So you’re trying to eat healthier — you’ve ditched fast food, you’re drinking more water, and you’re eating lots of fruits and veggies.
You’re crushing healthier swaps — switching out your afternoon chocolate bar for a protein bar, your lunchtime sandwich for a salad, and your white bread and pasta for whole grain versions. But in all your efforts, could you be unknowingly eating ingredients that are not as good as you thought?
Let’s break down the top five unhealthy ingredients hiding in foods, including those that are promoted as healthy. Being aware of the effects of certain foods on your body is an empowering way to intentionally choose more nourishing foods.
1. Vegetable Oils
Oils like canola, soybean, peanut, corn and safflower oil are lurking everywhere. But if they come from vegetables, why aren’t they healthy? Vegetable oils, including seed oils, are primarily made up of polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly a type called omega 6 fatty acids.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (or PUFAs) — including omega 6 fatty acids as well as omega 3 fatty acids — play important roles in our health. However, Americans consume far too many omega 6 fats, which are pro-inflammatory, and not enough omega 3s, which are anti-inflammatory.
We get many of our omega 6s through vegetable oils. PUFAs contribute to inflammation because they’re not as stable as other fats. When exposed to light or heat, they quickly change chemical structure, increasing their inflammation-promoting properties.
Put simply, vegetable oils cause inflammation that interferes with health. This fact is especially true when oils are processed, as is the case with packaged and fried foods. Elevated intake of omega 6 fats is associated with increased rates of many chronic inflammatory conditions like heart disease, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and Alzheimer’s disease.
To avoid vegetable oils, or at least reduce your intake, you’ll want to explore the ingredients in the foods where they’re commonly found: bottled salad dressings, margarine and other butter substitutes, chips, cookies, crackers and most fried foods.
Some vegetable oils do provide beneficial omega 3 fats, such as walnut and flaxseed oil, but be sure to avoid heating these. Store them in the refrigerator in dark, opaque bottles. Healthy cooking oils include olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, grass-fed butter or ghee and sustainably-sourced palm oil.
Gluten is a protein naturally found in certain grains, including wheat, barley and rye. The problem with gluten lies in our body’s constant exposure and reaction to it. Gluten can irritate the lining of the intestines, causing increased permeability, heightened immune response and decreased nutrient absorption.
A gluten allergy is highly problematic, especially in the case of the autoimmune condition, Celiac disease. But you can be sensitive to gluten without testing positive for an allergy.
The best way to find out if you’re sensitive to gluten is to experiment with removing it for at least 21 days. If you’re not sure how to do this on your own, consider using a meal delivery service — like Kettlebell Kitchen — that offers meals made with naturally gluten-free ingredients.
See how your body reacts with elimination. If you are less bloated, your bowels become more regular, and your digestion runs smoother, these are signs that you may benefit from avoiding gluten. Be aware that symptoms unrelated to digestion — like fatigue, headaches, anxiety and skin problems — can also signal gluten intolerance.
Replacing foods that naturally contain gluten with processed, gluten-free versions isn’t necessarily healthier for you. These foods often contain other ingredients that aren’t great for your body.
Fortunately many grains are naturally gluten-free, such as rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa and oats (although cross-contamination is possible). Other non-grain starches are great sources of carbs, too, like potatoes, yams, winter squash, yuca and plantains.
Say this one ten times fast! This food additive may sound foreign, but you might be surprised to find all the food it’s actually in. Carrageenan is added to foods and drinks to thicken, preserve, and emulsify them. It’s commonly found in non-dairy milks and cheeses, deli meats, coffee creamers, vegan desserts and yogurts.
There’s quite some controversy around this mysterious ingredient. Carrageenan is derived from red seaweed, so it’s often included in “healthy” foods and labeled as “natural.” However, it has no nutritional value and isn’t digestible.
Carrageenan appears to irritate the digestive system, leading to inflammation and immune response. Many individuals respond negatively when they consume this additive, reporting symptoms such as bloating and skin rashes. Other people are allergic to the substance.
Although carrageenan is not a banned ingredient, the National Organic Standards Board actually voted to remove it from their approved ingredient list in 2016. And although that vote was disregarded, many organic food companies are finding alternatives like gelatin.
Carrageenan has no nutritional value, which means you won’t miss anything by cutting back or eliminating it completely. It’s clearly displayed in ingredients lists, so it’s easy to avoid.
4. Highly Refined Sugars
Refined sugar often comes from sugar cane or sugar beets, but it can originate from a variety of other sources like corn, brown rice and the agave plant. Regardless of the source, when the food is refined into sugar, it means it’s stripped of any nutrients (like B vitamins and fiber) and processed into a simple sugar that not only is sweet, but also powerfully impacts our blood sugar levels and even depletes our body of nutrients.
How the body handles natural sugars found in foods like fruits, vegetables and dairy products is different from the way it handles refined sugars added to foods. Refined sugar is broken down very rapidly, entering our bloodstream and causing the body to release insulin to decrease blood sugar levels.
How much insulin is released depends on the amount of sugar consumed. Over time this effect can interfere with healthy blood sugar and insulin levels. Chronically imbalanced blood sugar and insulin can lead to inflammation and interfere with our energy, hormones, brain function and more.
Refined sugar also has no nutritional value, so we never feel satiated after consuming it. This consequence, coupled with the intense effects sugar has on our brains and its sweet taste, makes refined sugar extremely addictive.
Getting rid of obvious sugar by, say, cutting out the few spoons of sugar you add to your morning coffee, is easy to do. It’s the hidden sugar that’s tricky to get rid of.
Often foods that are advertised as “healthy” — like granola bars, whole grain cereals, protein drinks and fruit-flavored yogurts — contain sugar disguised by a different name. There are over 60 names for sugar (some would argue close to 100), such as agave, brown rice syrup, maltodextrin, corn syrup/sweetener, evaporated cane juice, barley malt and more.
In fact, food manufacturers have been known to list different types of sugar to fool consumers into thinking there’s not a significant amount of added sweeteners. Since multiple types of sugar means lower amounts of each, these are listed last in the ingredients list, making it seem like there’s little sugar added in total.
Try to stick to less refined sugar sources like honey (especially raw), pure maple syrup, coconut or palm sugar and pure stevia. And be sure to always check the grams of sugar per serving, as well as the ingredient list to see where that sugar is coming from.
Soy is the most genetically-modified crop in the world — in 2014, 94% of U.S. soy was genetically modified. GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are products that have had their DNA altered in a lab in a way that doesn’t occur in nature. Multiple studies show adverse health effects of GMO foods, including soy.
But because of their high protein and oil content, soybeans are highly sought after in the food industry. They’re versatile, but also relatively cheap to grow.
When you think of soy, you may think of foods like edamame, soy milk, tofu and soy sauce. Some of the most common sources of soy aren’t the obvious foods like soy milk, tofu, and soy sauce, but actually derivatives like soybean oil, soy lecithin, tocopherol (vitamin E) and soy protein.
These ingredients are added to many processed foods — everything from cereal to baby formula to cookies. And because soy is a very inexpensive form of protein, you’ll find it in many protein bars and shakes.
Soy is also a phytoestrogen, meaning it mimics the effects of estrogen in our bodies. Many other chemicals in things like plastic, cleaning products, and makeup also mimic these effects. Together, these all add up and can disrupt our natural hormone balance.
If you’re looking to boost your protein intake, focus on more nourishing sources like grass-fed, wild and pastured animal proteins such as chicken, beef and fish. However, for those who avoid animal products, prioritize soy that’s organic and non-GMO, and include fermented soy (like tempeh) as often as possible over conventional soy. If you choose soy products due to an intolerance to dairy, you can find many nutritious milks, cheeses and yogurts made from nuts and seeds such as almonds, cashews, coconut and hemp seeds.
How to Avoid Them
Other than checking product labels, one of the easiest ways to avoid several of these ingredients is to eat simple: whole fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts and healthy grains such as quinoa. The shorter the list of ingredients, the better.
Bio: Kim Jordan is a Certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who practices an integrative approach to nutrition and wellness. She also works as an in-house nutritionist for Kettlebell Kitchen, a healthy meal delivery service. She is passionate about the health-promoting benefits of an individualized, whole foods-based diet. Kim specializes in digestion, stress and women’s health. For more nutrition advice from Kim, check out Kettlebell Kitchen’s blog, The Leaderboard.
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