Are ‘Healthy Foods’ Really That Healthy?

by Dean McKillop 3092 views Nutrition

Are ‘Healthy Foods’ Really That Healthy?

We have all seen the marketing genius of the food industry. You know the ones, fast food laden with cheap fats and enough preservatives to last a lifetime being sold off as a healthy choice, but what about the hidden ones? Let’s look at some of the top foods being touted as the ‘healthy option’ and discuss why they may in fact not be all they are cut out to be.

1.    Sweet Potato Fries

Sweet potato fries have perhaps got to be one of the greatest achievements of the café/restaurant and fast food world when it comes to being able to make big $ on the misconception of them being inherently better for you than your normal white potato hot chip.

But first, let’s acknowledge a few things…

  • Yes they are delicious
  • And yes they do contain additional vitamins, minerals, and slightly more fibre than white potato

But does that actually make them healthier?

When it comes to making a positive impact on health markers, the most effective thing you can do is to reduce body fat and maintain a healthy lean muscle mass. To do this you need to control calorie intake, which is where the misconception of sweet potatoes and their apparent ‘healthier profile’ is misunderstood.

To illustrate this, let's look at 3 common white potatoes versus sweet potato:

Type Protein Carbs Fats Fibre Calories
Desiree White 2.3 10.7 0.1 1.7 57
Standard White 2.3 12.9 0.1 1.6 67
Carisma White 2.5 9 0.1 1.6 50
Sweet Potato 1.9 14.1 0.1 3 71

As you can see, of the 3 white potatoes and the single sweet potato, the latter is both the highest in calories per 100g and the highest in carbohydrates.

Now, while this means essentially nothing in the grand scheme of things, as a food should be considered in the context of an entire diet, not in solitude, it does at least highlight the caloric differences.

Which, if you were to choose a single potato to eat for the rest of your life, without control and the goal is fat loss, arguably in this situation the white potato would actually be a better choice.

The take-home point here is that neither the white or the sweet potato fry is good or bad, they are simply just an option for you to choose from. Eat the one that fits your diet and daily macro/caloric requirements.

2.    Coconut Oil

Let’s get the important stuff out in the air right off the bat.

Coconut oil contains some great health benefits. It provides medium chain triglycerides, which are a fat source that is used more readily used as muscle energy as opposed to being stored as long chain fatty acids (like subcutaneous and visceral fat).

In caloric restriction, consuming a higher MCT level of fats in the initial phases may also have a benefit in reducing muscle loss due to the efficiency of MCT’s being used as ketone bodies, which are used as energy when carbohydrates are unavailable.

Coconut oil is also a great cooking option as it has a high smoke point, meaning it doesn’t become denatured as easily as some of the mono and polyunsaturated fats under heat.

But...

All these things aside, coconut oil is still >92% fat and fat on a calorie per gram basis has the highest of all 3 macronutrients.

Now, some will argue that MCT’s, which make up > 60% of coconut oil, provide fewer calories than other unsaturated fats, and this is true, but in the long term the impact on calorie balance is essentially zero.

coconut oil

Furthermore, to achieve such a caloric difference by swapping your fat sources to MCT's, one would need to replace the majority with coconut oil.

In doing so, the primary fat source of the diet would then become a saturated fat, of which we currently have no longitudinal data on the efficacy of doing this.

As it stands today, while saturated fats are not bad in isolation, they are still not encouraged to be a primary fat source.

And the take-home point once again...

Irrespective of the antibacterial, metabolic and satiating benefits coconut oil may have, it is still a fat source and over consuming calories from fat will lead to weight gain.

No you can not have unlimited coconut oil and expect to maintain weight if nothing else changes.

3.    Gluten Free Anything

As it stands today, the recognised prevalence for celiac disease, which is a complete intolerance to gluten is between 0.5-1% of people depending on their geographical location. Outside of celiac, other individuals who complain of variable symptoms associated with gluten consumption (non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)) range between 3-4% of the population.

Now, while gluten itself, which is a protein usually found in products derived from wheat or corn, doesn’t provide any direct health benefits, this does not mean it should be removed either.

The whole notion of 1 thing being bad for 1% of the population and somewhat discomforting for 4% of the population so therefore we should all remove it, is a complete fallacy.

Is gluten great for you… no, not really, I think its fair to say it's neutral.

But is it bad… also no, unless you are celiac or suffering from NCGS.

And even if you do suffer from NCGS it doesn't mean you need to completely remove gluten, but instead, you just need to monitor the amount you consume.

And while this conclusion may seem pretty straightforward, unfortunately with the way our media is run these days, one would think that gluten is the devil and that everyone should remove it.

The reality, however, is that gluten is perfectly fine to consume, it makes bread and pizza far more delicious and 95% of the population will have zero negative effects from the consumption of this protein.

Final Thoughts

And there you have it… my top 3 ‘healthy’ products that are neither good for you or bad for you but instead are just another food caught up in the world of marketing food to make more sales.

Before you follow the next trend, ask yourself why the trend may be occurring, whether or not it makes logical sense and then seek more information from industry professionals before coming to a conclusion on whether or not you will follow it.

The chances are that if it is a new fad it won't last long.

Dean McKillop

Exercise Scientist

I completed my Exercise Science Degree at the University of QLD and have worked in the fitness industry for over 8 years, including a short stint at the Brisbane Broncos in 2010 as a student. I also hold my Level 2 Strength and Conditioning Coach accreditation (ASCA) and have competed in 1 bodybuilding season, placing 2nd at the IFBB u85kg Nationals.

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