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Foods You Think Are Healthy But Really, Really Aren't

Many Americans believe these foods are healthy—and even seek them out! Here's the real story.

By Taryn Graham, Freelance Writer and Kelsey Mueller, Senior Digital Editor

Woman standing in the produce section of a grocery store with a tomato in one hand and a zucchini in the other looking concerned

Shutterstock / Veles Studio


It shouldn't be difficult to follow a healthy lifestyle. The tenets sound simple: stay active, get a good night's sleep, and eat a balanced diet. But once you're navigating the supermarket, it's tough to tell which foods are really healthy, and which are only claiming to be.

We've rounded up a list of so-called "healthy" foods that definitely are not. Have any of these fooled you? (Psst: Did you know you should never feed your pet these foods?)



Granola Bars

According to The New York Times, granola bars are among the most misunderstood foods out there; 71% of Americans believe they're healthy, while only 28% of nutritionists do. The believers might think the whole-grain content, plus the general aura of wholesomeness evoked by the word "granola," makes them healthy, but experts call granola bars "junk foods in disguise." They're packed with sugars, making them closer to cakes or candy bars than health food.

If you make granola at home, you can control the amount of sugar you add, and toss in protein-rich nuts and seeds, too.



Gluten-Free Foods

While many Americans have an intolerance to gluten, a large number of people eat gluten-free simply because they believe it's healthier. You might eat fewer calories if you avoid glutinous foods like bread, pizza and cookies entirely. But if you're merely buying the gluten-free versions of those foods, you might be surprised to hear that they're actually less healthy. Many gluten-free items use refined starches as a replacement for wheat flour.

Need to cook allergy-free? Try these kid-friendly recipes.



Low-Fat Foods

In the 1990s fat-free was a food trend much like gluten-free or low-carb today. But nutritionists now believe fat is essential. As a Harvard University article puts it, "your body needs some fat from food. It's a major source of energy. It helps you absorb some vitamins and minerals. ... It is essential for blood clotting, muscle movement, and inflammation." The key? Eating "good fats" like mono- and polyunsaturated fats, usually found in plants like avocados and olives, and avoiding "bad fats" like trans fats and saturated fats, found in red meat, cheese and other dairy, and baked goods.

A better way to eat healthy? Supplement your meals with protein-packed snacks.



Fruit Juice

Fruit juices often claim to contain multiple servings of fruit, supposedly fulfulling the U.S. Department of Agriculture's daily recommendation.

But most commercial fruit juices contain an excess of sugar, even those made with real fruit. They also have less fiber than a piece of fruit. "Studies show that most fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants in the skins and peels, which do not make it into juice," registered dietitian Karen Collins writes in a piece for NBC News' website. "For example, one study reports that a whole orange contains up to five times more of one major antioxidant than a glass of orange juice." And fruit juices pack more calories than whole fruits.

Did you know that some drinks actually dehydrate the body?



Flavored Yogurt

True, yogurt can provide your body with protein, probiotics and calcium. However, processed yogurts contain artificial flavors and preservatives that just plain aren't good for you. They're also loaded with added sugars.

What to eat instead: Greek or regular yogurt, unflavored, with berries or honey added for sweetness. (Did you know how easy it is to make yogurt at home?)



Breakfast Cereal

Cereals often claim to be the best food to start off your day strong. They're often enriched with vitamins, making them appear healthy. But check out the ingredients list. Sugar is often among the first ingredients, sometimes hidden under names like high-fructose corn syrup, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, malt syrup or evaporated cane juice. Many cereals can have a whole day's worth of sugar in one serving.

We recommend eating a whole grain cereal with low sugar. Look for protein-packed ingredients, too, such as nuts and seeds, which can keep you fuller longer. (Learn to make easy protein-packed snacks.)



Agave Nectar

When I first heard of agave nectar I thought of it as a natural replacement for white sugar. It was marketed in a way that made it seem like a healthier replacement—and certainly a more expensive one.

Truth? It does have a lower glycemic index than table sugar, but it has a higher amount of fructose, so the American Diabetes Association recommends treating agave the same as sugar. In addition, though agave nectar is natural, most commercial agaves are processed.



Packaged Lunch Meats

Chicken and turkey are generally low-calorie choices people feel good about folding into their hoagies. In reality, though, lunch meats pack unhealthy amounts of sodium. Your better bet? Roast a chicken or other meat at home on the weekend and slice up the leftovers for sandwiches. (Here are more ways to cook once and eat all week.)



Smoothies

Like fruit juice, smoothies sound wonderful: They're made with fruit, after all! Homemade smoothies can be healthy if made using whole ingredients and minimal sugar (think plain yogurt, fresh or frozen fruits, seeds, herbs and greens). Most commercial smoothies, however, begin with a base of sweetened yogurt and fruit juice, with only a minimal amount of fruit. These drinks are a sugar bomb.

Note: If you are drinking a healthy smoothie, take your time sipping it. The pulverized raw fruits and vegetables are easy to guzzle, leaving your gut totally overwhelmed and stuffed.



Veggie Chips

I know what you're thinking: How can vegetables be unhealthy? Well, once again, veggie chips are highly processed, often adding a layer of oil, salt, artificial colors and preservatives over the no-longer-fresh veggies. Most aren't much better for you than other types of chips.

We suggest making homemade veggie chips by dehydrating vegetables or fruits in a low oven. This lets you control the salt or sugar and nix the fake additives. (Or try this cool technqiue to make greens taste delicious.)


A final caveat: You can enjoy all the foods above, of course! The important thing is simply to know what you're eating and understand how it fits into your nutrition goals.

For more wild health facts, check out our investigation of apple cider vinegar shots.