were led astray. Now it is thought that eating cholesterol does not add to our cholesterol levels. Even a report on the U.S dietary guidelines says it's ok, stating that "available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol ... Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."
5. Eating junk yogurt that cancels out the goodEating yogurt is great! In its best form, that is. Good selections are packed with protein and probiotics, without a lot of added sugar and artificial ingredients. But like most foods, there are junk-food versions that are frighteningly high in added sugar and a laboratory-full of unnatural colors and flavors. And some don't even contain the live cultures that make yogurt so excellent for you in the first place. Check the label for: Low sugar content, ingredients you recognize as coming from nature, live cultures.
6. Going vegan and eating too many processed foodsHere's a vegan rookie mistake that a lot of us plant-based eaters have made: Swapping out animal products with animal-product-pretending things that are basically just vegan junk food. Now that vegan eating is really gaining momentum, there are a lot more plant-based foods available, and many of them have a focus on healthful ingredients. This is great! But beware of things like vegan hot dogs that are plant-based chemical tubes – read the labels and note the things that look familiar and the things that look like one needs a chemistry degree to decipher.
7. Convincing yourself that salad is the best choiceI wouldn't be the first person to caution eaters to beware salads bearing fried chicken, candied nuts, cheese and gobs of creamy dressing. Just because something is called a salad and has greens somewhere within does not always mean it's a healthy choice. Some menus have salads with more calories than a decadent entree – and if a person is trying to eat a lower-calorie/lower-fat/etcetera meal, they should not try to convince themselves that said salad is a good choice. That said, I am all about the salads. Having a meal with a bowl of leafy greens as a base is better than a meal with white pasta as a base, even if the extras are deluxe. Just be aware of what you're getting into.
8. Drinking a lot of fancy fresh juiceIn my Brooklyn neighborhood fresh juice seems to be trendier than it already had been for years. Even my lovingly disheveled corner bodega is now whipping us fruity wheatgrass concoctions. But as seductive and delicious as fresh juice may be, it is not the same as eating whole fruit. And in fact, fruit juice may even pose health risks! TIME.com notes that some evidence, including a 2013 study from Harvard School of Public Health, has linked fruit juice to an increased risk for diabetes.
While the evidence linking juice to health problems is a bit mixed, Dr. Robert Lustig, a neuroendocrinologist and professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, tells TIME that both juicing and making smoothies either removes or destroys the stringy bits of insoluble fiber that help limit the rapid absorption of sugar in the small intestine. “A smoothie is probably better than fruit juice or a soda, but you’ll still get a peak of insulin, which contributes to metabolic pathology," he says. The other thing about fresh juice? A single 16-ounce serving of cold-pressed, for example, generates, an average of 4.5 pounds of perfectly edible food waste.