As the year winds down, we all start to feel the pull of the New Year’s fresh start, and the urge to re-focus on the healthier habits that may have slipped a bit during the holidays. Back to a more regular pace of life, more movement and, of course, renewed focus on eating whole, healthy food. That’s particularly important now. While the pandemic threat has subsided somewhat, the flu, RSV and other respiratory ills are still very much with us, so keeping immunity strong with help from nutrient-rich foods is essential to staying well through the winter months.

The problem is, it’s very easy to get snowed by deceptive packaging that can trick you into buying ‘health washed’ foods that may deliver more harm than good. 

So, what to look out for? Here’s my round up of unhealthy foods most commonly mistaken for the ones that actually can do your body good: 

Soy-Based Meat & Dairy Substitutes

The benefits of plant-based diets, and the threat posed by climate change, has persuaded lots of people to rethink their meat consumption. But, if you’re swapping out meat and dairy (yoghurt, cheese, milk, etc.) for soy-based alternatives, you’re not really doing your health any favors. It’s estimated that well over 95% of all soy is genetically modified. Soy disrupts thyroid and endocrine function and can interfere with leptin sensitivity, which can set you up for metabolic syndrome. Soy screws with your sex hormones by throwing off the estrogen and testosterone balance. It also helps block your body’s ability to access key minerals like iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. What’s more, soy is an inflammation-triggering irritant to millions of people who are unaware they’re sensitive to it. 

Butter Substitutes 

Man-made spreads, sprays and faux-butter substitutes are ‘Franken foods,’ made in the lab with cheap, processed vegetable oils, fillers and artificial ingredients, all of which can take a serious toll on your heart and arteries. Worse, they don’t even taste good, making their ingestion even more unsatisfying. Say no to faux! and go with real, grass-fed, organic butter. It’s delicious, satisfying and full of good fats. It’s also a good source of health-enhancing conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which helps protect against cancer and encourages muscle growth. 

Whole Wheat Bread

Many people think whole wheat products, and in particular, whole wheat bread is healthy but the majority of those brown slices are heavily-processed and sugar-packed, with the wheat itself being grown in nutrient-depleted soil from seeds sprayed with glyphosate and other pesticides. What’s more, wheat is one of the top dietary sources of gluten, which, by some estimates, roughly 30 – 50% of the population may be sensitive to, triggering digestive problems, chronic inflammation and disease. In short, the opposite of a health food!

What to eat instead: 

  • Only certified organic, fermented soy products bearing the Non-GMO Project seal, and limit to no more than twice weekly
  • Grain-free breads made with almond flour, coconut flour, arrowroot, cassava, and/or tiger nut flours
  • Grass-fed, organic butter, that’s delicious, satisfying, full of good fats, and is a good source of health-enhancing conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which helps protect against cancer and encourages muscle growth.

Veggie Chips

Ah, chips made of vegetables, what could go wrong? Plenty. Even though they may come in prettier colors, they are no ‘healthier’ than their potato counterparts.  Bagged veggie chips are fried, heavily processed, often in unhealthy vegetable oils, and may include artificial food coloring as well. In short, hardly a health food.

Energy Bars & Meal Replacement Bars

Most “energy bars” are basically glorified candy bars, with too much sugar and little in the way of good fats or protein to help fill you up, making them virtually the definition of empty calories. Even some of the higher-end brands tend to be made with cheap, genetically-modified and/or pesticided ingredients (wheat, soy, peanuts, etc.), held together with sugar-packed coatings like dark chocolate, yoghurt, honey, maple syrup, etc. 

Dried Fruit & Fruit Roll-ups

Fresh, low sugar fruits are loaded with benefits. Dried fruits, not so much. Trouble is, when the water is removed, the volume of the fruit shrinks, and all that sugar gets concentrated into a much smaller package, making over-doing it especially easy. Achieving satiety takes longer too – so sugar and calories can really pile up. Same holds true for fruit roll-ups or ‘fruit leathers’ which are essentially a very thin layer of jam made portable. Little if any actual fruit is involved, and they’re loaded with sugar, crappy ingredients, food coloring. In a word, don’t. 

Fat-free and Sugar Free Treats

In a classic example of ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch,’ when it comes to fat-free and/or sugar-free, health is not on the menu – not by a long-shot. When the fat is removed from any food, inflammation-triggering vegetable oils and sugars are pumped back in to fill the flavor gap. When sugar is removed (or not included), artificial sweeteners – which mess with your gut health and metabolism—are poured in to amp up the flavor. Hmm, inflammation, gut and metabolism issues? That’s not a tradeoff anyone should make.

What to snack on instead :

  • Homemade protein balls
  • Homemade baked veggie chips (kale is one of our faves)
  • Dry roasted or raw organic nuts or seeds 
  • Sustainably-raised jerky
  • Seaweed snacks
  • Grain-free granola with fresh berries

Fruit juice

Finally, the word has gotten out: sodas, diet or otherwise, are liquid garbage. But many people tapering off will trade soda for fruit juices, as they’re generally perceived to be “good for you,” for instance, high in antioxidants. Juices like tart cherry, cranberry, blueberry, and other fruits, have become default health drinks. However, the virtues of most juices quickly fade when the sugar grams per serving come to light. For example, a serving of blueberry juice clocks in at about 18 grams of sugar with no fiber to slow absorption down, making it a blood-sugar spiker if ever there was one. The news is even worse for tart cherry and cranberry, with both coming in between 25 – 30 grams per cup. 

Kombucha & Coconut Water

While both kombucha and coconut water are a lot healthier than sodas, they aren’t without sin either, especially in bottled form. Popular brands of bottled kombucha can deliver anywhere from 10 – 20 grams per cup, while sweetened coconut water can pack a 20 gram punch, and unsweetened not all that much better, coming in at about 10-15 grams for an 8 oz cup.

Bottled Green Drinks

I am a big fan of green drinks, but only if they’re made fresh, not bottled, and loaded with fresh leafy greens, not cut with fruit juice or honey or a health-washed sweetener like agave, coconut sugar, or maple water. Here too, green drinks that are commercially prepared, either in bottles or at the juice bar, can be significant sources of hidden sugar – watch for “vegetables” like carrot and beet which can add 20+ grams of sugar per cup!

Sports Drinks

Unless maybe you’re playing in the NFL, strike commercial sports drinks from your list. They may help replace electrolytes, but they’re loaded with sugar, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and, in some cases, loads of caffeine. Not a healthy beverage!

What to drink instead:

  • Home-brewed unsweetened organic teas and herbal teas 
  • Make infused waters, sparkling water with angostura bitters or lemon and lime slices 
  • Blend your own greens up at home using a high-quality greens powder or fresh greens (cucumber and celery add lots of juice and lemon and ginger add good flavor!) to keep sugar out of your glass
  • For a soda-like option, cut an ounce of organic fruit juice – look for the lowest sugar you can find – with 8 or more ounces of sparkling water and add stevia or monk fruit sweetened if needed
  • To replenish fluids after working out, opt for a homemade electrolyte drink made with simple, super-low sugar ingredients like filtered water, Himalayan salt, lemon, and ribose 

10 Daily Habits to Live to 100

Join my community to receive articles, podcasts, tips and a free copy of my favorite techniques to extend your healthspan.

You have successfully subscribed!