This article was medically reviewed by Marjorie Cohn, M.S., R.D.N., a member of the Prevention Medical Review Board, on November 10, 2019.
Avoiding certain foods can be hard, especially when they’re specifically designed to taste good. But here’s the catch: A lot of the foods we’re told we shouldn’t eat might not actually be all that bad for us. In fact, what’s deemed “bad” for you might be totally different than what’s considered “bad” for someone else.
For example, you might have the idea that things like dairy or gluten aren’t good for you because you get an upset stomach or develop a headache after eating them. “It’s important to understand that foods like dairy and wheat are common allergens, and some people don’t tolerate them well,” says Julie Andrews, M.S., R.D.N., a Wisconsin-based dietitian and nutrition consultant. “But that doesn’t mean they are bad for everyone.”
But while every person has a completely different body and foods they might negatively react to, there are some foods out there that are still worth trying to generally avoid. We’re talking about the ones that either don’t offer much nutritional value for your body, or, in some of the worst cases, actually pose a health risk to you. Here’s what to know about which foods you might want to consider staying away from.
Fruit canned in syrup
The reason this type of fruit is so yummy? Sugar, sugar, and more sugar. “When a fruit is canned in ‘light syrup’ or ‘heavy syrup,’ that means that sugar has been added to the fruit,” says Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. “Fruit is plenty sweet on its own, so you don’t need any added sugar with it.”
That said, if you like the convenience of canned fruit, here’s some good news: There are canned fruits out there that aren’t housed in that syrupy mixture. “Just make sure to read the ingredient label to make sure a product is canned either in 100% juice or water,” says Gorin. “Neither of these contain added sugars.”
For bakers out there, that shortening might be causing your pastries and cakes more harm than good. That’s because vegetable shortening contains hydrogenated oils, which are artificial fats made by adding a hydrogen molecule to vegetable oils to make them solid at room temperature, says Andrews.
But while hydrogenated oils are good for manufacturers because they increase a product’s shelf life, they’re not quite so good for you. “Consumption of hydrogenated oils on a regular basis can increase LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and lower HDL ‘good’ cholesterol, and can therefore increase your risk of heart disease,” says Andrews. You’re actually better off swapping in real butter in moderation while baking instead of using shortening, she adds.
Non-dairy coffee creamer
This is another product that contains those hydrogenated oils, says Andrews. Plus, powdered or non-dairy liquid creamers also contain high-fructose corn syrup—which can be damaging to the liver by increasing liver fat—and artificial sweeteners, which have been linked to a variety of problems including gastrointestinal issues. (Other alternative corn sugars can have similar consequences on the body, like natural corn syrup, isolated fructose, maize syrup, glucose or fructose syrup, and tapioca syrup.)
But that doesn’t mean you need to nix coffee (and the benefits that come with it) completely. Instead, try drinking your coffee black or substituting non-dairy creamers with almond, coconut, cashew, or oat milk or with organic creamers from grass-fed cows.
Diet soda is packed with artificial sweeteners, which are the main culprit behind why you should avoid diet soda drinks when you can. “Those can be even worse than actual sugar,” says Shonali Soans, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., a registered dietitian at New York City Nutrition. Artificial sweeteners have been linked to both cancer (although larger studies are needed to determine the risk) and gastrointestinal issues, and aspartame—a key ingredient in diet drinks specifically—has also been linked to the development of diabetes, says Soans.
Low-fat peanut butter
Nut butters are great for you, in large part because they contain beneficial unsaturated fats. “But when you start to take out the fat in peanut butter, you not only lower the amount of heart-healthy fats that you’re getting but may also end up getting a product with extra sugar and filler ingredients,” says Gorin. “These ingredients are added to compensate for the fat is removed.”
A good rule of thumb when buying peanut butter? It should be natural, and it should only have three ingredients on its label: peanuts, oil, and maybe a little bit of salt, says Gorin.
Fish is a good staple to have in your diet, but it’s best to aim for eating low-mercury, fatty seafood like salmon and sardines, which also have beneficial omega-3s EPA and DHA, says Gorin. But one fish you might want to avoid ordering when you’re out at a seafood restaurant? Tilefish, which is high in mercury—something that can actually cause poisoning if eaten in too high of a concentration.
White flour-based cereal
Yes, those sugary-sweet breakfast cereals are delicious, but look out for whether they’re made with white flour. These types of cereals are low in nutrition and high in refined carbohydrates, which means that they don’t fill you up and they can cause a spike and drop in blood sugar, says Andrews. That, in turn, can contribute to low energy, mood swings, and cravings. Instead, opt for a higher-fiber cereal like bran flakes.
Strawberries top the list of the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen foods that are heavily contaminated with pesticides when conventionally farmed. The problem with that—aside from the environmental concerns—is that those pesticides can actually negatively impact your health, too.
“Pesticides in our food can be endocrine disrupting,” says Soans. Endocrine disruptors work by binding to our hormone receptors and causing a weaker or more intense effect, which disrupts our hormonal function, says Soans. This can be especially harmful for women who might deal with repercussions like hormonal imbalance or thyroid problems.
This classic lunch sandwich meat packs more downside than upside because of its “cured meat” status. Cured meats have been linked to several nasty problems, including hypertension and heart disease, says Andrews. But salami is also high in saturated fat and contains sodium nitrites, which can turn into harmful inflammatory compounds that can become damaging to your health, says Andrews.
Don’t let the word “juice” throw you off. “The word ‘cocktail’ indicates that a juice is mixed with added sugar,” says Gorin. “This is unnecessary and adds extra calories to your day.” So instead of choosing a sugar-rich juice cocktail mixture to start your morning, opt instead for 100% fruit juice if you really want to indulge.
Similar to those white flour-based cereals, donuts are usually made from refined carbs, which don’t provide you much nutritional value, says Andrews. Donuts are also usually deep-fried, making them high in trans fats, which can raise your LDL “bad” cholesterol and lower your HDL “good cholesterol,” according to the American Heart Association (AHA). This doesn’t mean you need to avoid refined carbs (and the donuts that come with them) altogether; it just means your health will thank you for indulging in moderation.
As convenient as it might be, pre-made dough is high in artificial trans fats (namely, those hydrogenated oils we talked about earlier that are made by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid), says Julie Harrington, R.D., author of The Healing Soup Cookbook. And those trans fats (aside from affecting your cholesterol) also increase your risk of of heart disease and stroke, according to the AHA.
Packaged butter-flavored popcorn
Butter-flavored popcorn is made using artificial butter flavoring, which can cause inflammation in the body, says Lorraine Kearney, N.D.T.R., C.D.N., dietitian and founder of New York City Nutrition. Plus, if you’re popping it at home in a microwaveable bag, those bags are packed with chemicals. Instead, if you’re able, try popping popcorn at home in a pot on the stovetop rather than using a mass-produced bag. “When we make popcorn at home, we have control over the ingredients,” says Kearney.
A good rule of thumb? When something has the word “instant” in its name, it’s likely something you’re going to want to try to avoid. “Whenever I see the word ‘instant,’ they’re doing something to the food to make it instant,” says Soans. “They’ve probably stripped it down and taken away a bit of the fiber and the stuff that we actually want.”
Plus, the amount of sodium in instant noodles is extremely high, and they contain what’s called monosodium glutamate (MSG), which has its own set of problems. “It is a flavor enhancer that is used in a lot of cooking, or a lot of restaurants will use it,” says Kearney. “And it is an addictive substance, so we keep going back as a repeat customer. But with it, it can increase hunger, and that causes us to eat more.”
Yes, as counterintuitive as it might seem, you definitely want to try to stay away from artificial sweeteners. “Usually people, in the past, have said instead of eating refined sugar, let’s try diet soda and artificial sweeteners and all that stuff,” says Soans. But as she mentioned before, artificial sweeteners can actually be worse for you than your typical refined sugar due to its potential health impact and unknown risks. It’s better, instead, to try to eat regular sugar in moderation.
We’re all prone to sprinkling a bit of salt on our food before we eat it here and there. And while a little bit of salt is okay, it’s better to try and opt for sea salt or Himalayan salt over your standard table salt. That’s because table salt has been bleached and stripped of its natural minerals, says Soans. Plus, it’s high in sodium, which can cause inflammation, says Kearney.
Similar to energy drinks, gelatin desserts are rich with artificial flavorings and sugar that can be harmful to our bodies. They also have artificial colors, which are known carcinogens, says Kearney, and a chemical called Red #40—an ingredient linked to hyperactivity—which has actually caused European countries to issue a warning label on the food saying, “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”
It’s easy, yes, but microwaveable rice is often teeming with sodium. “Some of those products can have 800 to 900 mg of sodium in one serving,” says Kearney. And because most bags contain 2 ½ servings—and because most of us will definitely eat the entire bag—that quickly adds up to being over 2,000 mg of sodium in just one sitting.
The problem with that? The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than 2,300 of sodium per day, which is about a teaspoon of salt per day, says Kearney. So with just one sitting, we’ve nearly reached a day’s worth of sodium, which can make us feel bloated, weighed down, and lethargic, says Kearney.
The reason energy drinks taste so good? They’re packed with artificial flavorings and sugar. “With a lot of the energy drinks, they can have higher amounts of sugar in it, or they’ll use artificial flavors which can cause a lot of inflammation of the body,” says Kearney.
And when it comes to these energy drinks, most companies won’t disclose what those artificial flavorings actually are. “So we could have a blueberry flavored drink, but we don’t know what chemicals have been used to recreate that blueberry flavor,” says Kearney.
Low-fat ice cream
Don’t jump on the pint-sized trend just yet, especially if you have digestive issues. That’s because low-fat or diet ice creams replace sugar with sugar alcohols, which when consumed in excess can have a laxative effect on the body, says Kearney. And if you have a sensitive stomach or digestive tract, you’ll feel those effects even faster, she adds.
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