With all the food trends and conflicting nutrition information out there, it’s difficult to tell which foods are actually healthy for you—and which ones are nothing more than a marketing gimmick. The bittersweet truth is that many health foods pack just as much sugar, fat, and calories, as their counterparts. They might also be littered with preservatives, food additives, and other ingredients that might be damaging to your health. To help you make healthier and smarter choices, we knock off the halo off these 32 health foods.
1. Smoothie Bowls
Smoothie bowls can be super healthy, as long as they have a balance of whole fruits and veggies and have sensible portion sizes. The problem: Many of these smoothie bowls—especially the ones found in juice shops and fast casual chain restaurants—are calorie and sugar bombs that pack fruit juices, purees, honey, and sweetened yogurt. When you consider all of those ingredients, you get a snack that clocks in several hundred calories and way more than your daily recommended sugar intake.
Granola is healthy, right? Not all the time. A cup of the crunchy topping averages a whopping 597 calories, 28 grams of fat, and 24 grams of sugar. Some granola brands also use processed oils and load up on sugar with dried fruit and chocolate chips. Your best bet is to enjoy a bowl of oatmeal and top with fresh fruit and a touch of honey for some natural sweetness.
3. Veggie “Chips”
Don’t count on veggie chips to increase your fiber and antioxidant intake for the day. While many veggie chip labels claim to have actual vegetables, they often contain veggie powders, which lack the same nutritional value, to give the chips a vibrant color. They also have a high sodium content (and maybe even sugar) to replicate the same flavor of potato chips. For a healthier alternative, crunch into some raw carrots or celery sticks! But for some packaged foods you can get away with, check out these 17 Processed Foods Nutritionists Actually Approve Of.
4. Pre-Made Protein Shakes
Like many foods on this list, a protein shake can be healthy when you use wholesome ingredients and have portion control in mind. The problem is that bottled protein shakes include a ton of health-wrecking sugar and other ingredients that can lead to weight gain. To avoid these ingredients, make your own at home with a low-sugar whey or plant-based protein powder and your choice of unsweetened nut milk.
5. Organic Candy
At the end of the day, organic candy is still candy; it has blood-sugar-raising ingredients like fruit juices, honey, and cane sugar. It’s also nutritionally void and doesn’t provide any more benefits than the artificially flavored gummies on the shelf. To help you curb your sweet cravings, grab a copy of The 14-Day No-Sugar Diet.
6. Agave Syrup
Agave seems like a healthier alternative to sugar and honey because it has a low glycemic index, but it, however, contains more fructose—at least 80-90 percent—than white sugar and too much of it can lead to insulin resistance.
7. Flavored Yogurt
Yogurt is one of the best gut-friendly foods. The probiotics in it help healthy bacteria in your microbiome grow, building your body a great defense against diseases. But many flavored versions have high amounts of sugar—sometimes 20 grams or more—per serving. Be sure to look for low-sugar versions (ideally less than eight grams) or go for Greek yogurt and a bit of natural sweetener or berries for a touch of sweetness.
8. Baked Chips
Baked chips are touted as healthy alternatives to regular potato chips because they’re not fried in a ton of oil, but they typically have a lot of sodium and sugar to make up for less fat.
9. Diet Ice Cream
There’s nothing more refreshing and indulgent than an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. While there are many low-calorie and low-fat ice cream varieties out there, most diet frozen treats have artificial sweeteners and flavors to give it the same mouthwatering taste without the added sugars. Many nutritionists recommend enjoying the full-fat stuff instead because it’s more filling and satisfying. But if you’d like to stick to a guilt-free cone, we approve a scoop or two of these top 26 diet ice creams.
10. Cooking Sprays
Add butter for zero calories? That’s the promise touted by various calorie-free sprays. The truth is that these guilt-free sprays actually have calories—as many as eight or ten every few sprays. The Food and Drug Administration says that food products that contain fewer than five calories per serving can “round down” and print zero calories on their nutrition label. Moreover, many of these calorie-free cooking sprays don’t use butter but butter-like chemicals. Yuck! The better choice is to use grass-fed butter in moderation or substitute with heart-healthy oils, like extra-virgin olive and avocado oils to infuse your food with flavor.
11. Diet Soda
We’ve all heard that regular soda is one of the worst things to drink, thanks to its high-sugar content. But what about diet soda? It may be calorie-free, but it’s not healthy. Many diet sodas have artificial sweeteners that have been shown to increase the number of bad bacteria in the gut. Your body also reacts to artificial sweeteners the same way as it does to sugar. A study in Diabetes Profound that people who drank two or more diet sodas a day experienced waist-size increases six times that of non-diet drinkers.
12. 100-Calorie Snack Packs
Those 100-calorie snack packs of your favorite sweet treat seem like a good way to get your sugar fix in portion-friendly sizes, but in reality, these snacks are full of empty calories. Plus, you might be tempted to eat more than one snack because it has fewer calories. There’s no harm in enjoying a cookie once in a while, but don’t make your diet revolve around these snacks.
Somewhere along the way, we were told that pretzels make a good snack when you’re craving something salty and crunchy. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. Pretzels have refined white flour and a ton of salt, making its nutritional content virtually zero.
14. Spinach Wraps
Spinach is packed with antioxidants, fiber, and essential nutrients, but those tortilla wraps masquerading as the green veggie have so little of the vitamin-rich stuff that it won’t do your body any good. These wraps are typically made with the same refined ingredients of other tortillas—like enriched white flour and corn—and green food coloring to give it a “healthy” hue. Sneaky!
15. Sports Drinks
You just finished a sweaty HIIT workout, and now you need something to rehydrate and replenish electrolytes ASAP. Sports drinks might seem like the perfect recovery drink, but what you probably don’t realize is that they contain upwards of 250 to 300 calories per bottle and have as much sugar as a bottle of Coke! While these sports drinks are great for endurance athletes who need to replenish a lot of lost carbohydrates and nutrients, they’re not for the average exerciser.
There’s a joke that muffins are just cupcakes, and this is basically true. In fact, some muffins are more calorie-dense than your average frosted cupcake! The average cupcake rings in a whopping 400 calories and has more than a third of your daily recommended fat intake. Plus, many packaged muffins have soybean oil, high-fructose corn syrups, and shortening, making it bad for both your waistline and overall health.
17. Gluten-Free Snacks
Those who suffer from Celiac disease should eat gluten-free foods, but that doesn’t mean anything gluten-free is healthier. Many gluten-free snacks can contain just as much calories, sugar, sodium, and fat as their gluten alternatives. So if you must have gluten-free foods, pay close attention to the nutrition label and ingredients list and choose products with fiber-rich grains, like quinoa.
18. Microwave Popcorn
Yes, popcorn is a whole grain, but pre-packaged microwave popcorns are actually one of the worst foods on the planet, thanks to additives and chemicals. Many brands contain high amounts of saturated fat and a dangerous butter-flavor additive called diacetyl. Even worst, the bags are also lined with perfluorooctanoic acid—the same toxic stuff found on Teflon pans. So if you want to enjoy popcorn, we recommend making your own over stovetop and seasoning it with the spices of your choice.
19. Trail Mix
Sure, trail mix has peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds and raisins, so how unhealthy can it be? Pretty unhealthy. Many brands lace their trail mixes with tons of sugar- and salt-coated ingredients. The good news is that you can make your own by combining the nuts of your choice with some unsweetened dried fruit.
20. Dried Fruit
The fructose in fruit gets more concentrated when dried out, making it more potent in smaller doses. Also, many companies infuse their dried fruits with added sugars or a sugary coating. If you want to cut back on the sweeteness, check out 30 Easy Ways to Stop Eating So Much Sugar.
21. Soy Milk
Soy milk is often touted as a healthy alternative to cow’s milk, but research has found that processed soy products—like that found in soy milk—can actually have high levels of goitrogens, a substance that can cause thyroid problems. So if you want to go dairy-free, choose unsweetened nut milks as an alternative.
22. Yogurt Parfaits
Fruit = good. Yogurt = good. So why does fruit + yogurt = bad? It’s simple, really. Like the smoothie bowls we mentioned earlier, yogurt parfaits sold in grocery stores and quick-serve restaurants have sugary granola, pureed fruits (lots of sugar), jams and jellies, and sweetened yogurt.
23. Blue Corn Tortilla Chips
While it’s true that blue corn has more of the amino acid lysine and the antioxidant anthocyanin than yellow corn, most of it gets baked off during the production process. So you essentially end up getting the same processed and refined chips as other yellow corn brands on the shelves.
24. Frozen Dinners
Many diet frozen meals seem like the ideal on-the-go dish, but they often have many preservatives and more sodium than the daily recommended amount. Some TV dinners, like those labeled teriyaki or sweet-and-sour sauce, are loaded with sugar. For a quick weeknight meal, try a stir-fry or a sheet pan recipe.
25. Canned Soups
Like popcorn, soup can be an incredibly healthy meal, but it’s not always one when you buy it in a can. Canned soups can contain high amounts of sodium and Bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor. Then there’s the added fats and sugar that can up the calories considerably. So choose wisely and go for low-sodium and BPA-free varieties.
26. Low-Fat Peanut Butter
Peanut butter is a health food full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and muscle-building protein, but too much of the good stuff is eliminated when you opt for the wrong kind. Processed peanut butters have added sugar and unhealthy oils, while low-fat peanut butters also have added sugars to make up for the fat. Avoid these jars at all costs, and go for a jar of natural peanut butter instead.
27. Canned Fruit Cocktail
Fruit is good in moderation, but canned fruit cocktail is never a good choice. Sure, it won’t spoil like fresh fruit does, but there’s a reason for that. Canned fruit cocktails are preserved in heavy corn syrups and sugar-laden juices. Go for fresh fruit instead!
28. Fruit Juice
Most fruit juices are high in sugar because they strip the fiber from the whole fruits. This results in a drink with more sugar than your regular can of cola.
29. Protein Bars
Most protein bars are nothing more than glorified candy bars with plenty of chocolate and sugar to boot. Many actually have more carbohydrates than protein, so stick to ones that contain fewer grams of carbs over protein and have less sugar.
30. Rice Cakes
Rice cakes were pretty much one of the go-to health foods back in the ’80s and ’90s because of their low-calorie counts. But they actually rank really high on the glycemic index (GI). The GI measures how fast blood sugar rises in response to food. On a scale of one to 100, rice cakes come in at 82, meaning you’ll get some energy from it quickly, but you’ll quickly crash and be hungry again within an hour or two.