UK supermarket shelves have been consumed by an ever-growing array of ‘healthy’ food alternatives.
This is especially the case in January when we are also bombarded by adverts telling us that eating better will transform your year and your entire future.
And while many of these highly processed low-fat, high-protein-filled foods will be labelled ‘healthy’ swaps, this is not always true.
A new study from the University of Bristol linked ultra-processed food to poor health and an increased risk of developing cancers in the upper aerodigestive tract.
This includes mouth, throat and oesophageal adenocarcinoma – cancer of the oesophagus.
The news might leave you wondering what is safe to eat, especially when so many ultra-processed and processed foods are promoted as good for you.
Nutritional therapist Lauren Johnson Reynolds (@londonwellnesscoach) has told Sun Health what supposedly healthy snacks she avoids when browsing the supermarket aisles – and what she would opt for instead.
1. Sports drinks
Many popular brands of sports drinks, such as Lucozade and Gatorade, are known for their electrolyte content, which helps rehydrate the body after a sweaty session.
“While they contain some electrolytes, these drinks are often also filled with a lot of sugar and artificial sweeteners,” Lauren says.
For example, a 500ml bottle of Gatorade Cool Blue contains 20g of sugar, while Lucozade Sport Orange has 3.5g of sugar per 100ml.
Regularly consuming highly sugary drinks can increase the long-term risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, she warns.
Sugar is also one of the main causes of tooth decay – the leading cause of hospital admissions in the under-18s.
Replace with: Lightly salted water
“I recommend adding unrefined sea salt to the water as it contains all the minerals needed to replenish without the extra ingredients,” Lauren advises.
2. Protein bars
Many protein bars on the market are what Lauren calls typical examples of ultra-processed foods, often containing high amounts of sugar and other chemicals.
“Yes, they’re delicious – I’ve been known to eat them in my time, but many popular protein bars are packed full of sweeteners and binders, which can damage the gut,” she says.
Replace with: Nuts and/or dark chocolate
“If you’re looking for a mid-morning or afternoon pick me up, I always recommend choosing a nut-based bar or a handful of nuts with some 70 per cent or above dark chocolate,” she says.
3. Fruit-based smoothies
Lauren is critical of fruit smoothies because they spike your blood sugar and give you an energy crash afterwards, stimulating hunger.
“This means that in the long term, these drinks can make you gain weight,” she explains.
Replace with: A veggie smoothie
She says we should look for predominantly vegetable-based juices with a little bit of fruit for sweetness (for those with a sweet tooth).
“But if you’re a real fruit smoothie lover, be strategic and drink them after a balanced meal rather than for breakfast,” she adds.
4. Low-fat spreads
The slippery argument has divided experts for decades – is butter or low-fat alternatives better for our health?
While low-fat spreads, like Utterly Butterly Lightly, can help you keep off the pounds, they aren’t necessarily better for you.
“These low-fat spreads can be tempting, but they are quite nutritionally empty,” Lauren says.
Replace with: Butter
“Butter also provides a hit of vitamins A and E, which can be beneficial for skin health, heart health and immune function,” Lauren says.
“As vitamins in butter are food-based, they are bioavailable and therefore more easily used by the body than those provided from fortified spreads,” she explains.
And although butter contains more calories, it might not make you gain more weight than its low-fat alternative in the long run.
“The fat in butter can make you feel more satisfied, which can lead to fewer calories eaten throughout the day,” the expert says.
5. Diet drinks
Is it time to ditch Diet Coke?
Marketed as “sugar-free”, the fizzy pop is made with artificial sweeteners, including aspartame.
But concern has grown recently about these artificial sweeteners, with some studies suggesting they can be bad for us.
“Aspartame has been linked to gut microbiome damage, headaches, allergies, skin issues and even mood disorders,” Lauren explains.
Replace with: Fizzy water
“If you’re after something low calorie and fizzy, I recommend opting for sparkling water with fresh lemon or lime,” she says.