Unhealthy foods play a primary role in many people gaining weight and developing chronic health conditions, more now than ever before.
Surprisingly, people consider some of these foods healthy.
Here are 15 “health foods” that are really junk foods in disguise.
1. Processed ‘low-fat’ and ‘fat-free’ foods
The “war” on saturated fat could be considered one of the most misguided decisions in the history of nutrition.
It was based on weak evidence, which has now been completely debunked .
When this discussion started, processed food manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon and started removing the fat from foods.
But there’s a huge problem. Food doesn’t taste well when the fat has been removed. That’s why they added a lot of sugar to compensate.
Saturated fat is harmless, but added sugar is incredibly harmful when consumed in excess (Trusted Source).
The words “low fat” or “fat free” on packaging usually means that it’s a highly processed product that’s loaded with sugar.
2. Most commercial salad dressings
Vegetables are incredibly healthy.
The problem is that they often don’t taste very good on their own.
That’s why many people use dressings to add flavor to their salads, turning these bland meals into delicious treats.
But many salad dressings are actually loaded with unhealthy ingredients like sugar, vegetable oils, and trans fats, along with various artificial chemicals.
Although vegetables are good for you, eating them with a dressing high in harmful ingredients negates any health benefit you get from the salad.
Check the ingredients list before you use a salad dressing or make your own using healthy ingredients.
3. Fruit juices… which are basically just liquid sugar
A lot of people believe fruit juices are healthy.
They must be because they come from fruit, right?
But most fruit juice you find in the grocery store isn’t really fruit juice.
Sometimes they don’t have any actual fruit in them, just chemicals that taste like fruit. What you’re drinking is basically fruit-flavored sugar water.
That being said, even if you’re drinking 100% quality fruit juice, it’s still not the best choice.
Fruit juice actually contains a similar amount of sugar as a sugar-sweetened beverage (Trusted Source).
4. ‘Heart-healthy’ whole wheat
Most “whole wheat” products aren’t really made from whole wheat.
The grains have been pulverized into very fine flour, which causes them to raise blood sugar just as fast as their refined counterparts.
In fact, whole wheat bread can have a similar glycemic index as white bread (5).
But even true whole wheat may be a bad idea because modern wheat is unhealthy compared to the wheat our grandparents ate.
Around 1960, scientists modified the genes in wheat to increase the yield. Modern wheat is less nutritious and has some properties that make it much worse for people who have a gluten intolerance (Trusted Source).
There are also studies showing that modern wheat may cause inflammation and increased cholesterol levels, at least when compared to the older varieties (Trusted Source).
Wheat may have been a relatively healthy grain back in the day, but the stuff most people are eating today should be consumed with caution.
5. Cholesterol-lowering phytosterols
Phytosterols are nutrients that are basically like plant versions of cholesterol.
Some studies have shown that they can lower blood cholesterol in humans (Trusted Source).
For this reason, they’re often added to processed foods that are then marketed as “cholesterol lowering” and claimed to help prevent heart disease.
However, studies have shown that despite lowering cholesterol levels, phytosterols have negative effects on the cardiovascular system and may even increase the risk of heart disease and death (Trusted Source).
People with phytosterolaemia (a genetic condition that raises plant sterol level in blood) are more susceptible to the negative effects of phytosterols (Trusted Source).
Butter was labeled a bad food choice in the past because of its high saturated fat content.
Various health experts started promoting margarine instead.
Back in the day, margarine used to be high in trans fats. These days, it has fewer trans fats than before, but it’s still loaded with refined vegetable oils.
If you want to improve your health, try to eat real butter (preferably grass fed), and avoid margarine with trans fat. Trans-fat-free margarine has become more available in recent years.
Always read nutrition facts carefully and limit products that contain trans fat.
Recommending trans fat-laden margarine instead of natural butter may be considered some of the worst nutrition advice in history.HEALTHLINE RESOURCETake our free 3-question diet quiz
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7. Sports drinks
Sports drinks were designed with athletes in mind.
They contain electrolytes (salts) and sugar, which can be useful for athletes in many cases.
However, most people don’t need additional salt or liquid sugar in their diet.
Although often considered “less bad” than sugary soft drinks, there’s really no fundamental difference in the two, except the sugar content in sports drinks is sometimes slightly lower.
It’s important to stay hydrated, especially when working out, but most people will be better off sticking to plain water.
8. Low-carb junk foods
Low carb diets have been incredibly popular for many decades.
However, food manufacturers have caught up on the trend and brought various low carb “friendly” processed foods to the market.
This includes highly processed foods like the Atkins bars. If you take a look at the ingredients list, you see that there’s no real food in them, just chemicals and highly refined ingredients.
These products can be consumed occasionally without compromising the metabolic adaptation that comes with low carb eating.
However, they don’t really nourish your body. Even though they’re technically low carb, they’re still unhealthy.
9. Agave nectar
Given the known harmful effects of sugar, people have been looking for alternatives.
One of the more popular “natural” sweeteners is agave nectar, which is also called agave syrup.
You’ll find this sweetener in all sorts of “healthy foods,” often with attractive claims on the packaging.
The problem with agave is that it’s no better than regular sugar. In fact, it’s much worse.
Sugar is about 50% fructose and 55% high fructose corn syrup, but agave contains even more — up to 70-90%.
Therefore, gram for gram, agave is even worse than regular sugar.
“Natural” doesn’t always equal healthy. Whether agave should even be considered natural is debatable.
10. Vegan junk foods
Vegan diets are very popular these days, often due to ethical and environmental reasons.
However, many people promote vegan diets for the purpose of improving health.
There are many processed vegan foods on the market, often sold as convenient replacements for non-vegan foods.
Vegan bacon is one example.
But it’s important to keep in mind that these are usually highly processed, factory made products that are bad for almost anyone, including people who are vegan.
11. Brown rice syrup
Brown rice syrup, also known as rice malt syrup, is a sweetener that’s mistakenly assumed to be healthy.
It’s made by exposing cooked rice to enzymes that break down the starch into simple sugars.
Brown rice syrup contains no refined fructose, just glucose.
The absence of refined fructose is good, but rice syrup has a glycemic index of 98, which means that the glucose in it will spike blood sugar extremely fast .
Rice syrup is also highly refined and contains almost no essential nutrients. In other words, it’s considered “empty” calories.
Some concerns have been raised about arsenic contamination in this syrup, which is another reason to be extra careful with this sweetener (Trusted Source).
There are other sweeteners out there, including low calorie sweeteners like:
In general, try to use all sweeteners wisely and follow recommended serving sizes.
12. Processed organic foods
Unfortunately, the word “organic” has become a typical marketing buzzword in many instances.
Food manufacturers have found all sorts of ways to make the same products, except with ingredients that happen to be organic.
This includes ingredients like organic raw cane sugar, which is basically 100% identical to regular sugar. It’s still just glucose and fructose with little to no nutrients.
In many cases, the difference between an ingredient and its organic counterpart is next to none.
Processed foods that happen to be labeled organic aren’t necessarily healthy. Always check the label to see what’s inside.
13. Vegetable oils
This recommendation is based on the fact that these oils have been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels, at least in the short term (Trusted Source).
However, it’s important to keep in mind that blood cholesterol is a risk factor. It’s not a disease in itself.
Even though vegetable oils can help improve a risk factor, there’s no guarantee that they’ll help prevent actual health outcomes like heart attacks or death, which is what really counts.
In fact, several controlled trials have shown that despite lowering cholesterol, these oils can increase the risk of developing heart disease and memory impairment (Trusted Source).
Also, follow the recommended serving size, but limit processed vegetable oils as if your health depended on it, which it does.
14. Gluten-free junk foods
According to a 2013 survey, about a third of people in the United States are actively trying to limit or avoid gluten.
Not surprisingly, the food manufacturers have brought all sorts of gluten-free foods to the market.
The problem with these foods is that they usually have the same negative effects on your body as their gluten-containing counterparts, if not worse.
These are highly processed foods containing few nutrients and often made with refined starches that can lead to very rapid spikes in blood sugar.
Try to choose foods that are naturally gluten free, like plants and animals, not gluten-free processed foods.
Gluten-free junk food is still junk food.
15. Most processed breakfast cereals
The way some breakfast cereals are marketed can be deceiving.
Many of them, including those that are marketed toward children, have various health claims listed on the box.
This includes claims like “whole grain” or “low fat” that may be misleading.
This is especially true when you look at the ingredients list and see that these products mostly contain:
- refined grains
- artificial chemicals
It’s important to always review product packaging to confirm what you’re actually putting in your body and whether it’s healthy for you.
Truly healthy foods are whole, single-ingredient foods. Their health benefits speak for them.
Real food doesn’t even need an ingredients list, because real food is the ingredient.
Read more about: 11 Foods to Avoid When Trying to Lose Weight