Eating Healthy: Foods That Are Advertised As ‘Superfoods,’ But Are Actually Bad For You


Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What is a food that is advertised as healthy but is actually really unhealthy? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.

I think it’s important to start with me saying that I hate the “unhealthy” vs. “healthy” debate when it comes to food. Good vs. bad is a natural human bias, but it tends to create a bit of a toxic food environment, hurts our relationship with food and increases confusion about nutrition, rather than enhancing it.

Healthy or unhealthy, is entirely context and is dosage-dependent.

As I’ll detail in my answer, some cruciferous vegetables by and large are very healthy for the majority of people. However, they can become unhealthy for people with selenium or iodine deficiency and other thyroid-related disorders.

Likewise even something we all generally demonize (like sugar) can be very useful in the context of recovery from intense physical activity and can increase performance in long-duration endurance performance as well. For most people a diet high in sugar, certainly isn’t a very good idea, but it can have its place.

Juice, is easily over-consumed, but in small manageable doses in relation to other foods, could also have a place in your diet and many have been shown to have positive health effects.

Yogurt, in its plain form is also generally considerably healthy; however, take a look at the grocery store selection and you’ll see that the majority of people opt for sugar-laden alternatives (generally you’ll see as high as 20:1 selection of sweetened versions to plain versions).

How you treat your food is important and marketing is generally in place to make you eat more than an ideal quantity of food overall. Provided you can manage ideal dosages, most foods are not 100% bad for you (the only real exception I can think of, off the top of my head is hydrogenated trans-fatty acids found in many processed vegetable fats), nor are they 100% good for you.

If you tried to eat every single thing ever quoted in a study as having positive health benefits, in quantities that have been shown to have those benefits, every single day, you’d no doubt be well beyond your needed energy intake, despite the high quality of your food.

This will still most likely lead to weight gain and the detrimental health effects that are generally associated with obesity (like diabetes, CVD, etc). This is despite having what most people could or might consider a “healthy” diet. Overall, quantity still matters even for research-proven healthful foods.

You can still overeat foods that many of us associated with “health,” it’s just typically less likely because they are generally harder to overconsume. Whether they are full of more fiber, or protein, or are more satiating in general, we have a harder time eating too much of them in their less altered states.

Furthermore we can’t demonized all forms of processing or alterations to food either, as many forms of processing unlock nutrients and make them more bioavailable to us. i.e. in many cases cooking/processing unlocks nutrients so that they can more easily be digested and absorbed. For example, various protein powders can be very useful in many contexts, though quite processed by many people’s standards.

It’s namely added refined oils/fats, in combination with simple sugars and excessive salts, in place of other more valuable micro- and macro-nutrients (like protein and fiber), that tend to be the most problematic for most people.

With that in mind, here are some advertised foods that you can have a chuckle about to yourself:

  • Fat-Free (typically = loaded with simple sugars instead)
  • “All-Natural” or “Made from Natural Ingredients” (as if natural prevented lead or mercury from being very toxic)
  • “Organic” and yet, still processed into a box or packaged (not ALWAYS but very often)
  • Comes in a box or package and has a very long shelf-life thanks to preservatives and heavy processing (think many crackers or chips though not necessarily all of them, and not necessarily that bad in appropriate quantity)
  • Juice (especially types that have sugar added and are not 100% juice, these often get counted as a serving of fruit or vegetables)
  • Most breakfast cereals (throw a bunch of heavily processed grains and ingredients together, market it as healthy like Special K…)
  • Yogurt (if we’re talking plain, high protein versions, OK maybe, but most people opt for types with a ton of added sugar – see Fat-Free above too)
  • Dried Fruit (in small quantities sure, but I’ve known a great deal of clients who go to town on these and they are very energy dense, particularly in sugars, making them easy to overeat – a small cupped hand is generally 1 serving)
  • Some RAW Vegetables (particularly many cruciferous vegetables and soy that have goitrogenic properties – i.e. A high quantity of these particularly raw in your diet like supposedly “miracle health foods” kale, collards, broccoli, etc… can alter thyroid function over time if over-consumed – Keep in mind that these are still very healthful in appropriate dosages for the majority of people, that overconsumption is probably more than a few servings per day (so you’d have to eat A LOT of them) for healthy people and that cooking negates a significant amount of this effect overall. You are more at risk if you are deficient in iodine or selenium, so for most people this is generally not a major concern.)
  • Many commercially produced Vegan, Vegetarian and Paleo foods.(Listen…processed is processed, regardless of whether or not the ingredients fit loosely into a dieting strategy – that vegan-soy-like-burger product, is not really any better off than the commercially produced hamburger)
  • A lot of other marketing speak foods, that use jargon into fooling you not to read the ingredient list or research how it was manufactured/made and from what sources.
  • Anything touted as a Miracle Health Food or Superfood because it encourages greater overall consumption, under the notion that “more-is-better.” There is always the potential for the overconsumption of any food, even for highly perceived healthful foods like dark leafy green vegetables or healthful seeds like flax or chia. Dosage is an important consideration, you can over consume nearly anything, so remember that variety is a reasonably important consideration in any diet.

Most of these are really public perception. “Healthy” eating is really very different to different people based on their own belief patterns and perceptions.

It’s not really that black and white.

I eat eggs almost every day for breakfast, to my parents, they still view eggs as cholesterol bombs that will negatively impact your cholesterol (despite evidence in the last decade to the contrary) and thus health. Likewise, I drink full, fat, grass-fed milk semi-regularly, eat red meat usually once or twice a week, cook with coconut oil/milk, butter and ghee in reasonable quantities (saturated fat is about 1/3 of my total fat intake generally), which is sacrilegious to many people who grew up in a time when saturated fats were heavily demonized.

Dosage and context always matters a great deal when discussing healthy or unhealthy foods too. To the hypertensive, limiting salt is probably a good idea. To the healthy person, if you cook most of your own food, cooking with salt is probably not a big deal (and makes stuff a little tastier…). A small daily dosage of a few servings of raw cruciferous vegetables is probably fine for the majority of people who don’t have any issues with their thyroid, iodine or selenium deficiency. However, six servings a day over a year or more could eventually lead to a poor outcome too.

At the end of the day it’s really more important to keep in mind context. Is eating Vegan or Vegetarian or Paleo a healthy eating strategy? Generally, yep!

However, you can still fall into any of those nutritional camps and not have a great diet overall if you’re not meeting your nutritional requirements, or are getting foods from poor sources overall. Potato chips and french fries are still Vegan. Though if you eat them once a month, probably not going to significantly alter your triglycerides readings either.

Furthermore, while I generally encourage people to eat more whole minimally processed foods, the key word that some people seem to miss is ‘minimally.’

Bread (think something like Ezekiel bread) can still have a healthy place in your diet, and by all accounts is fairly processed overall (ground flour, salt, water, yeast, mixed together and baked). It’s the extremely processed stuff that I think most people should generally avoid (though having some from time to time, probably not a HUGE deal breaker either). Here might be another example of where context is also important, gluten-full bread is very unhealthy to the celiac, but mostly fine for everyone else.

Other examples of food of this nature may include:

  • Cheese (especially Raw, and/or minimally processed varieties) – could be potentially healthful (dairy consumption is positively correlated to maintaining a healthy weight)
  • Yogurt/Kefir (provided it is plain) (again, dairy, but also some fermented products improve gastrointestinal healthy in some people too)
  • Many fermented foods like Sauerkraut, Kimchi, Kombucha, etc… (though, overconsumption can also cause some stomach issues and there is a risk with raw fermentation going off)
  • 100% Juice or Juice you make yourself (easy to over-consume because it’s a liquid, but certainly a glass a few times a week for most people won’t break the bank if they so chose)
  • Dried fruit (provided they are consumed in appropriate quantity – i.e. sparingly and perhaps the preservative free types are generally better – if you look at dried cranberries, you’ll often see added sugar and sunflower oil…what?)
  • Hamburgers you’ve made yourself with minimal ingredients from high quality sources in particular (I make burgers all the time, but avoid the caloric bombs by using leaner chuck and skipping the buns and heavy sauces)
  • Many homemade/minimally processed soups (which are processed — look on the labels of some canned soups)
  • Many raw vegetables are great for you, while simply cooking others negates 1/3 of any goitrogenic effects (I’m not personally a fan of all raw diets, but to each their own I suppose, cooking can often make many great vitamins and nutrients more bio available).
  • Many protein powders (extremely processed when you think about it, I look for ones with ingredients like 3-4 ingredients: whey, vanilla, cocoa and stevia only, but very useful for people who are very physically active)

To imply that all processed food is bad for you is misleading. It’s also bound to lead to a lot of psychological anxiety/stress for the modern human being.

“Unhealthy” food is really a matter of dosage. Eat manageable quantities and there is most likely no appreciable health detriment of certain foods, but nearly everything and anything can be over consumed if you put a lot of effort forth. It’s just generally harder to over-consume whole minimally processed foods in general because they require a lot more from us digestively speaking, leave us feeling full for longer and are more difficult to breakdown/process.

Most public health organizations allot 10-15% of diet overall to allow some processed foods as a tolerable limit; It’s better to think of food as existing on a spectrum rather than ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ (or ‘good’ and ‘bad’). I’d argue that you can probably include some cheesecake, pizza or other publicly perceived ‘bad foods’ here or there in moderation with great success. More and more it appears that being too restrictive with your diet may create some negative psychological experiences.

Remember that other things like high stress/anxiety, lack of regular movement, or lack of sleep, can have an equally profound effect on ‘health’ and are major contributors to things like heart disease.

At some point you have to ask yourself:

Is it really worth it to always try to have the “perfect” healthy diet all the time?

I’d argue no…in fact, people who do, are far more likely to binge eat, use short-term dieting solutions and suffer from cognitive dietary restraint.

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