One of the most common statements my clients tell me when beginning their health journey is: I want to eat better, but I don’t know how to start. And I get it. Changing your current diet and lifestyle can be daunting, especially when there is a plethora of options at the grocery store. Unfortunately, so many foods are advertised as “healthy” when, in reality, they lack essential nutrients or are filled with numerous additives. So much of marketing and packaging is misleading regarding the ingredients you’re purchasing to put into your body. Simply put, choosing the right foods can be confusing.
But don’t worry! I’ve compiled ten types of foods that are typically perceived as “healthy” but may actually be holding you back from reaching your health goals.
1. Low-fat and fat-free foods
One of the first things most people try to cut out when they want to improve their health is fat, but dietary fat gives you energy and allows your body to absorb essential fat-soluble vitamins. So, the concern for fat shouldn’t be about avoiding it altogether but rather about the sources of the fat. Many reduced-fat foods are still made with saturated fats (e.g., butter, palm oil, etc.), which promote inflammation and can increase LDL cholesterol.
Try this instead: Seek foods that list ingredients from high-quality fat sources—particularly monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). Olive oil, walnuts, and chia seeds are all excellent easy-to-find options.
2. Sugar-free foods
On the surface, sugar-free foods sound like the perfect solution to consuming fewer calories while still getting in a sweet fix. But how is the food being sweetened if not with sugar? More often than not, the answer is artificial sweeteners.
Some artificial sweeteners like raw stevia and monk fruit come from plants, but other frequently used sweeteners such as sucralose and aspartame are made in chemical labs. And while the long-term effects of consuming sugar substitutes are still unknown, short-term studies have shown that consuming sugar sweeteners can cause weight gain and increased health risks.
Try this instead: Snack on naturally sweet foods like grapes and berries to give you a little pick-me-up. Fruit contains sugars that provide a great source of energy to keep you going throughout the day.
3. Whole-grain foods
Whole-grain foods are an excellent source of fiber and energy and can help reduce many health risks. But because of the weak regulations regarding food labeling, companies can claim that their product is made from whole grains even if the grains used aren’t 100% whole grain. So, the health benefits from consuming the product may be minimal, and the product may be filled with empty calories from unnecessary additives to make up for flavor. Ultimately, you’re left with a product that spikes your blood sugar and leaves you hungry after an hour.
Try this instead: Opt for unprocessed whole grains such as quinoa or grain-free alternatives such as tortillas made from cassava flour. These options are delicious and packed with nutrients to keep you feeling satiated and energized all day.
4. Gluten-free foods
Gluten-free foods have their purpose for those with allergies and intolerances, but don’t let the label mislead you to believe that every gluten-free food is healthy. While gluten proteins may be removed, high amounts of sugar and sodium may still be left behind in processed gluten-free products.
Try this instead: Many foods are naturally gluten-free! Swap sugary cereals for unsweetened steel-cut oats or high-sodium potato chips for baked zucchini chips.
5. Natural and organic foods
Just like the terms “whole-grain” and “gluten-free,” “natural” and “organic” do not always equate to nutrient-dense. Many natural foods are heavily processed (like corn into high fructose corn syrup) to the point where they’re certainly not healthy. Similarly, organic foods are great for avoiding the ingestion of pesticides. Still, they don’t give you a pass to eat sugar-filled organic chocolate bars every night.
Try this instead: Practice reading ingredient labels and aim to avoid unprocessed foods in general. For most healthy individuals, eating a variety of colorful, whole, plant-based foods is always the best option to ensure a well-balanced diet.
6. Agave nectar
I often see agave syrup regarded as a healthful alternative to regular sugar because it has a low glycemic index (it won’t spike your blood sugar levels). However, agave has a high fructose concentration, which, when consumed excessively, can damage your health.
Try this instead: Experiment (in moderate amounts!) with other natural sweeteners like honey or date syrup to satisfy your sweet tooth.
7. Packaged nuts
I love nuts not only for their taste but also for their protein and fat content. Unfortunately, most widely available nut products add unneeded salt, oils, and sugars. These extra ingredients take away from the fantastic benefits of nuts and can negatively impact your health.
Try this instead: Pay attention to labels and look for packaging that lists the nut as its only ingredient. You can eat the nuts plain, add them to your favorite yogurt, or put them in a food processor and make nut butter!
8. Vegetable-based oils
Vegetable-based oils (e.g., canola, soybean, safflower, etc.) are affordable and easy to use, but they are highly processed and contain primarily omega-6 fatty acids, which are pro-inflammatory. Inflammation can lead to fatigue and contribute to your risk of disease.
Try this instead: Limit your use of vegetable-based oils or substitute them for healthier options like avocado oil or flaxseed oil.
9. Plant-based milks
Plant-based milks such as soy, oat, or rice milk can be great when water is the only other ingredient, but most of the top brands add sugars and gums to their drinks. These additives can spike blood sugar levels or cause uncomfortable GI side effects.
Try this instead: Buy simple-ingredient plant-based milks, or make some yourself! It’s easier than you think!
10. Packaged smoothies and juices
So many pre-made, easy-to-grab smoothies and juices at the grocery store are loaded with sugar and preservatives that overshadow their health benefits.
Try this instead: Experiment with making your own smoothies and juices so you can adjust the flavor and nutrient content while knowing what ingredients are in your drink.
Although the ten foods I mentioned seem like plenty, there are still more not-so-healthy “healthy” foods to be cautious of. Let’s chat about them! Book a one-on-one session with me to learn more about ACTUAL healthy choices that can help you achieve your unique health goals.