[Last updated 9th November, 2017]
Are we getting a little carried away with health foods?
11 million results for the search term “superfoods” would suggest so.
In fact, even many household foods long considered healthy are now coming into question.
To be honest, it can all be quite confusing.
So what foods do not deserve their health halo? To get a clearer picture, I asked 19 nutrition experts this one question:
What is the most overrated health (or “healthy”) food going round, and why?
Plus I threw in an extra video at the end.
1. Alan Aragon — Buttered (Bulletproof) Coffee
I’d have to say buttered coffee is the most overrated health food right now.
The current trend of dumping butter into your coffee (the “bulletproof” recipe calls for butter and MCT oil) is ridiculous for a couple of reasons. First off, the idea that it’s a fat-burning drink is completely false. If anything, it’s a fat-gaining drink.
Secondly, butter is not a magic food. If anything, it’s a food that needs to be carefully moderated since it can adversely affect blood lipid profile by increasing apolipoprotein B (apo B) levels, which has the potential to raise the risk for cardiovascular disease. In addition to raising apo B levels, adding supplemental MCT oil to coffee has the potential to raise fasting blood glucose and triglyceride levels. Both of these effects are not conducive to good health.
One more little wrinkle here, cream contains a substantially higher content of milk fat globule membrane (MFGM) than butter due to the churning process involved with butter production. Recent research has linked the higher MFGM content of cream to its more favorable effect on blood lipid profile than that of butter. So yeah, stick with cream if you’re going to dress up your coffee, and don’t buy into the imaginative BS claims made by crazy opportunists and marketers.
Alan Aragon is a researcher, world traveler, and lover of fine foods. He co-authored the most-viewed article in the history of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition with Brad Schoenfeld. His lay-friendly, mainstream book the Lean Muscle Diet, co-authored by Lou Schuler, is available through the usual channels such as Amazon. Alan can be found on AlanAragon.com, periodically getting people mad on Facebook, and is currently trying to figure out Instagram with marginal success.
2. David L. Katz — All Types of Meat (at 1 minute mark)
Dr. David L. Katz is Director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Childhood Obesity. He is one of the original 150 INfluencers on LinkedIn and regular columnist at the Huffington Post.
3. Kamal Patel — Brown Rice
Brown rice has long been touted as superior to white rice… But why is that exactly?
Just because it’s brown people consider it healthier than white rice. A family member even told me that they feel better eating brown rather than white eggs (?).
Well, I’m brown and I can ensure you that brown doesn’t mean healthy.
One main nutritional reason people choose brown over white rice is a supposed lower glycemic index (GI). Brown rice is typically pegged at around 50, while basmati (white) is only slightly higher at 58. But the true glycemic load of a mixed meal is dampened due to other components such as fiber. That means the GI difference is trivial at best.
Brown rice also has fewer nutrients than other carbohydrate sources like potatoes, and simply doesn’t fit the bill as a go-to health food.
Kamal Patel is the Director of Examine.com, a compendium of research on nutrition and supplements. He’s a nutrition researcher with an MPH and MBA from Johns Hopkins University and has published peer-reviewed articles on vitamin D and calcium as well as a variety of clinical research topics. Kamal has also been involved in research on fructose and liver health, mindfulness meditation, and nutrition in low income areas.
4. Denise Minger — Butter
I’ll probably get lynched for saying this, but the most overrated “healthy” food going around right now is butter. (Cue boos and hisses!)
It’s certainly much better than vegetable oils and margarine, but it’s still an isolated fat that provides astoundingly little nutrition relative to its energy density. The handful of micronutrients it does contain—vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K2—are all available at much higher per-calorie levels in other foods, and though butter does contain a nice amount of butyric acid, your gut microbes can produce plenty of that as well from fiber and resistant starch.
And contrary to some of the hype out there, there’s no evidence that a high intake of butter is specifically health promoting, especially in the amounts some people are eating these days (via things like Bulletproof Coffee and “butter sandwiches”).
Butter certainly isn’t the dietary demon we once thought, but there’s no scientific data supporting the idea that we should eat more than is needed for cooking.
Denise Minger is a nutritional health writer, lecturer, and former vegan who writes at at Raw Food SOS. She is also the author of Death by Food Pyramid: How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Have Ruined Our Health, which explores how the “one size fits all” diet mentality pushes us deeper into the throes of obesity and disease.
5. Andy Bellatti — Breakfast Cereals
Breakfast cereal is one of the most overrated health foods.
By and large, they are the nutritional equivalent of vitamin and mineral-fortified low-fat cookies with a sprinkle of added isolated fibers.
While at least the likes of Lucky Charms and Frosted Flakes are obvious “candy cereals”, cereals like Special K are particularly deceitful because they engage in health-washing even though their sugar content is still quite hefty.
Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, is a Las Vegas-based dietitian who approaches nutrition from a whole-foods, plant-centric framework. He also takes a strong interest in food politics, nutrition policy, and deceptive food industry marketing tactics. Check out Dietitians for Professional Integrity as well as their Facebook page.
6. Zoë Harcombe — Fruit
Fruit is the most overrated health food because it’s essentially sugar with a few nutrients – fewer than people think.
Fruit contains high amounts of fructose and glucose in varying combinations – the two sugars that make up sucrose (table sugar). Most fruit has no essential fats, and none are a complete source of protein. Meat, fish, eggs, seeds, and vegetables beat fruit to a pulp in any nutritional contest.
Health recommendation to go for Five-a-day is a myth, and, as Gary Taubes says, “If you’re overweight, fruit is not your friend”.
Whichever nutrient you’re after, there is always a better choice than fruit.
Zoë Harcombe is an author, blogger, PhD student, real foodie, and speaker in the fields of diet/nutrition/obesity/public health. Find her at ZoeHarcombe.com.
7. Adele Hite — Grains (including Wholegrains)
Grains – yes, even “whole” grains – are overrated as healthy foods.
According to the USDA, “Grains are important sources of many nutrients, including dietary fiber, several B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate), and minerals (iron, magnesium, and selenium)”, and everyone is encouraged to make “half your grains whole”. The USDA considers whole wheat bread, whole wheat crackers, whole wheat pasta, whole wheat sandwich buns and rolls, and whole wheat tortillas to be “whole grains”.
But the “several B vitamins”, plus the iron, in many grain foods (particularly wheat flour and products made from wheat flour) are added during processing according to the FDA’s rules on enrichment and fortification. In many case, these nutrients are not added to whole grains or whole grain products, and these foods may not be “important sources” of these nutrients at all.
Meat, fish, and poultry are usually better sources of the nutrients mentioned and have the added bonus on being far less likely to have had vegetable oils or sugars added to them.
Fiber, by the way, is not a nutrient. It’s indigestible carbohydrate and does not provide nourishment, i.e. energy or building material for the body. If you feel like you need fiber, legumes are a far better source of it than grains, and – so you know you’re getting your money’s worth – the indigestible aspect of their carbohydrate composition will typically make itself readily known.
Adele Hite of Eathropology is the director and co-founder of Healthy Nation Coalition, a non-profit health advocacy organization. She is also a registered dietitian and PhD student undertaking a critical examination of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
8. Abel James — Agave Nectar
I’d say the most overrated health food would be agave nectar.
The stuff is pure sugar.
For some reason, tons of “healthy” restaurants and food companies use agave nectar (even labeling it raw when it’s not), but it’s basically the equivalent high fructose corn syrup. Ick.
Abel James is a bestselling author, musician, and talk show host. As the #1 most popular health podcast in 8+ countries, Abel’s award-winning show, Fat-Burning Man, has helped millions reclaim their health with real food, cutting-edge science, and primal workouts. Abel is also the first independent publisher ever to hold Apple’s #1 food app and #1 podcast at the same time.
9. Richard Sager — Garcinia Cambogia
For me the most overrated “healthy” food is Garcinia Cambogia.
The supplement claims to suppress appetite by increasing serotonin levels. For this reason it is also the target of many antidepressant medications because low serotonin can make people feel depressed or anxious.
I realise it can be difficult to study long-term supplement use let alone show convincing evidence, however, to date I’m not aware of anyone who has had success with Garcinia Cambogia.
Richard Sager is a chef turned nutritional biochemist and dietitian. He is the founder of Darwin Dietitians and has an extensive background in treating food allergies and intolerances. Check out his Facebook page.
10. Ryan Andrews — They’re all overrated to an extent
Short answer: All of them.
Long answer: We often categorize foods as “healthy/good”, or “unhealthy/bad”. In reality, all foods fall on a continuum and have pros/cons depending on that particular persons values, goals, culture, budget, taste preferences, beliefs, nutrient needs, accessibility, and so forth.
Health outcomes depend on the entire diet, not the inclusion or exclusion of a single “health food”.
Instead of worrying about a particular food, I encourage people to build their diet around a variety of sustainably raised vegetables, fruits, beans/pulses, whole grains, and nuts/seeds (and smaller amounts of animal products, if preferred).
Ryan D. Andrews is a dietitian, trainer, and yoga teacher who completed his education in exercise and nutrition at the University of Northern Colorado, Kent State University, and Johns Hopkins Medicine. He’s written hundreds of articles on nutrition, exercise, and health, authored Drop The Fat Act & Live Lean, and coauthored The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition Certification Manual. Ryan is currently a coach with Precision Nutrition and spends time volunteering with organic farms and organizations that prevent food waste.
11. Shawn Stevenson — Green Smoothies
This is going to be controversial, but hear me out… The most overrated health food going around right now is green smoothies.
Eek! No, he didn’t say that! Yea. Yea, I did. Green smoothies are a great foundational tool for health, but they can (and often do) take a big turn for the worst.
A green smoothie can spike your blood sugar higher than a Snickers bar if you’re unaware. A couple bananas (or other high glycemic fruit) and the other standard sweeteners commonly added like honey, agave, and raw sugar consumed on a regular basis can lead to insulin resistance, gut dysbiosis, and the production of more advanced glycation end products (AGEs) which will cause you to blend your way to an early grave.
Sure, a green smoothie is better than a strawberry shake at McDonald’s, but the purpose of the green smoothie is to me heavy on the green, and light on the sugar (fruit and otherwise). Don’t get me wrong, I like my honey just as much as the next bear, but if we’re going to get the most from this popular health trend, we need to focus on adding in more low glycemic fruit, some healthy fats, some high quality protein, and plenty of greens!
Shawn Stevenson is a bestselling author and creator of The Model Health Show, featured as the #1 Fitness and Nutrition podcast on the iTunes charts. With a university background in biology and kinesiology, Shawn went on to be the founder of Advanced Integrative Health Alliance, a successful company that provides wellness services for individuals and organizations worldwide. Shawn is also a dynamic keynote speaker who has spoken for TEDx, universities, and numerous organizations with outstanding reviews. To learn more about Shawn, visit The Shawn Stevenson Model.
12. Susie Burrell — Rice Malt Syrup
Without a doubt, rice malt syrup is the most overrated health food.
I find it laughable that the anti-sugar brigade carry on about added sugar in the diet, yet they are more than happy to ply their baking and homemade foods with rice malt syrup. I would not feed brown rice malt syrup to my worst enemy.
Not only does it have an extremely high GI of 98 (contrary to what is claimed on packaging) but it is still a concentrated form of sugar that will spike blood glucose levels and contribute to weight gain when consumed as part of a diet with an excessive calorie load.
While it may be fructose-free, that does not make it sugar-free, contrary to the self perpetuated claims of those not qualified to be commenting on the chemical make up of specific foods, nor how they impact hormone levels and various metabolic pathways in the body.
Susie Burrell is one of Australia’s leading dietitians with degrees in both nutrition and psychology. She is the resident nutritionist at Channel 7’s Sunrise, has a weekly radio segment on the 2GB Afternoon Program with Chris Smith and is regularly seen in print media commenting on all areas of weight loss and nutrition. She has written 3 books previously written “Losing the last 5kg” and has a nutrition practice in Sydney. You can find her at SusieBurrell.com.au.
13. Danny Lennon — “Gluten-Free” Foods
I think anything that is claimed to be a “health food” based on one characteristic is overrated.
But if I had to pick one food, the hottest right now is probably “gluten-free”. People are of the impression that if it’s gluten-free it’s healthy. Well are we talking a piece of salmon or gluten-free cookies?
- Switch to a diet with lots of lean meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, dairy and some rice/oats. All of which is gluten-free. Awesome! They’ll definitely be the better for it.
- Switch to a diet that is essentially the same as what they’re eating now but they start paying 5x the price for gluten-free versions of the junk their diet is already full of. Gluten-free cookies, cakes, pizza, whatever. So the fact they “went gluten-free” has done absolutely nothing for their health or body composition (presuming they don’t have a clinical issue with gluten).
Danny Lennon is a nutrition coach, educator and self-professed geek of health and human performance. He is the founder of Sigma Nutrition and Sigma Nutrition Radio, a show that features deep-diving interviews with experts in different areas related to nutrition, health, performance, mindset and living life to its fullest potential.
14. Tim Crowe — Fruit Juice
I would rate fruit juice as the most overrated health food.
You lose most of the beneficial fibre found in the whole fruit and it gives less feelings of fullness.
Also because of the normal serving sizes of fruit juice, you’re taking in much more sugar and kilojoules than you would if you were eating whole fruit on its own.
Tim Crowe is an Associate Professor in Nutrition in the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deakin University, Melbourne. His site Thinking Nutrition gives you the latest nutrition research and controversies discussed in straight forward language, distilling out what you need to know for your better health. Also check out the Thinking Nutrition Facebook page.
15. Dietitian Cassie — Flavored Yogurt
Flavored yogurts have been placed on a health food pedestal for far too long.
Yogurt can be healthy—so long as you’re opting for plain, full-fat yogurt. Just one serving of flavored yogurt can have more sugar than a candy bar! To make flavors like “Key Lime Pie” and “Pineapple Upside Down Cake,” a LOT of sugar needs to be added (or even worse, artificial sweeteners that our bodies don’t know how to process).
You’re better off choosing plain (with no additional flavors, including vanilla!), full-fat yogurt.
Berries, raw honey, or real maple syrup make great natural sweeteners, or blend plain yogurt with some frozen fruit for a delicious smoothies!
16. The Nutrition Guru and the Chef — Acai Berries
Acai would have to be the most over-hyped superfood.
You may have seen the popular acai bowl, or granola topped with acai sorbet at your local cafe. It’s also available in powdered form to add to smoothies.
This amazonian berry has exploded onto the wellness scene, with clever marketing messages spruiking ‘High in antioxidants.’ And at approximately $180 per kilo, acai has a hefty price tag to match.
However, most people are completely unaware that although the acai berry is high in antioxidants, it contains the same levels of antioxidants as an apple. If you’re looking to up your intake of antioxidants, any red berry is a good source, as is fresh fruit and vegetables, and much cheaper too.
Tara is a university qualified nutritionist renowned for her no-nonsense approach to nutrition and health. She debunks popular nutrition myths at The Nutrition Guru and the Chef, teaching people how to live a healthy life without the fad diets. Tara is passionate about advocating for a fear and guilt-free way of eating, because life is too short not to enjoy a slice of chocolate cake. You can also see more on her Facebook page.
17. P.K Newby — Juicing and Smoothies
One the hottest food trends is juicing and smoothies.
Time and chewing are two of the body’s ways to signify fullness to the brain—and research shows that liquid foods do not evoke the same satiety signals in adults compared with solid foods. Think, for example, about eating a gorgeous salad bursting with veggies and fruit and healthy fats (i.e., salad dressing) to absorb all the nutrients versus drinking a cup of juice.
Further, many juices and sweet smoothies are little more than dessert. But even if you make a low-cal juice filled with kale (or whatever) it becomes a quick delivery of energy and vitamins, which most people don’t need. To build healthy, life-long eating habits, eat the whole food, root to leaf, with all its fiber and phytonutrients. And take your time enjoying every single bite. No juicer required.
Dr. P. K Newby is a Harvard-trained nutrition scientist and author, and one of America’s “best undiscovered cooks.” Learn more about her and read her blog at pknewby.com.
18. Kris Gunnars — Bulletproof Coffee
I think the most overrated “food” going around these days is bulletproof coffee.
This is a recipe for a coffee drink that involves putting large amounts of grass-fed butter and MCT oil into your morning coffee. People claim that this gives them energy and helps them being able to fast throughout the day. I don’t dispute that these effects are real, but I still think that this is a bad idea.
Many who use bulletproof coffee are effectively replacing a health and nutritious meal with something that is almost only pure fat. This reduces the total nutrient content of the diet. Also, even though saturated fat has been shown not to be linked with heart disease, no one knows what happens if you eat massive amounts like in bulletproof coffee. This is way more than we consumed throughout evolution.
There are many examples of nutrients being beneficial in evolutionarily reasonable amounts, but cause harm when we eat too much of them. Fructose is a key example.
Kris Gunnars is a health and nutrition fanatic, medical student and personal trainer. His passion of studying health, wellness, and nutrition has inspired him to create Authority Nutrition – a site that helps people make informed decisions about their health based on the best scientific evidence available.
19. Spencer Nadolsky — Wholegrains
I would say the most overrated health food is whole grains.
Not because actual wholegrains aren’t healthy, but because so many processed and high sugar foods make the claim of having whole grains (such as in kids cereals).
This is deceiving and does not include what I would consider actual wholegrains, such as pure oats for example.
Dr. Spencer Nadolsky is a family and obesity medicine physician who promotes lifestyle as medicine. He calls himself “the doc who lifts” to promote exercise to his patients and other physicians. You can find him at DrSpencer.com and also on Facebook.
20. Joe Leech (me) — Detoxes and Cleanses
I was surprised this didn’t get a mention and felt it was an absolute necessity.
Wrapping It Up
There you have it, the experts (plus one) have spoken. I was honoured to have them share these tips and learnt many things myself.
As for the overall most overrated health food, butter and buttered “Bulletproof” coffee were quoted the most, followed by grains (particularly breakfast cereal) , and then smoothies.
But I think Ryan highlighted an important underlying message:
Health outcomes depend on the entire diet, not the inclusion or exclusion of a single “health food”.
Many of the foods listed can still be nutritious and healthy depending on your overall diet… Especially unrefined wholegrain products and fruit. In fact, fruit is the one I would disagree with most on the list as it makes a convenient and affordable snack alternative to so much junk foods available today.
The point is there are many “health” foods that are not as healthy as we’ve been told, so think critically about what you hear.