Back to Living Better

Health foods that aren't so healthy for you

Buyer beware: Some "health" foods are not so healthy after all. If these items make their way into your grocery cart on a regular basis, you may want to rethink your shopping list.

"Just because something is low-calorie doesn't mean it is good for you," says Lena Beal, MS, RDN, LD, a therapeutic dietitian at Piedmont's Fuqua Heart Center. "Food is fuel, so nourish your body with real foods in their natural, unprocessed state. Studies show that foods high in refined carbohydrates, artificial sugars and added sugar can leave you sluggish and hungry not long after you eat them, and—long-term—can even lead to serious chronic diseases, like diabetes."

1. Granola and protein bars: These on-the-go snacks may claim to have antioxidants and fiber, but they often contain artificial sweeteners, oil, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and food dye. If you choose a bar for a snack, look for one with just a few ingredients, preferably ones you recognize, like nuts and dried fruit.

2. Light salad dressings: If you're going to have a salad, it seems like a no-brainer to pick low-calorie or fat-free salad dressing. However, studies show that consuming vegetables with some healthy fat (think olive oil or avocado) can help your body better absorb vitamins and minerals. Plus, most bottled salad dressings contain sugar, preservatives and artificial flavors. Make your own salad dressing at home using olive oil, your favorite vinegar, lemon juice and fresh herbs.

3. Veggie chips: Veggie chips seem like a dream come true—they taste like potato chips, but claim to have a daily serving of vegetables. Unfortunately, most packaged veggie chips are made primarily from corn flour or potatoes with only a few vegetables mixed in. They contain little fiber and are high in sodium. Try homemade veggie chips instead.

4. Juice: Fruit juice and "green" juice naturally contain a lot of sugar and have little to no fiber. This means you'll drink calories (112 calories in a cup of orange juice) that don't help you feel full.

5. Sushi: Fish is healthy, so sushi is always a good option, right? Wrong! Most sushi rolls are made with white rice, which spikes your blood sugar and leaves you sluggish and hungry, as well as creamy, mayonnaise-based sauces. And if you order fried or tempura rolls, you are looking at a major calorie bomb. Opt for sushi wrapped in brown rice or seaweed only, and steer clear of rolls that are fried or contain creamy sauces.

6. Frozen yogurt: This popular summer dessert sounds healthy, but most frozen yogurts lack the gut-friendly probiotics contained in traditional yogurt. Plus, frozen yogurt often contains added sugar, artificial sweeteners and/or preservatives, making this one not-so-sweet treat. Try one of these better-for-you frozen treats instead.

7. Frozen low-calorie meals: They seem like a harmless lunch option, but frozen low-calorie meals are often full of processed ingredients, salt and sugar, and contain few nutrients. Try a mixed green salad with extra veggies, lean protein and nuts instead.

8. Fat-free flavored yogurt: Like its cousin frozen yogurt, fat-free flavored yogurts have a lot of appeal, but typically contain artificial sweeteners and flavors. Try plain, low-fat or fat-free yogurt with a bit of honey and fresh fruit instead.

9. Vegan baked goods: Just because those cookies are vegan doesn't mean they are a virtuous dessert. Many contain sugar, refined carbohydrates and little nutritional benefits.

10. Pretzels and rice cakes: These crunchy snacks seem like a less greasy alternative to potato chips, but they lack nutrients and fiber that nourish your body and help you feel full. Try unsalted, raw nuts for a healthy crunchy alternative.

11. Gluten-free snacks: Going gluten-free is important if you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, but just because something is gluten-free doesn't mean it's good for you. If it's processed and not found in nature (crackers, cookies, chips, etc.), it probably isn't your best bet for a healthy snack.

12. Smoothies: Smoothies seem like a perfectly balanced breakfast or snack, but many contain more servings of fruit than are recommended per day (four servings), plus added sugar if you use sweetener. Stick to a small smoothie (8 ounces or less), choose a low-fat milk as your base, and add in some vegetables, such as kale or spinach, for more nutritional value.

13. Chicken or turkey wrap: These go-to lunch options can be healthy, but many tortilla wraps contain hundreds of calories and a large portion of your daily sodium limit - and that's before you add cheese, mayo and deli meat. Whole wheat and spinach wraps aren't much healthier because they contain artificial coloring and little nutritional value. Make your own wrap at home using a low-sodium, high-fiber wrap and low-sodium meat. Limit the high-calorie condiments like cheese and mayo.

14. Cereal: Sugary, processed cereal isn't your best breakfast bet, even if it claims to have added vitamins and minerals. Stick to high fiber, unsweetened, whole grain cereal instead.

15. Flavored oatmeal: This breakfast favorite has a healthy halo, but if it is sweetened, flavored or instant, it likely contains artificial ingredients, sugar and sodium. Try plain steel cut or whole rolled oats instead. Add honey, cinnamon and/or fruit for sweetness.   

Look at labels

Beal recommends reading food labels to determine if something is a healthy option. Choose foods with less saturated and trans fat, more soluble fiber, and less sodium and cholesterol.  She also suggests reading ingredient list on your food.

"Sometimes we are misled by packaging that claims a food is ‘multi-grain,' '100 percent wheat,' or 'high-fiber,’ which isn’t necessarily true," she says. "For example, to select whole grain products versus refined products, the first ingredient should be ‘whole wheat flour’, ‘whole grain oats’, or ‘whole’ before the grain’s name. If it says ‘enriched’ or ‘bleached,' it is a less healthy refined carbohydrate."

The bottom line: If your favorite health food is processed and doesn't resemble food found in nature, it probably isn't so good for you. Upgrade to whole, unprocessed foods—think nuts, vegetables, fruit and whole grains—instead. 

For more helpful, healthful tips, click here.

Need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.

Related Stories

Schedule your appointment online