As a self-proclaimed health nut, I like to believe that no foods are truly off limits. Everything in moderation, right? However, after speaking with some of the experts, I have to agree that there are certain foods (cough, diet soda, cough) that are just never worth it when you’re trying to live a healthy lifestyle.
Most granola bars are basically candy bars in disguise. “I avoid mainstream granola bars because they often contain anywhere from 10 to 25 grams or so of sugars, have little fiber, and little nutrient density. For me, that’s just not worth it for how little it fills me up and the calories I’d be consuming by eating these types of bars,” certified dietitian nutritionist Meg Hagar told me. “Even the healthier alternatives like RX Bars are things that I don’t really eat because I’d much rather have some nuts and raisins or fruit with peanut butter. Those are much more nutrient-dense and filling options!”
If you can’t live without your afternoon granola bar, try making your own. Hagar recommended making homemade granola bars with natural sweeteners like applesauce, mashed banana, and even some dark chocolate chips.
If you’re serious about feeding your body good food, focus on fresh, whole foods. Anything that comes in a box or wrapper has been processed and isn’t the best choice. Nutrition educator Michael Joseph told me he steers clear of any foods with excessive sugar, trans fats, and industrial vegetable oils. “All three of these ingredients are heavily processed, and a wide range of studies show they have damaging effects on our health,” he told me. “Further, they increase our risk of chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.”
Every dietician and health care provider I spoke with ranked diet soda at the top of their list for foods never to touch. “My healthy living motto is no forbidden foods, except for the sweetener aspartame,” Founder of Le Bootcamp Valerie Orsoni told me. “The calorie-free perk of aspartame is totally not worth the negative impact it has on your weight and health.”
Aspartame is responsible for making diet soda taste sweet while containing no calories. “Indeed, even though aspartame is calorie-free, it still affects your blood sugar levels just like white sugar by stimulating the pancreas to produce insulin,” explained Orsoni. “This reaction causes the body to store more of the ‘real’ food you’ve eaten in the form of fat.” Yes, you read that right. Drinking diet soda can still make you gain weight.
Orsoni recommended choosing fresh water or stevia-sweetened beverages.
It would be hard to log into your Instagram feed and not see happy, healthy people proudly showing off their green juice creations. However, certified dietitian Gina Keatley is not a fan of anything juiced. “Juicing is generally very high in caloric value with a reduced fiber content. Also, the process of juicing removes the act of chewing, a vital part of the nourishment process,” she told me. “When you chew your food correctly, your body releases digestive enzymes in the stomach that aid to break down the foods so that your body can transform it into energy and nutrients.”
Rather than getting your nutrients through a straw, Keatley recommended eating whole fruits and vegetables. “Eating the fruit or vegetable whole gives you the advantage of higher nutrient density and naturally lessens your consumption because the whole fruits contain fiber, a non-digestible carbohydrate,” said Keatley. “Because fiber doesn’t respond to digestive enzymes, these carbohydrates don’t break down into simpler sugars for absorption.”
Now that we know diet soda is the devil, it seems okay to indulge in a regular soda with real sugar once in a while. However, it’s best to avoid the entire soda family. “Something I never have is soda or any sugar-sweetened beverages. Moderation is not the best policy when it comes to this food. I never have it,” Dr. Caroline Apovian, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at the Boston Medical Center, told me. “Not only does it contain high amounts of calories and sugar and provide nothing for your body nutritionally, it is also associated with a heightened risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.”
The nutritionists and dietitians agreed. “I never drink regular soda. I don’t see any situation in which soda can be justified,” registered dietitian Danielle Cushing told me. “You are guzzling empty calories that have no nutritional value, it doesn’t satisfy hunger, and it dehydrates you.”
Instead, Dr. Apovian recommended sticking with fresh water to quench your thirst. “It keeps your metabolism running efficiently, powers all of the functions your body performs, and helps to keep your weight under control,” she told me. “If you are accustomed to soda, try carbonated water with fresh fruit to wean yourself off.”
Refined grains are basically grains that have been stripped of much of their nutrition, making them off-limits for most healthy people. “There are three parts of a grain: the bran, germ, and endosperm. Refined grains remove the bran and germ, while whole grains preserve all three parts,” Dr. Apovian told me. “Removing the bran and germ also removes the dietary fiber, B vitamins, and iron from grains. Refined grains include white bread, white rice, and most pastas.”
Because your body doesn’t have to work as hard to break down refined grains, they cause your blood sugar to spike and later crash. “Processed foods, added sugars, and simple carbohydrates are easily digested and break down quickly in the body, leading to blood sugar spikes followed by energy crashes and cravings,” said Dr. Apovian. “This leads to constant feelings of hunger, frequent cravings, and eventually, weight gain.”
Dr. Barry Sears, author of the Zone Diet book series, agreed with staying away from refined grains. “White carbohydrates rapidly increase insulin levels so that you speed up the formation of the building block (arachidonic acid) that drives inflammation as well as causing the decrease of blood sugar levels that leave hungry and mentally fatigued,” he told me. Instead of white breads and pastas, Dr. Apovian recommended sticking with whole grains like barley, quinoa, whole wheat bread, and brown rice.
I rarely eat cereal for breakfast, only because I’m usually starving an hour later. “Most breakfast cereals are low in protein and high in sugar. This combination will spike your blood sugar, followed by a crash, leading to cravings for more sugar, hunger pangs, and a depletion in energy,” explained Dr. Apovian. “Many of the calories in popular breakfast cereals are mostly empty calories that do not contain the protein your body needs to keep your metabolism running smoothly.”
Instead of the fake stuff, Dr. Apovian recommended whipping up a healthy breakfast smoothie with your favorite protein powder. “The protein content will keep you full longer than a cereal, while the produce adds nutrients and fiber.”
As long as you’re cutting out the sugary breakfast cereals, it’s time to ditch the other breakfast offender. “Some foods I never eat include doughnuts, muffins, and brownies. This is because they’re empty calories with a lot of carbohydrates and sugar and not very much nutritional value,” board certified cardiologist Dr. Monali Y. Desai told me. “A better alternative to doughnuts and muffins in the morning is peanut butter granola and yogurt, because it’s high in protein and has probiotics.”
There are a lot of junk foods out there masquerading as health foods, and healthy people know to avoid them. “A fried chip is a fried chip. It does not matter if it is a fried potato chip, a fried beet chip, or a fried taro chip,” Dr. Adrienne Youdim, associate clinical professor of medicine at UCLA, told me. “The harmful ingredient is not the thing being fried, but actually the saturated and trans fats being used in the frying process.”
Don’t be fooled by the natural-looking fried veggie chips. “Trans fats in particular are harmful to cardiovascular health,” explained Dr. Youdim. “They have been shown to promote heart disease and have been banned by the FDA, although they can still make it into packaged and fried foods in small quantities.” Read your labels and do your homework.
If you’ve been wanting to eat healthier, just focus on eating foods that are as close to natural as possible. Board certified dermatologist Dr. Robin Evans tells her patients to stay away from foods that don’t actually look like natural food. “If it doesn’t, it probably isn’t a real food choice,” she told me. “Food should look as close to nature as possible for the healthiest choices.”
So when it comes to spam, it’s best to stay away. “What exactly is it?” asked Dr. Evans. “Probably better to have fresh chopped liver, or even better, a vegetarian chopped liver made from chickpeas, soy, and other vegetables.”
Any food claiming to be ‘fat-free’ or ‘sugar-free’
When it comes to packaged foods, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. “All nutritionists know that any product which needs to make a health claim is far from healthy. If fat is removed, sugar is doubled. If sugar is removed, fat content is increased or artificial preservatives are added,” Mumbai-based mutritionist Tehzeeb Lalani told me. “You’re entitled to cheat, so go ahead and cheat correctly, as opposed to in a half-baked manner.”
If you’re craving a brownie, go for the real gooey, fudgy original. If you opt for the dry, stale, “fat-free” version, you’ll just end up craving more sugar. “If you’ve cheated thoroughly, you’re less likely to cheat again for another few weeks,” explained Lalani. “A half baked cheat on the other hand won’t alleviate your cravings, and you’ll find yourself reaching out for sweets again within a few days.”
Sugary health drinks
It’s best to be wary of any sweetened drink that claims to be healthy. “I believe one should never drink their calories, yet people think drinks like orange juice, bottled tea, and Gatorade are healthy because they are marketed that way,” certified nutrition and health coach Jenny Finke told me. “These drinks are far from healthy because they contain so much sugar.”
If you’ve become accustomed to your morning OJ, just look for some lighter alternatives. “A good alternative to orange juice is a fresh, cold pressed juice of your own, or just eat a whole orange,” explained Finke. “A good sports drink substitute is coconut water and a banana. A good bottled tea alternative is simply a fresh brewed tea of your own where you add the sweetener yourself.
Some healthy snacks, like dried fruit, should only be eaten in small portions if at all. “Dried fruit is highly caloric and easily spikes energy and insulin levels, and then can just as quickly cause a substantial drop in energy and additional sugar cravings caused by the insulin spike,” Dr. Goglia, a celebrity nutritionist and co-founder of G-Plans, told me. “Dried fruit can be digestively disruptive, causing gas and bloating for many people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The better choice over dried fruit is fresh fruit with its naturally occurring water for more efficient sugar transport.” Eating the whole fruit will fill you up without spiking your blood sugar.
The aspartame in diet soda isn’t the only fake sweetener that is bad for you. They should all be off the table for anyone looking to clean up their diet. “They [artificial sweeteners] contain aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), or sucralose (Splenda). Basically, they’re chemicals in a pretty little packet,” naturopathic doctor Dr. Gabrielle Francis told me. “Try natural sugar alternatives like local raw organic honey or agave.”
I have to admit, I was surprised by how many physicians and dietitians warned me against eating any kind of packaged meat. “Nutrition experts stray away from packaged meats, including hot dogs, sausage, and pepperoni,” Sarah Asay, RD, at bistroMD told me. “Diets high in processed meats increase their risk of cancer or heart disease, especially if exceeding their intake more than once or twice a month. Even if promoted as ‘lean,’ it is also important to stay cautious of packaged deli meats, as they tend to be packed with sodium.”
Dr. Francis also recommended staying away from lunch meats and any packaged meat products. “If you can’t live without your salami or charcuterie, buy brands that contain zero nitrates and nitrites,” she told me. “They may be labeled as ‘uncured’ or ‘nitrate-free.'”
Lisa Cohn, registered dietitian for miVIP Surgery Centers, also avoids the processed meats. “I avoid hot dogs, bologna, and processed deli meats, as they are loaded with animal fat, salt, and preservatives that are carcinogenic,” she told me.
Anything with high fructose corn syrup
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) definitely falls under the not worth it category. “The problem with HFCS is the way it impacts our hunger and satiation hormones,” weight loss therapist Dr. Candice Seti, Psy.D., told me. “Ghrelin is our hunger hormone, and leptin is our satiation hormone, and HFCS messes with both of them! Fructose does not actually stop ghrelin like sugar does, so we stay hungry even when we eat it.”
The problem with HFCS is that it actually keeps us from knowing when we’re full, so we end up eating more. “It also tricks your body into blocking leptin so you never feel full. This combination allows you to eat and eat and eat,” Dr. Seti told me. “That’s great for the food companies, but terrible for your heart and your waistline. Opt for real sugar instead.”
I always thought that popcorn was a healthy snack loaded with fiber, but watch out for the added ingredients in those bags of microwave popcorn. “The bags are coated with non-stick chemicals like perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). These have been linked to cancer,” Steven J. Hausman, Ph.D., told me. “Fake butter flavoring is imparted by diacetyl, which has been linked to lung disease when inhaled. I much prefer popping my corn in a glass casserole placed in the microwave. While some people might like to add salt or butter, I am happy to eat it with a little bit of garlic powder.”
Once thought to be a healthier alternative to butter, margarine is not as angelic as we once thought. “There is no question that margarine is not a healthy food,” Dr. Hausman told me. “It can be high in trans fats, which lead to heart disease and other health problems. You are better off using monosaturated oils like olive oil or a small amount of butter.”
I am a firm believer that ice cream should be a part of everyone’s diet. When I hear that ice cream truck jingle, I can’t help but get excited. However, there are healthier options that still give you that satisfying, creamy bite. “Healthier alternatives include making your own ‘ice cream’ with frozen bananas and almond butter and even a handful of warm chocolate chips in a blender. Another healthy alternative is making a version of a frozen milk shake with some unsweetened Greek yogurt, fruit or nuts, and an all natural sweetener like pure stevia,” certified personal trainer Hope Pedraza told me. “You still get that delicious, creamy consistency, but without the sugar and fat.”
Next time you’re going out on the town, skip the sugar cocktails and opt for a glass of wine or mixed drink without the sugar. “When you’re out with the girls or at date night, it’s tempting to order the house margarita, frozen cocktail, or mojito. They’re easy to order and everybody else is doing it, right? But these mixed drinks are pure sugar,” Pedraza told me. “Instead, order a skinny margarita with tequila, pure agave, lime juice, and club soda for less than 100 calories and only a few grams of sugar.” Maybe you’ll start a new trend among your friends!
What foods do healthy people eat?
So now that we know which foods to avoid, what should you actually buy next time you’re at the grocery store? Dr. Goglia told me to stick with whole, natural foods like leafy vegetables, fresh fruits, and whole eggs. “High iron vegetables are a must as it relates to health and wellness,” he told me. “The iron content of live enzymatic foods like asparagus, spinach, kale, and rapini will increase the oxygen count in your red cells. The result is increased endurance capacity and a consistently balanced energy pattern.” Yes, please!
Dr. Goglia also recommended incorporating fatty fish like salmon into our diets. “These fish choices are high fat species. Using high fat fish as a dinner choice increases the amount of omega fatty acids consumed at night,” he explained. “The result is a deeper sleep, increased growth hormone release, and reduction of inflammation.”
Don’t drive yourself crazy
While it’s best to avoid the foods that aren’t good for your body, Gina Keatley warned against being too restrictive with your food. “I eat everything!” she told me. “There are no foods that are off-limits. All foods have value, and yes, some are better choices than others. However, labeling foods as off-limits creates restrictive tendencies that can lead you down a path to future eating issues.” Keatley recommended allowing yourself to enjoy the foods you love without going overboard. Moderation is the name of the game.
“Cold pizza is a must have in college, not just for nourishment, but also for the experience and memories that the pie creates,” she told me. “Fried chicken is super tasty, but should be treated as special, perhaps a weekend meal, not an everyday lunch option.” Know which foods are worth the splurge for you, and enjoy them guilt-free once in awhile.