Avoid the Top Health Food Imposters

Think olive oil is your friend? This author says think again!

August 4, 2014

Energy bars, oils, even fatty fish…we're led to think they're all good for us. But the truth is we're often paying a premium for "health" foods that inflame our bodies and leave us overweight and in pain. Example? One go-to natural food ingredient raises levels of insulin-like growth factor, accelerating the aging process!

We turned to Talia Fuhrman's book, Love Your Body, for an honest look at these health food imposters.


8 Daily Glasses of Water
It's a myth we all grew up hearing: Drink eight glasses of water a day. But the truth is, if you've transitioned off of the modern American diet (one full of processed foods, dairy, and meat) and adopted a more plant-based diet, you're getting a lot more water in your food, lowering your daily glasses of water needs. "Our ancestors never used any brain cells fretting about how much water to drink. We don't have to, either. A plant-based diet by nature is a high-water-content diet," Fuhrman explains.

For instance, she says a large salad with crispy romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, and pine nuts contains a significant chunk of water. "Follow that with a pear or an orange, and you’ve just ingested enough water to keep you going for half the day," Fuhrman says.

Beyond that, drinking too much water when on an already-high-water diet can put too much water in the bloodstream, a condition that could lead to hyponatremia, a Greek and Latin word meaning "insufficient salt in the blood." Symptoms of hyponatremia include headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, frequent urination, and mental disorientation. At its most severe, hyponatremia can even lead to death.

"Not one study indicates that we need to drink eight glasses of water every day," Fuhrman points out. "A kidney specialist from Dartmouth Medical School published a review in the American Journal of Physiology—Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology and cautioned that drinking more than eight glasses [a day] 'could be harmful, both in precipitating potentially dangerous hyponatremia and exposure to pollutants, and also in making many people feel guilty for not drinking enough.'"

The solution? Drink only to your thirst and let your body be your reliable hydration guide. (Here's a guide to some seriously hydrating foods.)

More From Rodale News: Are You Chronically Dehydrated?

Energy Bars

On the surface, energy bars seem like a quick and healthy meal replacement or workout booster. But Fuhrman warns that energy bars are some of the most dangerous foods you could possibly consume. Many contain corn syrup and other unhealthy ingredients, including soy protein isolate. "Soy protein isolate is a highly processed soy product that retains none of the original nutritional value of the natural soybean and raises levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) in the blood, subsequently hastening the growth of our cells and the aging process," Fuhrman notes.

She also flags the manner in which soy protein isolate is processed and manufactured. "It is acid-washed in aluminum tanks," she explains, noting that a significant aluminum load manages to make its way into the final product.

More From Rodale News: Make Your Own Homemade Energy Bars

Nitrites and chemical flavoring are also used to add flavor. "These chemicals have been linked to the development of certain cancers, allergies, and even Alzheimer’s disease," she says. "So far we're eating one big helping of sugary, cancer-causing, processed junk."

And just like soy protein isolate, whey, another common energy bar ingredient, is a processed protein, which raises IGF-1. "It becomes obvious that eating this 'energy' bar offers no more energy than if we simply threw a bunch of sugar, processed proteins, salt, and oil in a blender and drank it," she says. "Remember: Processed foods are still processed—even if they're advertised as health foods."


There's no denying that the right salmon contains ample levels of heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. But as Fuhrman points out, the truth about most salmon is anything but stellar. Some salmon contains canthaxanthin, an artificial pink food dye manufactured by a pharmaceutical company called DSM Nutritionals. DSM Nutritionals distributes its trademarked SalmoFan (a color chart similar to paint store swatches) so fish farmers can have a choice of various shades of pink from which to dye their salmon, Fuhrman explains in Love Your Body

"Salmon raised in the wild develop a natural pink color from eating pink crustaceans, but all farm-raised salmon eat a processed 'fish meal,' which leaves their flesh a not-so-appetizing shade of gray," she says.

If your doctor's telling you to load up on salmon, think twice, Fuhrman says. She points out that medical school students are required to take an average of just 24 hours of nutrition education! (Maybe it's time to rethink medicine!)

What about wild salmon? Fuhrman points to a 2005 New York Times investigation that found some Pacific or Alaskan salmon is farm raised with a misleading label, and she adds that all fish contain some level of pollution, no matter wild or farm raised. "By avoiding these meats of the sea, we're avoiding potential health problems and keeping ourselves on the road to body-lovin’ bliss," she says.

Protein Powders

As Fuhrman explains in Love Your Body, the reality is that we don't need to consume protein powders, load up on red meat, or use meal-replacement bars to feed our muscles after a workout to get in great shape. Many protein powders on the market are loaded with soy protein isolate, whey protein, or casein (another protein derived from cows). As mentioned above, these tend to spike our IGF-1 levels, accelerating aging. (Isn't that exactly what you DON'T want?) While pea and hemp protein are better options, it's often hard to find them without unnecessary added supplements, Fuhrman says.

"If we ate enough veggies, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, which are all rockin’ in the protein department, there would be no need for additional protein supplements," Fuhrman says. "However, my athletic friends still ask me what the best plant-based proteins are, and this is my best advice, handed down from my crazy-athletic father: Mediterranean pine nuts, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, and edamame (aka soybeans) are excellent sources of additional protein." (Rodale News recommends going organic whenever possible, especially to avoid genetically engineered soy.)

Olive Oil

The traditional Mediterranean diet is considerably better than the American diet, but that's not necessarily due to the addition of olive oil, but rather the lush array of vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds. (And the limited amount of high-fat animal products).

As Fuhrman points out in Love Your Body, a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine examined the diets and health of 22,043 adults in Greece and found that folks who followed the traditional Mediterranean diet most stringently had notably lower death rates. However, olive oil itself was associated with only a small and insignificant reduction in mortality, according to Dr. Frank B. Hu of Harvard Medical School in an editorial accompanying the study.

"Just like all other oils, olive oil is 100 percent fat, with 120 calories per tablespoon. Some have proposed that extra-virgin olive oil is heart healthy because it is rich in polyphenols. Polyphenols have antioxidant characteristics, and studies show that they reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer," Fuhrman says. "However, all plant foods are rich in polyphenols, and most deliver many more polyphenols (and far fewer calories) than olive oil."

She adds: You'd need to eat a ton of olive oil (and all the calories that go along with it) to get your optimum polyphenol levels. "A tablespoon of olive oil with 120 calories contains 30 milligrams of phytosterols (a group of polyphenols); compare this to only 11 calories of green leafy lettuce that contains the same amount, not to mention thousands of other well-documented benefits," she says.

Fuhrman also says that studies linking olive oil consumption to lower cholesterol levels are shamefully flawed. "Olive oil appears to lower bad cholesterol in most studies because the participants replace animal fats like butter, cheese, and fatty meats with olive oil," she says. "Animal fats are composed of saturated fats, which are the most dangerous types of fat. Consumption of saturated fats raises cholesterol levels and elevates the risk of heart disease and cancer. Replacing animal fat with cardboard would lower anyone's LDL cholesterol levels. The addition of olive oil is not what lowers bad cholesterol levels; it is the removal of artery-clogging saturated fats."

Instead of oils, Fuhrman likes to focus on whole-food-derived fats, such as seeds, nuts, and avocados.

For more foods to avoid (and healthier options), check out 14 Foods You Should Never Eat.