four assorted flavor of ice cream on white wooden table
Photo by Dan Gold

Top 5 fake health foods

First, let me qualify that the purpose of this post is NOT to rain on your parade and tell you that any of these foods are off limits. As you can see from my 80/20 post, I am all for balance and enjoying favorite foods in small doses. 

The purpose of this post is to expose foods that masquerade as healthy “80” foods, leading us to believe that we are making healthy diet choices when we are really eating the equivalent of liquid candy. Under the false belief that these foods are harmless health foods, we are more likely to eat these foods far too often and in disproportionate portion sizes. Once you have this awareness,you can make better choices picking one of my alternative suggestions.

The main “fake foods” I will cover in this article are:

  1. Smoothies and smoothie bowls
  2. Fruit juice and dried fruit 
  3. Frozen yogurt 
  4. Granola
  5. Sushi 

I already covered protein bars in a separate post (they deserved their own coverage), so if you missed that, go back and give it a read.

ice cream in clear glass cup
If you don’t have a good smoothie guide you might as well be drinking a milkshake. Photo by Natalie Toombs

Fake Health Food # 1: Smoothies and smoothie bowls:’-

How can smoothies be unhealthy? Isn’t Instagram full of fitfluencer smoothie art? It’s just blended fruits and veggies, right? 

Here’s the slippery slope: major smoothie chains have figured out that they can’t justify charging 12 dollars for liquid spinach and have commercialized smoothies into a blend of sugar and calories available in Big Gulp sizes. A survey of the nutrition facts shows the average calorie count is right up to 400-500 calories, with some going up to 1000 calories and 100 grams of sugar.  Even some of the lower calorie versions that have mostly greens still use fruit juices to sweeten it up, making them high in sugar. In many cases, the recipes add frozen yogurt (we will get to why this is not a real health food in a minute). 

In the last few years, smoothie bowls with their unicorn-like mesmerizing colors have also dominated the menus at health food bars. Looking more closely, however, many of these contain added sweeteners like honey, agave, and sweetened yogurt. Granola, which is also on our fake health food list, is a common ingredient. Usually, you are not even getting that much fruit, so it’s essentially like eating a bowl of really sweet cereal. Except I will bet that no one who walked into a smoothie bar would order a bowl of Honey Smacks or Fruit Loops. 

Alternative 1 : DIY

I know I have vegan readers out there, and a smoothie with pea protein from a nutmilk like Silk or a powder may necessitate having smoogthies. Or, you may just love smoothies and don’t want to give them up. You don’t have to! I would recommend, however, that you stick to DIY at home soothies as much as possible.

Smoothies made at home are much cheaper, calorie and money-wise. You can control the quantity and quality of the ingredients, but you may have to unlearn some bad habits you got from the smoothie joint. Otherwise, you could end up adding a pound of fruit and unintentionally causing your blood sugar to soar, especially when you are using fruits higher in sugar, like pineapple, banana, and cherries.  Because the fruit is blended, it breaks down and loses some of the fiber.The more broken down the fiber is when it hits your stomach, the more likely you are to get an insulin spike because of the increased sugar in your blood. 

Stick with one type of fruit, adding no more than a cup of total fruit. So if you want strawberry, and banana, for example, you would end up adding 3-4 strawberries and ¼ to ½ of a banan. Pick ONE fat, and GO EASY and measure out the portion size. Any amount of fat, whether it is nut butter, coconut oil, or avocado, should only be the size of your thumb.

I would also recommend using an elongated spoon to eat your smoothie, if possible, so you don’t just gulp it down. You will be fuller, faster.

red and green apples on black surface
Just eating a large apple can fill you up,. Try eating an apple or a pear with your smoothie so you get the satisfaction from chewing and more fiber to keep you fuller longer. Photo by Adam Bouse

Alternative 2: Eat the fruit 

One thing I noticed when I drink smoothies is I am usually hungry a short time later. The reason why is what I alluded to above, which is that your body does not have to work as hard to digest the food, since it is blended. This way it passes through the system faster. Which makes you hungrier, sooner. Which is really distracting when you are trying to get work done and your stomach is grumbling at 10:15.

On the other hand, when you eat the fruit, you get the benefit of more fiber and the process of breaking it down through your system. Also, it’s a natural portion control mechanism. You would probably not be able to eat 3 apples in one sitting, but you could easily blend them and chug it down in a smoothie. Try having an apple with nut butter, next time, or dipping the apple in Greek yogurt topped with cinnamon. 

Even if you are having a smoothie for the protein intake, try just blending the protein source with the nutmilk and a small amount of fat, like nut butter or avocado, and eating the fruit separately.

Alternative 3: Order wisely

If you are going to be eating at a chain, do your homework, like this article that explains the smoothies at Jamba Juice. As a general rule, the more complicated the name, the more calories it will have. Most places will have custom options. I would recommend the following:

  • Stick with one low-sugar kind of fruit, like blueberries. That way even if they overdo the portion size, blueberries are low in calories
  • Pack the smoothie with low-cal greens, like spinach.
  • Ask for a water or a mix of water and almond milk base. 
  • Avoid nut butters; usually they have the cheaper, more high sugar brands. For a fat, ask for avocado and/or seeds. 
  • Avoid extra sweeteners, like honey or agave. Especially if you have fruit, that is enough sugar.

See also this article on the best smoothies to order at Jamba Juice.

Fake Health Food #2: Fruit juice and dried fruit 

Like smoothies, these foods are two more ways that fruit can lose its good name. First, let’s start with the juices. The phenomena of “juicing” and “detoxing” really has emerged in the last 10 years. You can buy an exotic pre-bottled juice from a health food store for about 10 bucks. For that, you are basically getting sugar in an IV drip. While smoothies may break down the fiber in fruit, the juice completely eviscerates it. So drinking a class of pomegranate juice for instance, even if there is no added sugar, is basically like sucking down a can of Orange Fanta. To put in perspective, a glass of pomegranate juice contains the equivalent of SEVENTEEN teaspoons of sugar. 

Dried fruit has a lot of the same issues as fruit juice. Most commercialized brands have added sugar. Even if there is no sugar added, proceed with caution because drying the fruit obviously reduces the size and eliminates the water, which are the two factors that make eating fresh fruit a healthier choice. That results in greater satiety for less calories. With dried fruit, the average calories for 4-5 pieces is 100 calories. The fact that a lot of people like to mix dried fruit with nuts, which also have more calories relative to their small quantity, makes it easy to inhale hundreds of calories as a snack, not usually a meal. 

Alternative 1

Eat the fruit. You see how in favor I am of eating fruit? I realize that fruit juice can be quicker and more accessible, and may not require to be washed, but you can make eating fruit more convenient by pre-washing it and putting it in a clear, accessible container in the refrigerators.

If you are on the go, grab a fruit that doesn’t require utensils or work to peel, like an apple, grapes or a banana.

Alternative 2 

Read the labels of dried fruits carefully to make sure there are no added sugars, and stick to a palmful per serving (for a reminder of decoding labels read my post here). If you really enjoy the flavor of fruit juice, I would recommend diluting it with still or sparkling water. Think of it like you were making a cocktail, with a splash of something, except that something would be the fruit juice. EVen better, take fresh fruit like lemon, lime, or oranges and actually squeeze it in the water. 

Fake Health Food #3: Frozen yogurt 

I wish I knew Froyo was a fake health food during my college years at UVA, where the mess hall had dispensers of frozen yogurt I would frequent at every meal. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why I got the Freshman 15 (ok 20) when I was just eating salads. That’s because I was adding about 800 caloires worth of Fro Yo for lunch and dinner. 

Similar to the smoothie places, there are popular frozen yogurt chains that present themselves as a healthier alternative to ice cream. The flavors are either labeled as “low fat,” “fat free,” “dairy free,” or “no added sugar.”  This is misleading, because:

1. The brands that are fat free are usually full of sugar; 

2. The no sugar added labels just mean no extra sugar on top of the sugar that is already in the ingredients. It does not mean sugar free. 

3. Dairy free doesn’t add some kind of halo. It’s just an option if you don’t eat dairy. Most of the sorbet type of flavors are labeled that way, and they usually have more sugar than the dairy flavors. This is generally true for all kinds of dairy free stuff – cheeses, ice cream, and chocolates.

Besides that, the self-dispensing machines force excessive portion sizes. Once you pull that leve, even if you hold it for just a few seconds, you probably are getting a 500 calorie serving of just the yogurt out of the fate. And that’s BEFORE the toppings. Here’s a tip: if you go up to pay and the amount due is in the double digits, you probably have overdone it. 

Here’s a tip about Frozen Yogurt: if you go up to pay and the amount due is in the double digits, you probably have overdone it. 

The toppings bar is also another calorie-loaded trap. Sure, there is fresh fruit, but most of us are tempted by the chocolate chips, jimmies, and sauces. It is easy to justify those choices when you are under the rationalization that the frozen yogurt is so “healthy,” you can be a little bit flexible with the toppings.  See how much gaslighting there is?

Alternative 1: DIY greek yogurt and fruit 

No, I do not mean Greek Frozen yogurt. Classic plain greek yogurt, the full-fat version, is actually not that high in fat and really creamy. Have around ½ a cup with fruit, a few sliced almonds, and a drizzle of honey, and you have a yummy treat. 

Alternative 2: Be smart about your Fro Yo outing 

Hey, I love a good Fro Yo treat especially on those first few days of really warm weather in the Spring. It may be a bigger deal to us East Coasters than it is in LA, where it’s Fro Yo weather all year round. So no need to miss out! Just use the following tips: 

1. Get the smallest size serving cup (it’s already probably too big of a serving).

2. Pick the flavor you like to eat the best, without basing it on meaningless labels. You are more likely to be satisfied faster if you are eating the flavor that  you really want.

3. The same principle can apply to toppings. Pick the ONE topping you really want and add a scoopful.  It’s better than having a bunch of different “healthy” toppings and then ending up with three times the calories then if you just had 5 M&M’s on top.

4. Try to avoid the sauces and whipped cream. In that case, you might as well get a real ice cream sundae! 

Fake Food #4: Granola 

In the last 10 years, granola has transitioned from being a “hippy” food into a mainstream “health” food. It is super tricky, because granola  is one of those theoretically healthy foods that most food manufacturers have ruined by adding extra sugar and oils. If you read the labels with the guidance that I have provided in my post HERE, you will see that most brands add extra sugar, syrups, and dried fruit. Even the “low-carb” brands are packed with nuts and seeds that cause the calories to skyrocket for just a teeny amount that definitely will not fill you up. 

Alternative 1: Read labels and use sparingly

The key here is to read the labels, and look at granola as a topping, not a meal. For example, you can sprinkle it on yogurt or oats. Or, you can mix it with a lower calorie, higher fiber cereal, like Fiber One.

Alternative 2: DIY

You can DIY your own low-cal granola, using recipes like this one. The best granola product I have seen is the Julian Bakery Progranola. That’s not a license to eat a huge bowl, but it is a low amont of caloires/carbs/fat compared to the 170 calories for half that amount for most other brands. It also has no sugar (it is sweetened with monk fruit) and is high in protein. Tastewise, it has vanilla cinammon, esperesso, and peanut butter flavors. I have tried the Vanilla Cinnamon and would rate it about a 6/10 on the taste scale.

cooked food
Rule of thumb for sushi: If it has fried stuffor is covered in white stuff, leave it alone. Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis

Fake Food #5: Some types of sushi

In general, sushi can be a healthy choice. Although white rice can bump up your blood sugar., if you order it wisely, you can have sushi as part of a balanced diet.

Well, you might counter, sushi is Japanese, and Japanese culture is known for its healthier food and more svelte population. True, but I don’t think that the Japanese ever intended to add mayo or cream cheese. These ingredients are rampant in the rolls like Spicy Tuna, dragon, Philadelphia, and California rolls. In fact, many types of California rolls actually use imitation crabmeat. 

If you are not convinced yet, read this Glamour food “autopsy” article that exposes eating two rolls of sushi as easting six slices of white bread and and a mere ounce of fish. 

Alternative 1: Be a sushi snob

Eat sushi only in high-quality Japanese restaurants. Skip the pre-packed rolls you can get at Kroger. Here are a few things I have noticed having eaten sushi in Tokyo and higher quality, more traditional restaurants:

1. The amount of rice in each roll is much, much less. There is more fish and more seaweed. 

2. The portion size is a lot less, mostly because good quality sushi is expensive. So you end up ordering less.  

3. Sushi is usually consumed with green tea, and drinking green tea while you are eatin sushi makes you eat more slowly, getting satiated faster (see my naturally thin people post).  Green tea is a natural appetite suppressant and the liquid in your stomach is more satiating. 

4. Contrary to the way we are used to, miso soup is eaten in Japan after, not before the sushi. This helps digest the meal and also signals that the meal is over. 

5. In Japanese restaurants, it is considered rude to dunk sushi in soy sauce like donuts in coffee. You are supposed to gently tap the piece in the dish, so that you don’t upset the flavor of the fish. Just 1 tablespoon of Soy sauce not only has almost half of the recommended sodium (, but it also has MSG, which makes you crave more of the food that you are eating.

Alternative 2: Skip or skimp the carbs 

Order sashimi instead of sushi. When I have sushi, I  usually order sashimi as my main course, with 1-2 pieces of salmon nigiri. And I usually also get miso soup and seaweed salad, which has plenty of fiber and a healthy amount of vitamin B. If I order a roll, I usually get the rainbow roll, which has more fish on the outside and less rice. 

Some restaurants also offer “no rice” options, where sushi is wrapped in cucumuber and seaweed instead of rice.

Key takeaway

You can certainly eat the foods you enjoy under the 80/20 approach I recommend. The point of this article is not to get duped into thinking a type of food is an “80” when it is really a “20.” You can make smarter choices that make these foods healthier without having to completely pass on them.

More: The Seven sins of eating sushi (LA times) 

Foods that spike a patient’s blood glucose are not what you think (AMA)

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