The World’s Most Unhealthy Health Foods
Don't sabotage your nutrition efforts with shady supermarket products masquerading as health food. Here's how to avoid the worst offenders.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Once upon a time, the rules of clean eating were pretty straightforward: eat lots of plants, get your protein from lean sources, don’t stuff yourself. But thanks to a ballooning packaged-foods industry and a never-ending desire to make healthy eating even more convenient, it’s actually harder than ever to make good nutrition choices.
It’s easy to identify the healthy and harmful foods on the extreme edges of the spectrum—French fries are bad, kale is good—but things get blurrier in the middle. While one yogurt in the dairy case might be innocuous—or even healthy—its neighbor may bear more resemblance to a candy bar than a glass of milk.
When it comes to food, details matter. So too does being up on the most recent nutrition literature, as the tide turns quickly in dietary research. Take, for example, agave nectar: a few years ago, it was heralded as a better, safer sugar. Today, it’s considered just as bad as all the other sweeteners.
Here are ten foods consumers often consider to be “healthy,” even though the research says otherwise. Avoid them.
Gluten causes all sorts of bodily evils like gastric distress, bloating, inflammation, and weight gain. Swapping your favorite grain-heavy products for gluten-free options will improve your overall health.
If you suffer from celiac disease or are gluten intolerant, gluten-free foods are a lifesaver. Eat them as you wish.
For everyone else, they’re—at best—a waste of money. A 2008 study in the Canadian Journal of Dietary Practice and Research found that, on average, gluten-free products were 242 percent more expensive than their traditional counterparts.
At worst, they can be harmful. “The number of Americans who are eating gluten-free has tripled over the past five years to 2.7 million Americans, as the term has become synonymous with healthy,” says Adrienne Youdim, MD, an obesity specialist and an associate professor of medicine at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine and the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She adds that many people assume cutting out gluten translates to cutting carbs.
That’s simply not true. “Many packaged foods labeled ‘gluten-free’ are not, in fact, healthy.” She adds that things like gluten-free pasta, pizza, bread, and cookies can be loaded with preservatives, sugar, and fat to replace the wheat or gluten. And gluten-free diets are not associated with weight loss, period. Plus, many of these products are missing the fiber that whole-grain wheat possesses, so the same amount of the gluten-free version won’t fill you up like a bowl of the real stuff.
Fat is calorie dense, with nine calories per gram, but it’s the “good” kind of fat, so you can eat spoonfuls with no shame.
Peanut butter is a high-calorie food, and as long as you’re sticking to the all-natural, no-sugar-added varieties, you’ll benefit from the good-for-you fats found in this spread. “It’s the type of fat, not the amount of fat overall, that really matters when it comes to health,” says Jessica Levings, an Orlando-based registered dietitian. “Monounsaturated fat is one type of ‘healthy’ fat that helps reduce your risk of heart disease, and it’s found in greatest amounts in foods, such as peanuts and peanut butter.”
That said, there are healthier nut butter options that give you more nutrition for the same amount of calories. Walnut butter is much more nutrient dense than its peanut-derived cousin: it has the highest concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, says Levings. Almond butter has more calcium than any other nut butter, adds Meghan Windham, a registered dietitian at Texas A&M. Your best bet is to mix things up by reaching for different jars each time you find yourself in the nut butter aisle.
Pressed kale, celery, and apples will “detoxify” your body. Weight loss, clear skin, better sleep, and enhanced mental clarity are all touted as results of juicing.
Your body doesn’t need much help getting rid of the bad stuff. “The liver naturally detoxes our bodies, and if we eat real, whole foods that are rich in antioxidants and fiber, then our body systems will run efficiently and promote optimal wellness,” says Kelly Puryear, a Tampa-based registered dietitian. “When you juice, you remove fiber and leave the sugar behind. Sugar in the absence of fiber will promote a rapid rise in blood glucose levels,” says Youdim. Eat the whole fruit for a steadier rise in blood sugar that will give you more sustained energy.
In moderation, green juices can provide lots of nutrients—they’re not as bad as downing a pack of Twinkies. If you aren’t actively trying to lose weight, Youdim says it’s fine to slam the occasional glass of juice. Just don’t make it a daily habit.
They’re made from veggies, so how bad can they be? Some companies even boldly proclaim that their snacks should count toward your daily servings of vegetables.
“A fried chip is a fried chip. It does not matter if it’s a fried potato chip, a fried beet chip, or a fried taro chip,” says Youdim. “The harmful ingredient is not the thing being fried but the saturated and trans fats being used in the frying process.” But also, if you look closely at the labels of most veggie chips, starchy ingredients—like potatoes—are listed way before green ones. This one, for example, is made up mainly of potatoes and corn meal, plus oil. “Veggie powder” is almost an afterthought as one of the last ingredients in the list. And even that doesn’t sound healthy.
Many, like pressed turkey, are lean and high in protein. At first glance, they seem like the perfect option for Atkins-style eaters or those trying to cut calories.
Lunch meats are soaked in sodium, often containing 300 milligrams per serving. Plus, many use fillers versus whole muscle, says Windham. Things like bologna and salami are especially guilty of this, containing “mechanically separated chicken and pork.”
Also problematic is that companies douse most sandwich meats with synthetic nitrates, which act as a preservative, as well as artificial flavor and colors. If you’re addicted to the quick and easy lunchtime sandwich, Levings recommends looking for “no nitrate added” offerings, or check out the deli counter and ask them to lay out any additional ingredients that may be in their offerings that day.
As a whole-grain, fiber-rich snack, popcorn can fill you up with lots of volume but not a ton of calories.
Some brands of popcorn can absolutely equate to a virtuous snack, says Levings. But reading the ingredient list is key. “Many microwave popcorns contain partially hydrogenated oils and excess sodium.” And FYI: kettle corn is basically candied popcorn, with lots of added sugar.
When shopping, look for brands that use olive oil and try to keep the sodium levels under 150 milligrams per serving. For a better option, Levings has her clients make their own popcorn. “Place a quarter-cup of popcorn kernels into a paper lunch-size bag. Fold the top over a few times and microwave using the popcorn setting.”
According to a 2014 review of studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, oats can reduce levels of LDL cholesterol, thanks to its soluble fiber. Plus, soluble fiber is filling, meaning you’re less likely to do the “it’s 10 a.m., I wonder if there are donuts in the breakroom” shuffle.
Plain, unsweetened instant oats are an excellent choice. “Instant oatmeal has just been chopped up more finely to where it cooks quicker than something like steel-cut oats,” says Windham. Unfortunately, most of us don’t dig into a bowl of plain oats and think, “This is delicious!” So we tend to reach for the sugar-saturated flavored varieties. Many popular brands contain up to 12 grams of sugar per packet—just slightly less than the 14 grams you’d get in a serving of Oreos. Rather than succumbing to store-bought flavored packages, try adding your own mix-ins so you can control the sweetness and watch the nutrition. A classic combo? Almond butter and banana.
Plant-based diets have a ton of benefits, from lowering risks for cardiovascular disease to reducing cancer risks. Soy nuggets, veggie burgers, and tofurkey all promise meat-like taste and texture without all the ethical and health concerns that accompany a rib eye.
“The majority of ingredients in most processed meat substitutes are really just isolates and concentrates (predominantly soy), which have far less nutritional value than plant-based foods in their whole, unprocessed form,” says Levings. You’re much better off making veggie burgers from scratch. You can find Levings’ favorite black bean burger recipe here.
Meal Replacement Bars and Shakes
These grab-and-go, protein-rich items are perfect for refueling after a workout or noshing when you’re too busy to make a real lunch.
Most of these shakes and bars are full of highly processed ingredients, like denatured proteins, artificial sweeteners, and sodium. Also, “most have too much protein per serving for your body to process and use at one meal and not enough carbohydrates to assist in the metabolism and utilization of the protein in the body,” says Puryear. She adds that research has shown that most humans can metabolize only about 20 grams of protein at a time—a shake with 60 grams will just overload your system.
Plus, your body has a harder time absorbing denatured proteins compared with whole-protein counterparts. If you do need the convenience of a shake, Puryear suggests “selecting protein sources that are most efficiently digested and absorbed by the body, such as whey protein isolate and egg protein,” and look for whole-food ingredients on the label whenever possible.
It’s a natural sweetener with a lower glycemic index than sugar, meaning it won’t spike blood sugar as drastically as other sweeteners. Plus, it sounds natural. Right?
Wrong. This is one of those examples where it pays to keep an eye on nutrition research, because things change quickly. Although agave nectar is high in fructose, which moderates blood sugar better than eating straight glucose, it’s not a worry-free way to satisfy your sweet tooth. “Recent research has found that fructose may actually increase insulin resistance in diabetics and nondiabetics alike,” says Puryear. This could be potentially worse than just spiking blood sugar. Finally, sugar is sugar, and if someone is evangelizing about a healthy version, it’s best to be skeptical.