Even though most of us get a baseline education in nutrition — or at least an outdated version of the food pyramid — in school, it’s easy to go through life without a clear understanding of what is and isn’t healthy. It doesn’t help that the clever marketing of food corporations looking to make more money advertises healthier options, but those foods are full of artificial ingredients, dangerous artificial sugars, and processed ingredients your body doesn’t know how to digest.
It’s easy to get confused about which foods are healthy and which aren’t. You generally want to avoid certain foods if you want to lose weight and prevent chronic illnesses. In this article, healthy alternatives are mentioned whenever possible.
Here are 20 foods that are generally unhealthy — although most people can eat them in moderation on special occasions without any permanent damage to their health.
1. Sugary drinks
Added sugar is one of the worst ingredients in the modern diet.
However, some sources of sugar are worse than others, and sugary drinks are particularly harmful.
When you drink liquid calories, your brain doesn’t appear to register them as food. Thus, you may end up drastically increasing your total calorie intake.
When consumed in large amounts, sugar can drive insulin resistance and is strongly linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It’s also associated with various serious conditions, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Some people believe that sugary drinks are the most fattening aspect of the modern diet — and drinking them in large amounts can drive fat gain and obesity.
Drink water, soda water, coffee, or tea instead. Adding a slice of lemon to water or soda water can provide a burst of flavor.
2. Most pizzas
Pizza is one of the world’s most popular junk foods.
Most commercial pizzas are made with unhealthy ingredients, including highly refined dough and heavily processed meat. Pizza also tends to be extremely high in calories.
Some restaurants offer healthier ingredients. Homemade pizzas can also be very healthy, as long as you choose wholesome ingredients.
3. White bread
Most commercial breads are unhealthy if eaten in large amounts, as they’re made from refined wheat, which is low in fiber and essential nutrients and may lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar.
For people who can tolerate gluten, Ezekiel bread is an excellent choice. Whole-grain bread is also healthier than white bread.
If you have problems with gluten or carbs, then here are 15 recipes for breads that are both gluten-free and low in carbs.
4. Most fruit juices
Fruit juice is often assumed to be healthy.
While juice contains some antioxidants and vitamin C, it also packs high amounts of liquid sugar.
In fact, fruit juice harbors just as much sugar as sugary drinks like Coke or Pepsi — and sometimes even more.
Some fruit juices have been shown to have health benefits despite their sugar content, such as pomegranate and blueberry juices.
However, these should be considered occasional supplements, not an everyday part of your diet.
5. Sweetened breakfast cereals
Breakfast cereals are processed cereal grains, such as wheat, oats, rice, and corn.
They’re especially popular among children and frequently eaten with milk.
To make them more palatable, the grains are roasted, shredded, pulped, rolled, or flaked. They’re generally high in added sugar.
The main downside of most breakfast cereals is their high added sugar content. Some are so sweet that they could even be compared to candy.
Choose breakfast cereals that are high in fiber and low in added sugar. Even better, make your own oat porridge from scratch.
6. Fried, grilled, or broiled food
Frying, grilling, and broiling are among the unhealthiest cooking methods.
Foods cooked in these ways are often highly palatable and calorie-dense. Several types of unhealthy chemical compounds also form when food is cooked under high heat.
These include acrylamides, acrolein, heterocyclic amines, oxysterols, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and advanced glycation end products (AGEs).
Many chemicals formed during high-heat cooking have been linked to an increased risk of cancer and heart diseas.
To improve your health, choose milder and healthier cooking methods, such as boiling, stewing, blanching, and steaming.
7. Pastries, cookies, and cakes
Most pastries, cookies, and cakes are unhealthy if eaten in excess.
Packaged versions are generally made with refined sugar, refined wheat flour, and added fats. Shortening, which may be high in unhealthy trans fats, is sometimes added.
These treats might be tasty, but they have almost no essential nutrients, copious calories, and many preservatives.
If you can’t stay away from dessert, spring for Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, or dark chocolate.
8. French fries and potato chips
Whole, white potatoes are very healthy.
However, the same cannot be said of French fries and potato chips.
These foods are very high in calories, and it’s easy to eat excessive amounts. Several studies link French fries and potato chips to weight gain .
These foods may also contain large amounts of acrylamides, which are carcinogenic substances that form when potatoes are fried, baked, or roasted.
Potatoes are best consumed boiled, not fried. If you need something crunchy to replace potato chips, try baby carrots or nuts.
9. Gluten-free junk foods
About one-third of the U.S. population actively tries to avoid gluten.
Yet, people often replace healthy, gluten-containing foods with processed junk foods that happen to be gluten-free.
These gluten-free replacement products are often high in sugar and refined grains like corn starch or tapioca starch. These ingredients may trigger rapid spikes in blood sugar and are low in essential nutrients.
Choose foods that are naturally gluten-free, such as unprocessed plant and animal foods.
10. Agave nectar
Agave nectar is a sweetener that’s often marketed as healthy.
However, it’s highly refined and extremely high in fructose. High amounts of fructose from added sweeteners can be absolutely disastrous for health.
In fact, agave nectar is even higher in fructose than many other sweeteners.
Whereas table sugar is 50% fructose and high-fructose corn syrup around 55%, agave nectar is 85% fructose.
Stevia and erythritol are healthy, natural, and calorie-free alternatives.
11. Low-fat yogurt
Yogurt can be incredibly healthy.
Nonetheless, most yogurts found in the grocery store are bad for you.
They’re often low in fat but loaded with sugar to compensate for the flavor that fat provides. Put simply, most yogurt has had its healthy, natural fats replaced with an unhealthy ingredient.
Additionally, many yogurts don’t provide probiotic bacteria as generally believed. They’re often pasteurized, which kills most of their bacteria.
Choose regular, full-fat yogurt that contains live or active cultures (probiotics). If possible, buy varieties from grass-fed cows.
12. Low-carb junk foods
Low-carb diets are very popular.
While you can eat plenty of whole foods on such a diet, you should watch out for processed low-carb replacement products. These include low-carb candy bars and meal replacements.
These foods are often highly processed and packed with additives.
If you’re on a low-carb diet, aim for foods that are naturally low in carbs, which include eggs, seafood, and leafy greens.
13. Ice cream
Ice cream may be delicious, but it’s loaded with sugar.
This dairy product is also high in calories and easy to overeat. If you eat it as a dessert, you’re usually piling it on top of your normal calorie intake.
It’s possible to opt for healthier brands or make your own ice cream using fresh fruit and less sugar.
14. Candy bars
Candy bars are incredibly unhealthy.
They’re high in sugar, refined wheat flour, and processed fats while also very low in essential nutrients.
What’s more, these treats will leave you hungry because of the way that your body metabolizes these sugar bombs.
Eat fruit or a piece of quality dark chocolate instead.
15. Processed meat
Even though unprocessed meat can be healthy and nutritious, the same is not true for processed meats.
Studies show that people who eat processed meats have a higher risk of many serious ailments, including colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Most of these studies are observational in nature, meaning that they can’t prove that processed meat is to blame. However, the statistical link is strong and consistent between studies.
If you want to eat bacon, sausages, or pepperoni, try to buy from local butchers who don’t add many unhealthy ingredients.
16. Processed cheese
Cheese is healthy in moderation.
It’s loaded with nutrients, and a single slice packs all the nutrients as a glass of milk.
Still, processed cheese products are nothing like regular cheese. They’re mostly made with filler ingredients that are engineered to have a cheese-like appearance and texture.
Make sure to read labels to confirm that your cheese contains dairy and few artificial ingredients.
Eat real cheese instead. Healthy types include feta, mozzarella, and cottage cheeses. Many vegan cheese alternatives can also be good choices.
17. Most fast food meals
Generally speaking, fast-food chains serve junk food.
Most of their offerings are mass-produced and low in nutrients.
Despite their low prices, fast foods may contribute to disease risk and harm your general wellness. You should especially watch out for fried items.
As a result of mounting pressure, many fast-food chains have started offering healthy options.
18. High-calorie coffee drinks
Coffee is loaded with antioxidants and offers many benefits.
Notably, coffee drinkers have a lower risk of serious diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s.
At the same time, the creamers, syrups, additives, and sugars that are frequently added to coffee are highly unhealthy.
These products are just as harmful as any other sugar-sweetened beverage.
Drink plain coffee instead. You can add small amounts of heavy cream or full-fat milk if you desire.
19. Anything with added sugar or refined grains
It’s important to avoid — or at least limit — foods that contain added sugar, refined grains, and artificial trans fats.
These are some of the unhealthiest but most common ingredients in the modern diet. Thus, the importance of reading labels cannot be overstated.
This even applies to so-called health foods.
Aim for nutrient-dense, whole foods, such as fresh fruits and whole grains.
20. Most highly processed foods
The simplest way to eat healthy and lose weight is to avoid processed foods as much as possible.
Processed goods are often packaged and loaded with excess salt or sugar.
When you’re shopping, make sure to read food labels. Try to load up your cart with plenty of veggies and other whole foods.
The bottom line
Though the Western diet packs plenty of junk food, you can maintain a healthy diet if you steer clear of the processed, high-sugar items mentioned above.
If you focus on whole foods, you’ll be well on your way to feeling better and reclaiming your health.
Plus, practicing mindfulness when you eat by listening to your body’s cues and paying attention to flavors and textures can help you be more aware of how much and what you eat, allowing you to achieve a better relationship with food.