If you’re planning to overhaul your diet, it’s important to know what your healthiest food and beverage options are. The problem is, it’s not always easy to cut through the marketing noise.
“I want my clients to practice a balanced approach to eating, not guilting themselves over black and white, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food,” says John Fawkes, nutrition counselor, certified personal trainer and editor at evidence-based wellness resource, The Unwinder. “However, that balanced mindset gets sabotaged when companies market their food products as healthy using misleading information or buzzword-inspired branding.”
Don’t worry, we’re here to help you out. Here are some so-called “healthy” foods that you should do your best to avoid — and what to eat instead.
On the face of it, dried fruit seems like a healthy snack choice. Fruit contains fiber, but fiber is removed from the fruit during the drying process, says Vanessa Rissetto, a registered and certified dietitian nutritionist and the co-founder of Culina Health. The process also removes the water, so basically all you’re left with is sugar. It may also have added sugar and sulfur to preserve it longer.
“Dried fruit is sort of similar to having a candy bar, except there are still the antioxidants and minerals,” Rissetto says. A much healthier option is fresh fruit, which keeps you feeling full longer and still has all the fiber.
Most Commercial Protein Powders
Protein powders are one of those food products where the sourcing and ingredients make all the difference, notes Fawkes.
“Most popular brands come loaded with sugar and artificial flavors,” he explains. “That’s because protein isolates of any form, from whey to vegan options like pea or soy isolate, taste pretty terrible on its own,” Fawkes said. “Sugar and artificial additives make these things palatable but have questionable health consequences, especially when you consume them every day.”
Fawkes also recommends paying attention to “specialty” ingredients snuck into these powders.
“In many cases, this’ll be things advertised as natural energy boosters or muscle enhancers,” he says. “This is often a marketing ploy covering up certain steroids or stimulants you likely don’t need and aren’t even aware you’re consuming.”
Flavored Soy Milk
Soy milk is an excellent plant-based milk alternative with similar nutrition to cow’s milk, but many versions are heavily sweetened. Registered dietitian Stacey Krawczyk, the consulting registered dietitian for the Grain Foods Foundation, recommends choosing plain, unsweetened versions for the lower sugar option, especially when adding to your favorite cereal, smoothie or recipe.
If you can’t drink soy milk without the flavor, Trista Best, a Georgia-based registered dietitian nutritionist at Balance One Supplements, suggests adding natural flavorings like honey or monk fruit extract.
People often think trail mix is healthy because it contains nuts, but there’s often a lot of added sugar, syrup and salt, warns Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food.”
“These added sugars have shown to create inflammation in the body and the brain, which leads to increased levels of anxiety, depression and mental fatigue,” Naidoo says. She suggests a handful (a quarter-cup) of plain almonds, hazelnuts or blueberries instead.
Fat-Free Flavored Yogurt
Fat-free flavored yogurt was created to increase revenue by providing an alternative to full-fat dairy, says Best. But it doesn’t result in better health or weight loss, and may even contribute to poor health outcomes, she warns.
“Conjugated linoleic acid is a type of fat added in fat-free products and is responsible for the weight loss efforts of the food,” Best says. “Fat-free yogurts do not have enough of this added ingredient to support weight loss efforts.”
“When something is marketed as ‘low-fat’ it usually means ‘added sugar,’” says Jay Cowin, registered nutritionist and director of formulations for Asystem. “The taste is in the fat, so to replace what is being lost, companies add sugar.”
Naidoo suggests a plain, full-fat yogurt, with added fresh or frozen berries and a sprinkling of cinnamon.
Fruit cocktail is usually drowned in syrup, which increases the sugar content, and it typically contains fruits with a higher glycemic load, such as peaches, explains Rissetto. (Glycemic load is a number that estimates how much a particular food will raise a person’s blood glucose level after eating it.)
“If you want to have fruit, just have the fruit – there’s no need to add the syrup,” Rissetto says. “At that point, with all the sugar and calories, you could be eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.”
Pretzels contain fewer calories than potato chips, but they’re not very nutritious. So you might want to go for something that has more “staying power, and can be paired with foods that contain protein, healthy fats and fiber, suggests Krawczyk.
Whole-grain crackers or toast with nut butter or hummus will be a more satisfying snack, she says.
While there are some protein bars that are nutritious, the majority of those that are readily available are best avoided, says registered dietitian Tejal Pathak, a clinical dietitian, diabetes educator and practitioner based in Houston.
“Many of the brands that claim to be low sugar/low carb and high protein potentially have artificial sweeteners, whey or soy protein isolate (which requires more processing and looses other key nutrients) and/or sugar alcohol to make them taste better,” Pathak explains. “Some claim to be high in fiber and may contain synthetic fiber, which can cause some gastrointestinal issues like bloating, loose stools and gas.”
Instead, she suggests homemade protein bar with prunes, dates, almond flour, oats, cocoa, nuts and seeds — because the healthiest way to get protein and fiber is from whole foods.
Typically, frozen yogurt is made of milk solids, some kind of sweetener, milk fat, yogurt culture, plus flavorings and sometimes coloring (natural or artificial). In other words, it’s packed with sugar, Cowin says.
“If you’re looking for a snack to replace frozen yogurt, you can try half a ricotta cheese mixed with fresh berries,” he suggests. “Ricotta cheese has protein, healthy fats and a decent amount of calcium.”
Organic Snack Foods
Just because something is labeled “organic” doesn’t make it a healthy snack choice, Krawczyk says. She recommends reading the nutrition facts label and opting for snacks that check the box on providing a balance of protein, healthy fats and fiber — whether they’re “organic” or not.
Instead of cookies, microwave apple slices with a pinch of cinnamon, and replace potato chips with a handful of nuts.
A veggie omelet is usually a good option, but it can quickly turn into a bad one if you get the balance of ingredients wrong, says registered dietitian, author and founder of Hispanic Food Communications Sylvia Melendez-Klinger. If you use four to five eggs for one omelet, just a small amount of veggies, and/or include tons of cheese and fry the omelet in large amounts of saturated fat, you’re missing out on a balanced meal.
“To make a good-sized omelet instead, use one to two eggs and the rest of egg whites and make sure to load your omelet with veggies,” Melendez-Klinger says. “Vegetables should be part of every meal. But remember that variety is key, so serve that loaded veggie omelet with a side of wheat toast for extra fiber.”
Most Commercial Salad Dressings
If you don’t like the taste of vegetables on their own, you might be tempted to drown them with salad dressing. The problem is, most commercial salad dressings are loaded with sugar, vegetable oils and trans fats.
“Commercial salad dressings are best used in moderation,” Cowin says. “Stick to the serving size if you have to go the commercial route until your taste buds change. I’d recommend oil and vinegar with some mustard for flavor. Again, moderation is key.”
Bad news on the OJ front: Fruit juices are basically just liquid sugar.
“Unfortunately the added sugars in fruit juice make this less desirable than simply eating a piece of fruit,” Naidoo says. “Eat the orange (which is packed full of vitamins, minerals and most importantly fiber) and skip the store bought OJ.” The benefits of fiber include the growth of “good” gut bacteria, she adds.
Once upon a time, butter was the bad guy and margarine was a health hero. Then we realized that processed foods were more damaging to our heart than the real natural lightly-processed butter, says Melendez-Klinger. But if you must stay away from butter, go for blended butters with heart-healthy oils and margarines with plant sterols.
It’s important to check the fat breakdown on the nutrition label, Pathak adds. She recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 10% and avoiding trans fat completely.
“Be mindful that food companies can claim zero grams of trans fat if it has less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving, so check the label for use of partially hydrogenated oils,” she warns.
Sports drinks are specifically developed for endurance athletes, and that’s why they have ingredients such as sugar and electrolytes like sodium and potassium to help athletes train for high endurance sports, Melendez-Klinger explains. However, the average person probably can do well with water.
“If you’re suffering from severe dehydration, fever or other illnesses such as diarrhea that needs rapid hydration, adult pedialyte could be a good option,” Melendez-Klinger says.
People often think of agave nectar as a better alternative to honey or other sugars, but it’s just another sweetener.
“It has the calories and the same fructose available in sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup and is also processed, unlike a natural sweetener like honey, which also has other benefits such as antioxidants,” Melendez-Klinger says. If you’re looking for a lower-calorie sweetener, she suggests sweeteners with five or less calories per serving — or use moderate amounts of your favorite caloric sweetener.”
There’s little that’s natural about so-called “natural” soda. In fact, the only advantage of choosing a natural soda is if you like the fact that it is made with cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup, says Brenda Braslow, registered dietitian for MyNetDiary.
“Sugar, whether from corn syrup or cane syrup, has the same sugar calories,” Braslow explains. “One 12-ounce can of natural soda has the same 160 calories with 43 grams of carbohydrate (all from added sugar). That is the equivalent of about 10 teaspoons of sugar. Natural soda will cause weight gain and tooth decay just like the rest on the shelf.”
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup, also known as rice malt syrup, is another sweetener that’s often assumed – wrongly – to be healthy. Made by exposing cooked rice to enzymes that break down the starch into simple sugars, it has a very high glycemic index. This means the glucose in it will spike blood sugar fast.
Also, the sweetness of brown rice syrup is a little less intense than other sweeteners, such as agave nectar, says Melendez-Klinger. This means you may be tempted to use more to get the same sweet effect.
Vegan Junk Foods
“Most vegan foods rely on soy or wheat gluten for the protein content, but soy is best when used in its whole form or fermented form like tempeh or miso,” Pathak says. “It is known that processed soy when consumed in high quantities can cause hormonal imbalance in the body.”
She recommends checking the ingredient list before you buy — just like you should with non-vegan junk food.
Low-Carb Junk Foods
When there are flashy labels on the packaging of junk foods, like “no carb,” it’s important to look more closely at the ingredients and nutrition label.
“Low carb does not mean low fat or fat-free or low sodium or free of other added preservatives, artificial colors and sugars,” Pathak says. All these ingredients can have an adverse effect on your gut bacteria. If you want a low-carb snack, she recommends kefir, a handful of nuts and seeds, eggs, carrots, cherry tomatoes or cucumbers.
Most Processed Breakfast Cereals
Breakfast cereals may be marketed as the healthiest way to start your day, but the reality is that they are just another type of processed food.
“Be wary of the amount of sugar and actual whole grain as you make your choice,” Naidoo advises. “Read the food label and really understand what you are eating. Sugary and highly processed foods have been linked to a higher risk of developing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, insomnia and fatigue, among others.”
Vegetable oils like soybean oil, grapeseed oil, sunflower oil and canola oil are usually less expensive and often used in fast food restaurants for that reason, Naidoo says.
“They have high levels of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are linked to inflammation in the body,” she explains. “Try to limit using these if you can and try olive oil or avocado oil instead.”
A pre-bottled smoothie might seem like a good way to get more fruits and veggies into your diet. But if you look closely at the actual content of these drinks, you might think differently, Fawkes says.
“The problem comes from the buzzwords and selling points distracting you from the actual contents of these drinks,” Fawkes explains. “You’ll see labels like ‘all natural,’ which doesn’t have an FDA-regulated standard definition.”
Most smoothies come loaded with artificial sugars. It’s not uncommon to find anywhere from 40-60 grams of sugar per serving, with over two servings in one bottle, Fawkes points out. That’s over four to six times your recommended sugar intake a day! It’s far better to just stick with whole fruits and veggies — you’ll feel full after eating them, plus you’ll reap the benefits of the fiber and unprocessed micronutrients.
Veggie straws are marketed as a healthier alternative to potato chips, claiming to be full of vegetables, 30% lower in fat than potato chips, gluten-free, cholesterol-free, non-GMO and kosher.
“The first three ingredients are potato starch, potato flour and corn starch,” Braslow says. “Yes, they are mildly healthier than potato chips (and more expensive) with less fat and sodium but I wouldn’t give the green light for regular consumption. Unlike raw vegetables, they have less than 1 gram of dietary fiber per serving. Nosh on raw veggies instead!”
Frozen Vegan Meals
If you’re vegan for health reasons, give frozen meals a wide berth.
“The sodium, fat and calorie content in most of these meals makes them among the worst vegan foods to purchase,” Best says. “They offer little in the way of essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals and are significantly dense in calories and fat.”
Instead, Best recommends making your own vegan meals with plant-based pastas or whole-grain wraps, and lots of veggies to be frozen and easily accessed. These are far better than relying on frozen meals that are dangerously high in sodium and will leave you feeling hungry shortly after due to their refined carbohydrate content.