When you’re trying to improve your eating habits, it can be tempting to buy into the fads surrounding you every time you visit the supermarket. Low-fat snacks, sports drinks, and even protein bars have nutritional benefits—but there are downsides to many of these so-called “healthy” foods and beverages. The good news is you can learn to avoid these or replace them altogether with vitamin- and nutrient-rich substitutes.
In this blog, we’ve outlined nine foods (and drinks) that are actually bad for you, as well as healthy alternatives to each one.
1. “Low-Fat” or “Fat-Free” Foods
In the 1950s, heart disease was the leading cause of death for Americans, especially those with meat-heavy and cholesterol-rich diets. Health experts hoped that by urging people to reduce their fat intake, cholesterol levels and heart complications would go down—even though this remained a hypothesis and not a proven fact.
But while heart disease-related deaths plummeted between the 1970s and 1990s, the condition itself remained constant despite the low-fat diet fad. That’s because manufacturers replaced fat with large amounts of sugar to compensate for the flavor food loses when you remove fat. And too much dietary fructose (or sugar) has been proven to contribute to cardiovascular disease, as well as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Instead of automatically selecting low-fat or fat-free snacks and meals, add healthy, low-sugar fats such as olive oil, avocados, and salmon into your diet.
Whole-grain granola might seem like the perfectly balanced breakfast, but some types have up to 50 grams of sugar in just a ½-cup serving. That’s more than a 12-ounce can of Coke! The oat-based food is especially unhealthy if it contains ingredients such as brown rice syrup, dextrose, or evaporated cane juice.
To avoid the sugar rush, Indianapolis-based dietitian Annessa Chumbley recommends making your own granola at home. This way, you’ll know exactly what’s in your breakfast or snack, and you can limit the amount of sugar you add. Try this delicious, nutritious, and easy granola recipe with your family!
3. Apple Juice
Apple juice (and other fruit juices) may contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but it also lacks fiber and is chock full of liquid sugar—the only part left of the actual fruit after processing. In fact, one 12-ounce serving of apple juice contains 165 calories and 39 grams of sugar. That’s 25 more calories than a can of Coke, and just one less gram of sugar!
While apple juice may be more filling and flavorful than water, you’re better off sticking to H20 when it comes to hydration. And if you’re in need of a snack, whole apples will give you the taste of its juice counterpart without all the calories and liquid sugar.
4. “Whole Wheat” Products
Ever heard the saying, “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’re dead”? Well, whole wheat bread may not actually be that much better for you. Many varieties have the same (or similar) glycemic index as white bread. Manufacturers pulverize the grains into a fine flour in wheat and white bread, which leads to rapid blood sugar spikes.
In addition, modern wheat is less nutritious than wheat products of the past. That’s because, in the 1960s, scientists modified the genes in wheat to produce a higher yield. But studies have shown the wheat we consume today contains fewer minerals than what our ancestors ate. What’s more, modern wheat may also contribute to inflammation and high cholesterol.
Instead of buying whole wheat bread, look for whole-grain options that haven’t gone through the pulverizing and refining process.
5. Processed Breakfast Cereals
Many kinds of cereal claim to be “whole grain” or “low fat,” and they’re marketed to children (and, thus, their parents) as a delicious part of a balanced breakfast. But most cereal is highly processed and made with refined grains, which removes fiber, iron, and B vitamins from the original grain. And many types of cereal even list sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or glucose as the second or third ingredient!
If you choose to eat cereal, make sure it’s a low-sugar, fiber-rich, or protein-packed one. Or, swap out the food altogether and start your day with egg whites or Greek yogurt with fruit.
6. Low-Fat or Flavored Yogurt
Yogurt is a great option for a snack or side, but steer clear of the low-fat and fruit-flavored varieties. While less fat and real fruit in the dairy treat sound promising, some varieties contain more sugar than a piece of cake! And when manufacturers remove fatty acids from the yogurt, you’re more likely to still be hungry after eating a low-fat version—which can lead to overeating later in the day.
Instead of settling for unsatisfying yogurts with sugary fruit, try adding sliced strawberries, blueberries, or mango to unsweetened or Greek yogurt. You’ll feel fuller after enjoying your fresh snack and have more energy!
7. Veggie Straws & Chips
Veggie chips and straws have grown in popularity recently, but these potato chip “alternatives” aren’t that much better for you than the original thing. The straws are mostly made from potato and corn, while the chips are still higher in sodium than regular potato chips. In addition, both veggie straws and chips are stripped of fiber, and they only contain 60-70% produce. So, they’re not “full” of spinach, beets, or zucchinis, as some packages might claim.
Instead of reaching for a bag of chips in disguise, snack on carrots and celery. You can even add some hummus if you want a filling (but nutritious) dip.
8. Sports Drinks
Sports drinks have also been marketed as an answer to our nutritional needs, but that’s not the case. Sports drink manufacturers tout these beverages as a way to replace the electrolytes (or salts) we sweat out after exercising. However, this mostly applies to professional athletes; most of us gym-goers don’t need additional electrolytes, and none of us needs the liquid sugar. The extra calories and artificial sweeteners can even cause tooth decay, especially in children.
Instead of caving into sports drinks with almost as much sugar as soda, sip cool water before, during, and after you exercise (and throughout the day!).
9. Protein Bars
Protein bars are an easy grab-and-go option for people looking to build muscle. And it’s true these bars are filled with fiber and, of course, protein. However, they’re also typically 300 to 400 calories; at that point, they’re a meal replacement, not a snack. Watch their sugar count, too. Some protein bars have 30 grams or more, which is comparable to most candy bars!
For an alternative protein-packed boost, you can make ants on a log with peanut butter. Your kids can help, and you’ll get to relive your childhood with a classic snack! And they’re light enough that you can enjoy them an hour before, or right after, you work out without feeling sick or overly full.
By avoiding these foods, enjoying them in moderation, or replacing them with healthy options, you’ll be able to make great strides in your path to better nutrition! And if you need help planning and preparing meals and snacks, your local wellness center is a great resource for cooking classes, health coaching, and more.
With two locations in Lafayette, Indiana, the Lafayette Family YMCA is a community committed to healthy living and social responsibility. For more fitness tips and to stay up to date about YMCA events, connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram, or visit our website here.