Most of us love to indulge in the occasional bowl of ice cream or bag of chips. Both are wildly delicious and can be enjoyed from time to time.
But when we start eating nutrient-depleted foods on a regular basis — when they become a key feature of our eating patterns — that’s when we run the risk of developing significant health risks in the long run.
Food should bring joy, not a headache. In a society saturated with dieting dogma, negative food sentiments are widespread. “Can’t have it,” “won’t eat that,” and the ever-trendy “that’s so bad for me” are just a few of the most commonly used phrases when we talk about food.
So what if everything on your food favorites list feels off-limits?
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to revamp your whole diet to achieve health. In fact, you can pack in more nutrition with just a few tweaks — all without feeling deprived.
Plus, there’s space to enjoy foods that are close to your heart.
This article discusses 14 foods commonly believed to be “unhealthy,” why they may have detrimental health effects, and how to make smart swaps to nourish yourself — while soothing that growling stomach.
On any given day, 60% of children and 50% of adults report consuming sugar-sweetened beverages (1).
Sugary drinks are often identified as especially problematic since they’re high in, well, sugar and calories but low in nutrients.
While they’re not the only risk factor for health issues, drinking sugar-sweetened beverages may lead to weight gain. Excess sugar consumption may also be linked to tooth decay, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer (2, 3, 4).
What’s more, a meta-analysis revealed that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages daily raises the risk of dying from heart disease by 8%. In fact, the connection becomes stronger the more you drink (5).
In one study including 500,000 people from 10 European countries, sugary beverages were linked to all-cause deaths (6).
To be clear, these are population-based studies, so it’s impossible to know whether these observations are due to the beverages themselves or other associated factors.
On a different note, it’s also possible that sweetened drinks send your appetite into overdrive.
According to an older study, drinking soda probably makes you less sensitive to sweet tastes, making you want more sweet foods (7).
To bring a touch of taste, add a slice of lemon or lime to your water or tea infusions. Alternatively, try a nutrient-dense alternative, such as homemade golden milk or smoothies.
These options are rich in nutrients and may help you cut back on added sugar.
Many people argue that since many manufactured pizzas include a variety of additives like preservatives and colors, homemade pizzas are often healthier choices.
It’s important to keep an eye on your intake of processed meats, such as pepperoni, hot dogs, and most types of bacon, that are commonly used as pizza toppings, as they’re linked to cancer (8).
Plus, most manufactured pizzas use highly refined flours, which lack nutrients when compared with whole grains (9).
Fast food and frozen pizzas that are high in calories, fat, and salt aren’t the only options; those made with fresh, wholesome ingredients are a healthier alternative.
Top your pizza with nutritious vegetables like broccoli, mushrooms, onions, and bell peppers (10).
You could even prepare your own dough by using nourishing flour combinations, such as rye, quinoa, or chickpea flours.
Commercial white breads are made from refined wheat, which has been stripped of its fiber and some other important nutrients. As such, white bread may cause your blood sugar levels to spike (11).
On the other hand, whole grains might be a more favorable option since they raise your blood sugar levels more slowly, provide plenty of dietary fiber, and promote gut health (12).
Additionally, whole grain bread may be more effective than refined bread at reducing abdominal fat, according to one review (12).
Because the definition of whole grain bread varies across studies, it’s impossible to draw a definitive conclusion regarding the influence of whole grain bread versus white bread on health outcomes.
One of the best substitutes for white bread is sprouted whole grain bread.
Sprouted grains reduce antinutrients, allowing you to absorb more nutrients from the grains.
Antinutrients are compounds in plant foods that interfere with the absorption of nutrients from a food source. For example, phytic acid can bind with minerals such as iron and zinc, preventing them from being absorbed in the body.
Almost all of the nutrients in sprouted grains are available for absorption in the body. Plus, antioxidant levels are higher in sprouted grains (13).
For people who can tolerate gluten, Ezekiel bread is a solid alternative to white bread.
It’s no secret that liquids are considered less filling than solid foods (14).
This means that juice calories are not necessarily offset by eating less food, and they can add up rather quickly (15).
Many fruit juices include large amounts of fructose (a type of sugar). Fructose is linked to insulin resistance and liver damage (16).
Insulin resistance is when the body fails to respond properly to insulin, a hormone that controls sugars in the blood. It is typically characteristic of type 2 diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (17).
To add sweetness without sacrificing nourishment, drink nutrient-rich homemade smoothies or use a mix of vegetables and fruits to make juices that complement your diet.
In one small study, vegetable-fruit juices improved the healthy bacteria in the gut, which was associated with weight loss (18).
Another small study noted that vegetable-fruit juices might improve the amount of nitric oxide in the blood, which helps improve blood flow and reduce damaging fats in the body (18).
Breakfast cereals are processed cereal grains, such as wheat, oats, rice, and corn. Most cereal products on the market are low in fiber and heavily sweetened to improve their taste and appeal.
Some of them can be as sweet as candy.
Nearly all ready-to-eat breakfast cereals evaluated in a recent study across five Western countries, including the United States, had an “unhealthy” nutritional profile. Researchers found substantial amounts of sugar in processed breakfast cereals (19).
Choose breakfast cereals that are high in fiber and low in added sugar. Even better, make your own oatmeal from scratch.
Dietary fiber intake has been linked to better digestive health and a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, hypertension, certain digestive diseases, increased body weight, type 2 diabetes, and several cancers (20).
Steel cut oats provide two to three times the fiber content that’s available in ready-to-eat breakfast cereal varieties (21).
There’s substantial evidence that frequently eating fried food raises the risk of chronic diseases (22, 23, 24, 25).
According to one analysis, consuming fried foods frequently (i.e., four or more times per week) is connected to type 2 diabetes, heart failure, a higher body weight, and hypertension (22).
Cooking meat using high temperature methods, such as panfrying or grilling directly over an open flame, produces chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
In laboratory-based studies, HCAs and PAHs are genotoxic. That is, they cause genetic (DNA) damage that might raise the risk of cancer (26).
Nevertheless, there’s no compelling evidence that eating meat cooked at a high temperature poses a cancer risk to humans (26).
Choose milder and better-for-you cooking techniques more often, such as steaming, boiling, stewing, and blanching.
Sapped of nutrients, these ultra-processed picks are laden with sugar, low in fiber, and contain preservatives.
Most baked sweet treats are manufactured with refined sugar, refined wheat flour, and extra fat. Shortening, which includes inflammation-promoting trans fats, might also be utilized (27).
There appears to be a link between a high intake of ultra-processed foods and a heavier body weight, larger waistline, and lower HDL (good) cholesterol level — plus greater risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, depression, and death (28).
Though these are important findings, they are observations rather than proof of causation.
Homemade “crumble in a mug” is an easy, nutritious, and lower sugar alternative to refined cakes or cookies. It also has all the flavor and crunch. To make it, add fruits to a mug and top it with an oat-nut crumble mixture. You have control over the sweetness level.
Potatoes are nutrient-rich, but when they’re processed into fries or chips, the nutrient content can plummet.
A recent meta-analysis indicates that eating french fries is linked to type 2 diabetes and hypertension (29).
When potatoes are fried, baked, or roasted for an extended time, they may create compounds known as acrylamides, which are associated with cancer (30, 31).
Evidence suggests that exposure to dietary acrylamide is connected to cancer in humans (32).
It’s all right to enjoy your favorite foods from time to time without feeling guilty.
If you are keen on a nutritious crunchy alternative to potato chips, consider carrots, peppers, cucumber, popcorn, or nuts.
About one-third of the U.S. population actively tries to avoid gluten. However, a gluten-free diet isn’t necessarily healthier for people who don’t have a gluten-related disorder (33).
People frequently replace nutritious gluten-containing foods with highly processed foods that are gluten-free.
However, adopting a gluten-free diet may mean higher food expenses, decreased fiber intake, and the risk of nutritional deficiencies (34).
Remember that there likely isn’t a reason to avoid gluten unless you have a gluten-related disorder.
Choose nutrient-dense foods that are naturally gluten-free, such as brown rice and quinoa, instead of processed gluten-free foods.
Agave nectar is a type of sweet syrup manufactured from a plant that’s usually consumed as a substitute for sugar.
Due to agave’s current production process, it’s a highly processed sweetener that no longer mirrors the original product, which was considered to have health benefits (35).
In fact, agave nectar is even higher in fructose than many other sweeteners.
According to an older study, agave nectar is 84% fructose. In contrast, table sugar is 50% fructose, while high fructose corn syrup is around 55% fructose (36).
Frequent fructose intake is linked to insulin resistance, fatty liver, and increased triglyceride (a type of blood fat) levels. These health challenges may lead to conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease in the long run (37).
It’s important to keep in mind that low calorie and zero calorie sweeteners are still not fully understood.
Stevia and erythritol are low calorie, calorie-free options you may want to explore. Besides, erythritol does not affect blood sugar or insulin levels (38).
To reduce the fat content of a product without compromising flavor, manufacturers often replace it with sugar and additives, such as modified food starches or gums.
While one study found that low fat yogurt reduced chronic inflammation in healthy premenopausal women, the study relied on participants’ reports of what they ate and how much — which isn’t always accurate or reliable (39).
According to the most recent research, there’s no compelling evidence that low fat diets are more effective for weight management (40).
Not all yogurts are the same. Greek yogurt is especially high in protein, calcium, and vitamin B12, and it contains magnesium. It also includes beneficial bacterial cultures, making it a potential source of gut-friendly probiotics (41).
Plain Greek yogurt topped with fruits and dark chocolate shavings is a delicious way to satisfy your sweet tooth.
There is immense interest in low carb diets, which may help you reduce your insulin levels, improve your heart health, and lose weight (42).
While you may eat plenty of wholesome foods on a low carb diet, you should be wary of highly processed low carb substitute products. Meal replacements and low carb snacks, such as cheddar cheese crips and cookies, are examples of these.
One review of 43 studies discovered that no study found a link between ultra-processed foods and better health (43).
Instead, a growing body of evidence associates ultra-processed foods with adverse health effects and chronic diseases. Indeed, there’s a pressing need to consider how these foods contribute to the chronic disease burden on a global scale (44).
If you’re on a low carb diet, include foods that are naturally low in carbs, such as most vegetables and leafy greens, nuts and seeds, eggs, and tofu.
Ice creams, frozen yogurts, and popsicles are sweet delights that can be hard to resist — and all are tasty ways to treat yourself now and then.
While there are some nutritious options on the market, most are calorie-dense and contain refined sugar (e.g., table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, and cane juice) or natural sugars like honey and maple. You may also encounter artificial flavors and additives in some types.
Chronic sugar consumption has been linked to various health problems, such as dental cavities, a higher body weight, heart disease, fatty liver, type 2 diabetes, and even death (45, 46, 47).
It’s possible to purchase more nutritious brands or make your own soft-serve ice cream or popsicles with natural fruit rather than refined sugar.
Processed meats are foods that have been subjected to processing to improve their flavor, preserve quality, or extend their shelf life.
Sausages, ham, and canned meat are just a few examples of processed meat.
Multiple studies point out a strong association between processed meats and cancer, particularly colon cancer.
In fact, the World Health Organization has classified processed meat as a Group I carcinogen. In other words, there is convincing evidence that processed meats cause cancer (8).
There are a number of nutrient-dense, less processed substitutions for processed meat. High quality chicken, turkey, fish, beans, and lentils are just a few examples.
There’s no doubting the power of a nutritious diet when it comes to preventing — and sometimes even treating — diet-related chronic diseases.
Incorporating nutrient-dense food swaps for ultra-processed foods is one way to help you consume a more nutritious diet.
However, while certain foods have been linked to various health problems, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, singling them out may not always be useful.
The reality is that numerous factors contribute to the development of chronic diseases, including genetics, diet, and lifestyle (48).
Plus, we can’t overlook external factors, such as where people live, the state of their environment, and the quality of their relationships — all of which work together to influence health and disease (49).
Last medically reviewed on November 30, 2021
This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts and fact checked by experts.
Our team of licensed nutritionists and dietitians strive to be objective, unbiased, honest and to present both sides of the argument.
This article contains scientific references. The numbers in the parentheses (1, 2, 3) are clickable links to peer-reviewed scientific papers.