If you have a cheat meal or eat unhealthily every so often, that isn’t so bad. Once you’re at your goal weight and need to maintain, OpenFit recommends eating a clean diet at least 80 percent of the time. But, what if you’re eating badly and don’t know it? Sure, you stay away from deep-fried Oreos, but is your favorite “health food” keeping you from reaching your health goals?
The following foods are successfully disguised or marketed as “diet-friendly” and in some cases, “health” foods. Don’t let them fool you.
11 Seemingly Healthy Foods That Aren’t Very Good for You
Shocked? Granola is often touted as an outdoorsy health snack. Yet it can be super high in calories and loaded with sugar and saturated fat. The same can be said for packaged varieties and some recipes you can make at home.
Eat this instead: Go raw. Muesli is basically just raw granola, and it tends to have less sugars and oils — but just in case, always read the label. If you are trying to lose weight, make sure to measure to keep your portion size reasonable. OpenFit recommend using granola (made with clean ingredients, such as extra-virgin organic coconut oil, raw honey, and old-fashioned rolled oats) sparingly; scatter two tablespoons on top of plain yogurt, mixed fruit, or baked apples.
Multigrain Sliced Bread
This can be tricky territory to navigate because the marketing claims on many of the sliced bread packages can be quite convincing… “made with whole grains;” “gluten-free, wheat-free, dairy-free;” “no high fructose corn syrup;” “45 calories and delightful” may make it seem like these breads are good options to use for sandwiches or toast. But, pivot to the ingredients list, and you may find refined grains (enriched unbleached wheat flour), added sugars (molasses, high fructose corn syrup, honey), sodium, and additives mixed in to keep the bread soft and “fresh,” as it sits on shelves for weeks or more.
Eat this instead: If you need the convenience of sliced bread, expect to pay a little more for higher quality ingredients and fewer hard-to-pronounce additives. Make sure that the first ingredient is 100 percent whole wheat or whole grain flour, and try to avoid varieties with a lot of added sugar. Or, forego the bread and tote these crunchy veggie wraps or these lettuce-wrapped banh mi turkey burgers to work with you.
Frozen Diet Meals
Frozen dinners are not as healthy as they advertise on the boxes — are you seeing a theme here with food marketing claims? Though many “diet-friendly” frozen meals are low in calories (most range from around 240–400 calories), they are highly processed, often lacking in nutrients, and brimming with sodium. Although they may seem like easy, portable shortcuts, you give up a lot in exchange for the convenience of a three-minute microwaved meal.
Eat this instead: Prepare healthy meals in bulk at the beginning of the week to deter you from having to choose these unhealthy convenient options. Or, if you absolutely must, read the labels. Some brands are better than others. Amy’s Kitchen, for example, does a better job than most.
Note the word “sports” in the title. These drinks are specifically designed to replenish carbs, electrolytes, and other nutrients an athlete depletes during long, hard training efforts. In any other situation, they’re just sugar water. You might as well drink soda (but don’t do that. And stay away from the diet soda, too.)
Drink this instead: Generally, sports drinks are only useful for hard exercise when you’re going longer than an hour. They’re a good option for athletes going hard, or for doing shorter workouts in hot, humid climates.
In cases aside from those listed above, you’re probably better off with water.
However, if you’re eating at a calorie deficit and you’re having a hard time making it through your 30- to 60-minute workout, a little extra blood sugar might help, so experiment with a diluted sports drink. And again, read labels. High fructose corn syrup or artificial dyes won’t give you the fitness boost you want.
“Fat free” might look good on paper, but your body actually needs fat! Plus, as Denis Faye, OpenFit’s director of nutrition content, explains, “they just replace the fat with carbs and salt [in most fat-free products], so you’ve basically gone from pouring a little unsaturated fat on your salad to dumping on a pile of sugar.”
Eat this instead: Stick with simple homemade dressings, such as balsamic vinaigrette, and, if you’re out, ask for them on the side to control how much you’re using. Incorporate reasonable amounts of healthy fats — mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — into your diet to reap the nutritional benefits, increase satiety, and add more flavor to your meals. Great whole-food sources of healthy fats include avocados, nut and seed butters (with minimal ingredients), olives and extra virgin olive oil, raw nuts, and cold-water fish.
American-style muffins first came into popularity at the end of the 18th century… and never went out of fashion again. But, this sweet quickbread is hardly healthy. Take those tempting blueberry muffins you see at some classic coffee chains. They pack about 460 calories and 15 grams of fat each, not to mention that they’re usually made with refined flour, tons of sugar, and goodness knows what preservatives. Up the enticement factor with streusel topping, chocolate chips, sweetened dried fruit, or candied ginger, and you may as well eat dessert for breakfast.
Eat this instead: Almost all store-bought (and coffee house) muffins should really just be avoided. If you’re really craving a muffin, try this flourless chocolate muffin that’s lower in calories and higher in fiber and other good-for-you components. Or, this plum bran muffin if you’re looking for a real fruit-and-fiber boost. For those times when you want a seasonal treat, these blueberry maple muffins and pumpkin muffins can be just the ticket.
As far as protein goes, fish deserves a high place in your diet, and sushi can be a great way to enjoy it. However, most sushi is more rice than fish, and sometimes, it’s been deep fried (we’re looking at you, spider roll) or coated with mayonnaise (cue the dynamite roll and almost any sushi that has “spicy” in the name). While it’s not a complete junk food, like many items here, you can’t chow down without restraint and expect to see nothing but benefits.
Eat this instead: If you do rolls, try to choose rolls made with brown rice or those that are low-carb (in other words, rice free). Or, stick with sashimi. Add bulk to your meal by ordering things like miso soup, edamame, and seaweed salad. You can also learn how to make your own healthy sushi at home.
Don’t confuse these travel-friendly little bites that are low in fat for a “healthy” snack. This carb-heavy treat is almost completely devoid of nutrients, and calories can add up fast if you don’t stay aware of portion sizes.
Eat this instead: If you can’t go without these salty twists (or sticks), pick whole-grain versions made with 100 percent whole wheat flour; sprouted grains; or cracked wheat, rye, or barley. More nutrient-dense snack options can include almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds. Just keep an eye on the serving size. If you want a bit more bulk for your calorie buck, try these easy-to-stash-in-your-desk snacks (all for less than 200 calories per serving) or one of these 55 snacks under 150 calories.
Just because something contains the word “veggie” in the name doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Veggie Chips are often extraordinarily high in fat and sodium and, honestly, not much better for you than potato chips.
Eat this instead: When snacking, eat your veggies raw — and dip them in hummus if you want to add flavor. If you’re a traditionalist, this classic hummus recipe will suit you; however, if you want more zip, try avocado, black bean, or white bean and roasted red pepper hummus. If you don’t like hummus or want even more variety, try skinny buffalo chicken dip, it tastes even better on celery, carrots, endive, bell pepper strips, or radishes than it does on crackers or chips.
What’s the problem with tea today? It’s mainly not tea! Most mass-produced bottled teas add preservatives, and designer drinks like chai lattes pump the sugar and additive content through the roof.
Drink this instead: Try Tejava (which is all-natural and just contains brewed tea), stick to unsweetened teas from your local coffee shop, or brew your own. Learn how to create your own chai tea latte at home.
For starters, unless you suffer from celiac disease or are truly intolerant or sensitive to gluten, there’s no true need to shift to gluten-free products. Second, snacks are snacks, and gluten-free packaged snacks don’t necessarily offer more nutritious benefits than wheat-containing snacks. Keep in mind that most alternative flours used to make gluten-free foods often contain just as many carbs as wheat, often don’t offer more vitamins, minerals, or fiber, and are more highly processed.
Eat this instead: Opt for whole-food snacks that contain minimal, clean ingredients. Nosh on raw or even roasted vegetables, fresh fruits, raw or lightly salted nuts, air-popped popcorn flavored with herbs and spices, or fruit and yogurt smoothies.
The 60-Second Takeaway
Gold star for you if you’ve guessed the theme of this article: Processed convenience foods by far outnumber the others on our list of 11 foods that seem healthy but really aren’t. But, we get it. You’re busy, and you need to take shortcuts when you can. We do it, too.
But, we adjust expectations when we need to prioritize convenience — for example, we expect to pay a little more for a higher-quality sprouted whole-grain sliced bread, compared to the inexpensive wheat bread (that’s not made from 100-percent whole wheat flour) filled with dough conditioners and additives. We’ll spend time on weekly meal planning and prepping on Sunday afternoon so we can have wholesome meals to take with us during the week to conveniently avoid junk-food-filled vending machines and greasy-spoon diners or food trucks near the office.
Like all things in life, the goal is to strike a balance, and if you’re going to opt for store-bought snacks, for example, just remember that “store-bought snacks” doesn’t have to mean pretzels, gluten-free crackers, and veggie chips. It can also mean raw almonds, apple slices with sunflower butter, and hard-boiled eggs.