What is healthful and what is not may not always be clear. Even many of the foods on this list have more healthful versions available. The difference is knowing what to look for.
Here are the six most unhealthful foods that people may often consider healthful. We also discuss how to make better choices when incorporating them into the diet.
1. Many breads
White bread can have a high glycemic index.
Natural 100 percent whole-grain bread is a very nutritious addition to many diets. Breads comprising natural whole wheat still contain the bran and germ of the kernel, which contain much of the nutrients and fiber.
Many processed breads strip the bran and germ from the kernel to give the bread a smooth texture. However, this also affects the bread’s glycemic load, as the fiber in whole-grain bread helps slow down the absorption of the carbohydrates and sugars.
The glycemic index (GI) measures to what extent high-carbohydrate foods raise blood glucose levels. The American Diabetes Association report that white bread is a very high-GI food with a score of 70 or more. However, 100 percent stone-ground, whole-wheat bread is a low-GI food with a score of 55 or less.
There may also be concerns about ingredients such as phytic acid in unsprouted grains. As a 2015 study in the Journal of Food Science and Technology points out, phytic acid binds to micronutrients in other foods a person eats and makes them impossible for the body to absorb.
People incorporating bread in their diet may consider picking 100 percent whole-grain breads. Also, anyone with concerns regarding phytic acid in their breads may want to pick bread containing only sprouted grains, which reduces the phytic acid content.
2. Diet sodas
Many people consider diet sodas to be more healthful versions of soda. This may not be entirely true. While diet sodas do have fewer calories thanks to the lack of sugar, most diet sodas contain non-nutritive sweeteners such as aspartame, which may not be as healthful as many people think.
A study in the journal Research in Nursing & Health revealed that aspartame may affect mood. When eating a high-aspartame diet well below the daily recommended limit, participants had more irritable moods, higher levels of depression, and even worse performance in spatial orientation tests.
Many people also believe that drinking diet sodas will help them lose weight. However, a systematic review from 2017 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal shows that the research does not support the idea that non-nutritive sweeteners will help people lose weight.
Further research is needed to fully understand the long-term risks and benefits of consuming non-nutritive sweeteners.
3. Fruit juice and bottled smoothies
Fruit juice can contain a high amount of sugar.
While a homemade smoothie or fresh fruit juice may be a good way to add fruit to the diet, packaged or store-bought fruit products may not be as healthful as many people believe them to be.
This may be due to what manufacturers leave out of the juices and smoothies, specifically fiber.
In a whole fruit, the fiber of the fruit helps control how fast the body digests sugar.
Fruit juice also contains a high amount of sugar. So, while it may be a better choice than soda, it may still lead to consuming too many calories during the day.
The other issue is the processing that goes into many packaged juices and smoothies. Processing the fruit may make a juice or smoothie last longer, but it might also cause the end product to lose some of the helpful nutrients in the fruit, such as vitamin C, calcium, and fiber. This is according to a study that appeared in the journal Advances in Nutrition.
On the plus side, 100 percent fruit juice does not seem to increase the risk of issues such as diabetes, even if it is high in sugar. A study in the Journal of Nutritional Science suggests that 100 percent fruit juice may not affect glucose levels or the body’s glucose control.
4. Agave nectar
Many people understand the potential dangers of too much sugar in the diet and look for alternative sweeteners.
Agave nectar is a sweetener derived from the agave plant. Several companies market it as a healthful alternative to sugar. However, these claims may only be partially correct.
Agave nectar does not tend to cause the same blood sugar spikes as table sugar does. This is because agave nectar contains mostly fructose, which is a sugar that does not directly affect blood glucose levels.
Because of this, many products that use agave nectar can claim that they are suitable for people with diabetes. However, this extra fructose may put stress on other areas of the body.
The liver processes fructose, and eating high-fructose foods such as agave nectar may put extra strain on the organ to convert these sugars into fats. This may then add to body fat percentage and lead to other issues.
A review that appeared in the journal Current Opinion in Lipidology reports that people who eat more fructose may have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes.
5. Instant oatmeal
Oats themselves are very nutritious for most diets, with some surprising health benefits. As one study in the Journal of Food Science and Technology notes, whole-grain oats contain beneficial fibers and protein, as well as some vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids.
A study in the journal Nutrients notes that eating whole-grain oats can help control blood sugar, lower the amounts of fat in the blood, and even promote weight loss. It may also help a person feel fuller and more satisfied with their meal. However, these results are from consuming whole-grain oats, not instant oats.
Similar to many other grains, the manufacturers of instant oatmeal tend to remove the fiber from the oat to give their meal a better texture and help it cook faster. This might reduce some of the benefits of the healthful fibers in oats.
A 2016 study that appeared in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition compares whole oatmeal and an instant oat cereal. The results revealed that whole oatmeal made people feel fuller and had a reducing effect on how many calories they ate throughout the day, in comparison with the instant oatmeal.
It is also important to pay attention to additional ingredients in instant oatmeal. Many companies use fillers such as flour or add sugar or sugary dried fruits to their oats. This may make the oatmeal taste better, but it does not make it healthful.
For a more healthful option, people may choose to skip the instant oatmeal powders and instead opt for whole-grain oats, adding some fresh fruit or milk for sweetness.
6. Trail mix
Store-bought trail mix can contain added salt, sugar, and oils.
A homemade trail mix of some dry-roasted nuts with a few raisins or dried cranberries may be a good addition to the diet and a perfect on-the-go snack for many people.
However, many store-bought trail mixes are far from this simple blend.
Added ingredients such as chocolate pieces, yogurt-covered fruits, and even salt, sugar, and additional oils can add a lot of calories to an already calorie-rich snack.
People can skip the store-bought trail mix and make a simple blend of dry-roasted or raw nuts at home. It may also help control portions to put a small amount aside each day.
In general, keeping an eye out for additional ingredients, such as sugars or processed grains, can help a person make better nutritional decisions.
One option may be to take a few more minutes to prepare food and avoid store-bought alternatives.
It is also important to note that many foods will have different effects on different people. Anyone uncertain about what foods they should avoid due to an underlying condition or allergy should consider talking to their doctor or nutritionist.