Nutritionists and Dietitians Are Sharing ‘Healthy Foods’ That Actually Aren’t As Healthy As We Think

If you’re looking for a nutritious diet, you likely know that fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains are some of the best foods to include. But beyond that, it gets complicated, especially when you’re talking about packaged foods.

The confusion stems from the fact that some packaged foods make claims such as low sugar, high fiber, plant-based or organic that seem to suggest health. However, dietitians say that these items are sometimes not really nutritious.

Many of these terms give packaged food a health halo, but when you take a closer look at the ingredients list and Nutrition Facts panel, it may reveal that it’s not a nutritious option after all, explained Sherie Nelson, a dietitian Registered and Director of Wellness for Elinor North America.

These foods may not contain as many nutrients as you’d expect, or they may be full of ingredients you’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce, which could suggest they’re ultra-processed foods, she explained.

However, some health claims are required on the product packaging. Ro Huntriss, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition at the wellness platform Simple, told HuffPost that if you have celiac disease, for example, knowing that something is gluten-free is crucial. Or a vegan label is useful on items you might not realize are free of animal products.

While dietitians caution against labeling any food as good or bad, it’s important to note that some packaged foods may not be as healthy as you think. Here are some things you should know.

What you need to know about common health claims on packaged foods

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The Food and Drug Administration regulates many buzzwords on food packaging, explained Brookell White, a registered dietitian at health and fitness tracking app MyFitnessPal. These terms are meant to provide information about the product’s nutrients, not necessarily to distinguish whether something is healthy or unhealthy in general.

For example, sugar-free candy may not contain sugar, but it doesn’t contain beneficial nutrients, she explained. It can also be high in saturated fat, sodium and excess calories. It’s always best to examine products’ nutrition label and ingredient list to know what you’re getting, White said.

Some packaged foods that you might consider healthy can be classified as ultra-processed, meaning they contain preservatives, additives and artificial ingredients, which can be harmful to your health, explained Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, a professor at Northeastern University College of Science.

The problem is, there’s no sign that something is ultra-processed on the box, said Barabasi, who helped create TrueFood, a database that identifies the level of food processing.

Almost 60% of the calories Americans consume come from ultra-processed foods. Recent research published in the British Medical Journal suggests that diets high in these foods are linked to dozens of health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and mental health problems.

Healthy foods that nutrition experts suggest you avoid or limit

        Boris Zhitkov via Getty Images

Boris Zhitkov via Getty Images

Some healthy foods can contain large amounts of hidden unhealthy fats, sugars and sodium that can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, Amar Shere, a cardiologist at Morristown Medical Center, part of Atlantic Health System, told HuffPost.

It’s essential to be aware of these potential culprits and make informed choices when dealing with food products marketed as healthy, he said. Here are some foods that nutrition experts recommend limiting or avoiding.

Granola bars

Granola bars can be considered healthy snacks because of their association with whole grains, nuts and seeds, Shere said. But many contain large amounts of sugar, refined grains, hydrogenated oils and artificial flavors and colors. Sometimes they’re also high in calories and low in protein and fiber, which keep you fuller for longer.

Huntriss recommended comparing granola or cereal bar products and choosing those with less sugar and more fiber, and that list whole ingredients.

Flavored yogurt

Yogurt is often promoted as a high-protein, low-calorie option. But the yogurt aisle contains a wide variety of options. Barabasi said many flavored yogurts are loaded with sugar, artificial sweeteners and artificial flavors. She suggested choosing unflavored yogurt as often as you can, or at least the option with less sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that men consume 36 grams (9 teaspoons) or less of added sugar, and women should have no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons). However, research shows that organic yogurts can have an average of 13 grams of sugar per cup.

Delicious meat

Lean turkey or other tender meat is sometimes recommended as a healthy snack before or after a workout. But not all meats are created equal. Some can be high in sodium and low in protein, and contain nitrates and nitrites, which have been linked to cancer, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The World Health Organization classifies processed meats as carcinogenic.

This type of meat is one that I highly recommend limiting or eliminating in your diet, Shere said. It’s better to choose freshly cooked, unprocessed meat or low-sodium deli meats, or load up your sandwiches with tofu, avocado, or nut butter.

Anything that contains powdered vegetables

Powdered greens for smoothies, such as AG1 or Your Super Green Mix, may contain some nutrients, but Huntriss said they typically lack fiber. Most people don’t get enough fiber, which is found in whole foods and is vital for gut and heart health.

The same goes for veggie straws and other snacks made with other powdered vegetables, Nelson said. These snacks may also contain added salt and sugar. It is best to eat fresh (or frozen) fruits and vegetables.

coconut oil

Coconut oil can be great for hair and skin, Shere said. But it is not the best cooking oil, despite popular belief that it is healthy. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol, causing plaque to build up in the arteries and increasing the risk of heart disease. Olive, canola, and avocado oils are healthier choices because they are made mostly from unsaturated fats. If you want to use coconut oil in your cooking, use it sparingly.


Store-bought fruit juice often contains added sugar and other additives, so it’s always best to eat a whole piece of fruit that contains fiber. A one-cup serving of orange juice can have about 8 grams of sugar, and apple juice can contain nearly 10 grams. It is recommended that men have no more than 9 grams of sugar a day and women 6 grams. Still, if you want to drink fruit juice, just compare the products to choose the option with less sugar and fewer ingredients. Also, be careful with juice cleanses or detoxes, Huntriss said. We have organs in the body that do this, including the liver.

Plant-based meat substitutes

Cutting back on meat can benefit your health, said Shere, who is vegan. But many plant-based meat substitutes contain excess sugar, salt and fat, and some may even fall into the ultra-processed category, Nelson said.

As HuffPost previously reported, the Beyond and Impossible burgers contain coconut oil, giving them saturated fat levels comparable to beef: Beyond has 6 grams, Impossible 8 grams and beef 7.6 grams.

Instead, Shere suggested choosing avocado, beans, tempeh or tofu, which are highly nutritious plant proteins that are minimally processed.

Organic snacks

Cookies, chips and other snacks labeled as organic can give the impression that they are healthier than they are, Shere said. However, these items are often just as high in sugar, unhealthy fats and calories as the non-organic versions. They are also likely to lack essential nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Here’s an example: Annies Organic Cheddar Bunnies contain 140 calories per 51 cookies (30 grams), 260 milligrams of sodium, 6 grams of fat and 18 grams of carbohydrates. On the other hand, Pepperidge Farms Goldfish Original Crackers have 140 calories per 55 crackers (30 grams), as well as 6 grams of fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 20 grams of carbohydrates.

Balance is the key to a healthy diet

Person eating a fresh salad with a fork

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While it’s best to limit excess salt, sugar and saturated fat, you don’t have to cut out these ingredients completely, Nelson said. They can be convenient options, and sometimes you just want them.

It’s okay to consume less healthy food options now and then, White said. Balance is key, and it’s necessary to enjoy the foods you like while aiming for a diet focused on nutrient density and diversity.

Less-than-healthy foods can be incorporated into a healthy diet in moderation, as long as the bulk of your diet is filled with whole foods, fresh foods, and minimally processed foods as much as possible, Shere said.This article originally appeared on huffpost.

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