If a dietitian won’t eat a particular food, it’s probably a good sign that you shouldn’t be eating it either. Dietitians and nutritionists make their careers by examining the healthful and unhealthful ingredients in foods and determining what’s good for our bodies and what’s not. Some no-gos are obvious: candy, soda and anything fried, for instance. Others may be less obvious, and you may be surprised to find out that some foods you thought were healthy wouldn’t make it past a dietitian’s lips. Find out which foods top dietitians will always pass up and you should too.
1. Fiber Bars
Fiber is good for you, and you need 25 to 35 grams in your diet each day, but you shouldn’t get it from fiber bars, says registered dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick. She explains that fiber bars contain excessive amounts of sugar with few nutritious ingredients, and she calls them “nothing more than a candy bar in disguise.” There are plenty of healthy, whole-food sources of fiber that don’t come with any added sugar. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes are all good sources of healthy fiber.
2. Processed Meats
You’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it twice processed meats, such as bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausages and lunch meats, are harmful to your health, warns registered dietitian Elizabeth Jaramillo-Lopez. In fact, a 2010 study by Harvard researchers found that consuming processed meats raises the risk of heart disease by 42 percent and the risk of diabetes by 19 percent. In addition to the sometimes hefty amount of saturated fats — the unhealthy fats that increase cholesterol — processed meats also contain sodium nitrate, a chemical additive that preserves the color of meat, adds flavor and acts as a preservative, Jaramillo-Lopez reports. “What research has found, is that sodium nitrate is linked to various types of cancer,” she says. The American Cancer Society explains on its website that sodium nitrate converts to nitrosamines (known cancer-causing substances in animals).
3. Fat-Free Foods
If you’re enticed by bright, shiny packages of food that boast about their lack of fat as you walk through the aisles of your local market, beware. Registered dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick says that although you’ll save some calories, you’ll pay for it in other ways. Usually, she says, manufacturers replace the fat they remove with sugar, which can be even worse for your health, especially if the fat was a healthy mono- or polyunsaturated fat. These fats are healthy for you in moderation and benefit heart health. Also, when you eat healthy fats along with simple carbohydrates — which tend to spike blood sugar on their own — your blood sugar stays more stable.
4. Sugary Boxed Cereals
If you fondly remember those little boxes of sugary cereal that were might have been apart of your daily routine when you were a kid, it’s time to grow up. Flakes, puffs, Os and star-shaped bits of refined grains coated with sugar and sometimes mixed with bits of marshmallow and chocolate pieces should have no place on your breakfast table, says registered dietitian Nina Dougherty. “They’re basically white flour sprayed into shapes,” she explains. Sometimes they’re fortified, but choosing a whole-grain cereal is a much better way to get your nutrients without all the sugar. Fortified and heavily processed cereals are also devoid of fiber, which is important for digestive health and satiety, Dougherty adds. If you are craving a healthy but sweet cereal try whole grain cereal with fruit.
5. Candy Bars
Whether you like chewy chocolate-covered nougat or straight milk chocolate, you’re biting into a bar of fat and sugar, with few nutrients. One common store-bought candy bar contains more than 260 calories; 143 of those calories come from the bar’s 35 grams of added sugar. That’s about 8 teaspoons of sugar! Compare this to the American Heart Association’s suggested daily added sugar intake limit of 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men, which have 100 and 150 calories respectively. Sugar has no redeeming qualities, says registered dietitian Elizabeth Jaramillo-Lopez. She warns that excess sugar intake leads to weight gain, diabetes and a host of other health problems.
6. Flavored Gelatin
It’s sweet, it’s wobbly, it comes in a rainbow of colors, but it’s not good for you. Consulting nutritionist Carole M. Farina says you’d never catch her eating flavored gelatin. A mixture of sugar, water, artificial coloring and animal byproducts, Farina calls flavored gelatin a “nothing food” that offers little nutritional value. “It’s great for when you’re sick,” she says. “It gives you some easily digestible sugar calories.” But, she concedes, “It’s not anything I’d want when I’m sick.” Unless you’ve got the flu, you’re probably better off passing on the green gelatin mold and snacking on some fresh fruit instead.
7. Fast Food
Registered dietitian Nina Dougherty’s biggest problem with fast food is the lack of color: “It’s just brownish, with white, pasty, creamy things.” She’s referring to the ranch dressing, coleslaw, french fries, refined breads and so forth. If a food lacks color, Dougherty says, it’s probably overly-processed, high in fat and low in nutrients. In fact, the healthiest foods are brightly colored fruits and vegetables: deep green kale, bright red berries, vibrant orange carrots and bell peppers, for example. Dougherty also notes that because these foods are processed, they’re usually very soft and don’t require a lot chewing. This means less sensory involvement with your food and, as a result, decreased feelings of fullness after eating them. If you want a healthy alternative to fast food try Panera Bread!
8. Specialty Coffee Drinks
If you’re hooked on your morning caramel latte with whipped cream, you might want to take a closer look. “These are just loaded with empty calories,” says registered dietitian Elizabeth Jaramillo-Lopez. Even a plain latte with whole milk and sweetener can be 300 calories, she notes. Add in chocolate, caramel and whipped cream and you could almost double that. “Coffee in general does have some great benefits,” says Jaramillo-Lopez, noting that it’s high in antioxidants and can protect against type 2 diabetes and prevent liver cancer. “But when you start adding in the extras, like cream and sugar,” she says, “often the benefits are outweighed.” She recommends that you choose to drink your coffee black with a little reduced-fat milk and a touch of a natural sweetener like honey or stevia.
9. Boxed Meals
When your entire meal comes in a box or bag, you’re in trouble, because it’s almost always highly processed and laden with fat, sugar and sodium. Take boxed macaroni and cheese, for instance, with its white, enriched noodles and oddly orange-colored powdered “sauce.” One cup of prepared mac and cheese — a small portion — has 3 grams of saturated fat and almost 1,000 milligrams of sodium. That’s more than 15 percent of the saturated fat you should have in a day if you follow a typical 2,000-calorie diet, according to the American Heart Association, and it’s over half the recommended daily sodium limit for healthy adults.
10. Fried Foods
Fried foods rarely make it past registered dietitian Elizabeth Jaramillo-Lopez’s lips. “These tend to be pretty high in fat, especially the bad fats, the saturated and trans fats,” she says. Both fats raise your bad, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and trans fats lower your good, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. Both fats increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. “Fats are important for our bodies,” she says. “Fats give us energy, they protect our organs, they even help us process some nutrients, but we want to be smart about the fats we eat.” Jaramillo-Lopez recommends choosing foods rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fats like avocados, nuts, seeds and fish. She also recommends choosing healthy cooking methods like grilling, boiling and poaching instead of frying.
11. Frozen Meals
Farina warns that most frozen meals should be scratched from your grocery list. Although they’re convenient on rushed work nights, the balance of nutrients is off, Farina says. “They have too much carbohydrate and not enough protein,” a combination which, she says, will only leave you hungry soon after eating. Although there are some better options for frozen meals, especially at health food stores, Farina says you’re better off taking out some time on the weekends to cook up a large batch of grilled chicken, vegetables and whole grains and then freezing individual servings to heat up later in the week.
12. Snack Cakes
Ubiquitous in convenience stores and gas stations, these little packaged sugar and fat bombs are hard to resist when you’re on the go and craving a sweet treat. But resist them you must, cautions registered dietitian Sonja Goedkoop in an interview with “Washingtonian” magazine. With over 35 ingredients, including high-fructose corn syrup, vegetable shortening, animal shortening and FD&C Yellow #5, these aren’t food, but straight sugar and fat with some artificial coloring. According to Goedkoop, the longer the ingredient list, typically the worse it is for you — a clear case of more isn’t always better.
Once thought of as a healthier alternative to butter, margarine has now been revealed as a dietary demon. Nutritionist Farina explains that the process of hydrogenating vegetable oil to create margarine also creates trans fat, a dangerous substance that increases your unhealthy LDL cholesterol and decreases your healthy HDL cholesterol. Medical research shows that, generally, the more solid the margarine, the higher the trans fat content. If margarine is your only option, you should look for margarines that are low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated fat and free of trans fat.
Nutritionist Dr. Mike Roussell calls grits, the old Southern favorite, a “hyper-refined carbohydrate,” because the corn used to make this bland breakfast food has been so processed that it lacks much in the way of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats or fiber. He also says that due to their absence of natural flavor, grits require heavy cream and butter just to make them edible, which he calls the “blood-vessel-destroying, unholy marriage of simple carbohydrates and saturated fat.” Instead, cook up a bowl of hot whole oats and top them with fresh fruit and a drizzle of coconut milk.
No more than fat whipped with sugar, commercial cake icing is off limits. “Icing is loaded with calories and sugar,” Jaramillo-Lopez says. “Depending on what it’s made of, sometimes it can have added trans fats.” Trans fats are the dangerous fats that increase your unhealthy LDL cholesterol and decrease your healthy HDL cholesterol. In fact, trans fats are so unhealthy that the Food and Drug Administration is working to eliminate them from the American food supply. Just stay away from them at all cost! To make matters worse, many commercial frostings get their unnatural hue from artificial food colorings, which pose their own set of hazards. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, food dyes are linked to allergic reactions, hyperactivity in children and cancer.
16. Breakfast Toaster Pastries
With their buttery, flaky crusts, sugary fillings and frosted tops, those pastries popping out of your toaster aren’t breakfast, they’re desserts — and unhealthy ones at that. But, that doesn’t stop manufacturers from trying to pass toaster pastries off as a healthy way to start the day. A lot of children start their day off with this toaster treat, but is this really something we want to give them to fuel them up? Farina warns that toaster pastries don’t contain anything that will properly fuel you for your day. Although you might get a burst of energy from the more than 16 grams of sugar in one pastry, Farina says these breakfast toaster pastries offer no lasting energy from complex carbs.