The moment I found out cereal wasn’t healthy, I was crushed. My teen realization about the sugar content in my Cheerios would be the first of many blows to my food worldviews. Cheese sandwiches and juice were next. Slowly, everything I’d deemed healthy was tossed off its pedestal. But now those seem obvious, right? Today, the litmus test for what is and isn’t healthy has grown increasingly nuanced, with food trends coming and going faster that we can keep track. It seems like every day news breaks that something seemingly benign might actually be killing us. It’s annoying at best, anxiety-inducing at worst.
Dr. Robin Berzin MD is the founder of Parsley Health, a medical practice where she and her team use their expertise and the latest research to help people map out an approach to nutrition and health that’s conducive to their lifestyle. Looking at fads and “health foods” with a critical eye is not just part of Dr. Berzin’s job, it’s a passion. In an effort to share some of her wisdom, below she’s broken down a list of foods that she believes get too much or too little flack. Some of them may surprise you. –Haley Nahman
You Thought They Were Unhealthy, But They’re Actually Great for You
Egg yolks: Somewhere along the line, the egg-white omelette became the go-to healthy breakfast. I’m here to tell you that you can and should add the color back into your omelette. Egg yolks are one of the richest sources of choline, a nutrient essential for neurological function, and a natural anti-inflammatory. Choline aids in the production of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that boost mood, focus and sex drive. Egg yolks are also nature’s B-vitamin. It’s a great way to get your vitamins from food, not supplements.
Butter: For a long time butter got a bad rap. But grass-fed butter is a great source of brain-building omega-3 fatty acids, as well as short and medium-chain fatty acids (MCTs) like n-butyrate. These feed the lining of the digestive tract, lower inflammation, reduce heart disease and boost metabolism — MCTs are also an appetite suppressant. Butter can be a great source of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D and K2, which support bone, brain, skin and immune health. Why grass-fed butter? Because it’s much higher in all of the above fatty acids, vitamins and nutrients than butter from grain-fed cows.
Salt: Salt has been vilified for decades as contributing to chronic illnesses like high blood pressure and heart disease. However, a healthy amount of sodium is necessary to prevent dehydration and to keep our brains functioning normally. Quality and type do matter. Table salt is just sodium chloride and often has iodine added, too much of which can be harmful for thyroid health. Choosing a high-grade mineral or Himalayan sea salt ensures a more complete nutritional profile providing essential minerals like potassium, iron, zinc, phosphorous and trace elements.
Popcorn: Popcorn can be a low-calorie food when cooked right (the bags filled with the kettle and caramel-corn varieties in the grocery store aisle are definitely to be avoided). The best way to cook it is the old-fashioned stovetop way to avoid additional preservatives found in the microwave bags. After popping, you can add natural flavors like a drizzle of coconut oil or a sprinkle of kelp granules.
White Potatoes: White potatoes can get overlooked for the sweet potato, which is often marketed as the healthier alternative. However, they contain up to twice the amount of potassium — essential for heart health and balancing blood sugar. They also contain more fiber and less sugar than their sweeter counterparts. They are not as bad as they’ve been made out to be! (This is not a license to go all-out with French fries, FWIW.)
You Thought They Were Healthy…But They Aren’t
Granola: Granola may seem like a healthy option, but most brands are usually full of unnecessary preservatives, oils and sugar. Check out the serving size on most packaging, and you’ll see that it’s usually only a fourth of a cup. If you can stick to that serving size, then you are in the minority. Most of us are filling up a bowl — anywhere from 400 to 600 calories plus add-ons like milk or yogurt. You’re better off just sprinkling a tablespoon of oats or nuts over your yogurt in the morning, providing you with plenty of dietary fiber yet a low glycemic index.
Acai Bowl: Yes, these bowls are beautiful and oh so Instagram-worthy, but many store-bought versions contain an upwards of 60 gram of sugar per bowl, equivalent to 12 teaspoons of sugar! Yes, some of this sugar comes from fruit, but frozen acai isn’t sweet at all, and typically, additional processed sugar such as agave syrup or coconut nectar is added.
Tofu/Soy: Tofu is an incredible source of plant-based protein. Unfortunately, it comes with plenty of downsides. Soy crops are heavily sprayed with chemical herbicides like glyphosate, shown to damage neurological and immune health. Soybeans also contain phytic acid and trypsin inhibitors, which can interfere with nutrient absorption. Soy’s anti-nutrient qualities are enough to merit it a food we should avoid, unless you’re getting organic, fermented soy. Be aware that soy is not just found in tofu, but also in many vegan protein foods, vegetable oils and protein powders.
Coconut Chips: Although coconut is a good source of fat and a potent anti-inflammatory, coconut chips are not as healthy of a snack as you might think. Dried coconut is naturally sweet, with about half a teaspoon of sugar per ounce, however the second ingredient in these packaged treats is often cane sugar, which adds more than six times the amount of naturally occurring sugars. When eating a package in one sitting (it can be hard not to!) this can cause blood glucose levels to spike and crash leading to fatigue and brain fog.
Agave: This has been touted as a healthy alternative to cane sugar, and is often thought of as a low-glycemic sweetener. Unfortunately, because of the way agave is chemically structured, it is less than ideal. Agave is made of mostly fructose. Unlike glucose, which converts to sugar in the blood immediately and can be used for fuel, fructose is processed through the liver. When the liver breaks down fructose, it produces fat in the blood, known as triglycerides. In addition to more work for your major detox organ, too much fat in the blood leads to blood sugar imbalances, weight gain and digestive issues.
Parsley Health is a modern primary care practice in NY, LA and San Francisco that combines nutrition, prevention and wellness with cutting-edge medicine from top doctors. Dr. Berzin went to medical school at Columbia University and later trained in Internal Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.