Being sold low-fat, low-taste alternatives can get boring. So it’s refreshing to find out that some ‘health foods’ are not all they cracked up to be, and could actually lose us certain health benefits.
“The truth is there are many ‘healthy’ foods, which actually contain high levels of fat, sugar and salt, so it’s easy to be misled,” says Bridget Benelam, senior nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation. “Which means your diet hero could be sabotaging your efforts to slim, or denying your body extra vitamins and minerals,” agrees nutritionist Linda Foster. Here’s our roundup of the ‘healthy’ foods to watch out for...
Many of us drizzle honey thinking it’s healthier and more ‘natural’ than sugar – but we’re wrong! “Both contain similar high levels of glucose,” says Foster. “But because honey is denser, one tablespoon actually contains more calories than the same sized spoonful of granulated sugar.”
In other words: eat too much honey and you’ll gain just as much weight as gorging on other sweet foods.
Although guzzling whole milk has been demonised as a health no-no in recent years, research shows that it could be a better choice than skimmed.
For starters, whole milk only contains around 4% fat per 100ml, a long way from the 20% plus generally required to be deemed ‘high fat’. And while skimmed milk only contains 0.1% fat, unless you drink gallons of the stuff, switching from whole to skimmed milk won’t a huge difference to your overall fat intake.
In addition, skimmed milk is far less nutritious. “This is because the cream contains the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K,” explains Foster. To top things off, research by Cardiff University revealed that full-fat milk could actually boost metabolism and help you burn more calories, while lowering your risk of heart disease into the bargain.
Studies show that people who eat cereal for breakfast tend to be slimmer than those who don’t – but only if they’re opting for a healthy brand. Choose the wrong box and you might as well start your day with a slice of cake, as some cereals are high in sugar and fat.
“The main ones to watch out for are your sugar-coated or ‘frosted’ kids’ ones, along with some of the nutty, oil-packed granolas. So always read the label,” warns Foster. Not that we need to skip the cereal aisle altogether – experts agree that tucking into a bowl of porridge or any other wholegrain cereal such as bran flakes or Weetabix is actually a very healthy breakfast.
Naturally low in calories and high in fibre, these will help keep you fuller for longer and ward off mid-morning snacking.
Too much fruit
Naturally low in fat and packed with vitamins, you’d expect fruit to be a great diet food, but eat too much and the opposite can become true. Fruit is high in fructose, which means lots of calories. And recent research suggested this kind of sugar doesn’t make you feel full.
Normally when we eat sugar, our body releases insulin, which tells the brain we’ve had enough to eat. But fructose doesn’t appear to trigger this insulin response so it’s easy to eat large amounts. Dried fruit is rich in fructose, and a small box of raisins contains around 8.5 teaspoons of sugar!
“But don’t dodge fruit as it’s a very healthy food in moderation,” says Foster. “Stick to two pieces a day and make up the rest of your five a day from veg.”
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These kind of bars are marketed as diet-friendly and may seem like a healthy solution if you haven’t got time for breakfast. But there’s a reason why they are kept in the confectionery aisle – some contain more fat and sugar than a small bar of chocolate. “The key is to check the label,” says Benelam.
Stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow may wax lyrical about the benefits of raw food diets, but research shows that, on the contrary, you’re better off cooking veg. Raw fans claim cooking kills the vitamins and minerals, but studies have found the opposite. And while cooking may destroy some (but not all) vitamin C, the process boosts the uptake of disease-fighting nutrients – antioxidants.
One study found people on a raw veg diet were low in the antioxidant lycopene – a red pigment found in tomatoes that’s linked to lower risk of cancer and heart attacks. Similarly, a 2008 study found that carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage and peppers all supply more antioxidants when cooked than when eaten raw.
“This is because cooking breaks down vegetables’ thick cell walls, making it easier for the body to absorb the nutrients they contain,” explains Benelam. Steaming is best, then gentle boiling. Frying preserves the least vitamins and minerals.
They seem like a straightforward way for soft drink lovers to cut calories, but some experts think diet drinks could actually scupper weight loss. Research is stacking up to suggest that while the artificial sweeteners they contain can convince the taste buds they’re consuming sugar, the brain can’t be tricked so easily.
And when it’s denied the calories it’s expecting, your body goes on a calorie hunt, making you feel hungry and eating more. Which is why several US studies seem to show that consuming sweeteners can make people more likely to pile on weight, than reduce it.
Low-fat salad dressing
It seems a great way to make a virtuous meal less calorific, but scientists at Iowa State University, US, have found low-fat dressing could cancel out the goodness in the salad. Conversely, using olive oil, or a little butter, boosted vitamin intake. “This is because many salad veg are fat-soluble, so some fat helps your body absorb their nutrients more efficiently,” says Foster.