It’s not uncommon for foods to get a reputation as healthy, even if they don’t have the nutrients to support those claims. Or worse yet, they have ingredients that are definitely not good for you.
Maybe these foods benefit from great marketing, or maybe they just become trendy. But it’s important to get the facts about the latest so-called health foods. We asked Lindsay Wolhford, MD Anderson Cancer Center employee wellness dietitian for the truth behind commonly perceived health foods. Here’s what she had to say.
“When it comes to coconut oil, we don’t really have the research to say that it’s the miracle food some think of it,” Wohlford says.
Currently, it’s trendy to use coconut oil for everything from cooking to moisturizing. But Wohlford warns that while it’s OK to use a little coconut oil in your cooking, it’s important not to go overboard.
Coconut oil is still saturated fat, and too much saturated fat can have a negative impact on your heart health. The American Heart Association recommends 5 to 6% of your calories come from saturated fat. So if you eat 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of them, or 13 grams, should come from saturated fat.
“If you have to use saturated fat, coconut oil may be a better option than butter or lard because it’s plant-based, but by no means is it a health food. It’s still fat,” Wohlford says.
Protein shakes can be a good way for performance athletes to get extra calories. But for the average person, extra calories can lead to unwanted weight gain.
“Protein shakes and smoothies have their place, but they should meet a few requirements first,” Wohlford says.
Make sure your shakes and smoothies don’t contain too much sugar or more calories than your daily intake recommends. And be sure to look at the protein content.
Look for smoothies and shakes with no more than 30 grams of protein. That’s roughly the amount of protein your body can handle at one time. Don’t rely on smoothies and shakes as your only source of protein.
“Most of your protein should come from whole foods, not powders or juices,” Wohlford says.
Agave nectar and maple syrup
These syrups are often lauded as healthy alternatives to sugar, but they’re still sugar. Unlike table sugar they do contain some nutritional benefits – like antioxidants – but you’d have to consume so much syrup in order to get those benefits that you’d be sure to take in unnecessary calories and sugar.
“When it comes to sugars, the benefits just don’t outweigh the negative when it comes to calories,” Wolhford says.
Yogurt definitely has some benefits. Especially Greek and Icelandic varieties, which typically contain more protein and less sugar. Yogurt is a great source of probiotics. But be sure to read the label and make sure the yogurt you’re eating doesn’t contain excess sugar.
“When in doubt, opt for plain, nonfat yogurt,” Wohlford says.
Oatmeal on its own makes a healthy meal. It’s full of fiber, which can help lower your colorectal cancer risk. But often, companies add sugar and other ingredients to give oatmeal more flavor. So when you’re buying oatmeal, be sure to read the ingredients and the label. Stick with plain, old fashioned oats and add fruit and cinnamon for flavor.
“I think we all want to think chocolate is a health food, but it’s not,” Wohlford says. Dark chocolate does contain some antioxidants, but only in trace amounts. “The sugar and calories outweigh any of the benefits found in chocolate,” Wohlford says. She added that a consuming small amount of dark chocolate is all right.
No matter the food, look for the truth behind the trends and hype. Remember to read the food labels and talk to a dietitian if you have any concerns. Eating fresh, whole foods, (mostly plants) can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower your cancer risk.