Love coconut oil? Can’t get enough nut butter? We reveal the hidden pitfalls in eight ‘good-for-you’ foods of the moment
You shun processed foods, always get your daily quota of fruit and veg and keep up with the latest healthy eating trends. So if you still struggle with your weight and find that your energy levels flag, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate. It seems the latest on-trend eating habits may not live up to their hype. Here are eight so-called healthy foods that might not be as good for you as you thought.
1. You eat lots of coconut products
Unusual MCTs or medium-chain triglycerides fats found in coconut (fresh, oil or milk) could promote thermogenesis, the process whereby calories are burnt off as heat rather than stored as fat. Ultimately, however, coconut is itself a very high-calorie food, so the net effect could be an expanding waistline, not a diminishing one if you scoff too much. ‘Coconut oil has as many calories as any other oil, at 135 per tablespoon,’ says registered dietitian Helen Bond, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. ‘And adding just 30g (a tablespoon) of chopped coconut flesh to a fruit salad could pile on more than 100 extra calories.’ Moreover, says Helen, coconut oil contains more than 90 per cent saturated fat, compared to les than 60 per cent in butter. ‘The dangers of saturated fats in relation to their affect on cholesterol and heart disease may have been overstated, but they are still not off the hook,’ she says. ‘If you do eat coconut, I’d recommend still trying to keep your overall saturate intake within the recommended guideline of 20g a day for a woman.’
2. You’re nuts for nut butter
Nuts butters supply all the good nutrients found in whole nuts, but these days we’re spoiled for choice (think almond, cashew, hazelnut and even macadamia), so it’s easy to find yourself slipping one nut butter into a morning smoothie and eating another as a snack later in the day. Given nut butter contain around 600 calories per 100g, this isn’t the best idea for your waistline and most portion guides – even that of The Peanut Institute in the US, whose remit it is to promote nut consumption – suggest a daily limit of 30g, or the size of a golf ball.
Interestingly, research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that we do not absorb up to 30 per cent of the calories from chewed whole almonds (and maybe some other nuts), but this benefit doesn’t remain with nut butters, as milling until smooth breaks down the tough fibrous structure of the nuts, allowing more calories and fat to be absorbed. The bottom line? Enjoy nuts or nut butter – they provide essential fats, protein, fibre, magnesium vitamin E and iron – but keep to one 30g portion (of one or the other, not both), per day.
3. You’ve embraced gluten free
Around 15 per cent of UK households are avoiding gluten and wheat according to a Mintel report, yet only 0.5 -1 per cent of us truly have a medical need to do so (if you are coeliac, just one small crouton is enough to trigger an immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine).
That’s not to say that gluten doesn’t cause milder symptoms in a wider range of people. Perhaps up to 6 per cent of us may have minor issues, such a bloating, with gluten, but that still leaves an awful lot of us who have embraced the gluten-free trend who don’t need to, and who might be harming our health as a result.
‘Just because something is gluten free, doesn’t mean it’s healthier or is a good option for weight loss,’ says Bond. In fact, a survey by Leatherhead Food Research found that gluten-free bread was higher in fat and somewhat higher in calories. Gluten-free products are also likely to cut your fibre intake because you’ll no longer be tucking into wholemeal bread, for example. ‘In addition, white wheat flour is fortified with B vitamins and iron in the UK, but the gluten-free replacements don’t have this advantage,’ says Helen
4. You’re massively into miso
Miso soup is popular among weight-watchers as it only contains around 50 calories per cup. Made by fermenting soya beans, miso is also a source of isoflavones, associated with lower breast cancer risk, but the amount in a serving is four to five times less than the amount in a serving of tofu, soya milk or edamame. Also, although the lower rate of breast cancer seems to hold in Asian women, Western women don’t seem to garner the same benefits, possibly because we generally don’t start eating soya products until we’re older.
However, the biggest problem is the salt content of miso – in an average mug there’s 2-2.6g salt, or up to 43 per cent plus of your daily allowance. And salt doesn’t just raise blood pressure but can also mean you retain up to 2-3lbs of water, which can work against having a bloat-free stomach.
5. You eat dark chocolate for health reasons
The darker the chocolate, the lower the sugar and the higher the polyphenol content – linked with lower blood pressure and more flexible arteries. But it’s also important to know that calorie content can be higher in dark chocolate can be higher than in milk. If you take as an example Green & Black’s Organic Milk Chocolate, with 37 per cent cocoa solids, it has 565 calories, 36g fat, 21.5g saturated fat and 45.5g sugar per 100g. In contrast, Breen & Black’s dark chocolate, with 70 per cent cocoa solids, has 580 calories, 42g fat, 25g saturated fat and 28.5g sugar. The 85 per cent cocoa solids version has 630 calories and 53.5g fat, 32g saturated fat but just 13.5g sugar.
‘Some research suggests that a specific saturated fat in cocoa – stearic acid – doesn’t raise cholesterol the way other sources such as red meat, do, but it’s still a good idea to exercise caution with portion sizes” says Bond. There are other unknowns around dark chocolate too – the level of polyphenols in the bar you have chosen. This can vary a lot (up to 90 per cent of the polyphenols are removed in many cases). Sticking to no more than a square or two of dark chocolate daily seems a good compromise, as is seeking out lower-calorie polyphenol sources. A Journal of Nutrition report found one red delicious apple (90 calories) can easily have the same amount of calories as 250 calories worth of dark chocolate.
6. You glug olive oil over everything
Despite its central place in the healthy Mediterranean diet, olive oil is no dieter’s friend, with 135 calories in the average tablespoon. Moreover, it’s not as low in saturated fat as you might think – a chunk of bread dipped in a tablespoon of the oil provides 2g saturate fat (10 per cent of your recommended daily intake). On the plus side, the more predominant type of fat in olive oil is monounsaturated, which is good for your heart and helps to keep cholesterol in check. And, like most plant-based oils, it provides essential fatty acids, vital for healthy skin. As rule of thumb, a balanced diet shouldn’t normally include more than two tablespoons of any oil per day, so it’s always a good plan to measure rather than just glug. And for a British alternative that’s arguably even healthier, try cold-pressed rapeseed oil, which is equally as high in monounsaturates as olive oil, but 50 per cent lower in saturates.
7. You make smoothies every morning
Smoothies can certainly be a great way to up your fruit and veg intake – and with high-powered blenders that have no trouble breaking down seeds and skins, all the fibre is retained. Unfortunately, though, when you blitz fruit and veg you release sugar from the once intact plant cell and this now becomes ‘free’ sugar, which Government health guidelines suggest we should limit to around 25g per day in the average person. ‘Imagine you whizzed 100g mango, an orange and 25g spinach – that adds up to releasing around 28g free sugar,’ says Bond. ‘It’s obviously still nothing like as bad as having sugar from a bag of sweets, as a glass will contribute to your 5-A-day and provide useful amounts of vitamin C, folate and potassium, but once it is liberated from the cell it is just as likely to harm your teeth and raise blood sugar and insulin levels.’
The manufacturers of specialist smoothie blenders maintain ripping apart the cellular structure of a plant can be a good thing, as it extracts more of nutrients such as beta-carotene. But Bond sounds a note of caution. ‘These ultra blitzed up smoothies are a departure from how we normally chew and digest our food – we don’t actually know what affect destroying the normal food matrix might have, particularly when people are following juice-type diets for prolonged periods.’
Smoothies can also pile on the calories, especially if you’re adding ingredients such as nut butters, coconut oil and chia seeds.
8. You have recovery supplements after a workout.
Protein is the nutrient du jour, but if you’re burning, say, 300 calories during a half-hour run, you could easily cancel that out with a protein recovery bar which may also contain up to four teaspoons of sugar. ‘If you’re not intending to exercise again within 24 hours, then it’s not critical to refuel immediately after exercise,’ says Anita Bean, sports nutritionist and author of Food For Fitness (Bloomsbury Sport, £16.99). ‘Provided you get your daily protein, carbohydrate and other nutrients over the next 24 hours, then you’ll recover equally well by your next session.’
Bean’s top tip is to spread out protein intake between meals, instead of just consuming most of it in the evening meal. A 60kg woman who exercises regularly may require around 90g a day, but if this is split into three equal 30g portions (say two scrambled eggs with smoked salmon for breakfast, a chicken salad sandwich with yogurt for lunch and a couple of lamb cutlets for dinner), you won’t need any sports supplements with the extra calories they bring.