If you’re reading this, you care about your health in one way or another. Most likely, you spend a lot of time planning your weekly menu and preparing meals at home. The health-conscious person is smart to eat a balanced diet with plenty of protein, whole grains, a rainbow of vegetables and a smattering of low-sugar fruits or snacks. But thanks to the nature of food and nutrition, the real or raw nutritional value of various meals and snacks may be different than you think.
There’s a lot of misinformation about what constitutes a nutritious diet. Foods you always thought were healthy or acceptable may not be. Call them “unhealthy healthy foods.” What a mouthful, huh?
Chances are, there are bad healthy foods hiding somewhere in your diet or nutrition plan. That’s exactly why we put together this guide.
We want to help you be the best you can be, which means pinpointing what parts of your diet are negative, and what parts are suitable. There are healthy foods that are not healthy, and don’t forget it.
Light Isn’t Always “Light” for Your Diet
One common misconception people have — health-oriented or not — is that foods labeled as diet-friendly or “light” are always suitable alternatives. That’s not even close to being true. Many “health foods” contain high amounts of artificial ingredients that are bad for you.
There are so many types of “light” foods and low-fat snacks, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing they are good for you. In reality, most of them are just as bad, if not worse, than eating the full-fat variety.
For example, maybe you love popcorn. Popcorn, in and of itself, can be a healthy snack. But when you add in lots of butter, sodium and the chemical diacetyl — which shows up in most pre-packaged bags of popcorn — it’s much worse for your health than it should be. These ingredients still show up in bags of light popcorn. You may feel it’s healthier for you, but in reality, your body is struggling more with the over-processed ingredients of packaged popcorn.
As it turns out, all-natural popcorn is high in fiber, low in calories and delivers a powerful punch of antioxidants, to boot. So enjoy your favorite snack — just avoid the microwave and pop it yourself using an air popper, microwave or skillet. Then you can add your own toppings, none of which are secretly unhealthy.
Diet soda is another great example of a light or low-fat food that is not healthy at all. There are just as many unhealthy ingredients in diet soda as regular soda. Diet sodas get their sweetness from artificial flavorings such as aspartame, cyclamate, saccharin, sucralose and sometimes acesulfame-k, as opposed to sugar. None of those sweeteners are beneficial for your body.
Sugar is usually worse for your body than fat, and often food manufacturers substitute sugar or sodium for the removed fat. It’s a better, more efficient habit to read nutrition labels when you shop for groceries. Look at the amount of sugar, sodium and calories a product has and judge by that count whether or not it’s healthy for you.
So, what other so-called “health foods” are bad for you?
Many people believe wheat bread or wheat products are almost always healthier than “white” or regular grains. The truth in that, as you might expect, is a bit stretched. Unless you buy a product that is 100 percent confirmed whole wheat, it most likely contains enriched flour. As any health enthusiast will be quick to point out, enriched flour is responsible for spikes in your blood sugar levels, which can make your body crash if you don’t have another form of nutrition.
Rather than baking the bread naturally, enriched flour essentially strips nutrients, making it just as bad — if not more so — than regular grains or white bread. If you truly want to be safe, you can cut bread out of your diet entirely, as there are plenty of other sources of carbs. If you can’t live without it, make sure you are eating fiber-rich 100 percent whole wheat, or multigrain loaves.
Low- or Reduced-Fat Peanut Butter
Nuts, specifically peanuts, are a good source of monounsaturated fats, also known as “good fats” for your diet. So, it stands to reason that peanut butter is great for you, right? Well, yes, except for all the sugar and preservatives used in most brands.
But if you swap that out for low- or reduced-fat peanut butter, surely it counteracts all the bad sugars? No, actually, that’s not true either. Usually, when you see “low fat” or “reduced fat” on a food label, it means the manufacturer stripped away the fats — yes, even the good fats — and replaced them with salt, sugar or an artificial sweetener. That results in higher sugar counts and useless calories that do nothing for your body.
Worse yet, when people see the phrase “low-fat,” they often fall into the trap of thinking it’s safe to eat a little more because it’s labeled as “healthy.”
The better option is to ditch the low-fat peanut butter and eat the regular kind, in smaller quantities. In fact, you might find your hunger levels more satiated with regular peanut butter.
Fat-Free Flavored Yogurt
Because they provide high levels of calcium and protein, yogurt and other dairy products are good for you in moderation, unless you are lactose-intolerant. But fat-free flavored yogurt — yes, even the kind with natural fruit — is not any healthier than regular yogurt. Why? Because to create the desired flavor, brands often dump tons of sugar in the yogurt. Seriously, next time you’re at the grocery store, flip a yogurt carton around and look at the sugar count. The small to mid-sized containers will pack in about 15 grams of sugar for every six ounces of yogurt. That is absolutely outrageous, especially when you’re taking in sugar from other foods throughout your day.
As we’ve mentioned already, get in the habit of reading the nutrition information before you put something in your cart, and always pay attention to the sugar count in the foods you eat.
Organic Snack Foods
It seems like nearly everything is going organic and gluten-free these days, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy for you. Sure, it might be slightly healthier than the regular food variety, but that can often make things worse, by tricking you into eating more than you normally would.
Organic snacks, crackers and chips are — guess what — still loaded with sugars and carbs, which can be bad for you, especially in excessive amounts. Just because you find an organic version of your favorite snack, that doesn’t mean it’s suddenly safe to eat again. As a rule of thumb, organic junk food is still junk food, and it’s better to avoid it.
Instead, opt for more natural foods to munch on, like baked apples for sweets, pistachios instead of chips or raw fruits and vegetables.
Your mother was right: It’s never good to skip a meal. If you’re eating on the go and have no other options, a granola bar is a better, healthier way to get nutrients than eating nothing at all. But that doesn’t make it one of the healthiest foods on the market. Unless you’ve managed the difficult task of finding a truly all-natural brand of granola bars, you’re probably eating something that’s packed to the brim with sugar, sodium and saturated fats. If your granola bar is mixed with chocolate chips, candy or something similar, you might as well be eating a real candy bar instead.
Save the granola bars for when you’re super-busy and you don’t have time to prepare a meal, but don’t incorporate them as a regular part of your diet. They’re not as good for you as you might have thought.
When snack cravings hit, most people think they’re doing their bodies a favor by substituting pretzels for greasy potato chips. This is not necessarily a bad habit — but, again, you should practice it in moderation. Pretzels tend to have just one-tenth of the fat you’ll find in potato chips, but they have just as much — if not more — sodium.
Pretzels are also made with white flour, which is carb-heavy and contributes to elevated sugar levels in your body. To make things that much worse, they often contain enriched flours, tons of sodium or salt, corn syrup, corn oil and various other ingredients — all of which cause them to be high in empty calories.
If you are going to eat pretzels, make sure you do so in small, reasonable increments, and don’t make it a frequent thing. Otherwise, turn to something like kale chips, which have higher fiber, protein and vitamin counts.
Protein is the foundation of a healthy diet, so any protein source is trustworthy — right? Yes, protein bars often contain even higher protein counts than you’d expect, but that doesn’t make them a healthy choice. The problem with most protein bars is that they contain as much sugar, chocolate and flavorings as regular candy bars, making them way too unhealthy to consume regularly. The average protein bar has well over 200 calories, and is crammed with 10 or more grams of sugar.
Don’t fall into this trap, especially when there are plenty of other alternatives. Instead, opt for beans, hummus or even quinoa when you need a protein boost.
On its own, bran is a wholesome nutrient that can really boost your energy and provide a good source of fiber. Except, when baked into a muffin with high amounts of sugar, flour and fat, all the healthy properties go out the window.
In fact, nutrition experts claim a bran muffin can even have more calories and sugar than your average doughnut. There’s some food for thought — pun definitely intended!
Despite what your friends and family might claim, what’s plastered all over the packaging or even what your favorite blog recommended as a “healthy” recipe, couscous is not some kind of superfood.
At first glance, couscous appears to be a natural, wheat-type grain, but that’s not the case — it’s actually a miniature pasta. If you absolutely must have couscous for a recipe, look for the whole-wheat variety. Otherwise, opt for a healthier type of food or whole grain, like quinoa.
Rice Crackers or Rice Snacks
It’s hard to imagine rice crackers or sweet rice cakes being bad for you, especially since they’re so light. But remember, light doesn’t equal healthy. Rice cakes are a poor source of fiber, and are often high in sodium and sugar, especially when they’re flavored.
They’re also carb-dense, which means even though they are relatively lightweight, they still have a lot of carbs packed into their little size. When you’re trying to lose weight or cut down on carbs entirely, rice cakes are a bad source of nutrition.
Trail mix is good if you’re outdoors or doing something that requires a lot of activity and energy, such as hiking or climbing. It’s high in protein, carbs and fiber, all of which can provide an energy boost. But the problem with most types of store-bought trail mix is they include a lot of sugary, fatty and high-sodium additives like M&Ms, yogurt-covered raisins, deep-fried banana chips, sesame sticks, extra-salty nuts and more.
You’re better off making your own mix with plain nuts, seeds and even some high-cacao dark chocolate or naturally dried fruit.
Bottled or Premixed Green Tea
If you brew it yourself, tea can bring huge health benefits. But most store-bought, bottled brands of tea are nothing short of sugar water. In fact, reports have shown incredibly low levels of ECGC in bottled tea. ECGC is an antioxidant in natural tea that can help prevent cancer, boost your metabolism for added weight loss and lower acidity levels in the body. But it’s severely lacking in pre-packaged forms of tea.
The problem is, if the tea you’re drinking is high in sugar and low in antioxidants, you’re not getting any of tea’s natural health benefits.
Do Your Healthy Foods Homework
You probably already have heard about some of the foods on this list. There are many supposedly healthy foods that are actually bad for you, even if they are marketed as good. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking a variety of keywords — meant to indicate low in fat or healthy — confirm said food is safe to consume, on a diet or in your regular regimen.
Watch out for buzzwords like:
- Low in fat
While some of the foods with these labels on them may be slightly healthier than the regular variety, that’s not always the case. In fact, many times you’re better off buying the full-fat type of food over the fat-free version. Make sure you do your homework before consuming or changing your diet.
The FDA allows any food product with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat or fewer to include “0 grams trans-fat” on the label. It may also be classified as “fat-free,” “light” or one of the many other buzzwords listed above.
When shopping, stick with natural, unprocessed foods, like fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and dairy products. Stay away from packaged goods, especially those high in sodium and sugar. And always review the nutrition labels of your foods. The shorter the list of ingredients, the better. A product with a long list of unpronounceable ingredients indicates a highly processed food you should avoid.
It’s time to get healthy, and that means avoiding the unhealthy — no matter how it’s been branded or labeled in the past.