It’s no secret that many of the “healthy” foods lining supermarket shelves are actually junk foods in disguise (ahem, OJ), but there are some so deep undercover that they’ve probably infiltrated your pantry without a second thought. They flaunt their misleading health halos like it ain’t no thing—meanwhile, they’re loaded with added sugars and other naughty ingredients that are a total buzzkill for the body.
I hate to break it to you but…nutritionists think these 40 staple foods should be on your sh*t list.
Flavored instant oatmeal
Flavored instant oatmeal (think: maple brown sugar or apple cinnamon) are often high in added sugar and sodium. “Look for oatmeal varieties that list the first ingredient as ‘oats,’ contain less than six grams of sugar, and less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving,” says Jacquelyn Costa, R.D., clinical dietitian at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. Or, choose steel-cut or rolled oats and flavor it using your own cinnamon, nutmeg, and fresh fruit.
Boxed vegetable pasta
The differences between vegetable-enriched and regular pasta are so nutritionally insignificant that swapping one for the other doesn’t impact your health very much at all, says Emily Rubin, R.D., clinical dietitian at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. The legit healthier alternative: swapping your go-to pasta for spiraled vegetables or spaghetti squash.
This one really hurts. “Pretzels are basically made out of sugar,” says Cara Walsh, R.D., of Medifast Weight Control Centers of California. “The refined-carb product contains no nutrients that are beneficial for health and aren’t satisfying, hence why so many people tend to overeat them.”
A fried chip is a fried chip, no matter if it’s made from beets or potatoes. “The harmful ingredient isn’t (necessarily) the thing being fried but the saturated and trans fats being used in the frying process,” says Adrienne Youdim, M.D., physician nutrition specialist at the Center for Nutrition in Beverly Hills. Plus, most veggie chips have potatoes listed as their first ingredient and contain the same amount of calories as regular potato chips, adds Rubin. Try baking your own veggie chips from kale, carrots, or zucchini instead to cut back on the fat and sodium and pack in more nutrients.
Pre-made smoothies are often made using fruit juice as a base, making them high in added sugars and calories, says Costa. “A 20-ounce commercial smoothie can be upwards of 200 to 1,000 calories, one to 30 grams of fat, and 15 to 100 grams of added sugar,” she says. Instead, make your own smoothies using frozen fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk, yogurt, and protein powder.
Reduced-fat peanut butter
If you’re buying fat-free or reduced-fat peanut butter in an attempt to shed pounds, save your money—they have roughly the same amount of calories as regular peanut butter with tons of added sugars to make up for the missing fat, says Lauren Blake, R.D. at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Look for a natural peanut butter with an ingredient list that contains no added oils, cane sugar, or trans fats.
“Diet” frozen meals
Frozen meals that are marketed as low-cal and emphasize portion control often clock in at less than 300 calories per entrée and lack vegetables and whole grains, leaving you hungry again in no time, says Costa. These products also tend to be loaded with sodium to preserve freshness (hello, bloat!). “As a healthier and more nutritious alternative, cook your favorite heart-healthy recipes in bulk and freeze individual portions for convenience,” says Costa.
Sure, this delish snack conveniently gives you access to protein on the run, but most jerkies are chock-full of sodium to preserve the meat. “The increased sodium intake can cause water retention and bloating,” says Rebecca Lewis, R.D., in-house dietitian at HelloFresh. Lewis recommends opting for low-sodium turkey jerky instead. “It’s just as delicious without all the salt,” she says.
Fake meat products
Vegetarian “meat” products are often filled with a host of questionable ingredients, such as processed soy protein, canola oil, caramel coloring, and xanthan gum. “If you’re a vegetarian or plant-based eater and rely on meatless meals, choose whole protein sources, such as beans, lentils, eggs, dairy, fermented soy, nuts, and seeds most of the time,” suggests Blake.
Fat-free salad dressing
Fat-free = healthy, right? Not so. “Salads are full of greens, which contain fat-soluble vitamins, essential minerals, and antioxidants that protect our bodies from disease,” says Blake. If you don’t have some healthy fats in here, your body won’t be able to fully absorb those great nutrients you’re getting from the salad, Blake says. The more you know.
Bottled coffee and tea
Although they might be convenient, pre-bottled coffees and teas are often packed with added sugars or sugar substitutes. “I never buy them, since you can easily pack in the calories and the sugar without even realizing it,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, R.D., owner of BZ Nutrition in New York City. Instead, brew your own cup at home, add ice, and take it with you in a to-go cup/
True, light mayo has about half the calories and fat of the full-fledged versions. But as with other light products, cutting the fat often meads adding in sugar and other additives to make up for flavor. “A little healthy fat with your meal helps you absorb key nutrients like vitamins A, D, E and K, so there’s no reason to go low-fat,” says Karen Ansel, R.D., author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging.
Full-fat cheese packs on saturated fat, which most nutritionists recommend limiting. But since cheese is also high in protein and calcium, is fat-free the perfect compromise? Not so much. “In most cases, fat-free cheese tastes like rubber,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read it Before You Eat It. “It doesn’t melt well and it lacks the creamy mouthfeel of the real deal.” Instead, satisfy your cheese craving with a serving as a snack paired with fruit or whole-grain crackers.
Sure, swapping full-fledged sodas for the diet stuff saves calories and sugar. But “zero calories doesn’t mean zero impact on your body,” says Christy Brissette, R.D., president of 80 Twenty Nutrition.
Sugar substitutes can cause bloating and gas, and some research has even found that drinking diet sodas might promote overeating and lead to weight gain, as well as increase your risk of osteoporosis and possibly even type 2 diabetes.
“Açaí bowls sound and look so healthy, it’s easy to get roped into thinking that they’re good for you,” says Ansel. “Really, they’re more like dessert.” Most bowls are exploding with calories, thanks to a heavy-handed combo of ingredients like granola, nut butters, coconut, and way more fruit than you need in one sitting. Instead, make your own healthy breakfast bowl at home by combining low-fat Greek yogurt or cottage cheese with a single serving of your favorite fruit and a tablespoon of chopped walnuts.
Like many processed foods, packaged protein bars are often packed with various forms of sugar (beet syrup, brown rice syrup, cane syrup), excess fats (palm kernel oil, sunflower oil), and artificial colors and flavors. Plus, protein bars sometimes contain gas-causing compounds like sucralose (a sugar substitute) and chicory root (a fiber additive).
“I’ve found that a bar just doesn’t register the same as a meal for me, and I’m hungry again shortly after no matter how many grams of protein or fiber it says are on the label,” says Jess Cording, R.D. If you’re still set on snacking on a post-workout protein bar, Brissette suggests looking for a “clean label” that lists real food ingredients, not ones you can’t recognize.
While it might seem like “protein” cookies are a healthier way to zap a sugar hankering, they’re really just processed, baked goods that are infused with vitamins and protein that aren’t any better for you than regular cookies.
If you’re craving a cookie, says Lisa Moskovitz, R.D., CEO of the New York Nutrition Group, it’s better to limit yourself to a real one a couple of times a week. If you need more protein in your diet, have a serving of a naturally rich source like yogurt, eggs, nuts, beans, fish, or chicken.
The granola you usually find at the store packs a ton of calories, fat, and sugar. “While granola can be part of an overall healthy diet, check the label,” says Lindsey Pine, R.D.”Some brands can have 600 calories per cup.” She recommends choosing one with less than 150 calories, six grams of sugar and two grams of saturated fat per 1/4-cup serving.
Many nutritionists say coconut oil isn’t the “health food” it’s cracked up to be since it’s chock full of saturated fat. “Despite headlines claiming saturated fat isn’t bad for you, the majority of the research still weighs in favor of choosing unsaturated fats and limiting saturated fats,” says Jessica Levinson, R.D., culinary nutrition expert and author of 52-Week Meal Planner.
“When it comes to the health benefits of coconut oil, the jury is still out,” says Ansel. “If you like a little bit in cookies or muffins for the taste instead of butter, that’s fine, but don’t choose it because it’s supposedly better for you.” Otherwise, stick to healthier monounsaturated fats, like avocado, canola, and olive oils.
What’s in a can of whipped cream? Ingredients that make nutritionists’ skin crawl: high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and artificial flavors. “Pretty gross,” says Pine. “I recommend eating real whipped cream over the fake stuff.” Keep your portions to a tablespoon or two—or opt for a dollop of Greek yogurt on top of your berries or pie.
Yogurt is an easy way to get more good-for-your-gut probiotic bacteria along with calcium, protein, and vitamin D. But steer clear of flavored varieties since many are packed with so much sugar they may as well be dessert, says Robin Foroutan, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Also better left untouched: artificially sweetened “light” yogurts, which can cause bloating and gas. Instead, add your own flavor to plain yogurt by mixing in cinnamon, vanilla extract, or fresh berries.
Sure, canned soups are a simple way to load up on veggies—and most of us don’t get enough. But they’re often very high in sodium. “Most things that come in a can are not nearly as nutritious as when you eat them fresh,” says Moskovitz. Either choose a low-sodium can, or ideally make your own soup at home using the rainbow of veggies—carrots, sweet potatoes, ginger, tomatoes, spinach, celery, artichoke hearts—with protein-boosters like chicken, lentils, or Greek yogurt in low-sodium stock.
Pre-made trail mix
Go nuts for nuts—just not all the other ingredients in most pre-made trail mixes, like dried and sweetened cranberries and high-sugar milk chocolate. Many store-bought mixes also pack in added sugars, salts, and oils, adds Moskovitz. “Look for nut mixes that just have nuts as the ingredients, or make your own mix at home by combining raw nuts in a baggy,” she suggests—then stick to a serving size of just couple of tablespoons to keep calories in check.
Although naturally-fermented foods are excellent your digestion and overall health, kombucha is mostly fermented yeast. “Because so many people actually have an overgrowth of yeast in their digestive tracts, drinking kombucha regularly is like pouring fuel on a fire because it can make that imbalance worse,” says Foroutan. Instead, choose foods that are naturally fermented with bacteria like sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, and kefir.
Premade “olive oil” salad dressings
Shelf-stable, pre-made salad dressings aren’t necessarily doing your body any favors. “They’re usually made with preservatives you don’t need,” says Brissette. Even dressing that’s “made with olive oil” often doesn’t check out: If you actually read the ingredients label, olive oil usually appears far down on the list, after other oils like canola or soybean oil, notes Lara Clevenger, R.D.Instead, blend up a homemade vinaigrette using extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, or walnut oil with balsamic or apple cider vinegar and a touch of Dijon mustard.
Fat-free fro yo
Sensing a theme here? “Be careful with frozen treats that say fat-free, as you’re typically not avoiding the biggest issue of all: sugar,” says Moskovitz. In half a cup of frozen yogurt, you will save about half of the calories (80 versus 140 or so), but the fat-free stuff can pack upwards of 20 grams of sugar, versus around 14 grams in regular ice cream…plus it just doesn’t taste as good. Womp. Just have a small serving of that ice cream—you deserve it.
Oat milk, a type of plant milk derived from whole oat grains, has had a health halo around it since it came out on the scene a few years ago. But drinking oat milk isn’t the same as eating a bunch of oats, points out Julie Upton, R.D., co-founder of nutrition website Appetite for Health. It also tends to be higher in calories and fat than your average milk, and has less protein than cow’s milk.
Even though naturally gluten-free foods like fruit, vegetables, quinoa, rice, corn, and potatoes are definitely good for you, many gluten-free packaged foods are just as high in calories, sodium, added sugar, and saturated fat as any other processed food. “Most of the gluten-free flours used to make these products have less nutrients and fiber than the whole-wheat version. Plus nutrients may be stripped away during processing,” says Kim Melton, R.D.
Did you replace honey with agave, thinking it’s healthier? Think again. Most agave syrups are highly processed and more closely resemble high-fructose corn syrup. What’s more, “agave nectar goes straight to the liver when it gets absorbed, which is why it doesn’t raise blood sugar. But large amounts can actually tax the liver, so it’s not the best kind of sweetener,” says Foroutan. You’re better off using honey or a light sprinkling of plain old sugar.
Almond flour may be packed with protein, but it’s also high in calories and fat, Upton points out. For example, half of a cup of almond flour contains 300 calories and 22 grams of fat, compared to 227 calories and 0.6 grams of fat in all-purpose flour.
COLLEEN DE BELLEFONDSColleen de Bellefonds is an American freelance journalist living in Paris, France, with her husband and dog, Mochi.
KRISSY BRADYKrissy is a regular contributor to Prevention, and she also writes for Cosmopolitan, Weight Watchers, Women’s Health, FitnessMagazine.com, Self.com, and Shape.com.
KORIN MILLERKorin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more.