You’re dining out with friends, or maybe taking a trip to a top-notch supermarket. You know that chocolate lava cake, boxes of candy, and deep-fried fish with tartar sauce aren’t healthy choices, so you look over the menu or through the aisles for something a little healthier. Along with the clearly unhealthy options, you’ll find a bunch of other foods that have eye-catching packaging, each appearing healthier than the next.
The health food industry in America often sets us up for failure. To be completely honest, we’ve reached a point at which most Americans have nutrition horribly twisted, reaching for foods whose marketing campaigns have successfully duped us in terms of their quality and healthiness.
A package that suggests its contents are healthy or a small “low-calorie” symbol next to a menu item is no guarantee. So how can you be sure that the food you’ve chosen to spend your hard-earned money on is as nutritious as it’s supposed to be?
We’re here to help. We’ve decided that it was high time to update our 2012 list of 20 “Healthy” Foods That Are Actually Unhealthy (And Fixes). While some of the foods in the following slideshow were considered unhealthy in 2012 and are still considered so in 2016, others are more recent additions, including trendy health foods. Many of these foods appeared on our list of Jennifer Leah Gottlieb, certified personal trainer and weight-loss specialist of The National Academy of Sports Medicine, in her feature on The Daily Meal, These 5 ‘Healthy’ Foods Are Hindering Your Weight-Loss Goals. With that in mind, you can consider the following slideshow a comprehensive roundup of unhealthy “health” foods as told by doctors, registered dietitians, personal trainers, and other healthy eating specialists.
Many of America’s best coffee shops offer something healthy. Thinking of health, a whole-grain option may seem to be the best course of action. If you think that ordering a bran muffin is safe because it’s made with bran, think again. This doesn’t mean it’s healthy, says Laura Cipullo, RD, CDE. Bran muffins are usually made from a processed mix and then moistened up with butter and sugar. Instead, opt for one of these 16 delicious homemade muffin recipes, allowing you to control what goes into your body at breakfast.
Coconut water converts hail its hydrating powers, but L.V. Anderson at Slate reports that “coconut water’s ostensible health benefits have been repeatedly disproven.” It costs more, it’s an acquired taste, and aside from the potassium content, it isn’t likely to be much better for the average, non-athlete than regular tap water. Consider putting a lemon in your water for a cheaper, healthier hydration option.
“It is super easy to be fooled by a big bag of dried fruit,” says Jennifer Leah Gottlieb. “It’s just fruit, which is healthy right? Not exactly! To make the dried fruit taste better, look prettier, and preserve better, companies add chemicals and sugar to this once healthy option. Believe it or not, one cup of fresh cranberries contains four grams of sugar while one cup of dried cranberries contains a whopping 70 grams! These dried little guys also contain more calories. About ¼ cup of raisins [a snack deemed healthy by the Supreme Court] can contain four times the calories in a ¼ cup of real grapes. To mass-produce dried fruit, companies add chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and acrylamide, which studies have shown can cause stomach pains, asthma attacks, and nerve damage. Ditch the dried stuff and opt for the fresh fruit instead!”
Dr. Michael Hall, MD, MSc, PA, DABFM, head of Hall Longevity Clinic in Miami Beach, warns against the presence of GMOs in the production of soybeans. He states that “almost 90 percent of all soy is GMO and has been genetically altered to the point that eating [soybeans or other soy-based products] may actually cause the good gut bacteria to die and cause a very rare form of malnutrition. It is very important for overall health that normal gut flora is processed and assists the body [in] absorb[ing] micronutrients like trace elements and minerals properly.” While soy may not lead to impeccable micronutrient absorption, these foods are great for nutrient retention.
“As I’ve been writing, lecturing, and teaching about for years, dietary cholesterol and egg yolks have never been the real issue,” says Dr. Michael S. Fenster, MD, FACC, FSCA&I, PEMBA, a faculty member at The University of Montana College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences. “The new 2015 dietary guidelines finally acknowledged this by eliminating any limits on dietary cholesterol consumption. Yet we are still continually surrounded by the ‘healthy option’ egg white omelette. Not only is it completely unnecessary, it is calumny and slander to the wonderful flavor, texture, and sublime satisfaction that a perfectly executed omelette can deliver. You might as well just put whatever you would load up your egg white omelette with inside [of a] Styrofoam container and eat that.”
Tricia Williams, chef-nutritionist and founder of Food Matters NYC, says you’re better off making fish at home. She says that in her time in the restaurant industry, she has observed that lots of kitchens brush their fish with melted butter. Additionally, many doctors have started to avoid fish altogether. We’ve got the details on why one doctor has stopped eating tilapia and two more question all kinds of fish. To stay healthy, choosing fish from a sustainable, organic company and making it at home is the way to go.
“Large companies have done a fantastic job tricking us into believing that granola is healthy. The truth is, this innocent-looking snack is just a bad guy in a pretty costume,” says Jennifer Leah Gottlieb. “That bowl of granola you are pouring yourself for breakfast contains more sugar than a cupcake. Yes, most granola does contain nutritious ingredients like fiber, zinc, iron, and vitamin B. However, all of that good stuff gets canceled out when only one cup of store-bought granola has approximately 25 grams of sugar! When it comes to weight-loss, and overall health, sugar is one of the worst things you can put into your body. This little demon can cause insulin resistance, which is believed to be a leading driver of many diseases including metabolic syndrome, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. You can get all of the same nutrients with less sugar by opting for a bowl of oatmeal with some berries instead.”
“Now let’s talk about those bottled green juices that are all the rage right now,” says Jennifer Leah Gottlieb. “Most people think they are being super healthy by adding that cool-looking bottle of green juice into their daily routine. Hate to ruin it for you, but one popular bottled juice has 270 calories, 63 grams of carbs and 53 grams of sugar! That is more sugar than five Krispy Kreme doughnuts! If you want to get benefits from juicing, stick to bottled juices that contain vegetables only, or invest in a juicer and make your own. By drinking juice fresh from the juicer or simply eating raw veggies, you’ll reap the benefits of all those healthy enzymes and antioxidants minus the sugar demon.”
Laura Cipullo points out that what seems like a heart-healthy choice at the sandwich counter is often tainted by fatty toppings like cheese and bacon and served with French fries. Instead, make it at home, cut out the bacon, and serve with some grilled vegetables on the side. If you’re struggling to keep grilled chicken interesting, try one of our 11 Quick and Healthy Grilled Chicken Recipes.
Here’s another dish that’s better made at home. Nicole Ring, RD, says that while linguine and clams in a white wine broth may seem like a healthy, light entrée choice, the portion sizes are often enough for two or three people to share. Unfortunately, cricket flour pasta isn’t a thing yet, and all-purpose flour is the base of most pastas. That white pasta adds unnecessary calories that may leave you feeling hungry a short while later, and in many sauces, heavy oil is used to sauté veggies, but then butter is used for the finish.
Instead, make this at home using whole-wheat pasta and cut out the butter, using just enough heart-healthy olive oil to coat the pasta lightly. Use chopped fresh herbs and garlic to make the dish light yet flavorful. Looking for a gluten-free option? Try one of our 10 Great Pasta Recipes for Lovers of Gluten-Free Pasta.
Vegetarian options are seemingly healthy, so you opt for the Portobello mushroom burger from one of the best burger joints in America. It ends up being a deep-fried, breaded Portobello mushroom filled with cheese. Guess what? Laura Cipullo says in this case, a standard burger would be healthier, especially if it’s made with lean beef. Sure, there are plenty of reasons not to eat red meat, but ground beef is more beneficial nutritionally than a fried, breaded, cheese-stuffed mushroom. Don’t be fooled by such vegetarian meals when eating out. Many times they have excess cheese, not enough vegetables, and are loaded with unhealthy fats.
“Protein bars are super convenient and tasty, and they are often marketed to be a healthy option,” says Jennifer Leah Gottlieb. “When someone tells you that a snack with the words ‘chocolate chip cookie dough’ in it is healthy, I don’t blame you for immediately stocking up your desk drawer with these seemingly too-good-to-be-true yummies. I hate to break it to you, but if your goal is weight loss, the protein bar is not your friend. Most protein bars actually have similar nutritional contents as many of our favorite candy bars. Most are packed with artificial ingredients and preservatives that can cause bloating and sugar cravings. Similar to smoothies, all protein bars are not the same. If you’re in a pinch and must use a bar as a convenient option, make sure you read the ingredients and nutrition facts. If there is a word in the ingredient list that you cannot pronounce, I would steer clear. [You should try making your own protein bars with ingredients that you know, trust, and can pronounce.] Other words to beware of include ‘evaporated cane juice,’ ‘high fructose corn syrup,’ ‘hydrogenated vegetable oil,’ and ‘agave syrup.’ Also, if the bar is not a meal replacement, stick to under 200 calories.”
Laura Cipullo says that the skin of chicken is basically just fat, and the darker meat is higher in saturated fat — a historically debated source of fat. So opt for the white meat, and do your arteries a favor and take the skin off. Often, store-bought rotisserie chicken is soaked in sodium-laden brine and seasoned with sugar. If you roast your own whole chicken at home, you can take the skin off before cooking and choose your own spices to make it extra lean.
Tricia Williams says that salads are generally a bad pitfall for people who think they’re making a healthy choice and option. Asian chopped salads, Cobb salads, and Caesar salads are loaded with non-vegetable items (nuts, dried fruit, tortillas, cheese, bacon, croutons, etc.) that really stack up the calories. Your salad doesn’t need to be boring to be healthy. It’s best to build your own salad and make conscious choices about what’s in the mix! Say hello to warm weather with these 12 healthy spring salad recipes.
“Many of these new, trendy juice shops are turning what should be a nutritious snack into a full-on desert packed with hidden sugar and empty calories,” says Jennifer Leah Gottlieb. “Always check the menu ingredients before you order. Would you sit down and eat a banana, a cup of berries, a glass of milk, a cup of sweetened frozen yogurt, and two tablespoons of peanut butter in one meal and expect to lose weight? Of course not! Why are you drinking it? Most smoothie-shop concoctions contain 400 to 500 calories and between 18 and 50 grams of sugar! However, all smoothies are not created equal. You can create your own smoothie for a healthy and delicious after workout snack that won’t hinder your weight loss goals. Try to stick to water as a base instead of milk or frozen yogurt, and add one or two fruits, some veggies, and a scoop of unsweetened protein powder.”
Laura Cipullo agrees, suggesting that you make your own healthy smoothies rather than buy them. Use whole fruits, Greek yogurt, and water to keep this a refreshing and healthy snack. Say goodbye to the scoops of sugar, the artificial flavorings, and the sweetened yogurts found in your smoothie store.
Laura Cipullo says that many delis and restaurants add cornstarch to make soups thicker and salt cubes to make them tasty. Instead, make a wholesome soup at home like this Southwest Chicken and Cucumber Soup using a healthier broth base flavored with herbs and spices.
Rehydrating sports drinks contain high levels of sodium, potassium, and sugar. High concentrations of these can cause high blood pressure, seizures, and cardiac problems. The Academy of General Dentistry also points out that “sports drinks are highly acidic and can erode the tooth enamel.”
“Many dieters flock to sushi restaurants [such as one of The 35 Best Sushi Bars in America] because of the misconception that a penny-sized portion of protein doused in a creamy mayo-based sauce and wrapped in rice is healthy,” says Jennifer Leah Gottlieb. “There are definitely healthy options at your favorite sushi joint, but the maki sushi roll is not one of them. Many don’t know this, but most sushi restaurants add sugar to their white rice to give it that sticky consistency. Combine that with the other ingredients they often add like cream cheese, mayo, and crispy anything and you can rack up a good 500 calories in only a few bites. When having sushi, opt for sashimi or a Naruto roll, which is a sushi roll wrapped in cucumber instead of rice.”
Yes, sweet potato fries are high in vitamin A, but they are often no better than regular fries, says Laura Cipullo. There is nothing unhealthy about a sweet potato. They’re one of many complex carbs great for weight-loss. The fact that sweet potato fries are fried in some unknown vegetable oil, though, is what makes them so unhealthy. Fried foods are associated with clogging your arteries and even cancer. Instead, make and bake your fries. Baking fries, whether sweet or not, is the best option. Jennifer Leah Gottlieb can teach you how to make healthy sweet potato fries in addition to showing you healthier versions of other classic unhealthy foods.
Laura Cipullo advises: If you want to eat a tuna sandwich, ditch the soggy white bread, the thick mayonnaise, and the mercury-laden canned albacore tuna. Instead, make it fresh in your kitchen with a pure, organic brand of albacore and add fiber and antioxidants with celery and colorful peppers. Moisten with a tad of anti-inflammatory olive oil and vinegar. Serve on toasted whole-wheat bread or sprouted grain bread for an extra dose of fiber.
Many people have been brainwashed into thinking that turkey bacon is a healthy option. With popular low-carb, high-protein, high-fat diets promoting their own method by saying that you can still enjoy bacon while dieting, it’s no wonder why people are confused about the various forms of this incredibly popular processed meat. Tricia Williams says turkey bacon has as many calories as bacon from swine, and it is loaded with sodium and artificial ingredients like liquid smoke. Your best bet if you’re going to indulge is to look for a heritage variety of bacon from a small production farm that’s free of nitrates and sugars.
Laura Cipullo says that everyone orders the turkey burger thinking that it is healthier than beef when, in fact, the beef burger is often leaner. Know the percentage of lean meat and choose the burger with greater than 90 percent lean meat. The Daily Meal featured a great Healthy Beef Burger recipe in its 2015 roundup of the 50 Best Burger Recipes. Pair this lean burger with a whole-grain English muffin and voilà, a healthy, balanced lunch!
America’s favorite healthy lunch sandwich, right? Well, it may not be so healthy if the deli is piling on six to eight ounces of turkey plus cheese, mayonnaise, and all the fixings, says Laura Cipullo. Instead, make it at home, use half the amount of meat, and add a slice of the good green fat, avocado. The health benefits of avocado are vast, and your body will thank you for avoiding the artery-clogging properties of mayo and cheese.
Lettuce, tomato, onions, sprouts, avocado, and cheese on whole-wheat bread sounds healthy, but Nicole Ring, RD, says this combo can be a diet disaster if you’re ordering out. The bread is often oversized, toasted, and buttered. The description can be misleading, not to mention the mayonnaise or other sauces used on the sandwich, and larger portions of fats (even if they are healthy fats) that pile on calories.
Instead, make a vegetarian meal at home. Try one of these 50 Vegetarian Recipes for Meatless Mondays – or Any Other Time. This can allow you to reduce those extra, unnecessary calories. And forgo the extra slices of cheese. Just using one slice instead of two or three may cut up to 200 calories, depending on the type of cheese.
Tricia Williams says that veggie burgers are often loaded with over-processed proteins and soy products. While they are vegetarian, there aren’t a whole lot of actual vegetables in veggie burgers, so they’re not necessarily a healthy choice. Rather, they’re often just a non-meat junk food. Homemade burgers, such as this Hearty Quinoa Black Bean Veggie Burger, are a snap to make and incredibly nutritious. Controlling the ingredients of your favorite vegetarian meals is the best way to ensure you continuously provide your body with sound nutrition.
While this supplement is widely used by athletes and smoothie-enthusiasts, whey protein may not be as healthy as we all assume. “Whey protein is a popular sport supplement for building muscle. The problem with whey is that it contains an insulin-like growth factor that stimulates the body’s production of insulin and androgens,” says Dr. Janet H. Prystowsky, MD, PC. “The increased insulin and androgen production increases sebum production in the skin, resulting in acne. If you use whey protein and have acne, switching to a non-milk protein source like a pea protein powder could alleviate your acne. There is no evidence that concentrated protein supplements help a healthy athlete anyway.”
The Daily Meal has plenty of delicious smoothie recipes with dairy-free protein.
Tricia Williams says that whole-wheat wraps contain gluten and are high on the glycemic index, and she urges you to toss them out and switch to lettuce wraps. Chicken salad lettuce wraps and apricot orange lettuce wraps using romaine and Boston lettuce can be healthy swaps. Making them yourself allows you to control how much sugar, fat, and, ultimately, calories are in your healthy diet.