7 sneaky foods that pretend to be healthy

In June, I sent out a Daily Dispatch e-mail about a new study that showed how people who take statin drugs are shooting themselves in the foot. Over time, statin users (now a whopping one-sixth of all Americans) eat 10 percent more calories and 14 percent more fat than the rest of the population. This is called the “statin gluttony” effect.

So all of these people are taking a pill to supposedly improve their health (despite sketchy-at-best benefits). Yet their resulting poor diets mean they end up losing the battle after all, in addition to suffering the awful side effects of these drugs.

But statin users aren’t the only ones getting scammed in the quest for good health. Every day, people choose foods that seem healthy but really aren’t. Here’s a look at seven of these sneaky “health” foods.

#1: Banana chips. These snacks are made from a fruit that is naturally high in potassium—and fruits and vegetables are generally healthy foods. But just like their unhealthy potato chip cousins, banana chips are deep fried in high-calorie oil.

Just half a cup of banana chips can have around 200 calories and 10 grams of saturated fat.1

Meanwhile, a large, fresh banana is virtually fat free and contains only about 120 calories. Plus, it has more vitamins and minerals than banana chips, because frying can destroy vital nutrients. If you like bananas, you’re much better off sticking with the whole, uncooked fruit.

#2: Energy bars. You can find energy bars sneaked into the grocery aisle with healthy foods, or even in the weight-loss section. But beware. Many of these crazed concoctions average 200 to 250 calories each.2 And since most energy bars tend to be small, it’s not unusual to down a couple a day as a supposedly nutritious “snack.”

But then you find that you’ve eaten as many calories as you’d get in a healthy, large lunch or moderate dinner. In that sense, energy bars are meal “replacements,” with all of the calories (and more) but few of the nutrients—and none of the enjoyment, satisfaction, or benefits of eating a real meal.

The sugar content can also be quite high, accounting for many of energy bars’ empty calories, and making some of them no better than candy bars. And they’re not even as tasty.

If you need a portable, “on-the-go” snack, try a hard-boiled egg or a fresh banana.

#3: Muesli. This is a health food store staple and hard to pronounce, so it must be good for you, right?

Muesli is marketed as a healthy alternative to sugary breakfast cereals. And while there are some brands that have fewer than 200 calories per serving, there are others that have a whopping 600 calories per cup—with high fat content and ridiculous amounts of added sugar, to boot.3

If you like having some sort of cereal in the morning, you can make your own healthy version. Buy bulk oats, sunflower seeds, dried fruits (cut into small bits), and some nuts, mix them together, and add low-fat milk. Alternately, eggs are a great, nutritious way to start the day.

#4: Prepared salads. There is nothing healthier than a fresh, green salad. But when you order a salad at a restaurant, watch out for the extra calories, fat, and sugar often used to dress it up so it tastes better.

If you trust the basic ingredients, ask for the dressing on the side. Or ask for olive oil and vinegar (or lemon) and dress your own salad at the table. And of course, you can also make these dressings at home. Don’t ever buy or use prepared salad dressings. To keep your olive oil fresh, only buy as much as you will use in a three-month period.

#5: Sushi. This trendy food is bound to be good for you, right? After all, what could be healthier than raw fish (even if you’re not a seal)?

While the nutrient content of sushi is indeed healthy, any uncooked food can pose a risk of infection or infestation with parasites. Although the high standards of real sushi restaurants present a minimal risk, watch out for the proliferation of “sushi-on-the-side” eateries where chefs aren’t well versed in proper sushi preparation.

You also need to be careful of mercury contamination. Mercury is common in fish, and because many of the fish used in sushi are large predators at the top of the marine food chain, they can have high concentrations of mercury.

Tuna is particularly problematic.4 Some experts say adults should avoid eating more than 6 ounces of tuna sushi per week to make sure they don’t consume too much mercury. And pregnant women and children should eat even less.

#6: Low-fat yogurt. I have often warned that many of the processed foods labeled as “low-fat” contain extra sugar to make them taste better. And studies are showing this added sugar—not naturally occurring fat—is the real culprit behind many chronic diseases.

You are better off with a real, full-fat yogurt. Real yogurt is made from milk, which we all know is a good source of calcium and vitamins A and D. It also contains beneficial bacteria (probiotics) that digest the sugar found in milk and thus naturally lower yogurt’s sugar content.

#7: Trail mix. We have now reached the end of the unhealthy food trail. Which seems appropriate because trail mix, while supposedly nutritious, may be the sneakiest snack of all.

A basic trail mix made solely of dried fruits and nuts is a good, healthy snack. Nuts and fruits eaten in moderation are natural, high-nutrient foods. In fact, they form a basis of the “Bear Diet,” which I recommend for healthy weight loss and weight maintenance. (See the special report “Top of the Food Chain Diet” for more.*)

But prepackaged trail mixes typically contain lots of “tasty” ingredients like milk chocolate candies, sugar-coated nuts, yogurt-covered raisins, corn syrup, and fried banana chips. These ingredients are packed with refined sugars, and can boost the calorie content of a trail mix to a whopping 44 calories per tablespoon. That’s more than 700 calories per cup!6

This caloric load can also include a hefty amount of trans-fats, which should be completely banned from any diet (and are finally being banned by the FDA over the next couple of years).

The alternative is to make your own trail mix with nuts and dried berries from your health food store. Not only will you save a lot of money and calories, but you’ll also have a very nutritious snack that you can eat anywhere, whether you’re waiting in traffic or scaling the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Why nuts and berries? Nuts are high in vitamins and minerals and are associated with a lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancer, gallstones, and obesity. Berries have been linked to a lower risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and urinary tract infections. They also boost immune function.

And if that weren’t impressive enough, nuts and berries together are an antioxidant and immune-system powerhouse. The combo also shows benefits for brain and nerve function. A growing number of clinical studies demonstrate that moderate consumption of berries and nuts improves cognitive performance. The dynamic duo may also delay, or even reverse, the effects of age-related dementia.

The truth is, eating healthy doesn’t have to be a guessing game. A little common sense goes a long way. And when in doubt, you can’t go wrong by always opting for whole, natural foods over processed, prepackaged products—no matter how sneakily nutritious they may seem.


1 CalorieKing. Calories in Banana Chips. http://www.calorieking.com/foods/search.php?keywords=banana+chips&go=Go. Accessed June 16, 2014.

2CalorieKing. Calories in Energy Bars. http://www.calorieking.com/calories-in-energy+bars.html. Accessed June 16, 2014.

3 CalorieKing. Hodgson Mill Apple & More Muesli Cereal, dry. http://www.calorieking.com/foods/calories-in-breakfast-cereals-to-be-cooked-apple-more-muesli-dry_f-ZmlkPTE4MzAyMA.html. Accessed June 16, 2014.

4National Resources Defense Council. Guide to Mercury in Sushi. http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/mercury/sushi.asp. Accessed June 16, 2014.

5 Lowenstein, JH, et al. DNA barcodes reveal species-specific mercury levels in tuna sushi that pose a health risk to consumers. 21 April 2010 doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0156 Biol. Lett.

6 CalorieKing. Calories in Trail Mix. Average All Brands, Trail Mix: Regular, with Chocolate Chips, Unsalted Nuts & Seeds. http://www.calorieking.com/foods/calories-in-trail-mix-regular-with-chocolate-chips-unsalted-nuts-seeds_f-ZmlkPTYxNDg5.html. Accessed June 16, 2014.