This article was medically reviewed by Marjorie Cohn, M.S., R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and member of the Prevention Medical Review Board, on November 10, 2019.
Avoiding certain foods can be hard, especially when they’re specifically designed to taste good. But here’s the catch: A lot of the foods we’re told we shouldn’t eat might not actually be all that bad for us. In fact, what’s deemed “bad” for you might be totally different than what’s considered “bad” for someone else.
For example, you might have the idea that things like dairy or gluten aren’t good for you because you get an upset stomach or develop a headache after eating them. “It’s important to understand that foods like dairy and wheat are common allergens, and some people don’t tolerate them well,” says Julie Andrews, M.S., R.D.N., a Wisconsin-based dietitian and nutrition consultant. “But that doesn’t mean they are bad for everyone.”
But while every person has a completely different body and foods they might negatively react to, there are some foods out there that are still worth trying to generally avoid. We’re talking about the ones that either don’t offer much nutritional value for your body, or, in some of the worst cases, actually pose a health risk to you. Here’s what to know about which foods you might want to consider staying away from.
The reason this type of fruit is so yummy? Sugar, sugar, and more sugar. “When a fruit is canned in ‘light syrup’ or ‘heavy syrup,’ that means that sugar has been added to the fruit,” says Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. “Fruit is plenty sweet on its own, so you don’t need any added sugar with it.”
That said, if you like the convenience of canned fruit, here’s some good news: There are canned fruits out there that aren’t housed in that syrupy mixture. “Just make sure to read the ingredient label to make sure a product is canned either in 100% juice or water,” says Gorin. “Neither of these contain added sugars.”
For bakers out there, that shortening might be causing your pastries and cakes more harm than good. That’s because vegetable shortening contains hydrogenated oils, which are artificial fats made by adding a hydrogen molecule to vegetable oils to make them solid at room temperature, says Andrews.
But while hydrogenated oils are good for manufacturers because they increase a product’s shelf life, they’re not quite so good for you. “Consumption of hydrogenated oils on a regular basis can increase LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and lower HDL ‘good’ cholesterol, and can therefore increase your risk of heart disease,” says Andrews. You’re actually better off swapping in real butter in moderation while baking instead of using shortening, she adds.
This is another product that contains those hydrogenated oils, says Andrews. Plus, powdered or non-dairy liquid creamers also contain high-fructose corn syrup—which can be damaging to the liver by increasing liver fat—and artificial sweeteners, which have been linked to a variety of problems including gastrointestinal issues. (Other alternative corn sugars can have similar consequences on the body, like natural corn syrup, isolated fructose, maize syrup, glucose or fructose syrup, and tapioca syrup.)
But that doesn’t mean you need to nix coffee (and the benefits that come with it) completely. Instead, try drinking your coffee black or substituting non-dairy creamers with almond, coconut, cashew, or oat milk or with organic creamers from grass-fed cows.
Diet soda is packed with artificial sweeteners, which are the main culprit behind why you should avoid diet soda drinks when you can. “Those can be even worse than actual sugar,” says Shonali Soans, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., a registered dietitian at New York City Nutrition. Artificial sweeteners have been linked to both cancer (although larger studies are needed to determine the risk) and gastrointestinal issues, and aspartame—a key ingredient in diet drinks specifically—has also been linked to the development of diabetes, says Soans.
Nut butters are great for you, in large part because they contain beneficial unsaturated fats. “But when you start to take out the fat in peanut butter, you not only lower the amount of heart-healthy fats that you’re getting but may also end up getting a product with extra sugar and filler ingredients,” says Gorin. “These ingredients are added to compensate for the fat is removed.”
A good rule of thumb when buying peanut butter? It should be natural, and it should only have three ingredients on its label: peanuts, oil, and maybe a little bit of salt, says Gorin.
Fish is a good staple to have in your diet, but it’s best to aim for eating low-mercury, fatty seafood like salmon and sardines, which also have beneficial omega-3s EPA and DHA, says Gorin. But one fish you might want to avoid ordering when you’re out at a seafood restaurant? Tilefish, which is high in mercury—something that can actually cause poisoning if eaten in too high of a concentration.
Yes, those sugary-sweet breakfast cereals are delicious, but look out for whether they’re made with white flour. These types of cereals are low in nutrition and high in refined carbohydrates, which means that they don’t fill you up and they can cause a spike and drop in blood sugar, says Andrews. That, in turn, can contribute to low energy, mood swings, and cravings. Instead, opt for a higher-fiber cereal like bran flakes.
Strawberries top the list of the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen foods that are heavily contaminated with pesticides when conventionally farmed. The problem with that—aside from the environmental concerns—is that those pesticides can actually negatively impact your health, too.
“Pesticides in our food can be endocrine disrupting,” says Soans. Endocrine disruptors work by binding to our hormone receptors and causing a weaker or more intense effect, which disrupts our hormonal function, says Soans. This can be especially harmful for women who might deal with repercussions like hormonal imbalance or thyroid problems.
This classic lunch sandwich meat packs more downside than upside because of its “cured meat” status. Cured meats have been linked to several nasty problems, including hypertension and heart disease, says Andrews. But salami is also high in saturated fat and contains sodium nitrites, which can turn into harmful inflammatory compounds that can become damaging to your health, says Andrews.
Don’t let the word “juice” throw you off. “The word ‘cocktail’ indicates that a juice is mixed with added sugar,” says Gorin. “This is unnecessary and adds extra calories to your day.” So instead of choosing a sugar-rich juice cocktail mixture to start your morning, opt instead for 100% fruit juice if you really want to indulge.
Similar to those white flour-based cereals, donuts are usually made from refined carbs, which don’t provide you much nutritional value, says Andrews. Donuts are also usually deep-fried, making them high in trans fats, which can raise your LDL “bad” cholesterol and lower your HDL “good cholesterol,” according to the American Heart Association (AHA). This doesn’t mean you need to avoid refined carbs (and the donuts that come with them) altogether; it just means your health will thank you for indulging in moderation.
As convenient as it might be, pre-made dough is high in artificial trans fats (namely, those hydrogenated oils we talked about earlier that are made by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid), says Julie Harrington, R.D., author of The Healing Soup Cookbook. And those trans fats (aside from affecting your cholesterol) also increase your risk of of heart disease and stroke, according to the AHA.
Butter-flavored popcorn is made using artificial butter flavoring, which can cause inflammation in the body, says Lorraine Kearney, N.D.T.R., C.D.N., dietitian and founder of New York City Nutrition. Plus, if you’re popping it at home in a microwaveable bag, those bags are packed with chemicals. Instead, if you’re able, try popping popcorn at home in a pot on the stovetop rather than using a mass-produced bag. “When we make popcorn at home, we have control over the ingredients,” says Kearney.