11 “Healthy” Foods That Nutritionists Won’t Touch
They sound healthy, they look healthy—but are they? Nutritionists help us distinguish between the "looks good" food to the truly good food.
Don’t believe the hype
Food marketers are smart: Time and time again, they manage to convince us that the foods we’re better off avoiding are the very things that will help us stay trim and healthy. It’s no wonder that diets don’t work; there’s a ton of misinformation floating around.
To avoid falling victim to these marketing traps, you must stay informed. We spoke with nutritionists to find out which so-called “healthy” foods they avoid and learn what they eat instead. Following their lead may just be your ticket to eating a diet that makes you feel—and look—your very best. Here’s a handy guide to decoding food labels.
Reduced-calorie and sugar-free sweets
If you’re trying to eat a more wholesome diet, you might see low-carb brownies or sugar-free candies as smart substitutions for your favorite desserts. But diet pros say these treats are better off left on the shelf than in our stomachs.
Often these treats contain questionable sugar substitutes, and excess fat and salt to make up for the lack of sugar and calories, explains Angel Planells, RDN, CD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. “Plus, when you’re eating ‘diet’ desserts, people are tempted to eat more than they typically would,” Planells adds.
Green juice and smoothies
Sure, they’re served at basically every health food shop, and often considered ideal weight-loss allies, but some dietitians aren’t fans of smoothies or juices. “I only recommend them if I have a client who needs to gain weight,” says Ilyse Schapiro, RDN.
“Chewing your food tells your body that it’s eating and consuming calories and gets it ready for digestion. When you sip your calories, this doesn’t happen,” Schapiro explains. In turn, you won’t retain as many nutrients, including fiber, so you might need additional calories to feel full and satisfied. Here’s how to make those bananas last longer so you’re happy to eat them whole instead of throwing them in a smoothy once they start turning brown.
Drink tea and seltzer, instead
Stick to water, seltzer, or unsweetened teas as your primary beverages, Schapiro recommends. When you’re craving fruits and veggies, enjoy them whole and fresh instead of sipped through a straw.
Try less of the real thing
Have a small portion of whatever it is that you’re craving. “Eat a small piece of a real cookie or brownie, and take the time to really savor the flavor,” recommends Sarah Koszyk, RDN, the author of 365 Snacks for Every Day of the Year.
If you know you won’t be able to stick to small serving sizes, consider quelling your sweet tooth with some fruit, nature’s tastiest candy. So you can still buy some of the unhealthiest things at Costco so long as you’re watching your portions.
Eat-the-whole-pint “ice cream”
We’ve all seen those containers of ice cream advertising that the entire pint has just 300 calories. (Halo Top and Arctic Zero are two popular such brands.) While these might seem like a smart choice, Amy Shapiro, RD isn’t a fan. “I hate the marketing here. It teaches people that portion control doesn’t matter, and I truly believe if we all stuck to proper portions, no one would be struggling with weight.”
Shapiro doesn’t like the sugar alcohols used to create these products either. “Although they’re all-natural, they can cause a lot of stomach discomfort, gas, bloating, and even diarrhea when consumed in large amounts.”
Eat the real thing
When you want something cold and sweet, skip the fake stuff and enjoy a half-cup serving of real ice cream, topped with fresh fruit and nuts, suggests California-based dietitian Yasi Ansari, RDN. Want to burn a few calories before digging in? Try this fun way to make ice cream in a bag! It’s easy enough that kids can do it and trust us, you’ll definitely get a workout in!
Fat-free salad dressing
We need fat to absorb many of the nutrients in vegetables, so you’re actually doing your body a disservice by using fat-free dressings, Planells explains. What’s more, when brands reduce their product’s fat content, they’ll often add artificial sweeteners or sugar to keep their dressing tasty, explains Isabel Smith RD, CDN.
Oil and vinegar always works
Use a small serving of regular salad dressing, Smith and Planells suggest. Or go for a tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of vinegar, Planells adds. Pair the dressing with these healthy salads that make lunch exciting again.
You might have heard that this fizzy fermented tea can improve everything from digestion and metabolism to immunity and heart health. While the drink does contain vitamins, antioxidants, and gut-friendly probiotics, there haven’t been enough studies to confirm that this drink actually delivers any real health benefits.
What we do know, though, is that a lot of the bottled kombucha for sale in stores is high in calories or sugar, Schapiro says. “Also, consuming too much of it can lead to digestive distress. It’s carbonated which can cause gas and bloating.”
Drink regular tea
“I recommend regular tea. It has known antioxidant properties, and there is way more research out there on the benefits of tea than kombucha,” Schapiro says. Deciding on your morning beverage? Here’s one factor you might want to look at: Tea vs. Coffee—Which one is better for you?
Veggie chips and “straws”
Veggie sticks and straws might seem like a diet-friendly alternative to potato chips, but Patricia Bannan, RDN, the author of Eat Right When Time Is Tight suggests steering clear. “The first ingredients are usually ‘potato starch’ and ‘potato flour’ which offer little in the way of nutrition and provides zero dietary fiber,” she explains.
Get nutty, instead
“While these baked sticks and straws are lower in fat compared to fried potato chips, a better option for snack time crunching would be nuts,” Bannan says. “A one-ounce serving of pistachios, for example, offers protein, dietary fiber, and healthy fats which will help keep you full.”
If you definitely want to stick to veggie chips, make sure the first ingredient is actually a whole vegetable, like sweet potato, beets, or kale, Bannan says. Just a heads up: peanuts aren’t actually nuts.
Egg whites and egg beaters
“The latest research has shown that there is no need to skip egg yolks. In fact, I encourage my clients to eat them due to the abundance of nutrients found in the yolk such as iron, selenium, folate, choline, and vitamin B12,” says Lori Zanini, RD, CDE, the creator of For The Love of Diabetes online program.
Have an egg already
“Studies have found that eating high-quality proteins, like whole eggs, can promote weight loss,” Zannini says. Short on time? She recommends buying eggs that come hard-boiled and peeled from the store. All the better if you can find some that are organic, free-range, and free of antibiotics. Want to prepare your food ahead? No worries! You can actually freeze eggs. Here’s our definitive guide for how to freeze every kind of egg.
You may already know that diet soda contains artificial sweeteners, flavors, and coloring. But here’s something you may not have known: Consuming two or more artificially sweetened beverages per day have been linked to an increased stroke risk among postmenopausal women, Ansari says. “There is also some evidence to support a link between long-term diet beverage consumption and an increased risk of chronic diseases such as dementia, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.”
Even though an occasional diet soda appears to be safe, I encourage my clients to stick to plain water, fruit-infused water, or unsweetened iced tea or iced coffee,” says Ansari. Another smart option: A splash of juice mixed with seltzer water. “Replacing diet soda with seltzer mixed with a no-sugar-added juice option such as Welch’s 100% Grape Juice serves up a bit of flavor, as well as vitamin C and antioxidants,” says Jim White, RDN.
Looking for the right iced tea? We put 10 teas to the test, here is our favorite.
Low-fat and low-calorie yogurts
All yogurts are not created equal, cautions Rebecca Ditkoff, RD, CDN. “Some are a great source of protein, calcium, and probiotics with minimal added sugars, which make a great addition to any meal or snack. However, sweetened yogurts—some of which have up to 20 grams of sugar—are more or less a dessert.”
Kara Lydon, RD, LDN agrees with Ditkoff’s sentiments and adds that it’s important to be wary of low-fat, or “light” yogurts, too. “They’re missing the satiating component of dietary fat, and they are usually less than 100 calories per serving which is not substantial enough for a snack,” she explains.
Choose full fat
Choose full-fat, Greek or Icelandic unsweetened yogurts. Not only will these options actually keep you satisfied and satiated, but they also they tend to contain two times the protein and half the sugar of regular yogurt, Lydon and Ditkoff explain. Top some with fresh fruit for added flavor. If you don’t eat yogurt every day, this might convince you to start.
Meal replacement bars
Whether you’re short on time or trying to lose weight, a meal replacement bar might seem like a good solution, but Zanini says you’re better off grabbing something else. “Many of these bars contain artificial ingredients and lack real food ingredients that will likely leave you craving more sweets,” she cautions. “They also tend to be poorly balanced. Without fiber, protein, and fat, foods will digest quicker and likely lead to overeating later on.”
There is one good bar
When it comes to meals, whole foods are best. If you tend to be time-strapped, or just want to eat a bit healthier, consider prepping one of these make-ahead meals. And if you’re looking for a bar option to enjoy as a snack, Zanini recommends KIND Protein Bars. Not only are they free of artificial ingredients, but they also contain 12 grams of protein and five grams of filling fiber to help keep you full.
Reduced-bread might seem like an easy way to keep some calories off your lunch plate. But more often than not, these products have little or no fiber, fat, or protein. That can be a problem since these nutrients help keep you feeling full and add flavor and taste to your foods, explains Torey Armul, RD spokesperson for the Academy. In other words, you’re better off buying something else for your sandwiches and toast.
Go 100% whole grain
Instead of focusing on calories, look for products made with 100 percent whole grains that contain at least two grams of fiber and three grams of protein per slice, Armul says. “In the end, you’re better off eating something that’s packed with nutrients, even if it is higher in calories than filling your body with empty calories. Just be mindful of your portions and stick to no more than two slices per meal.” Looking for more nutritionist expertise? Check out these questions that nutritionists get asked the most.