5 Foods You Think Are Healthy that Actually Aren’t

When I did the Whole30 with my friend Alyssa a few months back, I mentioned how surprised she was to discover what was and wasn’t allowed on the diet. I think those of us who are actively involved in health and nutrition take for granted how little the general public knows about healthy eating.

In fact, even leading nutrition experts aren’t entirely sure. I’m currently reading “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan, a total rockstar in the food journalism world (seriously, if I met him, it’d be like my little sister meeting Justin Bieber). The book explains how many times nutritionists have flip-flopped on information, and how nutrition trends have been shaped by the meat and agricultural industries. Take the low-fat craze of the 1960s, for example, which led to the proliferation of vegetable oils, refined carbohydrates and processed grains as “health foods.”


Part of the problem is that we’ve often confused correlation with causation. When we noticed that people with heart disease tended to consume high amounts of saturated fat, we assumed that the fat was responsible for the heart disease – when in fact, it could’ve been any number of factors (the lack of vegetables in the diet, the portion sizes, the introduction of refined foods) that caused the problem. Fifty years later, we’re starting to see what a grave error we made, with new research showing that processed carbs, vegetable oils (trans fats) and concentrated sugars (high fructose corn syrup) – all the things that were supposed to replace saturated fats and make us healthier – have made our health issues even worse.

“In Defense of Food” points out that it’d be pretty impossible to nail down exactly what we should be consuming, and it would take a lot of the intrinsic joy out of eating. Pollan makes the point that eating for the sake of nutrition, rather than for pleasure, is both misguided and harmful to our health. Better to eat the whole, natural foods that nature has provided for us – which we know can’t really be bad for our health, because you know, we’ve thrived as a species thus far – and enjoy them without worrying about macronutrient ratios or vitamin-based additives. In other words: Eat real food.

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In that spirit, I thought I’d share five “health” foods that people often purchase for the sake of nutrition that actually aren’t that great for us.

Canola Oil

Canola oil is marketed by manufacturers as “heart healthy,” but while it’s not the worst oil you could possibly use, it’s certainly not the best. Manufacturers throw that heart healthy label on the bottle because canola oil contains high levels of monounsaturated fat, the kind of healthy fat that’s found in olive oil, which has been shown to be great for heart health.

Unfortunately, that’s kind of misleading. Yes, both oils contain monounsaturated fat, but it’s a natural component of olive oil. Canola oil, on the other hand, is highly processed. Dr. Guy Crosby of Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health explains that canola, corn, soybean and palm oils are classified as “refined, bleached, deodorized oils,” or RBDs. They are, well, refined, bleached and deodorized.

This process sounds unappetizing enough in and of itself, but there’s more. It also has some negative health effects. Dr. Crosby explains that the processing and deodorization process transforms the natural unsaturated fatty acids in canola oil into trans fats, all while reducing the amount of omega-3s in the oil. Canola oils contain up to 3.6 percent trans fat. Wondering why your canola oil says “0 grams trans fat” on the label? Dr. Crosby explains:

“Read the fine print that states zero grams of trans-fat per serving, which is only one tablespoon, or about 14 grams of oil. The FDA allows any component that is less than 0.5 grams per serving to be listed as zero grams!”

For a safer, unrefined, healthy alternative in which the natural ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s and trans fats hasn’t been tampered with, just stick with olive oil.

Low-fat Dairy

Oy, where to start? So many people (and I used to be one of them) assume that low-fat yogurt, skim milk, light cottage cheese and reduced-fat butter are better for you than their full-fat counterparts. A growing body of evidence suggests that this isn’t the case.

For the sake of brevity, let’s talk about actual dairy here. Non-dairy alternatives like margarine and vegetable-based spreads are also bad for you, but I already went over the reasons why when I discussed canola oil (non-dairy alternatives are generally made from vegetable oils).

Even if we’re talking pure, natural dairy though, full-fat is better than low-fat. I wrote about high-fat diets over at Care2, so give that a read-through if you aren’t yet aware of the health benefits of a high-fat diet.

In addition to the fact that fats are good for you (they make up our cell membranes, support brain health and help balance our hormones), eating high-fat foods gives us satiety. If you’ve ever been on a low-fat diet, you probably craved food all the time. Even if you weren’t craving a steak, you were still experiencing the spikes and falls in blood sugar that accompany high-carbohydrate diets, making you constantly hungry. You didn’t feel full and satiated because fat is our body’s natural fuel. Eat more fat, and you’re less likely to gorge yourself all day long.

Secondly, removing the fat from dairy products leaves the food with a high sugar-to-fat ratio. And we already know why we shouldn’t eat sugar, right?


I’m the first person to admit that granola can be delicious. I freaking love it. It’s sad, though, that something that could be so healthy in theory is so often co-opted by massive amounts of sugar.


Just take a look at this all-natural granola that I found in the organic foods aisle at Jewel. It has 14 grams of sugar in 1/2 a cup of cereal. For reference, your average cookie has about 9-10 grams of sugar per cookie.

Instead of buying sugary (not to mention expensive) granola at the supermarket, why not just make your own? Unsweetened applesauce is a great way to add a bit of natural sweetness to a homemade granola recipe. I love this one by Maria Ushakova – it’s delicious, easy to make, and it has fewer than 2.5 grams of sugar per serving (this is just natural fruit sugar from the unsweetened applesauce).

Fruit Juice

Word has gotten around by now that most fruit juices are loaded with sugar. There are 22 grams of sugar in a glass of Dole orange juice, for example, and that’s a comparatively healthy choice – it only has one ingredient (orange juice from concentrate) and is labelled as 100% juice.

Many other juices are even worse. Cane sugar and artificial flavors are often added to enhance sweetness, making the beverages even more unhealthy. Fresh-squeezed, unsweetened fruit juice is pretty delicious all by itself – it makes you wonder why people tamper with it at all.


And finally, one of the biggest conspiracies in all of nutritionism (that’s a Michael Pollan term, by the way): the idea that adults need milk to keep their bones healthy! When you think about it, it’s really strange that humans ingest the milk of other mammals. It’s even more strange that we do it all the way through adulthood.

Bottle of milk

Check out this video by Aaron Carroll of Healthcare Triage, one of my favorite YouTube channels. As a side note, if you like the video, I strongly encourage you to take a look at the rest of his content. He’s a pediatrician, and gives very unbiased and research-oriented information about healthcare news. Every claim he makes is rooted in fact, and he even gives some great guidance how to distinguish sound research from fantastical headlines and flawed studies.

Carroll’s main point is that milk is a calorie-dense beverage, yet it’s promoted as a health food. Milk’s calcium content does little to promote bone health (besides, you can get plenty of calcium from foods like broccoli and spinach) and it’s bad news for the digestive tract, even in lactose-tolerating people.

Bottom line? Eat foods that are whole, unprocessed and low in added sugar. If you’re not reading ingredient lists at the supermarket yet, I guarantee that doing so will be a huge eye-opener. It’s amazing what we put into our bodies without even realizing it. Who would’ve thought that the second ingredient in this organic almond butter was cane sugar?


First and second stock images: foodiesfeed.com
Third stock image: freefoodphotos.com

    1. I’m so glad you liked the post! It’s taken me a long time (and a career in health writing) to start sifting through the marketing on these foods. Thanks for stopping by!

  1. Great reporting Maggie, but being almost 86 I will continue to eat lots of bread, and sugar on my processed breakfast food cereal. I do love Stoufers Spinach Soufle however and lots of raw veggies. I also consume a lot of coffee and chocolate, go figure. Love GpJ

    1. Ha, well you must be doing something right! I think it’s the veggies and the coffee 😉

    1. Ugh, me too! That recipe I linked to is quite healthy though – maybe try that? And oats are also pretty yummy, so yay!

  2. Knowing what you are putting into your body is so important and that goes for reading labels. Informative post. Thank you for sharing it. Best to you, Koko:)

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