TIME

14 Fad Diets You Shouldn’t Try

Dubious diets

Every day it seems a new diet is ready to make weight loss faster and easier than ever before. Or at least they say they are. “Most fad diets go something like this: Take a few foods, give them ‘magic’ power, and set a plan to convince people that eating this way and only this way will promote weight loss,” says Alexandra Caspero, RD, a nutritionist based in Sacramento, Calif. The following diets might spur short-term weight loss, but many are difficult to follow, have arbitrary rules, and a few could put your health in danger.

The raw food diet

Any weight-loss expert would agree that boosting your veggie and fruit intake while reducing the amount of junk you eat is a safe and effective way to lose weight, but this diet bans foods that have been cooked or processed in any way. Why? Raw foodies say cooking destroys nutrients. Though it’s true that cooking produce can sometimes reduce nutrient levels, cooked veggies still pack plenty of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and in some instances cooking actually enhances nutrients while also killing bacteria. The biggest issue with this extreme form of veganism? Food prep—it’s totally impractical, says Christopher N. Ochner, PhD, director of research development and administration at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. Raw foodies spend hours upon hours juicing, blending, dehydrating, sprouting, germinating, cutting, chopping, and rehydrating.

Health.com: 12 Things You Need to Know Before Going Vegan

Alkaline diets

The alkaline diet—also known as the alkaline ash diet and the alkaline acid diet—requires you cut out meat, dairy, sweets, caffeine, alcohol, artificial and processed foods, and consume more fresh fruits and veggies, nuts, and seeds. The diet certainly has positive points; it’s heavy on fresh produce and other healthy, satisfying foods while eliminating processed fare, which in itself may spur weight loss. But your body is incredibly efficient at keeping your pH levels where they need to be, so cutting out these foods really won’t affect your body’s pH, says Ochner. Not to mention there’s no research proving that pH affects your weight in the first place. The bottom line: the diet is strict, complicated, and bans foods that can have a place in a healthy eating plan, such as meat, dairy, and alcohol.

The Blood-Type Diet

Developed by naturopathic physician Peter D’Adamo, the Blood Type Diet is based on the notion that the foods you eat react chemically with your blood type. For example, on the diet, those with type O blood are to eat lean meats, vegetables, and fruits, and avoid wheat and dairy. Meanwhile, type A dieters go vegetarian, and those with type B blood are supposed to avoid chicken, corn, wheat, tomatoes, peanuts, and sesame seeds. However, there’s no scientific proof that your blood type affects weight loss. And depending on your blood type, the diet can be extremely restrictive.

Health.com: 10 Bogus Health Trends That Waste Your Time

The werewolf diet

Also called the lunar diet, this one is simply fasting according to the lunar calendar. Its quick-fix version involves a day of fasting allowing only water and juice during a full or new moon—and supposedly losing up to six pounds in water weight in a single day. The extended version starts with that daylong fast and continues with specific eating plans for each phase of the moon. While you’ll lose some weight from not eating, it has nothing to do with the moon, and it will come right back, Ochner says.

Cookie diets

Dr. Siegal’s Cookie Diet, The Hollywood Cookie Diet, and the Smart for Life Cookie Diet all promise that eating cookies will help you drop pounds. Of course, you don’t get to chow down chocolate-chip cookies—you eat about 500 to 600 calories a day from high-protein and high-fiber weight-loss cookies (one cookie company even makes the cookies from egg and milk protein) for breakfast, lunch, and any snacks. Then you eat a normal dinner, for a total of 1,000 to 1,200 calories a day. If you stick to the diet, you will likely lose some weight, but by depriving yourself all day, you set yourself up for bingeing come dinnertime, Ochner says.

The Five-Bite Diet

Eat whatever you want—but only five bites of it. On this diet, developed by obesity doctor Alwin Lewis, MD, you skip breakfast and eat only five bites of food for lunch and five more for dinner. “I’m OK with the idea of eating whatever you want in smaller portions, but you need to round out the rest of your eating with nutrient-dense foods to give your body the fuel it needs,” Caspero says. “On this diet, even if you take giant bites of heavily caloric food, you’re still barely consuming 900 to 1,000 calories a day.”

Health.com: Best and Worst Foods for Bloating

The Master Cleanse/lemonade diet

This diet has been around for decades, and there are a ton of variations. Pretty much all involve subsisting for days on only lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper mixed in water. “You are essentially just drinking diuretics,” Ochner says. “You’ll shed mostly water weight.” Once you start eating solid foods again, you will gain all the weight back. Common side effects include fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and dehydration. Plus, on an extremely low-calorie diet like this one, you are going to lose muscle, exactly the kind of weight you don’t want to lose, Caspero says.

The baby food diet

If a baby can grow up eating the mushy stuff, eating some definitely won’t hurt you, but guess what: You aren’t a baby. Dieters replace breakfast and lunch with about 14 jars of baby food (most baby food jars contain 20 and 100 calories apiece), and then they eat a low-calorie dinner. It’s easy to get too few calories for your body to run its best, Ochner says. Besides, who really wants to take jars of baby food to work each day?

The cabbage soup diet

The grandmother of all fad diets, the bulk of this plan is fat-free cabbage soup, eaten two to three times a day for a week along with other low-calorie foods such as bananas and skim milk. In the short term, it does yield weight loss. “It works because you are eating a low-calorie diet full of fiber and water to help aid in fullness,” Caspero says. “But it’s just a quick fix diet. It can also promote bloating and gas from all the cabbage, and is lacking in protein, which is needed to preserve lean body mass. While I am a fan of nutrient-dense, low calorie foods for weight loss, it should be balanced with other foods such as fruits, carbohydrates, healthy fats, and lean protein.”

The grapefruit diet

We are all for including produce at every meal, but the various versions of this 80-year-old fad diet instruct dieters to focus all of their meals on grapefruit or grapefruit juice, claiming that the fruit contains fat-busting enzymes that will help dieters lose 10-plus pounds in 12 days. “In reality, any time you are following a very-low calorie diet you will lose weight,” Caspero says. And this diet definitely hits that, limiting dieters to 800 to 1,000 calories a day. Some iterations also prohibit eating extremely hot or extremely cold foods, preparing foods in aluminum pans, and requires dieters to space “protein meals” and “starch meals” at least four hours apart.

Health.com: 24 Food Swaps That Slash Calories

The Sleeping Beauty diet

If you’re asleep, you’re not eating. Rumored to have been followed by Elvis Presley, this diet takes that simple fact to the extreme, encouraging people to use sedatives to stay asleep for days on end. But sleeping the days away not only starves the body and causes muscle deterioration from a lack of movement, but actually risks death: “Every time you go under, there’s a risk,” Ochner says. “Sure, you might wake up 2 pounds lighter, but you might not wake up at all.”

The HCG diet

This edge-of-starvation diet limits you to about 500 calories a day while taking human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), a hormone that proponents tout as a powerful appetite suppressant. However, there’s no evidence that HCG does more than act as a placebo, Ochner says. Yes, you’ll lose weight, but only due to the extreme calorie restriction. Though a health care provider may legally give you HCG injections, they’re typically used to treat fertility issues in women and the FDA has not approved them for weight loss. As for over-the-counter homeopathic products that supposedly contain HCG? Those are illegal.

The tapeworm diet

“You don’t need a doctor to tell you that ingesting a tapeworm is a bad idea,” Ochner says. But apparently, some people do. This weight-loss tactic has been around for decades, preying on especially desperate dieters. Here’s how it goes: Ingest tapeworm eggs, let the tapeworm eat the food you consume once it gets to your intestines, and then, when you lose enough weight, get a doctor to prescribe you an anti-worm medication. But some tapeworm eggs can migrate to various parts of your body or cause other potentially life-threatening problems. Freaked out yet? Good.

The cotton ball diet

Consuming cotton balls soaked in orange juice—a diet technique may have been born on YouTube, in chat rooms, and on Facebook—is an incredibly dangerous way to suppress your appetite. “This makes my eating-disorder therapy head spin,” Caspero says. Not only does consuming cotton balls in place of food deprive the body of nutrients, eating anything that isn’t actually food can cause blockages in your intestines. What’s more, most cotton balls aren’t even made of cotton—they’re composed of bleached, synthetic fibers.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Zebra: The New Red Meat

Africa, Tanzania, Safari, Common Zebra in the Serengeti
Zebra in the Serengeti, Tanzania on Feb. 1, 2013. Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Hungry for something different? Zebra meat is now an option.

If you’re looking for the leanest source of animal protein, you can now add zebra meat to your diet. It has one-tenth the fat of beef (zebra has 0.5g per 100g), making it leaner than chicken, and 35 grams of protein per serving.

UK’s fitness food supplier Musclefood.com now provides zebra steaks from the haunches of South Africa’s Burchell’s zebra, the only zebra species that can be legally farmed for its meat. Zebra meat can also be sold in the U.S., say health officials, although it may still be hard to find. “Game meat, including zebra meat, can be sold [in the US] as long as the animal from which it is derived is not on the endangered species list,” an official with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told TIME. “As with all foods regulated by FDA, it must be safe, wholesome, labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading, and fully compliant with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and its supporting regulations.”

Like many high-protein meats, zebra is packed with zinc and omega 3 fatty-acids that contribute to muscle repair, maintaining the immune system and improving heart health. Penn State’s Penny M. Kris-Etherton, professor of nutrition, recently conducted a study examining heart benefits of lean beef, showing that along with an optimal lean-protein diet, lean meat may help reduce high blood pressure. And for the more adventurous eaters, there are a growing number of options, from bison sausage to ostrich patties and venison steaks. And now, zebra filets, presumably minus the stripes.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Probiotics Primer: What Science Says About Using Bacteria to Treat Disease

A rustic bowl of natural yogurt with blueberries
J Shepherd—Getty Images

Confused about the "good bacteria" that can help health rather than make you sick? Here's the latest on which bugs are the most effective, and for which conditions.

After training ourselves for so long to avoid bacteria — they’re responsible for serious illnesses, some of which can be life-threatening — it may be time to re-think microbes. Or at least think more broadly about them. We live in concert with millions of bacteria — on our skin and in our mouths, noses guts and reproductive tracts — and these bugs are essential to helping us digest food and keep some of their more unhealthy bretheren at bay.

But do we need to help these invisible populations along by taking probiotics, concoctions of live microorganisms in things like yogurt or increasingly in supplements, that mimic those living in the body? Recent studies link probiotics and healthy bacteria to improving a wide range of health issues, from allergies to obesity. But manipulating the microbiome, as this universe is known, is still based on a very preliminary understanding of what these bugs do and how changing their communities can affect human health. There is a lot, experts say, that we don’t know. Here’s the latest on whether we should be considering probiotics and if so, when and how to take them.

How do I know if I need probiotics?

You probably don’t. Bacterial populations can’t be measured like cells in blood tests, and what’s more important, there’s little solid evidence yet about whether there is a “normal” healthy microbiome. That also means that it’s not clear whether changes in these communities can actually cause disease, or that “fixing” these differences can treat disease symptoms.

The exception may be some severe digestive and gastrointestinal problems, for which doctors may recommend probiotics. Some doctors are using probiotics to combat diarrhea associated with antibiotic use among kids, for example. But these conditions affect only a small percent of the population and don’t involve regular and constant doses of probiotics.

Do we need to be taking probiotic supplements?

No. The supplement industry may suggest that probiotics taken regularly in pill form can be helpful for almost everyone, but there isn’t much science to support that idea, at least not yet. “The supplement industry will often take early science and run with it,” says Gail Cresci of the department of gastroenterology and hepatology at the Cleveland Clinic. She also notes that since supplements are not regulated in the strict way drugs are, consumers won’t know which strains they’re getting when the pick up probiotic supplements, and they also won’t know if those strains are right for treating whatever it is that ails them.

Each of us is home to about 8,000 strains of bacteria, and very few of these have been studied enough to know that they can provide a definite health benefit if we boost their numbers. That’s largely because the microbiome is constantly changing, and even if one strain helps address a child’s diarrhea after taking antibiotics, it may not have the same effect in adults. Our microbiomes change with age, our diet and other factors. “The general, average Joe, does not need to be taking any [probiotic] supplements,” says Cresci. “By taking a supplement, you do not know if the strains included will help you or not. You’re wasting your money.”

What about yogurt?

According to Cresci, the definition for a probiotic is very stringent. While there’s plenty of different bacteria out there, to be considered a probiotic, the bacteria has to be able to survive the environment in the intestines, colon, and provide some sort of benefit for the host. The average yogurt bacteria doesn’t meet these standards, and even if companies toss in another strain, there is still no telling whether it will provide you with any benefit at all. That’s why Dannon, makers of Activia and DanActive, agreed to remove claims that its probiotic products relieved irregularity and could lower the chances of catching a cold or flu when the Federal Trade Commission considered the marketing as false advertising. (There are plenty of other healthy reasons to eat yogurt, such as for the protein and calcium; just don’t expect it to make you regular.)

So, what are probiotics good for?

So far, evidence suggests that probiotics, in addition to other treatments, might be helpful for restoring the balance of microbial communities in digestive tract conditions like inflammatory bowel diseases, which include disorders like Crohn’s. And it may help with constipation, and for preventing diarrhea–especially caused by antibiotics. They are also being studied for treatment for skin infections, allergies, blood pressure, and immune system disorders. But all of these potential uses are still being investigated.

What should I do for good gut health?

If you want to stay regular and maintain a healthy digestive system, says Cresci, “Keep a healthy diet and maintain the good bacteria community already in your gut. Taking a random supplement is just a drop in the ocean.”

We may one day turn to probiotics to help with a number of conditions, but the time, say experts isn’t now.

TIME

6 Veggies You Only Think You Don’t Like

Brussels sprouts
Tonic Photo Studios, LLC—Getty Images

Brussels sprouts, broccoli, beets—yuck! Not so fast. Using a different cooking technique can totally transform the vegetables you thought you hated into mouthwatering sides you’ll want to make again and again. Here are 6 nutrient-packed vegetables you can instantly make taste better with a little know-how.

Brussels sprouts

Why you should eat them: These baby cabbages contain just 38 calories per cup and are packed with cancer-preventing phytonutrients and fiber.

Yuck-factor: An organic compound can cause Brussels sprouts to give off a stinky, sulfurous smell. “Boiling can make them seem slimy and even leach some of the nutrients into the water,” says Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Health‘s contributing nutrition editor.

Make them delicious: Roast Brussels sprouts to seal in nutrients and flavor. “Just slice in half, mist with a garlic and herb infused olive oil and roast on a baking sheet at 400 degrees,” Sass says.

Health.com: 13 Comfort Foods That Burn Fat

Broccoli

Why you should eat it: Broccoli, another cruciferous veggie, is high in vitamin C and fiber and racks up just 33 calories per cup.

Yuck-factor: Broccoli can taste quite dry when eaten raw, and watch out if it’s overcooked—you’ll end up with some very mushy florets.

Make it delicious: Broccoli tastes best blanched—a cooking technique where you dunk veggies into icewater after boiling them for two to three minutes. “This helps broccoli retain its crunchiness,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, wellness manager for Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. It also ensures the nutrients won’t get zapped from the food. After you’ve blanched the broccoli, you can pair it with an edamame dip for some extra fiber or top with lemon juice for an added kick, Kirkpatrick says.

Health.com: 20 Best Foods for Fiber

Peas

Why you should eat them: A cup of raw split peas has 50 grams of fiber and still contains 16 grams after being cooked.

Yuck-factor: “If you’ve only ever had the canned peas, then you are probably used to them being mushy,” says Tanya Zuckerbrot, RD.

Make them delicious: Peas are another food you will love after blanching. “Peas boiled very fast are going to have a nice snap to them,” says Zuckerbrot. Just make sure to follow the blanching times suggested by the National Center for Home and Food Preservation. The heat makes it easy for chlorophyll in the peas (or really any vegetable) to lose magnesium, leading to a chemical change that will leave them a yucky olive green if overcooked, Zuckerbrot says. When done just right, blanching will help your peas maintain ultimate freshness.

Health.com: 16 Ways to Lose Weight Fast

Spinach

Why you should eat it: At seven calories a cup, this superfood is filled with lutein, folate, potassium, and fiber, all nutrients vital to keeping your heart going strong.

Yuck-factor: Some people find raw spinach too bitter, while overcooking the leafy green leaves a soggy, mushy mess.

Make it delicious: Adding fruit to your spinach salad cuts the bitter flavor, Sass says. With a drizzle of olive oil for seasoning, it will taste even better. “When I cook it, I often lightly sauté in a little bit of hot chili oil, along with minced garlic and chopped sweet bell pepper.”

Cauliflower

Why you should eat it: Cauliflower is high in vitamin C, with more than a day’s worth of your daily intake, and has lots of water for extra hydration. Beyond that, it has phytonutrients that have been shown to lower cholesterol and fight your risk of cancer.

Yuck-factor: Boiling cauliflower can leave it soggy, bland, and smelly.

Make it delicious: Roasting cauliflower gives it a nutty, sweet flavor and creamy texture. Or, try Kirkpatrick’s favorite recipe: “Sauté them in olive oil then add in some walnuts, turmeric, and tomato sauce.”

Health.com: 26 Quick, Healthy Juice and Smoothie Recipes

Beets

Why you should eat them: Beets are rich in iron, fiber, folate, and potassium, and also full of disease-fighting antioxidants.

Yuck-factor: Beets contain the compound geosmin, also found in carp and catfish, which gives them an earthy flavor. Unfortunately it can also make beets taste like dirt. “That compound is most concentrated in the skin of fresh beets,” Zuckerbrot says. “That’s why you have to peel them first.”

Make them delicious: After peeling, drizzle the beets with a bit of olive oil and roast them like a potato. Or you could try pickled beets, which have a crispy texture. “When they are pickled with a combination of vinegar, sugar, and spices, it gives them a similar taste to sweet pickles,” Zuckerbrot says.

13 Veggies You Only Think You Don’t Like originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME

8 Ways to Boost Your Metabolism Right Now

Feel like your metabolism is stuck in slo-mo? Coaxing your body to burn calories more efficiently doesn’t require daily Spinning sessions or hours at the weight rack (though being in shape and building more muscle definitely helps). From adding an extra ingredient to your smoothie to watching a funny YouTube video, you can fan your metabolism’s flames in just minutes a day by adopting these research-backed habits.

Add whey protein to your smoothie

When you’re tossing fruit, ice, and other smoothie mix-ins into your blender, take an extra second to add one more metabolism-boosting ingredient—whey protein powder. “Whey protein increases calorie burn and fat utilization, helps the body maintain muscle, and triggers the brain to feel full,” says Paul Arciero, a professor in the Health and Exercise Sciences department at Skidmore College who has studied whey’s effects on the body. All types of protein rev up your metabolism—protein has a thermogenic effect, meaning it makes your body produce more heat and, in turn, burn more calories—but whey may be the most effective non-animal protein. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that fat oxidation and the thermic effect was greater with whey than with soy or casein.

Health.com: 26 Smoothie Recipes You Need to Try

Drink before you eat

Drinking two glasses of water before every meal helped dieters lose an average of 15.5 pounds (five pounds more than the non-water drinkers) over three months in a study presented at the American Chemical Society’s annual conference. Taking quick hydration breaks throughout the day also boosts your metabolic machinery, says JJ Virgin, celebrity nutritionist and author of The Virgin Diet Cookbook, and research shows staying properly hydrated keeps you feeling energized. Try to consume half your body weight in water ounces, Virgin suggests; a 150-pound person would drink 75 ounces a day.

Don’t stop yourself from fidgeting

When your annoyed coworker tells you you’re bouncing your leg, perhaps you can explain that you’re just doing some non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)—the expert term for fidgeting. Research shows that NEAT may help you burn an additional 350 calories a day. “Small bursts of activity, like running up stairs, pacing while you’re on the phone, or shifting around in your seat all count,” says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and author of Beat the Gym. “It adds up quickly, so take advantage of any chance to move more throughout your day.”

Health.com: 24 Fat-Burning Ab Exercises

Brew a cup of coffee

Caffeine’s ability to speed up the central nervous system makes it a powerful metabolism booster. “In addition, coffee beans provide antioxidants and real health value,” says Amy Goodson, RD, a dietitian for Texas Health Ben Hogan Sports Medicine. “Provided your cup is not laden with cream and syrup, coffee can be a great way to give you energy as well as some antioxidants.” Coffee has been shown to improve energy levels during exercise, especially endurance activity, and help people work harder longer, which therefore burns more calories. Drinking coffee after a workout can also be beneficial. Consuming caffeine after exercise increased muscle glycogen by 66% in endurance athletes, enabling them to more quickly replenish energy stores used through exercise, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Need more caffeine? Swap in green tea

If you’re like an average American and drink three cups of coffee a day, consider swapping in green tea for one of them. In addition to giving you the metabolism-boosting caffeine jolt you crave, green tea is a rich source of antioxidants called catechins. And, in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, drinking green tea combined with a total of three hours of moderate exercise a week reduced abdominal fat in subjects over a three-month period. “Unsweetened, brewed green tea was shown to increase calorie burn by about 100 calories per day,” says Michelle Dudash, RD, author of Clean Eating for Busy Families. For best results, Dudash recommends fresh-brewed green tea only—it takes just a couple minutes to make. “Bottled green tea tends to have a lower concentration of the beneficial compounds,” she says, not to mention that many are loaded with added sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Health.com: 12 Surprising Sources of Caffeine

Snack on yogurt

Probiotics, the healthy bacteria found in yogurt, pickles, and other fermented foods like sauerkraut, may help you lose weight—if you’re a woman, shows a new study published in the British Journal of Nutrition. Overweight men and women followed a 12-week weight loss diet; half of the volunteers also took a probiotic pill every day. Women in the probiotic group lost more weight than those in the placebo group and continued to lose weight during the 12-week maintenance period afterward (the probiotic didn’t make any difference for men).

Consuming probiotics in food form has other waist-friendly benefits: “Yogurt, like other full-fat dairy, also has a fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) that studies show can improve fat burning,” says Virgin. Avoid fruit-on-the-bottom varieties, which can have as much sugar as a candy bar.

Take a laugh break

Go ahead, minimize your Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. Taking a quick break to look at funny cat videos on YouTube or take a Buzzfeed quiz doesn’t just feel good—you’re also burning calories in the process. A study from the International Journal of Obesity showed a 10 to 20% increase in energy expenditure (calories burned) and heart rate during genuine laughter. This translated to an increase of 10 to 40 calories burned within 10 to 15 minutes of laughter.

Health.com: Best Superfoods for Weight Loss

14 Ways to Boost Your Metabolism Right Now originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Opinion

Have the Feds Made School Food Worse with Government-Approved Junk?

Vending machine
Getty Images

"Healthy" snacks in schools are seriously lacking in nutrition

Last week I attended the School Nutrition Association’s annual meeting in Boston, a gathering of the nation’s school food service workers. While most of the controversy lately has focused on the federally-required improvements to nutrition standards for school lunches, getting lost in the shuffle are new standards coming online this fall for school snacks and beverages.

These foods are known collectively as “competitive foods” because they compete with the school meal program; think kids eating their lunches out of vending machines. With schools desperate for extra cash, the likes of Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay take full advantage by hawking their unhealthy products to schoolchildren.

This problem caused Congress and the White House to include in its 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requirements that U.S. Department of Agriculture set nutrition guidelines for foods sold outside the school meal program. (Thanks to a lawsuit filed by the soda lobby some thirty years ago, a court found that USDA had no authority over soda and junk food, and it’s taken this long to correct that decision.)

To help guide USDA, the Institute of Medicine made science-based recommendations to the agency for the best nutritional approach. But as often happens in Washington, what starts out as a public health policy comes out the other end as industry-friendly, watered down rules.

Instead of insisting that schools do right by kids – and the taxpayer-funded school meal program – by removing vending machines altogether, the feds just required a few tweaks to the ingredients. Big Food put its sophisticated R&D departments to work and out came “USDA-compliant” junk food. Several vendors proudly told me that their “healthier” products weren’t even available in stores, as if this were a good thing.

But is it really better now that “reduced fat” Cheetos have replaced regular in schools? Can parents rest easier knowing their kids are buying “whole grain” Pop-Tarts still containing 15 grams of sugar? Can USDA really claim that the “low sugar” line of Gatorade products (called G2) is significantly superior nutritionally, given that they contain artificial sweeteners and dyes?

As I warned in my comments to USDA last year, too narrow a focus on nutrition indicators such as whole grain and levels of sugar and fat would not address the bigger problem with competitive foods: branding. Corporations hawking junk foods and beverages in schools have no problem tweaking a few ingredients as long as they remain in front of the eyeballs of impressionable youngsters. Schools are not only big business, they are essential to ensure brand loyalty for life.

While real food such as fresh produce, along with truly healthy snacks such as dried apples, were also on display in the expo hall, several vendors I spoke to complained about the challenge of being able to compete with the likes of Kellogg’s and PepsiCo on price, given the economies of scale.

Now with the federal government seal of approval on dressed up junk foods, what messages are we sending to children in their place of learning? That Cheetos and Pop-Tarts are great snacks as long as they contain a sprinkling of “whole grains”? That blue-colored Gatorade is an acceptable beverage as long as it contains fake sugars? Some have defended these changes as incremental. OK, but given how hard it was to get the current rules passed (not to mention the ongoing fight over school meals), it’s likely to be a very long time before we see real improvements.

Meanwhile, school kids are now being exposed to deceptive marketing messages on health-washed junk foods, brought to them by mega-corporations who aim to get them hooked on a lifetime of bad eating habits, all courtesy of the federal government.

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer and president of Eat Drink Politics, a corporate watchdog consulting firm.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Eating More Fruits and Vegetables Doesn’t Help You Lose Weight, Study Says

Fruits and vegetables
Getty Images

Fruits and vegetables are good for your health, but there's not enough evidence to prove that on their own they can help with weight loss.

The research, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reviewed studies that looked at fruit and vegetable consumption and weight gain, and concluded that simply eating more doesn’t doesn’t slim waistlines.

Loading up on more fruits and vegetables, without taking out more high-calorie foods like junk food, or making other lifestyle changes such as exercising, won’t have a significant affect on weight. And that’s especially true if the veggies are fried or coated in butter or cheese. In the study, the researchers only correlated fruit and vegetable consumption with weight, and did not ask the participants about their other lifestyle habits, or about how they were cooking their food.

In addition, the analysis included just nine studies, some of which involved a small group of participants and which lasted only 16 weeks at the most. It’s possible that weight changes resulting from a true change in diet including more fruits and vegetables might take longer.

For those reasons, the researchers still say that consuming more fruits and vegetables may be beneficial for weight loss. “We cannot say with high confidence that there is not some form of a [fruit/vegetable] intervention that may have significant effects on weight loss or the prevention of weight gain,” they write.

And there are other benefits of adding more fresh fruits and vegetables to your plates. Beyond weight, produce is a reliable and efficient source of nutrients and fiber, and plenty of studies have linked eating them with lower risks of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Yogurt Could Lower Your Blood Pressure: New Study

The latest study links certain probiotics with better blood pressure control

Bacteria aren’t the first allies we turn to for staying healthy – there are enough strains that can cause serious illness, after all – but there’s growing evidence that certain strains of the bugs can actually be good for your health, and may even relieve symptoms of inflammatory conditions, allergies and possibly even obesity.

In the latest report on these microbial allies, researchers add one more possible benefit of probiotics – the live concoctions of bacteria contained in foods like yogurt. In an analysis of nine studies that looked at probiotic use and blood pressure, the report in the journal Hypertension found that people using probiotics tend to have lower blood pressure compared to those who didn’t eat them. The effects seemed to be stronger among those with higher blood pressure to begin with, and among those consuming multiple probiotic strains and in higher doses.

What do bacteria have to do with blood pressure? The researchers say that the micro-organisms could be helping to address hypertension in a variety of ways, from lowering cholesterol levels, which can contribute to less fatty buildup in the vessels and therefore reduce the chances of developing hypertension, to controlling blood sugar and keeping the enzymes and proteins that control blood flow and fluid volumes in check.

The results aren’t exactly a prescription for treating hypertension — at least not yet. But they raise the interesting possibility of incorporating a probiotic regimen into blood pressure management. The study authors admit, however, that more questions still need to be answered, such as which micro-organisms might be associated with the strongest effect on blood pressure, as well as which combinations of bacterial strains work best. The formulation of the probiotic may also be important, they say – in the studies they reviewed, participants consumed probiotics primarily from yogurt, but also from cheese, sour milk and supplements (liquid or capsules). Hitting the right threshold of microbes also seems to be important, and figuring out that volume is also essential before any advice about using probiotics to lower blood pressure is given.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Eat Umami, Eat Less

Calories count when it comes to weight, but taste may play a role as well.

If you’re feeling unsatisfied after a meal, perhaps wasn’t flavorful enough. A new study suggests that the taste umami may actually make you feel more full and satisfied.

Umami, a hard-to-describe flavor that tilts toward the savory, is considered the “fifth taste” after salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Long used in Japanese cooking, umami is actually glutamate, once it’s broken down by cooking a steak, for example, or by fermenting things like cheese and soy. For a quick dash of umami, cooks have turned to monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer that’s added to soups and other foods. Now a new study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that MSG can make food more appetizing and therefore help diners feel more full.

The researchers asked 27 participants to eat the same breakfast, then some ate a high-protein soup with an MSG-enzyme combination while other had soup without the pairing. Everyone then sat down for an identical lunch, and the scientists tracked how much the volunteers ate as well as asked them questions about their appetite and how full they felt. The diners who ate the MSG-laced soup consumed less of their lunch, but still say they felt satisfied, suggesting that umami may have a role in regulating eating.

It’s not the first taste linked to appetite — peppers and spicy foods, for example, have been associated with eating less. It’s not exactly clear how the flavors affect appetite — they may work in different ways — but the growing research suggests that how much you eat may be affected by which taste buds the food activates.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

3 Ways to Kick Your White-Bread Habit

891893-001
There are many strategies for avoiding white bread Angela Wyant—Getty Images

Some of my clients wouldn’t touch white bread, rice, or pasta with a 10-foot pole, while others just can’t seem to make the switch to whole-grain alternatives. For the latter group, it’s either because they’re so accustomed to the flavor or texture of refined grains, or because they’ve had a bad experience with healthier options.

For example, one of my pro athlete clients recently told me that whole-grain pasta tastes like sticky cardboard mixed with glue, a pretty vivid and unappetizing description! But it turns out, the pasta he tried was way overcooked and unseasoned. If, like him, you’re reluctant to try again, I encourage you to give it another go, because racking up more nutrients isn’t the only benefit.

Health.com:16 Whole Grains You Need to Try

A recent Spanish study that tracked the eating habits and weights of more than 9,000 people found that those who ate only white bread and downed two or more portions a day were 40% more likely to become overweight or obese over a five-year period, compared to those who ate less than one portion of white bread a week. While the study didn’t include rice or pasta, other research backs the notion that consuming whole-grain versions curbs obesity risk, and protects against a number of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers.

Try these three tricks to reap the benefits of whole grains without feeling like you’re choking down cardboard. You may never crave the pale stuff again!

Health.com:The 20 Healthiest Breakfast Foods

Spruce up with spreads

A hearty whole-grain bread can overpower the flavor of sandwich fillings. To balance it out, slather on a plant-based spread or two, including hummus, olive tapenade, pesto (like sun-dried tomato, roasted red pepper, artichoke, or eggplant), tahini, ripe avocado, or guacamole. In addition to being delicious, these spreads add heart-healthy fat and boost your antioxidant intake. To prevent carb overkill (and an overly grainy texture), opt for an open-faced sandwich, or use crisp Romaine leaves as the top layer so you can still pick it up with both hands and bite in.

Become season-savvy

Nearly everyone who’s told me they don’t like brown rice or other cooked whole grains like quinoa tried them plain—and a little seasoning can make a huge difference. One of the simplest ways to add both flavor and moisture is to quickly sauté cooked grains in organic low sodium vegetable broth along with herbs and spices. There are dozen of options, but some of my favorite combos include: minced garlic with fresh grated ginger and crushed red pepper; garlic with fresh cilantro and fresh squeezed lime juice; or garlic with fresh squeezed lemon juice, black pepper, and Italian herb seasoning. In addition to serving them hot, seasoned whole grains can also be chilled. Either way, try tossing them with chopped or shredded veggies, lean protein, and a good-for-you fat, like extra virgin olive oil, chopped nuts, or minced avocado.

Health.com:16 Ways to Lose Weight Fast

Think al dente

These days there are a wide variety of whole-grain pasta options, including whole wheat, or gluten-free choices, like brown rice pasta, quinoa pasta, and noodles made from black beans and buckwheat. But when it’s overcooked, any pasta can lose its appeal. Whole-grain versions do take a little bit longer to cook than white pasta, but the difference is generally only a few minutes, much less than most people think. So start checking it right away, and turn off the heat when the pasta is still firm to best preserve the texture.

Health.com:31 Superfood Secrets for a Long and Healthy Life

Like bread and rice, whole grain or white pasta alternatives taste best when paired with robust sauces, so let your culinary creativity run wild. Try healthy add-ins with bold flavors like Kalamata olives, capers, wild mushrooms, and caramelized onions, or stir in a little balsamic vinegar or harissa seasoning. Or forgo pasta sauce in favor of a dollop of one of the spreads I mentioned above, like sun-dried tomato or eggplant pesto. Hot or chilled, the right combination may just win you over!

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor. Frequently seen on national TV, she privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. She’s also the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser