It seems like every day there’s a new piece of dietary advice or a new health product that is guaranteed to give you some kind of benefit. As a result, the entire concept of health foods has become an industry all of its own, complete with its own dubious claims (sometimes). We often think that we’re eating healthier than we are, sometimes due to fault advice we’ve been given in the past by magazines or diet books. To help clear that up, we’ve made a list of 30 “health” foods that aren’t necessarily all that healthy. So let’s get started.
1. Flavored Instant Oatmeal
We definitely get the appeal behind this one. If you’re pressed for time in the morning, what could be easier than grabbing one of these packets, throwing in some hot water and eating your breakfast on the go? Still, many of these packages come full of other ingredients besides the basically healthy oatmeal that you want. As a general rule, try to find packets that have oats as the first ingredient and lower than six grams of sugar per serving.
When you really think about it, is there anything actually redeeming about pretzels? At the end of the day, pretzels are just another refined carbohydrate with a fair amount of sodium and not really any nutritional value. Although they may have less fat than a bag of fried potato chips, for example, be careful how many of them you eat as a substitute!
3. Reduced-Fat Peanut Butter
The words “reduced-fat” should alarm you when it comes to any food and peanut butter is no exception. Generally speaking, these kinds of foods make up for the lack of fat by pumping in additional sugars and artificial ingredients to boost up the flavor. Ultimately, they end up having about the same number of calories as regular peanut butter—so you might as well just get the real thing.
4. Peanut Butter In General
Take this one with a grain of salt. Though we’re not saying that all peanut butter is inherently bad for you, it is pretty high in fat. Though these fats are mostly heart-healthy (and has the added bonus of coming with plenty of plant-based protein as well), you really have to be careful when picking your brand as well. In many cases, major brands slip partially hydrogenated oils into their peanut butter—also known as trans fats. To be safe, look for an ingredient label that’s limited to “peanuts” or “peanuts and salt.”
5. Beef Jerky
Let’s be honest: did anyone really need to point out that beef jerky isn’t technically very healthy for you? On the plus side, beef jerky is typically pretty low in fat and has a good amount of quick protein for people on the go. On the other hand, most kinds also come with very high sodium levels as a result of the salt needed to keep the meat preserved for a long time. High sodium can lead to bloating, heart issues and other health problems. For a healthier substitute, try nibbling on some turkey jerky instead.
6. Fake Meat Products
Although this may not apply to everyone, vegetarians and vegans would do well to heed this warning! While it can be tricky to find good substitutes for old meat products we once enjoyed, many fake meats are really just junk food in disguise. Though we can’t speak for every brand ever, watch out for sweeteners and filler ingredients like xanthan gum, food coloring, canola oil and genetically-modified soy protein.
7. Fat-Free Salad Dressing
Much like the “reduced-fat” factor that we mentioned above, fat-free salad dressings can sometimes get packed with other artificial ingredients to make up the difference. On the other hand, it’s self-defeating to not eat your salad with fat on the side because salads are often full of nutrients and fat-soluble vitamins. If you don’t pair these nutrients with some healthy fat, it’ll be much harder to absorb them. The more you know!
8. Light Mayonnaise
Not to belabor the point but once again, taking the fat out of a food item usually leads to adding other ingredients that are also bad for you (particularly all the additional sugar). As an added bonus of having the fat in your food, it helps to absorb the other nutrients including Vitamins A, K and E. No matter how you slice it, though, it’s probably best to go light on the mayonnaise in general.
9. Diet Soda
Though we probably don’t need to tell anyone this, diet soda is almost always a no-no. Although these sodas have zero calories, they also have zero nutritional benefit and may actually promote weight gain in some cases. Other negatives include the increased risk of osteoporosis, increased risk of diabetes and increased risk of depression. If you’re looking for a flavored, bubbly drink, why not try a fruit-flavored seltzer water instead?
10. Coconut Oil
This one has been subject to recent controversy. Although coconut oil got very popular recently as a heart-healthy fat with a number of different benefits, the fact remains that coconut oil is essentially just a lot of saturated fat. As a result, putting too much coconut oil into your dishes can have the same negative effects that using butter or any other saturated fat might have.
11. Gluten-Free Snacks
Though we understand that snack options for people with gluten intolerances can be relatively limited, it may be best to avoid these specially made snacks all together. That’s because most of these snacks typically have just as much fat and sugar as their glutenous counterparts, plus a whole host of artificial ingredients as well. If you’re looking for a gluten free option, reaching for a piece of fruit or a veggie-based snack might be a better choice.
12. Agave Nectar
Agave nectar is another food that has risen to prominence in recent years. For the most part, agave nectar has been marketed as a “healthy” alternative to sugar or to honey. Unfortunately, agave nectar is basically the same as any other highly-processed syrup—and we all know how “healthy” high-fructose corn syrup is for us. Instead of using agave, you may as well just use a little bit of sugar or some honey.
13. Fruit Juice
Obviously, mileage may vary when it comes to fruit juices. Still, your average glass of orange or apple juice is probably not all that fresh, is probably highly processed and probably doesn’t have many nutrients leftover. To top it all off, each one comes packed with sugar. Finally, the problem with separating just the juice out of your foods is that it leaves all the fiber behind (along with other ingredients that help process the nutrients and sugars). If you want to eat fruit, just have a piece of fruit instead.
14. White Bread
We all know how recent diet trends have almost universally turned on bread. Still, we’re not saying you should give up bread in all its forms. What we should say, however, is that white bread is typically made out of highly-refined wheat, stripping all the good nutrients out of it. Depending on the brand, white bread can sometimes be packed with other filler ingredients that don’t add much to the nutritional profile either.
15. Vegetable Oils
Like any other oil, vegetable oil is high in fat and carries all the normal risks. Beyond that, vegetable oils in particular have high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, fats which are notoriously prone to oxidation which can cause stress in the body. In worst case scenarios, too much oxidation in the body can increase the risk of cancer as well. Instead of using vegetable oil, substitute it for a better fat like olive oil or avocado oil.
Although margarine was originally introduced as a health alternative to butter, research has shown over time that the opposite is actually true. As it turns out, margarine is typically packed full of trans fats and other engineered foods, without the nutrients and health benefits of grass-fed butter. Although we’re not saying that all butter is healthy all the time, you’re much better getting an expensive, grass-fed butter than a butter substitute.
17. Soy Protein
Although we’ve already covered the fact that fake meats are not always the healthiest option, we should get more specific by warning against soy protein as well. Although fermented soy in the form of tempeh or natto, the main problem with soybeans is that many of them are genetically engineered and highly-processed. In general, these beans are bred to resist weedkillers—and the side effects can lead to issues like asthma, hypothyroidism and other adverse health effects.
18. Farmed Fish
In the right circumstances, various kinds of fish can be a very healthy part of any diet. On the other hand, eating farmed fish has a number of downsides. Generally speaking, the healthy omega-3 levels in farmed fish are lower than their wild counterparts. Similarly, these fish may also have higher rates of heavy metals which also have adverse side effects.
19. Microwave Popcorn
Though we’re not speaking ill of all popcorn in general, microwaveable popcorn has some unique things about it that make it bad for you. The main issue with this is that the inside of popcorn bags are often coated in PFOS and PFOA, two cancer-causing chemicals which are used to help the packaging be nonstick. Fake butter flavoring also has health risks of its own. To be totally safe, why not boil your own kernels at home?
20. Artificial Sweeteners
As a general rule of thumb, anything that seems too good to be true probably is. When it comes to artificial sweeteners, this is definitely the case. Though many of these chemicals will add a net zero calories to your meal, they may also damage your gut flora and increase your risk of diabetes. Rather than trying to get a biological free lunch when it comes to taste, just try to use normal sweeteners sparingly instead.
21. Fat-Free and Low-Fat Milk
As we mentioned before, the problem with taking fat out of something with fat in it is that food manufacturers put something else in. In the case of milk, that missing fat will be replaced with chemicals and sugar. Drinking too much of liquids like these can increase your risk of diabetes. If you’re going to drink milk, just get the full fat kind—it’ll help you absorb the vitamins and nutrients better, anyway.
22. Flavored Fruit Yogurts
Although Greek yogurt can be a great choice for a low-fat, high-protein snack that’s packed full of probiotics, your typical fruit yogurt is anything but that. Although many of them are marketed as health foods, they typically have so much sugar that it outweighs what ever other nutritional benefits they may offer. To get the same effect, just get a plain yogurt and put some slices of fruit on top of it instead.
23. Raw Oysters
This one is a little different from some of the others. To be totally clear, oysters in-and-of-themselves are not necessarily bad for you. The issue here is with preparation. Oysters can be notoriously dirty, with the potential to carry norovirus and other stomach-damaging bacteria. If you really love the taste, consider switching over to a cooked variety to protect your gut flora.
24. Fat-Free Packaged Foods
We know we’re hitting this point but it’s best to be as clear as possible. Aside from the things we’ve already mentioned, other fat-free snack cookies or biscuits are also to be treated with extreme caution. As always, taking the fat out means a lot of processing and a lot of replacement with other chemicals to make the foods still taste good. Instead of reaching for these alternatives, work on snacking in moderation more generally.
25. Rice Cakes
Rice cakes are another deceptive snack. On first glance, they seem to be healthy because they’re relatively low in calories and have no fat. Still, they’re relatively empty as a food source because all they contain is carbohydrates and not very many nutrients. Though they’re not the worst thing you can eat, there are still healthier snacks out there for the truly health conscious.
26. Canned Fruit with Syrup
This one shouldn’t be hard to understand. Although it may taste sweet and delicious, storing anything in syrup adds calories and sugar to the final product. Although it’s best to eat fresh fruit, do your best to buy fruit canned in water if you’re going to go the canned route at all. Trust us: unless you’re using this as a dessert ingredient, it’s best to avoid it.
27. Boxed Cereal
Although cereal is pretty popular as a quick and easy breakfast food, your mileage may vary quite a bit depending on the brand you get. For the most part, boxed cereals are a quick source of empty carbs—and often very little else. Although some of the unsweetened granola brands may have a lot of fiber and some other nutrients as well, the more popular commercial brands typically have lots of added sugar and not many additional vitamins or minerals.
28. Cheese-Flavored Snacks
Without over-explaining anything, this one has a lot in common with the other items on this list that we already mentioned. Just like “fat-free” snacks mean taking fat out and replacing it with something else, “cheese-flavored” is a sign that what you’re eating is pretty far from actual cheese. To make a powdered cheese product stay good on the shelf, they often have to be packed with preservatives and other chemicals that aren’t any good. Stick to the real deal whenever you can!
29. Food Dyes
Though you typically won’t buy this one on its own (unless you’re making sugar cookies, perhaps), it still deserves its own list item. Just in case you thought food dyes were harmless, many people are allergic to the artificial ingredients in food dyes and might not be aware of it. In some cases, these dyes can have a serious effect on your mood as well—it’s best to avoid them altogether!
30. Sugar-Free Desserts
If there’s one principle to take away from this list, it’s that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is. As you might’ve guessed, there’s always a price to pay when something that should have sugar in it is sugar-free. Typically speaking, it means that the food you’re eating was highly processed and that it had its sweetness artificially enhanced. If you want dessert, skip the chemicals and just have a normal dessert.
Without overcomplicating things, just remember that the best way to eat is to stick to foods and ingredients you recognize, eat fresh and local whenever possible and avoid things that are overly processed! Because healthy eating has become something of a marketing hook now, many foods we would immediately recognize as unhealthy may fool us with their packaging. To avoid this trap, follow the simple rule of eating fruits and veggies whenever possible—and if you’re going to eat dessert or foods that are unhealthy, do it in moderation!
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