5 Things You Might Be Doing That Aren’t as Healthy as You Think

photo credit: SweetOnVeg via photopin cc

photo credit: SweetOnVeg via photopin cc

If you’re like any of my clients, you have an interest in taking better care of yourself, and this includes making healthy choices in your diet and lifestyle. But what if some of the things you think are healthy really aren’t such a great idea?

If you follow nutrition at all, it can be seriously hard to keep up with what information you should follow! Studies come in all the time with conflicting results and the media reports on it – telling us that something is healthy one day and that it’s not the next! The media likes to report on the most interesting or popular things but they don’t always give the whole story, so we end up hearing a very sensationalized version of the truth. The problem with this is that we only get half the message or become confused by the conflicting info.  We end up making choices that we think are “good” but ultimately might not be the best thing for us. There are many things that I think the media has fudged the message on and I want to clear up some of it.

Part of my job as a coach is to educate and this means helping clients see multiple sides of a situation (in case they only see one) to remove any possible confusion. That way, they can analyze for themselves if something is a smart choice for them.

Today, I’m sharing the top 5 “healthy” things that I hear clients repeat over and over that they are confused by.  If my clients are feeling confused, I’m sure you are too!

This post ended up being longer than I planned it so if you’re short on time just read the bold bulleted number statements and the bold bottom line statement underneath each one!

Here are 5 things you might be doing that aren’t as healthy as you think they are:

1. Automatically assuming that non-dairy “milk” is healthier than dairy.
None of us need “milk” of any kind to survive beyond infancy but the idea that we need to have milk in some form in our diet is a hard one to let go of! And while some people do just fine on dairy, others find that it can be a big cause of health issues (allergies, lactose intolerance, asthma, inflammation).  Giving up dairy when necessary is easier than it was in the past because there are so many non-dairy versions of some of our favorite foods! But just because something is not made from dairy doesn’t automatically make it a good choice.

The most heavily produced non-dairy products are non-dairy milks like almond, hemp, soy, rice etc. And let’s be honest, a bowl of cereal just wouldn’t be the same with water. 🙂  The problem is that many of the store bought versions of non-dairy milks are full of not so great ingredients. They are often heavily sweetened and have additives like carrageenan, guar gum and others that we don’t want to consume in large quantities. These additives are often FDA GRAS (generally regarded as safe) ingredients. GRAS ingredients are only regarded as safe in small quantities. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a little store bought non-dairy milk with these additives here but if you formerly drank 3 glasses of milk a day and are trying to replace the calcium that was in that with 3 glasses of non-dairy milk, you’re going to take in a lot more of these additives than is likely good for anyone. We don’t know if they are safe in daily increasing quantities.  To get more calcium without dairy, try adding a couple of servings of collard greens, bok choy, sardines, sesame seeds, broccoli and spinach to your diet.

If you really must use non-dairy milk several times a day, the best kind is one you make at home without any additives!  Check out this great recipe for homemade almond milk from Oh She Glows. It’s great without the sweeteners/flavoring too, believe it or not!

Bottom line: If you need/want to go off dairy milk, use non-dairy store bought milks in moderation and make your own if you will be consuming large quantities.

2. Choosing low fat or fat free foods instead of their regular fat original versions.
If you’re still buying low fat versions of foods you really need to stop. Why? For starters, look at the ingredient lists between a fat free frozen yogurt and full fat ice cream.  A low fat or fat free frozen yogurt will have many more ingredients in it, including several thickeners and additives that give it the texture and mouth feel that we want and expect when eating.  The length of the ingredient list alone is alarming. The longer an ingredient list, the more room for non-foods to be added in (and the often fall on the FDA GRAS list as well).

Another problem with eating the lower or no fat versions of food is that to get the same amount of enjoyment from the food, we often need to eat more of it. Fat is the nutrient for satiety and if you have a strong craving for a fatty food, odds are it’s the fat your body is after. If you choose the low fat or no fat version, you’ll never quite satisfy that craving and you may find you keep looking for something that will.  We think we’re saving calories when actually we’re increasing the chance that we will eat more. While it can be difficult to feel comfortable with the idea of eating more fat (especially if you’ve been a chronic dieter), if you try it for a little while you’ll see that you actually end up eating less when you eat more fat, leading to less cravings and eating less calories overall.

And a final reason to go for full fat versions of food: We actually need fat in our diets.  Vitamins A, D, E and K can’t be used in our bodies without fat in the diet. A few other important roles of fat in the diet:  it helps regulate our sex hormones (so important if you want to conceive, have a regular menstrual cycle or healthy libido), it keeps our hair and skin healthy and nourished and is integral for sharp brain function!

If you’re worried about eating fat and heart health, that’s an important topic and I’d love to talk to you about it but this blog post would be miles long if I did that. We’ll save that for another day (contact me if you want to discuss sooner!).

Bottom line: Eating full fat foods means less junky additives, more satisfaction from our diet, and better nutrient absorption for good health.

3. Eating large quantities of raw kale every single day
Just because every green smoothie, juice or raw salad recipe today has kale as the star ingredient doesn’t mean you should eat huge amounts of it every single day.  Kale is an amazing green full of vitamins A & C, magnesium, iron, calcium and many phytonutrients! But eating it raw in large quantities can be problematic for those with existing thyroid, kidney or gallbladder issues. And in some extreme cases, otherwise healthy folks who took in very large quantities of raw kale have developed hypothyroidism.

Kale is really good for us and in general, most of us do not eat enough leafy green vegetables period and we should absolutely be eating more greens in general.  But while it’s good to eat kale, a better idea is to eat kale and other green vegetables. Rotate through all the greens you can find in your local store and alternate between eating them raw and cooked.  Doing this ensures you get a wide variety of nutrients and don’t end taking in too much of something that could hurt you. You may also find that eating them cooked means less digestive stress (which means we’re more likely to want to still eat them).

Bottom line: Enjoy kale and other green vegetables in both raw and cooked forms but make sure you rotate and don’t eat the same greens all the time.

4. Training “hard” all the time
While the majority of us could probably use more activity in our lives, some folks hear
“exercise is good for you” and assume that means more, harder and faster is always better. Training hard has it’s place (maybe you’re training for a competition or event or have a plateau you’re trying to push past) but it may not be the right thing for you all the time.

Frequent vigorous or very long exercise sessions actually increase our cortisol levels. While increased cortisol is important when we’re in a dangerous situation (such as running for your life!), our stressful lives today mean we have increased cortisol levels most of the time. Chronically high cortisol levels can cause many health problems, including a suppressed immune system (more colds!), decreased libido, increased anxiety and depression, and even weight gain (think belly fat). For the athlete, high cortisol levels can also mean a breakdown of muscle (which is the opposite of what we want!) and reduced speed, strength and endurance.

Another thing that can become problematic with very hard training is that it can actually increase your urge to eat aggressively. One one hand, if you’re training harder or for more duration, it makes sense that you would want (and you need) to eat more to refuel. But in many cases, the hunger response that is created is far greater than the actual fuel need we have. We pat ourselves on the back for our hard exercise and eat more to reward ourselves but most of us underestimate the amount of food we take in.  Done once in awhile, this isn’t a big deal but if you over-train every time you exercise and do it frequently, you can actually undermine your weight loss goals in a big way.

It’s important to listen to your body. It’s good to push hard and feel challenged. It’s important to do activities we enjoy and get a lot out of. It’s important to have an active life. But rather than push yourself to work your hardest and longest every day of the week, think about what might be best for your body on any given day. If your knees are aching from a long run yesterday, maybe you would benefit more from taking a rest day or doing some gentle yoga today instead of trying to run on your already strained legs. If you’ve gotten poor sleep the last several nights and feel like you might be getting sick, it might be a good idea to go for a walk or resting instead of hitting a Crossfit class for the 8th time this week.  I’m not suggesting we stop pushing ourselves or that we don’t work hard – I love tough exercise as much as anyone.  But I think it’s important to listen to the signals our body sends and aim for balance and challenging oneself.   That way you can do the activities you love for a long time!

Bottom line: Challenge yourself physically but know it can sometimes be more beneficial to rest or do more gentle activities if that is what your body is asking for.

5. Making refined grains or grain products the major base of your diet
I’m going to go a little off tangent here but bear with me. The USDA came out with the Food Guide Pyramid in 1992 and in those dietary guidelines for Americans was the recommendation that we should be eating 6 – 11 servings of grains per day. Interestingly, it mostly focused on processed versions of grains. The recommendation was that we should consume 6 – 11 servings of breads, cereal, rice & pasta. So we did and often more.

And rates of obesity and diabetes have skyrocketed since. Check out the graph titled “New Cases of Diagnosed Diabetes Among U.S. Adults Aged 18 – 79 Years, 1980 – 2009” in the middle of this page from the CDC. What starts to happen right after 1990? Also check out this text summary of obesity trends among US Adults between 1985 – 2010. What happens around 1994? In both cases, rates started to increase sharply and have continued since.  Now correlation isn’t necessarily causation and I can think of several other reasons for these increases (increasing sedentary lifestyles for one) but I am convinced that the dietary recommendations to make refined grain products the base of our diets have contributed significantly. I’ll explain why.

What are breads, pasta and many popular cereals made from? Highly refined flours.  Refined flours spike blood sugar as badly as pure cane sugar because there is no fiber or hull to slow down digestion.  Eating 6 – 11 servings per day (and probably more since our serving sizes have increased) and not getting much exercise means that our entire society has been working hard to develop insulin resistance.  Another problem is that constant blood sugar spikes lead to blood sugar crashes and what happens when our blood sugar crashes? We get crazy hungry and don’t make the best choices food wise so we end up eating far more than we need and often really unhealthy stuff.

My point is that if you’re still following these outdated recommendations (and many are), you are setting yourself up for health problems if you don’t have them already. Grains can be a part of a healthy diet for many of us (it’s a case by case basis – some do not tolerate them well) but I’m referring to whole grains in their whole form not whole grains in refined pasta or bread. And 6-11 servings is far far too many!

Bottom line: Eat whole grains in moderation if you digest them ok but avoid refined grains. Eat less of them than the recommendations from 1992 suggest!

I encourage you to question any news report or article about nutrition and health. They’re telling you one or two sides of the story – are there more? Do your own research and decide for yourself.  Nutrition and health are relatively young sciences and we still have so much to learn but using your intuition and a little thoughtful questioning you can make some choices you can feel good about.

Are there any health trends that you’ve jumped fully on board with? Is there anything you’re doing that you wonder about the benefits of?  Share with us all below so we can learn from each other.

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