According to research from Marketdata published in 2019, the diet industry in America generates more than $70 billion annually. And the field shows no sign of dropping into decline. But when firms, influencers and the latest high-profile dieting plans are constantly pushing the next big thing in food, consumers can easily become confused about which lifestyle choices are best for their bodies. So, what foods are actually good for you – and which ones are just pretending to be?
Granola is normally made up of oats, nuts, seeds and dried fruits. Delicious, right? Well, yes – and, taken individually, those ingredients can be really good for you. A steady supply of oats, for instance, will help manage cholesterol levels. So how come scoffing granola for breakfast can be incredibly unhealthy?
Dietician Maggie Moon told Women’s Health in April 2019, “The most common pitfall with granola is adding in too many filler ingredients that add sugar and calories without any positive nutrients.” The best thing to do, then, is read the ingredients list on the box and opt for brands that don’t contain any additional sugar.
The wellness industry – as well as toned stars and influencers – have seemingly been pushing the health benefits of smoothies for a while. After all, these delicious drinks are super versatile and can be great ways of getting some fruits, vegetables and protein into our bodies. That isn’t the whole story, however.
The trouble is, the process of making smoothies creates intense amounts of free sugars – the type we normally want to avoid adding to our diets. Smoothies sold in shops can also pack in additional sugars and artificial sweeteners, resulting in yet more calories and fat. Long story short: it’s healthier simply to eat vegetables and fruit whole instead.
18. Yogurt with fruit on the bottom
Yogurt is packed full of the good stuff: protein, calcium, B vitamins and loads of minerals. And that goes for all varieties of yogurt, even including flavored kinds. The fermented-milk snack also contains probiotics that can aid digestion and top-up your immune system. So what’s it doing on this list?
Well, it’s because you still have to be wary of yogurts with fruit mixers inside or artificially sweetened yogurt cups. These unhelpful additions will often super-size the amount of sugar and calories in an otherwise healthy snack. If you want to sweeten your yogurt, then, simply add fruit or spices at home.
17. Deli meat
In 2015 the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that almost half of the adult population of America enjoys a sandwich every single day. And while we don’t know what everybody puts in their sandwiches, it seems likely that many will contain slices of processed or deli meat. These are quick and delicious cold cuts, after all. But they might not be so healthy.
That’s because deli meats are likely to contain plenty of saturated fats and sodium. Why does this matter? “Too much sodium stiffens our blood vessels and stresses our heart and kidneys,” dietician Sam Teece told EatingWell in July 2020. And a surplus of saturated fats could result in more chances of getting heart problems.
16. Diet meals
Marketdata identified Weight Watchers (now WW International), Jenny Craig, Medifast and Nutrisystem as the biggest dieting brands in the country. And it’s perhaps not surprising that each of these companies – along with scores more – offers its followers ready-made or frozen meals to enjoy at home. Yet although the brands boast of the meals’ health benefits, they might not be the best options for most people.
The concern for some is the amount of sodium contained in each meal. For example, Good Housekeeping reported that some frozen dinners can pack in more than 600mg of sodium per portion. This is a decent chunk of an individual’s daily 2,300mg allowance – as suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So it’s always worth checking the label.
15. Bran muffins
If you break down the ingredients of a bran muffin, you’ll find that they contain mostly bran (duh!), eggs, milk, sugar and oil or butter. And each of those foods – aside from sugar – is a regular component of many nutritious diets. So it seems at first glance that selecting a bran muffin to go with your favorite takeaway coffee is a responsible choice.
Yet that same store-bought muffin is likely laden with calories and fat as well. Don’t believe us? Well, according to Greatest, a honey bran raisin muffin from Dunkin’ Donuts comes in at around 440 calories per portion. And an apple bran muffin from Starbucks packs in more than 30 grams of sugar. To ensure that your bran muffins are healthy, then, it’s best to make them at home.
14. Diet drinks
A standard can of regular Coca Cola contains almost 150 calories and a staggering 37 grams of sugar. Considering the American Heart Association reckons that men should consume no more than 36 grams of added sugar – and women just 25 grams – per day, that’s a pretty alarming number. So switching to Diet Coke – which has no sugar and only 1.4 calories per can – seems like a no-brainer.
However, it might not be that simple. Research has indicated that drinks spiked with artificial sweeteners could also lead to peaks in blood-sugar levels. Diet sodas may contribute to weight gain as well. So while these studies are far from conclusive, it’s still better to ditch the soda altogether – in favor of good old H2O.
13. Flavored oatmeal
We all probably know by now that oatmeal is good for you. This is mostly due to the grains containing health-boosting beta-glucan fiber that aids digestion and lowers our appetites as well as controlling blood sugar spikes. Unfortunately, though, not all oats are created equally. So the next time you reach for instant oatmeal, be sure to check the label.
For instance, Quaker Foods brings in billions of dollars from breakfast cereal annually. But when you compare portions of its original instant oatmeal packets with its maple-and-brown-sugar flavored varieties, you’ll notice a stark difference. In fact, a portion of the original contains just 100 calories and no sugar, while the other pack piles on 160 calories and more than 10 grams of sugar.
12. Veggie burgers
Eating an excessive amount of red meat will increase the chances of you contracting bowel cancer. In addition, rearing the animals needed to supply us with our precious burgers is undoubtedly bad for the environment. Moving away from beef burgers and toward veggie burgers, then, can only be a good thing. Right?
Well, not necessarily. It all comes down to taking a long, hard look at the nutritional facts. After all, beef burgers are rich in protein – something that veggie burgers could be lacking in. There might not be any actual vegetables in a veggie patty, either, so it’s worth checking out the sodium content of your chosen burger. Watch out for high amounts of saturated fats, too.
11. Energy drinks
In 2018 Red Bull and Monster each raked in more than $4 billion in energy drinks sales. And when used for a specific purpose, these beverages can do some good. For example, the National Center for Complementary & Integrative Health admitted research has shown that energy drinks can increase levels of athletic endurance.
But that’s where the good news ends. You see, these often caffeine-laden drinks can adversely affect the cardio-vascular health and blood pressures of regular consumers – especially younger buyers. The beverages could cause sleep and digestive issues as well. And, on top of this, just one can of the stuff may contain more than 60 grams of additional sugar.
10. Breakfast cereal
Breakfast cereal is a major trade in the U.S., with in excess of $8 billion being spent on the food annually. There are good reasons for its popularity, too. It makes for a low-effort start to the day, for one thing, and it can form part of a nutritious bowl of food, for another. But it’s also incredibly easy for it to become unhealthy and unsatisfying.
According to nutritionist Lisa Drayer, consumers should look for cereals containing no more than 8 grams of sugar per portion and no less than 3 grams of fiber. You should also mix the food with fresh fruit. Unfortunately for many, though, these dietary goals mean that America’s biggest-selling cereal – Honey Nut Cheerios – doesn’t make the grade.
Back in the day, dieticians and scientists claimed that butter was extremely bad for your heart. This led to a lot of people ditching the dairy product in favor of vegetable-oils-based margarine. Why? Because margarine is lower in saturated fats and therefore deemed healthier by the experts. However, this generalization doesn’t apply to every spread.
Indeed, it wasn’t long before people realized that some kinds of margarine contain more trans fats than butter. This is bad news because trans fats are not good for your heart, either – and they can raise your cholesterol levels. On top of that, Harvard Health reckons that there are no studies proving that eating margarine will prevent heart disease anyway.
8. Microwave popcorn
According to The University of Scranton’s Dr. Joe Vinson, “Popcorn may be the perfect snack food.” The chemistry professor claimed to the American Chemical Society in 2012 that this is because popped corn is a whole-grain snack that’s low in calories, satiating and stuffed with antioxidants. But, as with most things in life, there’s a major catch to his statement.
It should go without saying that piling butter, salt or other toppings onto your naked popcorn will quickly transform your healthy snack into a naughty dessert. Vinson also said that “microwave popcorn has twice as many calories as air-popped” and that “about 43 percent of microwave popcorn is fat.” Time further reported in 2018 that there could be carcinogens in the coverings of the microwave popcorn bags.
7. Granola bars
Quick and convenient – not to mention delicious – granola bars are big business in the United States. In 2019, for instance, General Mills alone sold more than $600 million worth of its breakfast bars. And according to a 2016 poll from The New York Times, almost three-quarters of U.S. residents believe the snacks to be good for us.
But much like store-bought granola, granola bars can often contain plenty of added ingredients that aren’t so healthy. “I’ve seen bars with as much as 25 grams of added sugar, which is ludicrous,” dietician Andy Bellatti told Time in 2017. So what’s the most reliable way to see whether you’re eating a healthy granola bar? Check the label, of course.
6. Agave nectar
Sugar hasn’t been getting good press. But that’s not surprising considering that consuming excessive amounts of sugar will likely result in obesity and rotten teeth – to name but two health concerns. So people have turned to sugar substitutes such as agave nectar and maple syrup in the belief that these “super foods” – as some have termed them – are better for our bodies.
However, studies haven’t conclusively demonstrated that agave nectar is any healthier than straight-up sugar. It has a lower glycemic index score, for sure, but that alone isn’t enough to label agave nectar good for you. After all, it’s still what’s termed a free sugar, and there are actually more calories per teaspoon in agave when compared to sugar.
5. Veggie chips
We all know it’s important to consume five portions of fruit and vegetables every day, so it could be tempting to ditch regular potato chips for veggie chips. After all, these snacks often contain ingredients such as spinach and tomato. And when eaten in the right amounts, those foods can indeed be part of our daily goals.
Alas, veggie chips or straws may be even more unhealthy than regular chips. The snacks are still deep-fried, you see, and many in fact contain very little vegetable content to begin with. Moreover, a 2017 Wrens Kitchen study found that those bags that actually are made up of veggies could still be packing in more fat and salt than straight-up potato fries.
4. Turkey bacon
Turkey bacon isn’t really bacon at all. In fact, it’s thinly diced turkey seasoned and pressed into the shape of regular pork bacon. And it’s for this reason that turkey bacon has been touted as a healthier alternative to the real deal. After all, the turkey substitute is lower in saturated fats and calories when compared to pork.
But that doesn’t mean turkey bacon is healthy. As the Cleveland Clinic has pointed out, turkey bacon remains a food that’s packed with both sodium and saturated fats. It also doesn’t contain as much protein, vitamin B or selenium as the pork variety. So whichever option you choose, you should try to consume it sparingly.
3. Trail mix
In 2018 Consumer Reports noted that trail mix has made the jump from being a favorite of outdoors enthusiasts to an everyday snack. On the one hand, this is good because the major ingredients of trail mix – dried fruit, seeds and nuts – can boost your daily nutrient intake. But on the other hand, people will have to show some restraint.
These moreish snacks should only be eaten in small amounts, you see. That’s because trail mix ingredients are low-volume yet high-calorie foods. Scoff more than a handful, then, and your daily calorie-based goals will likely be ruined. Plus, those varieties that include chocolate, yogurt-coatings or any kind of added sugars will transform a healthy snack into, essentially, candy.
2. Yogurt-covered raisins
This snack seems like a home run. We all know that yogurt is full of nutrients and protein, and raisins provide a solid source of fiber, iron and antioxidants, too. And Time has noted that a best-selling brand of yogurt-coated raisins contains a lot less sugar than a similar portion of straight-up raisins. This doesn’t tell the whole story, though.
After all, the white coating means you’re getting far fewer raisins per handful. And that yogurt covering? Not so healthy. Yale University’s David Katz told Time, “While these coatings may be called ‘yogurt,’ they are really a kind of ‘frosting’ of which yogurt is an ingredient.” In reality, then, what you’re eating is a few raisins doused in oil and sugar.
1. Banana bread
Who doesn’t love bananas? Not only are they sweet and delicious, but they also provide a whole host of health-boosting benefits. This includes plenty of minerals, fiber, vitamins and carbohydrates. But if you’ve been thinking that all of this means that banana bread is also a healthy choice, you may need to reconsider.
Most banana loaves will contain flour, sugar and butter or oil – making them a not-so-healthy snack. And if your chosen variety doesn’t contain whole wheat flour or nuts, then its nutritional value is likely to be minimal. As ever, then, your best bet is to either make your own healthy banana bread at home or thoroughly check the label.