Healthy eating can be puzzling. Just when you think you have it figured out, a new study comes out to make you rethink your approach. To reduce the confusion, we talked to several dietitians to create this list of foods that are mistakenly thought of as “healthy.” Based on their advice, here are 12 foods to avoid, as well as suggestions for truly healthy alternatives.
1. Smoothies & juices
Green smoothies may be all the rage when it comes to clean eating, but store-bought smoothies and juices are often loaded with sugar—to the tune of 30 grams or more in a single beverage. If you don’t have time to make your own and are looking for convenience, take the advice of dietitian Deborah Orlick Levy with Carrington Farms: “Always read the food label and ingredient list,” Levy says. “You might want to tell yourself that fruit and veggies can’t be that bad for you, but if it’s high in sugar, then it likely also contains additives you don’t want to consume, including food dye.” Make sure to check out sugar and calorie counts for the smoothies made at juice bars or your gym, as well. This same advice can be applied to most bottled juices. You don’t need all that extra sugar. To get the nutrients you need, you’re much better off with fresh whole fruits.
2. Sports drinks
These may contain electrolytes, which can help balance fluids in the body, but that doesn’t mean they’re good for us. They usually have a slew of confusing ingredients, such as sucrose syrup, which is just sugar. You can make your own sports recovery drinks. We like the formula from Wellness Mama, which uses just five simple ingredients. Many people also swear by chocolate milk for sports recovery, which research supports. And don’t forget the best hydration option of all: plain water.
3. Egg whites
The calorie count is definitely low, but that’s because most of the nutritional value in an egg comes from the yolk. Keep your egg intact, and you’ll benefit from vitamins A, D, E, iron, protein and healthy fats—which means a full-egg omelet is going to give you more nutrition, help you stay full longer and feel much more satisfied than that egg-white option in the “healthy” menu section.
Real yogurt is great for us, but the grocery store yogurt section is filled with cups containing preservatives, dyes, gums and tons of sugar. The sweeter and more colorful the yogurt, the less healthy it is. Quality yogurt should have just a few ingredients: milk and/or cream and “live active yogurt cultures.” If you like fruit in your yogurt, follow the advice from Colette Heimowitz, vice president of nutrition and education for the Atkins Nutritionals food brand. “Opt for plain Greek yogurt and add fresh berries.” For sweetness, add honey or pure maple syrup. All the dietitians we talked to recommended Greek yogurt over traditional, so what gives? It’s all about how it’s strained. Removing much of the whey increases the amount of protein and decreases the lactose (sugar). And of course, be sure to choose yogurts made from organic and hormone-free milk. Grass-fed milk is even better if you can find it. Making your own yogurt is also very easy. Learn how with this recipe.
5. Instant oatmeal
It may seem like instant oatmeal makes for a convenient, healthy breakfast, but the glycemic index is much higher in those packets than in traditional oatmeal. Old-fashioned rolled oats come in with an index around 55 and steel-cut (partially chopped whole groats) register around 42. Instant oats, because they are more processed, score closer to 85. The higher this number is, the higher it pushes blood sugar, causing swings that are hard for our bodies to manage. You can mix old-fashioned rolled oats and steel-cut oats with healthy ingredients such as dried fruits, nuts and seeds, then mix with water and cook it in the microwave (just microwave steel-cut oats a little longer than you would instant). Or you can make easy and versatile overnight oats. Check out the guidelines at here.
6. Dried fruit
Natural, no-sugar-added dried fruit really is a good snack option, but most packaged products have sugar added. Even those sweetened with fruit juice have unhealthily high levels of sugar. In addition, watch for the ingredient sulfur dioxide, used as a preservative. This sulfite is often linked to allergies and asthma-like symptoms. While it may increase shelf life, you’re better off looking for preservative-free dried fruits. Or dry your own fruit easily with a food dehydrator.
7. Packaged deli meats
Oh no—where to start? Packaged meat is usually filled with nitrates that many studies link to certain types of cancer. Specifically, sodium nitrate is often added—its purpose is to help prevent bacteria and reduce spoilage, but this nitrate also encourages the foodborne illness called listeriosis; is suspected of interfering with oxygen circulation; and is associated with an increased risk for brain tumors, leukemia, and nose and throat cancers. While deli meats are convenient, you’re better off picking up the hobby of roasting your own meats. Roast on the weekends, then slice the meat to use for sandwiches and salads during the week. You might also find high-quality, pastured rotisserie chickens in some grocery stores. If you absolutely depend upon the convenience of deli meats, look for organic versions that use plant-based nitrates.
Whether we want to admit it or not, a muffin is just a little cake in disguise. Most are packed with sugar and calories, especially those giant, soft muffins in the display cases at bakeries and coffee shops. If you want muffins that are made with whole-grain flour and minimize sugar content, you’ll probably need to make your own. Check out this recipe we like, from the whole food blog Cookie + Kate.
9. Trail mix
It sounds good in theory—a mix of hearty and healthy nuts and fruits to refuel us when we’re burning calories hiking or working out. But trail mix is a general term, and it often has ingredients that aren’t so healthy, such as highly salted nuts, pieces of candy or yogurt-covered pretzels (i.e. refined grains covered with sugar). Check out the options in the bulk section of your grocery store closely, paying special attention to sodium and sugar levels, and added dyes and preservatives. Or, make your own trail mix using minimally processed nuts and fruits. If you like, add pieces of dark chocolate or cacao nibs for a bit of antioxidant-rich sweetness. As long as you minimize salt and sugar content, this can be a healthy snack option that will give you long-lasting energy.
10. Fat-free anything
Just because it has “fat-free” on the label doesn’t mean it’s a healthy food. In fact, most dietitians agree that it’s good to consume quality fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, and grass-fed butter and lard. Levy suggests checking the labels on fat-free products. “When fat is removed, sugar, artificial flavors and chemicals are put in its place,” she says. “You’ll see ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, diglycerides, and guar or xanthan gum to name just a few. Steer clear of these foods. Not only are they unhealthy, but they can result in weight gain.”
11. Canned soup
Almost all soup in the grocery store has lots of sodium added to it. Low-sodium is an option, but it’s not a free pass—even these contain much more sodium than soup you can make at home. The recommended amount of sodium per day ranges from 1,500 to 2,300 mg, often the amount in just one can of commercial soup. Try making your own big batches of nutritious, whole-food soups, and freeze individual portions for quick lunches. Find tons of yummy recipes here.
12. English muffins
Many of us think of English muffins and/or bagels as relatively healthy breakfast options. Don’t be fooled—the sugar count is often high and the flours are almost always refined. Kristen Yarker, a dietitian in British Columbia, suggests checking the ingredients list to make sure the bread contains only whole grains. “Look for ingredients like whole-grain wheat (not just whole wheat), brown rice (not just rice flour), whole oats and whole rye,” she says. The sprouted grain bread company Food for Life makes whole-grain Ezekiel English muffins with organic sprouted wheat, barley, lentils and more—and zero sugar. Find them in the freezer section of your grocery store.