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Fake Healthy Foods

Mara Feil

Posted on January 30 2015

When it comes to losing weight or eating healthy there seems to be as many nutritional misconceptions as truths floating around. Whether it's "fat makes you fat", "a calorie is a calorie is a calorie" or "diet is better than regular", each of these adages does nothing but compound the circulating confusion. Rather than grounded in facts, most of these slogans were born out of marketing to sell more products and convince the public that a particular food is more healthful than another. The reality is that whole foods are nearly always better than processed ones, and when in doubt chose foods that keep it simple. 

In my New York City- based nutrition practice, Stand UPP Health, I teach my clients how to read between the lines, distinguish fact from fiction, and to swap certain ingredients for others.

Here are my top 5 favorite food swaps for a healthier 2015. 


There are 2 components in sweeteners that we hear a lot about: fructose and glucose. It’s the former and its effects on hormone levels that cause problems. Although agave marketing campaigns did a great job getting their product in stores and foods everywhere, convincing the public that cactus sap is a healthier alternative to sugar, it doesn't make it so. Agave actually contains more fructose than table sugar, promoting fat storage and inhibiting metabolism.

Here's the issue. When you eat glucose-containing foods your body releases a hormone called leptin, which helps control appetite by telling your brain to stop eating.  Fructose-rich foods like agave, however, fail to trigger this release of leptin, which means your brain doesn’t receive the message that your body has had enough. So you keep consuming.

Problematically, fructose is converted into fat much more rapidly than glucose due to how and where in our bodies it's digested, thus contributing to obesity and liver disease. The fructose found in fruit is metabolized differently, however, due to the presence of fiber, which slows the rate of absorption.

Going forward, watch those nutrition labels and forgo agave in favor of lower fructose-containing sweeteners, such as maple syrup and coconut palm sugar.


Going vegan is trendy right now; however, just because something is vegan doesn’t make it healthy. Take seitan, which is ultra-processed wheat gluten. Neither healthy nor a whole food, seitan is typically found lurking in veggie burgers, mock meats or as a stand-alone protein added to salads, pastas and sandwiches.

The issue with seitan is its inflammatory effects on the body. Even for people without gluten sensitivities, concentrated amounts of processed gluten can be highly irritating causing an array of symptoms including weight gain, bloating, allergies, joint pain, headaches, foggy headedness and/or lethargy.

If you want to add healthy vegan protein to a meal, opt for small amounts of tempeh (less processed, fermented soy) or whole foods such as nuts, beans, or lentils where a cup yields 8-10grams of satiating protein as well as fiber, good fats, vitamins, and minerals without any of the ill effects.

"Fat free" Diet Foods-

Two ingredients give packaged foods flavor: fat and sugar. When fat is artificially eliminated food manufacturers compensate for the loss of flavor by increasing the quantity of sugar. So in the case of low-fat or fat-free snacks (e.g. cookies, energy bars, granola, chips, etc.) the sugar content is typically much higher than in the full-fat varieties. The issue, however, is not the fat but the sugar, which is addicting, packs on pounds, raises cholesterol and triglycerides, and zaps energy. In the case of low-sugar and sugar-free foods, the real sugar is swapped with artificial sweetener which cause an array of additional health issues. (See #5 for explanation on artificial sweeteners).

While I never count calories to stay thin and healthy, I always count sugar and aim to keep my intake below 15g/day (excluding fruit). If you're craving a treat, have a small amount of the full-fat version and skip the modified ones. It will keep you much more satisfied and healthier as well.

Canned Soup-

While soups are a great staple for anyone watching their figure, it's important to pay attention to the salt content. A full can of most soups contain nearly an entire day’s worth of sodium not to mention other detrimental additives like monosodium glutamate (MSG) typically found in the catch all phrase “natural flavorings”. While reduced sodium options seem like a solution, these versions are only required to contain 25% less sodium than the original.

Many clients ask if they should watch their sodium intake even if their blood pressure is normal? Blood pressure aside, excess sodium not only makes you bloat, but it's extremely dehydrating (for your body and skin) as well as fatigue-inducing.

Avoid all of these undesired effects by making your own soups. Sauté onion, carrot and/or celery in oil, throw in left over roasted or steamed veggies and/or beans, add a few cups of low sodium chicken or veggie stock, season and blend.  Puree or leave chunky. You'll have amazing low-sodium soup in minutes to help keep you nourished, satiated and full of energy.

Diet soda-

Studies show that women who drink diet soda drink twice as much as those who drink sugar sweetened sodas. Artificial sweeteners, like those found in diet sodas/teas/juices, are significantly sweeter than cane sugar and more addiciting. This ultra-sweet flavor activates your sweet taste buds more than usual, and tricks your body into thinking a greater quantity of sugar is on the way. To prepare your body releases extra insulin, the hormone responsible for fat storage, and slows your metabolism.

A better alternative to diet drinks is seltzer water sweetened with a lemon or tea sweetened with a touch of brown rice syrup or coconut palm sugar. You'll find this beverage tweak substantially reduces your sugar cravings, revs your metabolism, and burns that stubborn stored fat.   


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