Are your healthy snacks making you sick?

Are your healthy snacks making you sick?

According to the latest statistics, 1 in 4 older Americans are dealing with obesity. It’s a serious health risk: research by the National Institute on Aging finds that seniors with obesity are twice as likely to be dealing with a disability, and nearly 65% more likely to be suffering from various medical symptoms, such as shortness of breath, high blood pressure and swelling.

In the last few years, scientists have learned a lot about the true causes of the obesity epidemic. To test your own knowledge of these causes, and to see if you’re at risk from eating the wrong foods, answer the questions below about the healthiness of various items.

The Questions

Which of the following food items are healthy?

1)    Diet Coke

     a)    Healthy [1 point]

     b)    Not healthy [0 points]

2)    Protein bar

     a)    Healthy [1 point]

     b)    Not healthy [0 points]

3)    Gluten-free bagel

     a)    Healthy [1 point]

     b)    Not healthy [0 points]

4)    Baked Potato Chips

     a)    Healthy [1 point]

     b)    Not healthy [0 points]


How did you do? Add up your points—if you have more than one point, you are at risk of eating foods that might seem healthy but are actually contributing to the obesity epidemic. The more points you have, the higher the risk.

You might have heard that sugar is driving the obesity epidemic. Maybe you’ve even cut back on your sugar consumption, choosing diet sodas and other snack foods that are less sweet. If so, you’re not alone, as you can see in the chart below.

Unfortunately, this drop in sugar consumption has not led to a parallel fall in obesity:

This has led many scientists to conclude that the real culprit isn’t sugar—it’s ultra-processed foods.

In a review of studies by scientists at the University of Florence, people who ate the most ultra-processed foods were 39% more likely to be obese, and 79% more likely to suffer from various metabolic syndromes, such as diabetes and elevated bad cholesterol.

Here's the most disturbing news: Americans over the age of 60 now eat the most ultra-processed foods of any age group. According to scientists at NYU, ultra-processed foods currently account for 60% of the calories consumed by Americans, and nearly 70% of the calories consumed by older Americans.

What are ultra-processed foods? They’re the foods we all have in our pantry and refrigerator: cheese puffs, protein bars, chicken nuggets, baked potato chips and candy.

One of the reasons ultra-processed foods can be so dangerous is that they’re often marketed to seem healthy.

Let’s start with diet soda. On the one hand, it’s good that diet sodas don’t include huge amounts of sugar. The downside is that they include artificial sweeteners and other synthetic ingredients. Research by scientists at UCSD shows that consumption of diet sodas can dysregulate our processing of sweet tastes, leading us to crave even more desserts. They’re also associated with inflammation—because our body wasn’t designed to digest these chemicals, they can promote cellular stress and disrupt liver function.

Or look at protein bars. While protein is an essential macronutrient, protein bars tend to contain so much protein that they require highly processed ingredients, such as soy isolate, which can be hard to digest. In addition, many bars contain excessive amounts of sugar, which is required to cover up the taste of all that added protein. When buying protein bars, look for those that contain a short list of identifiable ingredients.

Gluten free bagels are another problematic processed food. Although consumers tend to assume gluten free foods are healthier, they’re often full of refined starches and other highly processed ingredients. That’s because gluten protein—the ingredient removed from gluten free foods—is actually one of the richest plant sources of protein available. What’s more, gluten protein performs an essential function in baking, serving as the “glue” that binds the ingredients together. When you remove this gluten “glue,” you typically require a host of substitute additives, such as potato and tapioca starch. Unfortunately, these replacement “glues” can lead to much larger spikes in blood sugar than traditional gluten protein. (Of course, if you’re gluten intolerant then you should avoid gluten.)

Finally, many “baked” snacks, like baked potato chips, are sold as healthy alternatives but can actually be just as bad for your diet as their fried counterparts. For starters, baked snacks often rely on processed ingredients to replicate the crunchy texture of fried foods; instead of using whole potatoes, they use refined starches. The second reason is that their highly processed nature can actually increase our consumption, as the baked snacks are full of artificial flavors that make it hard to stop eating.

This doesn’t mean you have to give up ultra-processed foods entirely—diet sodas and potato chips can be a small part of a healthy diet. But it should lead all of us to re-assess those foods we eat on a regular basis.

Sometimes, those foods that seem the healthiest are actually making us sick.

And it’s not just health—it’s also wealth. Research from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College finds that, for many retirees, the biggest expense of retirement will be health care and long-term care. The best way to reduce those health care costs, of course, is to invest in a healthy diet. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.


1)    Your grandma was right – an apple a day keeps the doctor away. The government has redesigned food labels to help people make healthier choices, but the healthiest foods are those without an ingredient label, like fresh fruits and vegetables.

2)    Foods with just a few ingredients in the label – and those ingredients are real, such as bread with flour and salt—are always better than the processed alternative. Eat real foods.

3)    Like investing, avoid things you can’t understand. If there’s a lot of fine print, and multiple ingredients you don’t understand, it doesn’t belong in your body.

Suggested Reading:

Moradi, Sajjad, et al. "Ultra-processed food consumption and adult obesity risk: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis." Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition (2021): 1-12.