7 Foods You Think Are Healthy, But Really Aren't

(photo by Joanna Kosinska)

Every time I see bottle of water labeled "gluten free", I lose a bit of hope for our current health climate. 
There's so much health dogma constantly battering us, it's seemingly impossible to escape it. And sometimes it can be hard to wade through the muck, trying to discern simple truth from hyperbolic fluff and too-good-to-be-true health claims. 
So I thought a simple list would help you pluck some of the truth from the lies. Here's some well-known "health" foods that may not be so healthy after all...

1. Peanut Butter
For some bizarre reason, peanut and other nut butters have fallen into the socially acceptable category of "health food". And while peanuts aren't bad for the occasional snack, it certainly isn't the nutrient-dense food it claims to be.
Peanuts are high in phytic acid, an anti nutrient that keeps the body from absorbing nutrients and minerals. They're are also high in omega 6's, which aren't inherently bad, but the Western diet is already unbalanced when it comes to our intake of omega 3's and 6's.
It takes about 540 peanuts to make a 12 oz jar of peanut butter. Think about that in comparison with how quickly scoop up and gobble a tablespoon of peanut butter. That's a whole lotta peanuts, which is why I more than often opt for eating whole peanuts in the shell, taking my time to enjoy them. (It's hard to not eat mindfully when you're working for your food, I've learned.)
So peanut butter isn't the worst, but it isn't all that and a bag of chips either. If you're gonna eat it, opt for an organic brand that doesn't contain any unrecognizable ingredients or hydrogenated oils. PSA: Peanut butter only needs two ingredients to be made. Peanuts and salt. Groundbreaking.

Wow, Jif somehow managed to perfect the age-old recipe of peanut butter by adding sugar and rancid vegetable oils! Who knew.

2. Smoothies & Juice
Like with flours, nut butters, and any other processed food, when you change the structure of the food, it changes our perception of it as well. I could be satisfied with eating one banana as a snack, but throw three into a blender and make it a smoothie, and I'll drink it aaaaallll. Simply because it's easier to. My brain doesn't have time to catch up and tell me I'm full before I realize it. And that can be helpful if you're underweight or pregnant, but If your'e trying to cut down on your sugar intake, maybe smoothies shouldn't be a regular diet staple.
And I hate to be the one to break it to you, but juice is pretty much sugar water. When separated from its natural fibers from the fruit, juice is essentially just fructose. Now, it's not the worst thing for you, but there's a reason why kids love sappy cups falloff apple juice. Sugar.
So is a cup of orange juice a better alternative than a cup of orange soda? Absolutely. But when it comes to our food choices, everything is relative, and it's good to know where everything falls on the scale. A smoothie from McDonald's that has added sugar and preservatives? Probably not the greatest. But a smoothie made at home with just raw fruit, full-fat yogurt, and ice...much better.

3. Granola Bars
Health cereals and trail mix fall into this category as well, but granola and granola bars in particular are often touted as the go-to healthy snack food. Going camping? Pack a granola bar. Sending your child off to school? Throw a granola bar into their lunchbox. Need a post workout snack? gRanOLa BAr.
Nut based bars are better than oat based, but they're still often glued together with some sort of sugary syrup. And chocolate drizzle. There's always chocolate drizzle. But since when is chocolate drizzle healthy?? If that's the case, you can catch me melting down Hershey's bars and drizzling that stuff on everything.

4. Margarine
Repeat after me. Butter is good for you. Now keep muttering that under your breath until decades of brainwashing by Land-O-Lake's and Smart Balance fade deep into the void.
No, but, seriously. Margarine is the self-proclaimed "heart healthy" substitute to "artery-clogging" butter. (Read here more about why saturated fat is actually good for you!) But it's a poor substitute at that, both in flavor and nutrition. I think the labels speak for themselves.

5. Whole Grains
I talk about whole grains and wheat more in-depth here, but essentially, whole grains aren't as healthy as they would like us to think they are. Modern grains can cause digestion issues, and have been shown over and over to have no correlation with reducing risk of heart disease. What's With Wheat is a compelling documentary on the ill-effects of our wheat belly culture (and it's currently available to watch on Netflix!)

6. Yogurt
"Wow, Melanie, didn't you JUST talk about the benefits of yogurt in your last post?" Yes. You caught me red-handed. But I'm not talking about good 'ol fashioned grass-fed plain yogurt here. I'm talking about what yogurt has become, the yogurt you see lining your grocery store shelves. Low-fat yogurt that's filled with sugar to make up for the lost flavor in skim milk. Little plastic cups loaded to the brim with sugar, granola, and...M&M's?? I mean, I understand that kids are picky, but is dumping candy into the yogurt really the only way to get them to eat it?
Yogurt is great for replenishing your gut microbiome with beneficial bacteria, but not when you have to consume two tablespoons in order to do so. Buying plain yogurt and adding in fresh fruit is almost always a better idea than getting the already sweetened ones.

7. Soy & Vegetarian Substitutes 
Soy has been a food staple for many cultures over thousands of years, but the way we prepare and consume is today has turned it into an entirely different creature. To quote myself: "Phytoestrogens are a type of plant-derived "hormone" that can cause endocrine disruption and mimics estrogen in the body. And in the female body specifically, high levels of this can cause estrogen dominance, which can then lead to infertility, menstrual issues, weight gain, and more." 
But it's not just about women. Soy is also very high in the anti-nutrient phytic acid, and can cause thyroid issues when consumed in large, improperly prepared amounts.
So I'm not knocking properly prepared soy or meat replacements. But avoiding most frozen veggie patties is probably a good idea. Most are loaded with fillers, vegetable oils, preservatives, and a whole host of generally-not-great-things. A good rule of thumb to remember: "vegetarian" is not synonymous with "healthy".

Calm down, don't toss your Yoplait in the trash just yet
I should say that I'm not telling you to never eat any of these foods. (Except maybe margarine, since I'd hardly even call that "food"). I often use peanut butter for baking, and I'm no stranger to the occasional homemade smoothie. Things like smoothies, granola, peanut butter, and yogurt can all fall in the realm of "healthy", depending on the source.
This is all simply food for thought. I just want people to be aware of what they're eating, not just take the label's word for it. And maybe realize that peanut butter toast isn't, in fact, the healthiest breakfast imaginable.

I had about 10 more things I wanted to add to this list, but I'll spare you my ranting for now. But let me know if you'd like to see another post like this!
And next week I'll be writing a list that's the inverse of this one: foods you think are unhealthy, but actually aren't! So stay tuned for that.
And please don't buy Jif.

<3 Mel


The Lost Art Of Fermentation

(photo by Natalie Rhea)

I think we're all familiar with yogurt and pickles, some of the historically fermented foods that are still popular despite a decline in traditional diets. But there's a whole world beyond that jar of pickles in the grocery store aisle. From carrots to garlic, apples to cranberries, there's endless possibilities for foods we can ferment and create the nutritionally dense meals as possible.

What is it?
Lacto-fermentation is a natural process by which the bacteria Lactobacillus feeds off sugar and starches found in foods.  This produces lactic acid as a byproduct, and gives fermented food that signature acidic, tangy flavor.

A lost tradition
But sadly, with the abandonment of traditional food preparation and the rise of industrial food production, fermentation has become somewhat of a lost art. It's a practice that seems to become less popular with every generation.
Pickles were always traditionally fermented, but now the kind you'll find in a grocery store are just soaked in a vinegar solution to give it that classic sour flavor. They may taste similar, but in terms of health benefits, they're just a cheap copy. But fermented foods have always been a part of a traditional diet. From Cultures for Health,
The diets of every traditional society have included some kind of lacto-fermented food. Europeans consume lacto-fermented dairy, sauerkraut, grape leaves, herbs, and root vegetables. The Alaskan Inuit ferment fish and sea mammals. The Orient is known for pickled vegetables, sauces, and kimchi in particular. Farming societies in central Africa are known for porridges made from soured grains.

The benefits of fermented foods
In the past, fermenting food was more practical than anything. It was a means of storage and preservation. But we now know that there's an abundance of benefits that comes from the process.
Fermented foods...

  • Produce beneficial probiotics and enzymes, improving digestion and promoting a healthier gut flora. 
  • Act as a natural preservative. Refrigerators have only been around for so long, and people needed ways to keep and preserve food before then. By fermenting certain foods, you deter harmful bacteria and allowing food to be stored for long periods of time. 
  • Just taste better! They turn raw cabbage into zesty sauerkraut and milk whey into tangy yogurt. Sour pickles? Yes please. Foods are more fun when they're fermented. 
  • Break down lactose in dairy. So if you have issues with lactose-intolerance, full-fat, grass-fed yogurt might be your new best friend. 
  • Magically make soy healthy. Raw soy is a known hormone-disruptor, but when properly fermented (like traditional Japanese natto) it becomes a full-on health food. Although, I've heard it's a bit slimy in texture... just a heads up. 
  • Can be cheap when made at home. Eating "healthy" can sometimes be expensive, but making your own fermented foods at home is good for your body and your wallet. 

How to make your own
It's crazy and fascinating to me that there's possibility to increase the nutritional content of our food literally all around us. We just have to utilize it. Sally Fallon says: "These lactobacilli are ubiquitous, present on the surface of all living things and especially numerous on leaves and roots of plants growing in or near the ground. Man needs only to learn the techniques for controlling and encouraging their proliferation to put them to his own use, just as he has learned to put certain yeasts to use in converting the sugars in grape juice to alcohol in wine."
So let's take advantage of it! I swear homemade sauerkraut is literally the easiest thing to make in the world. (Right behind PB&J) Here's a running list on how to make your own:

I've also written a bit more about kombucha a water kefir hereAnd here's a whole archive of recipes for fermenting food.


(photo by Tanalee Youngblood)
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What Mindful Eating Is, And How To Practice It

Mindfulness is not just a buzzword. An adjective, yes, but more than that, a practice.
Its ironic, despite living in the most calorie-abundant place and era, we still act like everything on our plate could be swiped from us in a instant. I've seen people eating that more closely resemble a pack of wolves scarfing down their freshly hunted prey than a human sitting down to eat a civilized meal. Whatever happened to enjoying food, savoring food?
We eat while we drive and while we watch tv, opting for a drive thru window instead of a sit down meal. And I get it, life is busy. But we often don't respect the art of eating, giving it only the last of our time and attention. It's often something we have to do, not get to do. The drive-thru culture.

What is mindful eating? 
Mindful eating is eating without distraction, with your full focus on the meal before you. From the Center for Mindful Eating:
Mindful Eating is:
  • Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom. 
  • Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.   
  • Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes or neutral) without judgment.
  • Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.
Why we should eat mindfully 
When we're aware of what and how we're eating. Digestion is a complex process, and requires a plethora or hormonal signals in order to trigger the system. It takes about 20 minutes for the brain to recognize satiety (to tell you when you feel full). So how can we expect our bodies to work efficiently when we're scarfing down a sandwich within 10 minutes? It's easy to overeat when you're taking another bite every 30 seconds. Our bodies just aren't meant to keep up.

Digestion shuts down when our bodies are in the sympathetic nervous system (fight or fight). So we need to be in parasympathetic mode in order to digest efficiently. But that can't happen when we're distracted, rushed, or stressed. Ever eaten a meal when you're on a time crunch? You're left feeling unsatisfied, and maybe even nauseous or bloated.

How to eat mindfully 
Now that we know what it is, how do we practically implement some mindful eating practices into our daily routine? What may seem like a small, unimportant habit may actually be hindering your experience with food. Small steps can make big differences. So here's some simple tips that will surely make your mealtimes more enjoyable and beneficial experiences:

Chew more
In the West, we tend eat to fast. But did you know you're supposed to chew at least 25 times before swallowing? Yeah, seems like a lot. As Robyn Youkilis likes to say, "Newsflash: your stomach doesn't have teeth." Don't make things harder on your stomach than they should be! Digestion begins in the mouth, and saliva has an important role in the process. Don't by bypass it!

Put your fork down
In between taking bites, put your fork down. Really. Just do it. It's actually much harder than it sounds. If you're constantly looking for your next bite of food, how can you enjoy what's already in your mouth? Take a bite. Put your utensil down, (no, not to grab another forkful) and focus on what you're currently eating. Let go of your food for a moment. It's okay. It's not going anywhere.

Eat with your left hand...
...if you're right-handed. If you're a lefty, try eating with your right! The point is to eat with your non-dominant hand. This practice compels you slow down, to be aware of the fine motor skills it takes to simply take a bite of salad. It literally forces you to be mindful of how you're eating.

Eat without distraction
Ever sit down in front of the TV with a bag of chips, only to look down a few minutes later and realize you've eaten the entire thing? Yeah, me too. Humans don't multitask well, and if your brain is focused on whatever Netflix show you're currently bingeing, it's way too easy to just mechanically shove food into your mouth without giving it a second thought. Be present with your meal. Whether you're enjoying it alone, or it's family dinner or a meal with friends.

One of the easiest way to implement mindful eating is to simply make your own food. It's easy to rip into a bowl of microwaved nuggets without a second thought, but when you've taken the time to prepare your own meal, it makes it easier to savor. As much as technology has advanced, someone, somewhere is still making your food. Food production and preparation is not without the human hand. So, even if it's just boiling pasta, work toward making your own hands a part of that preparation.

Which tip are you going to try implementing in your routine? Let me know!

Good luck,

(photo by Ali Inay)

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