The problem is, though, that more often than not the news or the health claims made by food manufacturers vastly overstate any potential health benefits, because doing so makes a more compelling story and sells more products. Our own confirmation biases tend to make us believe what we're told, we confidently share our insights with our friends, and suddenly our grocery stores are filled with health foods that really aren't all they are cracked up to be. Here are my ten picks for the most overrated health foods.
There is nothing innately wrong with yogurt, the natural product. But the real stuff is not nearly as easy to find as the hyper-sweetened dessert versions filling supermarket shelves. Though yogurt can contain beneficial probiotics, friendly bacteria are also present in other fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso. And if you are worried about acne, dairy is probably not your best choice. Oh, and the overratedness is doubly true of frozen yogurt.
If you'd rather keep yogurt as your breakfast staple (something I often use myself), go for plain yogurt, preferably full fat. Don't fall for the vanilla trap; it is not plain and has even more sugar than most fruit versions.
Soy is another one of those foods that can be perfectly healthy, but can also be processed into oblivion, making it an unhealthy product. Hydrogenated soy oil is among the most common sources of trans fat. Processed products are often touted as healthy just because they contain soy, but soy is not exactly the health panacea it is often made out to be. For a healthier version, stick to fermented soy products like miso, natto, or tempeh.
3. Egg Whites
It baffles me that Americans continue to vilify the most nutritious part of the egg while glorifying the less impressive half. Sure, egg whites are a good source of protein on their own, but you're probably not lacking protein and would likely benefit from the rich nutrients of the entire egg.
Why we need artificial processed oils when there are so many naturally healthy sources of fat is beyond me-that is, assuming you can even find margarines that do not contain hydrogenated oils (trans fats). If you really want more stanols and sterols in your diet, try eating more nuts, avocados, and vegetables. If you want to add buttery flavor, just use real butter (preferably from grass-fed cows).
I have a bit of a reputation for picking on bananas, but I really don't think they're all bad, and they definitely taste yummy. My biggest problems with them are that they are produced industrially and are one of the most calorie-dense fruits you can buy. When is the last time you saw a banana at the farmers market anyway? Bad for you? Not really. Overrated? Definitely.
6. Fake Meat
Next time you get a chance, check out the ingredients in your favorite meat substitute. It usually contains a lot of gluten, some processed soy, canola oil, cornstarch, and a few bizarre ingredients like "natural vegetarian flavors" (mmm . . . vegetarians). Call me crazy, but real meat sounds a lot more appealing.
Related: The Dark Side of 5 Fake Foods
7. Protein Bars
Remember back in the day when protein bars tasted like crap? Well, they would all still taste that way if manufacturers didn't fill them with sugar or sugar substitutes. Look at the ingredients. The vast majority of protein bars contain the same processed junk that's in everything else, just with a few more vitamins, some added soy protein, and possibly some added fiber. Adding nutrients to junk food does not a health food make.
8. Whole-Grain Flour
Ah, whole grains, how controversial be thy name. Though I'm not as anti-grain as some folks, I don't pretend that highly processed "whole-wheat flour" is actually good for me. Grains that don't look like grains are not your friends.
9. Low-Fat Salad Dressing
Fat is good for you. Yes, fat contains more calories than protein or carbohydrates, but it also enables you to absorb more vitamins from the foods you eat and makes your meals more satisfying. Fat-free dressings do not make you healthier; they make your salad less nourishing.
10. Fruit Juice
Juicing fruit concentrates the sugar while stripping out the filling fiber. When you remember that one 450-ml (15-ounce) bottle of orange juice is equivalent to six whole oranges, you can start to see the problem. Green juices are fine; just be careful with fruit juices.
Darya Pino Rose, PhD, is the author of Foodist and the creator of Summer Tomato, named one of TIME's 50 Best Websites of 2011, a site that offers healthy eating tips for people who believe life should be awesome. She is a self-described PhDork, devout foodist, and advocate of local, seasonal foods, currently residing in foggy San Francisco with her husband Kevin Rose and an insanely adorable mini labradoodle, Toaster.
Excerpted from FOODIST: Using Real Food and Real Science to Lose Weight Without Dieting by Darya Pino Rose. Copyright © 2013 by Darya Pino Rose. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.