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5 Unhealthiest Foods
Food,  Healthy Eating "in the Wild"

Just Say No: 5 Foods to Avoid for Better Health

We all live in a world where delicious temptations are everywhere – the coworker who brings pastries to the office every week, a restaurant menu that is 100% melty sandwiches and fries, the grocery store freezer aisle stocked with a hundred flavors of ice cream.

Outside of a medical condition, no food is completely off-limits.

However, if most of your diet is made up of highly-processed, sugar-laden foods, it will be more difficult to reach your wellness goals, and you’ll be putting yourself at increased risk of conditions like type II diabetes, stroke, cancer, etc. 

I’ve put together this list of very unhealthy foods, not to disparage certain foods or brands, but in order to give you concrete examples of how and when to make healthier choices. And, while these foods have many nutritional weaknesses, I’ll touch on just a few here. If you feel like digging deeper – that’s great – be sure to check out the linked research articles.

You may have noticed that the post title includes the wording “almost never good …” There are a few reasons that I avoid saying a food is never good for you:

Every food has nutritive value

No matter what it is, each food contains calories (from carbohydrates, fat, and protein). If a body needs energy (aka, calories), and there is only one food option available, (even if it is a packet of mayonnaise) it’s better than nothing.

Any food in moderation

  • There are special occasions and events where indulgent foods play a significant and meaningful role. Treats like wedding cake and Grandma’s Christmas candy are important, wonderful, and should be enjoyed because of the events and loved ones we associate with them. 
  • Incorporating planned indulgences into a healthy diet keeps you from feeling deprived both mentally and physically. For example, you may find it much easier to make healthy choices all week if you know you’ll get to have your favorite pizza and beer on Saturday. Similarly, your body’s metabolism will slow if you cut calories over an extended period of time; however, the occasional indulgence provides a calorie boost that makes it clear to your body that you’re not in starvation mode, which helps maintain a higher metabolism.
  • Back to that “moderation” part … keep indulgences and treats as “sometimes” foods. If you find yourself attending a kid’s birthday party or church potluck every week, the indulgences that come along with them become regular, not occasional, events.
  • Make a plan or up with criteria to help you decide whether having a treat at an event fits with your healthy lifestyle plan. For example, my rule of thumb is that I enjoy birthday cake at my own and immediate family members’ birthdays. It’s OK to say no –  you’re an adult and can choose what you do and do not eat.

With those caveats out of the way, here are five foods that will not make you healthier and ways to choose better options.

1. Chips – any kind, from potato chips to Doritos to Cheetos

  • Nutrition demerits
    • Empty calories – almost zero vitamins or minerals, very little protein or fiber. 
    • Bad fats. Almost all the fat is from (typically) super-processed oil used to fry the chips. Or, in the case of, let’s say ballpark nachos, even more super-processed oil in the form of the cheese-like sauce. While research on the actual detrimental effects of these oils is mixed, there is some evidence that ever-present soybean oil is linked to obesity and other adverse health effects.
    • Artificial/chemically-produced ingredients to replicate flavors (think Cool Ranch) and preserve freshness and/or mouthfeel. 
  • Alternatives
    • Vegetables dipped in hummus
    • Cheese cubes
    • Jackson’s Honest brand chips. Their potato chips contain only potatoes, coconut oil, and salt. Find them online at Thrive Market.

2. Fried dough: Donuts, packaged pastries, beignets, funnel cake

  • Nutritional demerits:
    • Empty calories (see #1)
    • Bad fats – hydrogenated oils are common in these foods, and are the most detrimental fats for the human body.
    • Excessive amounts of refined sugar, sometimes high fructose corn syrup.
    • Artificially/chemically-produced ingredients to replicate flavors and preserve freshness.
    • Read more here.
  • Alternatives
    • Plain yogurt with fresh fruit
    • Oatmeal with nut butter and cinnamon
    • Whole grain toast with peanut butter

3. Celebration cakes

You know, the beautifully-decorated birthday and graduation cakes with frosting as thick as the cake. Homemade cakes (and icing) can be better options, eg, prepared with butter rather than hydrogenated oils. All frosted cakes, however, should be infrequent treats, and here’s why: 

  • Nutritional demerits:
    • Empty calories
    • Bad fats – at best – lots of butter; at worst – hydrogenated oils
    • Excessive sugar – at best – organic cane; at worst – high fructose corn syrup.
    • Artificially/chemically-produced ingredients to replicate colors, flavors, and preserve freshness.
    • Read more on the differences between homemade and commercially available cake options here.
  • Alternatives
    • If at a party with other food, choose fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, nuts, unsweetened beverages. 
    • Frankly, almost anything is better than the cake.

4. Sweet energy drinks – everything from Coke to Red Bull

  • Nutritional demerits:
    • Empty calories
    • Excessive amounts of refined sugar, often high fructose corn syrup. A recent study found that the more sugary drinks people consumed, the greater their risk of dying from any cause, especially cardiovascular disease. 
    • Artificially/chemically-produced ingredients to replicate flavors and preserve freshness.
    • Excessive caffeine – some drinks have up to double or triple the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee. Highly caffeinated beverages actually dehydrate your body, plus caffeine temporarily increases your blood pressure and heart rate.
    • Read more on the effects of energy drinks here.
  • Alternatives
    • Black coffee
    • Sparkling water
    • Fresh fruit
    • Water

5. Fruit juice – It may be from fruit, but juice is in no way equivalent.

  • Nutritional demerits:
    • Empty Calories
    • Without the nutritious, fibrous carrying case that make a whole fruit, the juice is just plain sugar.
    • Excessive sugar (fructose, the sugar naturally found in fruit), and often have added high fructose corn syrup.
    • Missing the healthy components of whole fruit – primarily fiber.
    • Read more here.
  • Alternatives
    • Water
    • Sparkling water
    • An actual piece of fruit

OK! Now have the knowledge to decide whether or not to indulge in the next office retirement cake, happy hour cheesy fries, or late-night ice cream. There is a time and place for almost any food. The key is to make indulgences work for you – as part of an special and highly enjoyable circumstance.

As always, I’d love to hear from you! What methods have worked for you in resisting or planning treats? Did any of the items on this list, or the research I linked to surprise you? Do you agree or disagree? Don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you have something to add!

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