More Words to the Wise: “Healthy” Foods That Aren’t So Healthy

Last week I highlighted a few foods that traditionally have gotten a bad rap, including popcorn, eggs, and potatoes. These are foods that people, for one reason or another, often seem to think they need to avoid. Hopefully I helped to dispel some of that thinking.


This week, I’m going to mention a handful of foods that we often think of as being “good” for us, or, at the very least, not likely to wreak havoc. As I always say, everything in moderation. But it’s important to be aware of foods that masquerade as being healthy when they’re really just not that special (and are sometimes downright unhealthy).

Low-fat yogurt. I’m all for yogurt. Yogurt is one of those foods that seems to have everything going for it: protein, calcium, B vitamins, and potassium. Many yogurts contain probiotics, which are the good bacteria that keep your digestive tract healthy and fight off various diseases and ailments.

The catch with yogurt is that many brands in the supermarket are laden with sugar (and carbs). Now, low-fat yogurts are truly low in fat, in that they can’t contain more than 3 grams of fat per serving (based on the official Food and Drug Administration definition of a low-fat food). Take Dannon Raspberry Fruit on the Bottom yogurt, for instance: a 6-ounce container has just 1.5 grams of total fat, so that’s good. But if you eat the entire container you’ll get 150 calories (not so bad) as well as 28 grams of carbohydrate.

Of those 28 grams of carbohydrate, 26 grams come from sugar. Now, because yogurt is made with milk, yogurt will always contain “natural” sugar from lactose (unless you’re eating a nondairy yogurt). However, there’s still a decent amount of sugar added to the yogurt to give it its fruity flavor. A glance at the ingredient list reveals the sugar sources: fructose syrup, sugar, and raspberries. Basically, you’re getting what amounts to a few spoonfuls of jam in your yogurt.

The fruited Greek-style yogurts aren’t necessarily that much better: while they contain more protein, they may also contain upwards of 20 grams of sugar. In the case of Chobani Non-Fat Cherry, the sugar sources are evaporated cane juice (that is to say, sugar), cherry juice concentrate, cherries, locust bean gum, and pectin. Perhaps these are healthier carbohydrate sources, but they’ll still affect your blood glucose. The solution? Buy plain or vanilla yogurt and add your own fresh fruit.

Smoothies. Fruit smoothies are in. You’ll find them sold at the mall, as well as in your favorite coffee shop. They look pretty and sound healthy. And when you’re craving a midafternoon snack, smoothies can seem more virtuous than going for, say a chocolate milkshake or an Iced Caramel Macchiato from Starbucks. But don’t be duped: A 16.25-ounce low-fat strawberry smoothie (with ginseng and B vitamins, mind you) at Panera Bread contains 260 calories and 59 grams of carbohydrate (53 of them grams of sugar). That’s about as much carbohydrate as is in four slices of bread or 1 1/3 cups of pasta. And even though the smoothie contains “naturally milled organic sugar,” it’s still sugar.

Smoothies at other places may contain ingredients that aren’t so healthy, too, like ice cream or whole milk. Is it possible to find a healthy smoothie? Probably. But be an educated consumer and check the ingredients and nutrition information (usually available on the store’s Web site). Or make your own with low-fat milk (or soy milk) or plain yogurt, fresh fruit, ice, and perhaps some protein powder, like whey.

Energy bars. Where I shop for food, there’s a whole section of an aisle devoted to various energy and protein bars. It’s overwhelming to look at them all, and it’s also hard to decide which one to buy: PowerBar? Clif Bar? Luna Bar? Lärabar? Do you even need energy bars to begin with?

Energy bars, like most foods, contain calories and therefore, provide energy. Nothing too special about that. Food manufacturers hype them up and have you believing that you need to eat these to build muscle and provide fuel for your workout sessions. Sure, they can be helpful, especially if you tend to not eat meals during the day, are training for a marathon, or are skiing Mount Washington. But do they really offer any benefits over eating, say an apple with peanut butter?

While these bars may contain healthful ingredients, like nuts, oats, and whey protein, they’re also likely to contain sugar (sometimes in the form of high-fructose corn syrup). And brown rice syrup is still sugar. Furthermore, many of these bars don’t provide any more “sustained energy” than eating some whole-grain crackers with reduced-fat cheese. A chocolate PowerBar Performance bar contains 240 calories and 45 grams of carbohydrate (three slices of bread’s worth). A LemonZest Luna Bar has 180 calories and 27 grams of carbohydrate (from organic rice, cane, and oat syrups). Energy bars aren’t necessarily bad choices. They’re certainly convenient. But unless you’re an endurance athlete, you likely won’t derive any great nutritional benefit from them.

Gluten-free foods. If you have celiac disease, you need to be on a gluten-free diet. But it seems like going gluten-free is the latest craze, whether one has celiac or not. Thanks to this craze, a proliferation of gluten-free products has appeared on the market, including gluten-free breads, cake mixes, cookies, and more.

They’re certainly helpful for people with celiac disease who would like to enjoy a sandwich or a cupcake. But these gluten-free foods are not necessarily any “healthier” than their regular counterparts. Many of these foods are high in calories, saturated fat, and sugar, as food manufacturers often have to compensate for the lack of gluten in the product. Again, the message here is “buyer beware.” Read nutrition labels and ingredient lists. Don’t buy into the latest diet fads, either.

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  • Wayne

    In regards to the yogurt…are you saying that only fruited low-fat yogurts should be avoided, or all low-fat yogurts? I think that vanilla yogurt still has added sugar in them as well. I regularly buy plain low-fat yogurt just because I think plain yogurt tastes great. But I’ve also heard that milk-fat, like that found in full-fat yogurt, is healthy and shouldn’t be avoided. Which plain yogurt would you recommend…non, low, or full-fat?

  • acampbell

    Hi Wayne,

    Great questions. I highlighted fruited yogurts mostly because the “fruit” in them is often more like jam. But you’re correct in that vanilla or lemon yogurt can be quite high in added sugar, as well. It’s a matter of reading the label, as always. I’m not so sure if we can comfortably say at this point that full-fat milk or yogurt is actually healthy, so I think it makes sense to choose low fat or non-fat varieties until we learn more. That being said, I’m in favor of Greek-style plain nonfat yogurt: 1 cup contains only about 9 grams of carbohydrate and 20 grams of protein. Then, a person can add his own sweetness, if desired, with fruit, a drizzle of honey, or other sweetener of his choice.

  • rob mansell-ward


    Once again, a balanced article.

    But I don’t share your “fato-phobia”.

    Read Udo Arasmus’s book, “Fats that Heal, Fats that kill”. The drift is that it isn’t fats that are bad, but bad fats.

    I guess the only problem with fats, is if you don’t do a fair amount of exercise, in which case they become excess calories.

    Kind regards, Rob

  • acampbell

    Thanks, Rob. I’m actually not a “fat-o-phobe,” though. As you mentioned, it’s more the type of fat that’s the issue. And, of course, too much of any fat does contribute excess calories.

  • jim snell

    Amy has done great job highlighting the issues.

    Fats per sae are not necessarily bad as many vitamins are in fat based components as well as fats help slow the digestive process and stop nasty spikes – ie brown rice fried.

    No, one does not want to sludge up the blood system but some fats are helpful. The fat police fanatic argument is unhelpful and leads to correct criticsim of the high carb low fat diets for T2 as adding gasoline to the fire.

    Balance and mlderation suggested by Amy does put one in the correct quadrent for better control.

    Been there and done that and thank you kindly.

  • JohnC

    Lots of good information in this article.
    I vote for eating ‘real’ food as much as possible.

  • Ruby Tuesday Coupons

    Yogurt all the way, I am eating it 2 – 3 times a week and also with protein bar for body building. But I am more taking a protein powder, you think it is safe and healthy for body as well?

  • acampbell

    Hi Ruby,

    It’s hard to say — it depends on how much protein powder you are taking, as well as how much protein you are getting from the food that you eat. In general, bodybuilders need about 0.7 grams of protein per pound. This means that a 200 pound person would need 140 grams of protein per day. Consuming more protein than that doesn’t offer any benefit, and too much protein contributes excess calories (that can be stored as fat), can lead to dehydration, and can strain the kidneys. Figure out how much protein is in your bar, your powder, and your food to get a sense of how much you’re taking in every day.

  • Ruby Tuesday Coupons

    Hello Acampbell,

    Yes I carefully manage taking protein power or bar in proper way, but i would like to ask if its safe taking it for as long as like 5 years or more?

  • acampbell

    Hi Ruby,

    It’s really hard for me to tell you if your protein intake is safe long-term or not because I don’t know how much you are taking. It also depends on any other health factors that you may have, such as kidney issues. You might consider meeting with a dietitian to review your protein intake. He or she can provide you with more specific guidance.