Whether we like it or not, there are foods that we are used to eating that nutritionists say are not good for our health.
Recently, a study suggested that bacon increases your risk of type 2 diabetes; and that ultra processed foods have been linked to cancers ranging from ovarian to brain cancers.
So, what are the common foods that experts expect us to cancel from our diets?
Home-made orange juice
Many people assume that home-made orange juice is healthy when it actually has the same concentration of sugar as a glass of Coke, says Giles Yeo, Cambridge University molecular geneticist and author of Why Calories Don’t Count.
“Sure it also contains Vitamin C, but people glug down orange juice, they encourage their kids to have it. You wouldn’t do that with Coke. And it’s not like it’s a superior form of sugar either, it’s the same old sucrose.”
Explaining the dilemma, Yeo said, “The issue is that when you juice an orange, you’re stripping out the fibre. And without the fibre, our bodies absorb that sugar very, very quickly and easily.”
His advice: “Eat an orange, instead. Sure you’re getting the same amount of sugar, but because you’re eating it with fibre, two things happen. First, your body takes longer to get the sugar out of the orange. So, that sugar is released over a longer period of time.
“Second, because we can’t digest fibre, it has the effect of making you feel a little bit fuller. So, if you eat an orange, instead of drinking its juice, you’re going to feel fuller for longer.”
If you fancy a pizza treat, stick with freshly made varieties. Shop-bought frozen pizza is often packed with vegetable oil, says James Goodwin, Director of Science at the Brain Health Network, former Chief Scientific Officer of Age UK and author of Supercharge Your Brain.
“Most of us are familiar with the risks associated with the hidden sugar, salt and preservatives in ready meals. But a little known but common ingredient in processed foods like frozen pizzas and microwave dinners is omega-6 fatty acid.”
Omega-6 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat naturally occurring in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils. Sunflower, corn, and soybean oils are all high in omega-6.
The problem? “Omega-6 is inflammatory to the brain,” Goodwin says. “And it’s not just the brain that suffers. Chronic inflammation is one of the leading drivers of the most serious modern diseases, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and many types of cancer.”
To save the day, read the label to find out which vegetable oils have been used (for example, butter, coconut oil and olive oil are all relatively low in omega-6) and avoid oils rich in omega-6, says Goodwin.
Diet soft drinks
The artificial sweeteners in so-called diet soft drinks don’t actually help with weight control, says Dr. Saira Hameed, NHS Consultant in Endocrinology and Diabetes at Imperial College and author of The Full Diet Cookbook.
When we taste something sweet, she explains, the body predicts that sugar is on the way: “in anticipation of the expected rise in blood glucose levels, the body preemptively produces insulin, which, aside from being the body’s fat storage hormone, is also the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. This means that the sweet taste of the artificial sweetener will cause insulin levels to rise even though there is no sugar is on the way.”
These nasties are commonly found in diet soft drinks where, says Hameed: “the synthetic sweet taste perpetuates cravings for more sweet foods and conditions us to expect food to taste unnaturally sweet, preventing us from appreciating the inherent sweetness of natural foods like tomatoes and strawberries.”
Artificial sweeteners are also bad for the bacteria that live in the gut, she says: “causing our gut bacteria to disrupt our blood sugar levels and to yield more calories from the food we eat, driving weight gain.”
So, instead of diet frizzy drinks, settle for water and add lemon, lime or some cucumber,says Hameed. “Once you come off artificial sweeteners, your taste buds will recalibrate and this will taste so much better.”
Ice cream and biscuits
“Foods containing high fructose syrups should be eliminated from your diet,” says Rhian Stephenson, nutritionist and founder of wellness brand Artah, who points out that over-consumption of high fructose corn syrup, for example, has been linked to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and even heart disease.
The nutritionist warns further that a lot of processed and packaged foods contain them, including some top ice cream brands, popular sweets and biscuits.
Watch out the different names: glucose fructose syrup, isoglucose, maize syrup, partially inverted sugar syrup, candy sugar syrup, crystalline fructose and more, says Stephenson.
You can make your cookies and baked goods, homemade will always be better,” says Stephenson, “especially when we can swap in healthier ingredients like whole grain flours and more natural forms of sugar.”
Processed and red meat
Processed meat – any that’s been preserved or changed, including bacon – is associated with a higher risk of bowel cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, just 25g a day raises your risk. Eating large quantities of red meat has been associated with it, too.
When it comes to bacon, the blame is laid with chemicals added in the processing: nitrates and nitrites. But equally, says Mellor: “People who eat more processed and red meat aren’t typically the ones who eat lots of vegetables.”
So, eat more vegetables and reduce the red and processed meat. If there’s more fibre in your gut, although you might have these compounds from red and processed meat in there too, there’s more bulk, so less chance of the potentially carcinogenic compounds hitting the gut wall.”
Around 70 per cent of the bread we eat is white yet, says nutritional therapist Lucy Miller: “it is a highly refined carbohydrate that contains little nutritional value, is the largest contributor to salt intake and is also a food that is high on the glycaemic index – a measure of how quickly and dramatically foods increase blood glucose levels.”
So, opt for 100 per cent wholegrain bread, the darker the better, suggests Miller. This will increase the amount of fibre, which will reduce the glycaemic level and promote the health of the gut microbiome. Wholegrains are also full of nutrients such as B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium and omega 3.
Low fat flavoured yogurt
“Sweetened low fat yogurts are high in added sugars, to replace the flavour lost from removing most of the fat,” says Dr. Emily Leeming, Senior Nutrition Scientist at ZOE, the nutrition research programme based at King’s College London.
“There’s a threshold for harm from added sugars starting at around 65 grams a day, so the higher you go above this, the more this is linked to poor health.
“Try choosing a full-fat natural Greek yoghurt, as the fat actually helps you to feel fuller for longer.”
“Alcohol is linked to a whole range of cancers: stomach, liver, throat, oesophageal…” lists Mellor. “We know that alcohol disrupts our cells, leading to changes which can result in carcinogenesis.”
So, if you must drink, be very modest – “a small glass of wine, or a small beer, with a meal, a few times a week, might be good thing,” says Mellor, not because of alcohol’s innate properties but because: “relaxing and socialising with a meal helps us enjoy life. Enjoying life can be helpful for our health.”
Ultra processed foods
The latest study, led by Imperial College London, examined the diets of 200,000 people and tracked their health for a decade. It uncovered an association between higher consumption of ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of both developing and dying from cancer.
From instant noodles, sweets and biscuits to mass-produced bread, ready meals and convenience foods have increased massively over the last 40 years.
Ultra-processed-foods (or UPFs), are, in essence: “all foods made from ingredients that have been through multiple processes,” says Duane Mellor, Registered Dietitian and Senior Lecturer at Aston Medical School. Yet, many parents raise their children on these young diets!
Eating UPFs often means consuming a lot of saturated fat, salt, and free sugars at the expense of consuming fruit, vegetables, fibre and essential nutrients. So if you craving the occasional ready-meal, balance it out with meals high in vegetables, pulses, nuts, seeds, fruit, and whole grains.
“Coconut oil gets a lot of Press and a reputation for being good for you, but that isn’t based on science,” says Leeming. “Actually, it contains about a third more saturated fat than butter and reducing your saturated fat intake is important for lowering your risk of heart disease.”
So, when cooking: “stick with extra virgin olive oil which is rich in polyphenols and healthy fats.”