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A balanced diet is a critical component of your overall health, but finding that balance is all about knowing which foods to eat every day, which are fine in moderation and which you should try to avoid. There is a lot of subjectivity when it comes to categorizing foods as the “worst” or even “bad” — but there is still consensus among the scientific and medical community on some clear connections between certain foods we eat and negative effects on our health. Here is a list of general recommendations about which foods you should be mindful of consuming.
Just because the packaging says it’s a meal doesn’t mean it should be. Meal replacement bars simply aren’t nutritionally equivalent to a complete meal. Their nutritional value varies across brands, but many lack adequate calories, complex carbohydrates and protein, instead loading up on additives, sugar and oils. While they can be useful in a pinch, if you’re eating a meal on the go, consider a portable, healthy homemade breakfast instead.
It’s nearly impossible to eat just a handful of potato chips when a giant bag is in front of you. However, you should try to avoid chips or at least cut down significantly if you deal with high blood pressure. Popular chip flavorings like ranch, salt and vinegar, and sour cream and onion will have more salt content. You don’t have to cut potato chips out completely, but do limit your servings to 4 ounces a week and look for versions with reduced salt.
Pretzels might seem like a better snack option than potato chips, but they’re just as lacking in nutrients and substance. On top of having no benefits, they also come loaded with salt. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, In just a 100-gram serving, pretzels pack in 679 milligrams of sodium. If you’re looking for alternative snacks, consider these brain-boosting foods.
Snack cakes may remind you of your childhood, but you’re better off making your own desserts. Based on the USDA’s food database, these creme-filled, spongy snack cakes contain nearly 5 grams of fat and 15.7 grams of sugar per serving.
Refined grains like white rice are stripped of valuable nutrients in the refining process. According to Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Source database, replacing refined grains with whole grains like brown rice and eating at least 2 servings of whole grains daily might help to reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Popcorn, a whole grain, is generally a healthy snack — it’s full of fiber, low in fat and low in calories. But some varieties of microwave popcorn can contain trans fats and be coated with butter and oils. Make sure to check product labels or pop your own popcorn at home.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, granola and cereal bars are often disguised as “healthy candy bars” and can contain high amounts of sugar and almost no fiber. When buying granola bars, look for ones with at least 3 grams of fiber, at least 5 grams of protein and/or less than 35% calories from sugar.
Hydrogenated vegetable-based oil like margarine used to be a popular butter replacement, but scientists have since discovered that high levels of trans fats raise LDL (bad cholesterol) levels and lower HDL (good cholesterol) levels. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration declared that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), like the ones found in margarine, were no longer generally recognized as safe (GRAS) food additives, banning manufacturers from adding PHOs to foods. According to the FDA, PHOs are the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods.
While some fats are good for you, trans fat is absolutely not. According to the FDA, eating trans fat raises the level of LDL or bad cholesterol in the blood, which can increase your risk of developing heart disease. While adding artificial trans fats in processed foods is banned in the U.S., products with trans fat are still making their way onto shelves, so you should still check the labels of commercially prepared baked cookies, pies, donuts and other processed foods like frozen pizzas and refrigerated dough. According to Harvard Health Publishing experts, when foods containing partially hydrogenated oils like trans fat cannot be avoided, you should choose products that list the partially hydrogenated oils near the end of the ingredient list.
In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced that consumption of processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans” and may cause colorectal cancer. “Processed meat” means that the meat has been “transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.”
Speaking of processed meats, cold cuts are perhaps the most popular type. And though deli meats make for delicious and easy sandwiches, they tend to be high in sodium and contain sodium nitrate — a type of salt used to cure and preserve cold cuts — and can be “enhanced” with salt water or saline, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For example, one slice of cold-cut ham can have 291 milligrams of sodium. High salt intake can increase the risk of high blood pressure, which is a major cause of heart disease and stroke. Instead of making a sandwich with processed meats, try to use grilled chicken or lean fish instead.
This classic stadium food is also part of the processed meat category. Hot dogs and sausages should be eaten in moderation and are listed in the WHO’s report on processed meats as containing nitrates. Also, just one hot dog link can contain 370 milligrams of sodium and 8 grams of total fat, which is why it’s important to look for the healthiest brands of hot dogs you can find.
Like deli meats and hot dogs, bacon, an iconic breakfast food, is also cured with salt. According to the USDA’s food database, Tyson Foods bacon, for example, contains 330 milligrams of sodium in just two pan-fried strips.
Drive-thru french fries and frozen french fries are worlds apart in flavor, but when it comes to nutritional value, they’re pretty much the same — both are loaded with sodium and fat, and not ideal for people with high blood pressure. Just 3 oz. of cross-cut fries contain more than 8 grams of total fat and more than 300 milligrams of sodium.
Instant ramen takes no more than two or three minutes to prepare, making it a go-to choice for both college students and working adults. However, one should be mindful of the excessive amount of salt the seasoning packets contain, especially if you’re dealing with high blood pressure. According to a study published in the journal Nutrition Research and Practice, increased instant noodle consumption was associated with cardiometabolic risk factors, which include high blood pressure. The research was based on participants in South Korea, which has the highest per capita instant noodle consumption in the world.
If you are at risk for high blood pressure, you should also avoid foods that are high in saturated fats such as butter. A stick of butter has 92 grams of fat, most of which is saturated. Eating too much saturated fat is a major risk factor for heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends aiming for a daily intake of no more than 13 grams of saturated fat and replacing “bad fats” with “good fats” like monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat — think nuts, nut butters, avocados and fish.
Butter is not the only food that’s high in saturated fats. Cream, fatty beef and pork are also high on the list. Heavy cream contains 87 grams of fat per 1 cup serving. If you enjoy using cream in your morning coffee, you can use light cream in moderation — or better yet, consider other healthier alternatives. The American Heart Association suggests replacing foods that are high in saturated fat with healthier options to lower blood cholesterol levels.
Juice boxes have always been considered acceptable school lunch fare, but these cute little cardboard rectangles can contain almost as much sugar as a can of soda. Juice boxes might be “100 percent juice,” but fruit juices don’t provide the nutrients or fiber that’s found in the whole fruit. Depending on your child’s age, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 8 oz. or less of fruit juice per day.
According to the American Heart Association, drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure to unhealthy levels. The effects can be both long and short term. Consuming more than three drinks in one sitting temporarily increases your blood pressure, while a lifestyle of heavy drinking can lead to a long-term increase. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, alcohol consumption should be limited to up to two drinks per day for men and up to one drink per day for women. A drink is equivalent to one 12 oz. beer, 5 oz. of wine or 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits.
Most of us know by now that diet soda is not a healthy choice. In a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers found that people who drank diet soda every day were at a higher risk for vascular issues, including heart attacks and strokes, compared to those who drank fewer diet sodas or even those who drank regular sugar-sweetened sodas.
Artificial sweeteners may have zero calories, but they can negatively affect your health in other ways. Research has linked artificially sweetened beverages to obesity as well as increased risk for diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.
Sports drinks and fruit juices may not seem unhealthy because they can be hydrating and replenishing. However, it’s best to consume them and other soft drinks in moderation, just like soda. In fact, researchers at Harvard University reported that women who drank one or more sugar-sweetened soft drinks a day were 83% more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes compared to women who drank less than one soft drink a month.
For a while, this sweet-tasting compound was paraded as a healthier alternative to sugar. However, it’s actually way higher in fructose than your typical white sugar. Agave is even higher in fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. And excessive fructose consumption has been linked to increased risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, weight gain and other negative health effects.
There are many negative effects refined sugar has on the body, and in particular, on our metabolic profile. According to research published in the journal Open Heart, there’s an established link between sugar and hypertension as well as high cholesterol and excess weight. Soda and other sweetened drinks are the biggest sources of refined sugars, followed by cookies, cakes, pastries, ice cream, frozen yogurt, candy and ready-to-eat cereals. Foods with refined sugars are also some of the least eco-friendly foods you can buy at the grocery store. According to the World Wildlife Fund, sugarcane production tends to pollute freshwater ecosystems with silt and fertilizers that wash into surrounding waterways from mills and farms.
Cookies have it, drinks have it and even some jellies have it — another ingredient that can be found in many common grocery store foods is high-fructose corn syrup. Regular consumption of food and drinks containing high-fructose corn syrup has been associated with an increased risk of obesity and diabetes. It’s difficult to avoid added sugar like high-fructose corn syrup. But the American Heart Association recommends that most women get no more than 100 calories a day of added sugar, or about 6 teaspoons, and that most men get no more than 150 calories a day, or about 9 teaspoons.
Cherries can make for a sweet snack or dessert, but cherry pits are not to be messed with. If you swallow one whole, you’re in the clear. But refrain from ever accidentally biting one open — cherry pits contain a poisonous compound called amygdalin, which breaks down into hydrogen cyanide when ingested.
Undercooked, pink chicken isn’t just unappetizing — it’s also unsafe to consume. According to the CDC, raw chicken can be contaminated with hidden bacteria, such as Campylobacter bacteria, salmonella or clostridium perfringens bacteria. If you eat undercooked chicken, you can get food poisoning, which can lead to diarrhea, vomiting and high fever. Undercooking chicken is just one home mistake that could be making you sick.
You’ll find palm oil in everything from pizza and chocolate to shampoo and toothpaste. In fact, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), palm oil is in close to 50% of the packaged products found in supermarkets. However, it’s one of the worst foods to eat for the environment as demand for it continues to drive deforestation and threaten already endangered species. If you want to be more sustainable, look for products that don’t contain palm oil as an alternative to more mainstream products.
Low-fat yogurt is typically loaded with sugar to make up for the lack of fat. In fact, some brands of yogurt — particularly if they’re flavored with berries or fruit — can contain 14 grams of sugar per serving. There are a few more reasons why you should reach for full-fat yogurt over low-fat. According to Harvard Health, full-fat dairy has been correlated with a decreased risk of obesity. Another reason to go full-fat is that it helps you feel full. Low-fat yogurt is definitely one of those so-called “healthy foods” you should actually avoid.
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