My bias in answering this question lies in believing that, nowadays, we are eating far too many refined carbohydrates for our own good and that there is always an alternative to processed foods. Hence, my personal list of “Eight foods you think are good for you that actually are not”:
1. Low or fat-free ‘anything‘
This includes fat-free yoghurt, skim milk, low-fat cheese and lunchmeat. When fat is removed from dairy and other products, guess what is also removed? Flavour, in abundance. Therefore, what do you need to do in order to bring flavour back to the table? Sugar and salt. Go ahead and compare the ingredient list in a fat-free natural yoghurt with the whole-milk version next time you are in a supermarket. You will be stunned.
In addition to this, the fat in full-fat yoghurt is actually good for you. Contrary to popular belief fat, unlike (refined) carbohydrates, are not stored immediately as body fat after consumption. Our body needs healthy fats to function properly.
2. Alternatives to butter
‘I can’t believe it’s not butter!’ Ever since I’ve moved to the States, I’ve wondered why that was such a popular catchphrase. I’ve always liked natural butter and when I first tasted the hydrogenated brand, I almost spat it out again.
Believe me, I do believe it is not butter. What’s wrong with it? The main ingredient in butter is milk; churned over a period of time and boom, you have butter. Margarine or any butter-alternative on the otherhand, is a highly processed food made of vegetable oil (the worst oil to eat in itself) and full of trans fat (now banned in the UK).
3. Fruit juice
Many people believe that fruit juices, especially those not from concentrate and without added sugar are good and healthy, contributing to one of your five a day – right? And urge their kids to have a glass of OJ in the morning for a ‘healthy’ start to the day (much like Nutella – can you believe it?!). However juicing removes all that is nutritious in fruits – fibre, vitamins, you name it; essentially all that is left is sugar water and flavouring.
4. Whole Grain Bread
What is being marketed as `whole grain’ today, most of the time still contains highly processed flour and only partial grains, even worse are the brands that simply market dyed white bread as a healthy brown alternative! There are a few people trying to change this, but until then, even ‘whole-grain bread’ is a processed food that quickly turns into sugar in your digestive system. When grains are processed, the part of the food that spoils most easily is removed. This part also happens to contain the most nutritious value.
5. Sports Drinks
While I was skiing a few weeks ago I suddenly became very aware of the number of kids having Gatorade and Powerade during lunch breaks with their parents. They would not let their kids have soda (’cause we all know sodas are bad), but sports drinks are ok. Health and Fitness magazines are constantly telling us to have sports drink instead of water while exercising since they contain electrolytes and vitamins. I thought it might be obvious that they do however contain an equally large amount of sugar, sweeteners and artificial flavourings. Hardly the regular drink of choice for healthy, growing bodies and surely not a better alternative to soda. Water is best – be it birch, coconut, or fruit infused if you must have a slightly sweeter alternative.
6. Granola and cereal
Are highly processed and contain a lot of sugar. We have been tricked into thinking that a healthy start into the day includes a bowl of cereal with (skimmed) milk. Do you ever wonder why you are often hungry again only one or two hours after breakfast? Because cereal not only contains a lot of added sugar, but even its main ingredient, refined grains, are sugar in disguise which is very quickly used up by the body and stored away in fat reserves. Keep those to a minimum and do not let clever advertising and labelling trick you into thinking that these are healthier for you than other processed foods or even candy bars.
7. Artificial sweeteners and zero-calorie drinks
If you think that having a beverage without calories is good for you, think again. Take a look at the label – can you picture any of it? Artificial sweeteners trick our body into believing that it will soon process sugar so it goes into fat-storage mode, which can actually lead to weight gain. 'No calories' also means no nutritional value.
8. Trail mix
Theoretically, these contain a lot of great foods – nuts, dried fruits. The problem is, more often than not, there are also copious amounts of chocolate chips in them, the nuts are salted beyond recognition, and the dried fruits contain a lot of sugar with much fewer nutrients than their fresh counterparts. Luckily, it's not that difficult to make your own. Roast some nuts and flavour them to your liking, mix them and add just a few raisins or cranberries. Cheaper, healthier and much more delicious.