The health and fitness craze that's swept our nation in the last decade can be seen quite literally across every supermarket and storefront. "Fit foods" emblazoned with "organic," "low-fat," "no sugar added," and best of all, "all-natural" marketing jargon are, for the most part, just marketing jargon.
A lot of the foods we snack on or eat as part of our everyday diet aren't the beacons of health and wellness we think they are if you take a look at their labels or dive more into what's actually in the food under the label. Take a look through our list of the worst offenders; these are some of the most common foods we think are healthy but really aren't. Avoiding these eats can make the difference between slight definition and eight-pack-with-sex-lines abs.
Nearly every energy and protein bar boasts lofty health claims, but many times they have nutritional profiles more similar to candy bars than fit foods. Literally. Some bars have as much sugar as candy. That’s not to say you should banish them all, but take special care to look at the amount of sugar, calories, and ingredients. Check out these Men's Fitness-approved healthy protein and snack bars.
A soda a day can increase a man's risk of prostate cancer by 40 percent, compared to a man who never touches the stuff, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. And diet soda? It’s no better. In fact, it may actually be worse. The artificial sweeteners in diet soda fool your body into thinking you’re eating real food and causes a spike in insulin sent to regulate your levels (since artificial sweeteners are so much sweeter than actual sugar), which can turn into stored fat, according to a Purdue University study. Research shows soda consumption increases your risk of heart attack and stroke, makes you eat more, and, well, see for yourself…
We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again, and we’ll keep on saying it: Instant oatmeal doesn’t do your health any justice. Flavored, single-serving packets have way too much added sugar, and therefore, way too many unnecessary calories. Stick with the giant tub of instant oatmeal if you like the convenience factor and add fruit and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg to maximize flavor without minimizing any health benefits. Steel cut oats are even better; they’ll provide you with long-lasting energy, help promote weight loss, and lower your risk of heart disease.
Oh, the power of words and associations. “Bran” sounds healthy, albeit a little boring. And it is: Bran is the outer layer of grains like wheat, rice, and oats that offers a healthy dose of fiber, protein, vitamins, and low-glycemic carbs. But bran muffins tip the scale toward not-so-great for you because most portions triple what you should be eating and may contain more wheat flour than bran itself. Store-bought muffins are often loaded with sodium and sugar to combat the dry, tasteless flavor of bran, too. To put things into perspective, a Honey Bran Raisin Muffin from Dunkin’ Donuts has 40g of sugar, 410mg of sodium, and 120 calories, while a Chocolate Frosted Cake Donut has 20g of sugar, 340mg of sodium, and 170 calories. Bake your own at home to control the ingredients and portion size.
Using leftover turkey to make a sandwich for lunch is an excellent choice for a quick, simple dose of protein. But this lean sandwich staple can turn into a sodium-saturated disaster when it's store-bought. That’s because packaged meats are often loaded with salt and preservatives. Opt for brands that don’t have more than 350mg of sodium per 2 oz serving.
Dried fruit seems like an innocent snack; it’s fruit, after all. But companies use sulfur dioxide to preserve freshness and add sugar to sweeten the flavor (cranberries and pineapple among the worst), making dried fruit more akin to candy. Though you’re still getting a good source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, it’s incredibly easy to overeat. That chewy addition to trail mix and yogurt isn’t as healthy as you think, wish, hoped it was.
Wraps are thinner than hoagies, buns, and bread, so they’ve gotta be healthier, right? Eh, sometimes, but most restaurants and to-go shops wrap all your sandwich fixings in a 12-inch wrap that can pack twice the amount of calories as plain old bread. Plus, spinach, tomato, and whole grain wraps don’t contain nearly as much veggies and whole grains as you’d think; more often than not, they’ve got additional coloring and flavoring. The problem with pre-made wraps, too, is you can’t control what’s in them. The bacon, ham, and ranch dressing can’t be taken out once they’re rolled up, and odds are you’re not getting additional veggies to add to your mix.
They may be your go-to snack because they’re fat-free, but pretzels don’t really have any nutritional value. They’re made with white flour, which quickly converts to sugar in your body, spiking blood sugar and causing your hunger levels to rise (that's why you can polish off an entire bag and still be hungry). Pretzels should be avoided as a desk-side or late-night snack; go for foods that are high in protein and fiber instead.
Sports drinks are a lot like Kool Aid—they’re basically just sugar water and artificial food coloring. Their big selling point, electrolytes, are easily restored with natural foods and drinks like coconut water and bananas, so skip the artificial recovery drink. A study published in the journal Obesity even found individuals who drink one or more sports drinks every day gained more weight over a three-year span than those who don’t.
Producers slap the word “natural” on nearly any food product and you’re convinced it’s healthy. Agave nectar has been hailed the natural substitute to evil artificial sweetener, but it has more fructose than any other common sweetener, including high fructose corn syrup. Sure, it’s low on the glycemic index, but that’s not your free pass to drench your oatmeal and drown your iced tea with the stuff.
We’re going to let you in on a secret: Yogurt-covered snacks sometimes aren’t covered with yogurt. Those tubs of pretzels and raisins are likely just covered in sugar (and fat). More specifically, a ¼-cup serving of yogurt-covered raisins has about 150 calories, a third of which comes from fat, while the rest comes from carbs. Want an easy fix? Top your raisins with plain Greek yogurt.
Skim milk is skimping on a lot of the factors that make whole milk so healthy. Yes, you’re getting rid of the fat, but you’re also stripping away essential vitamins (as well as texture and flavor). To combat this, skim milk is fortified with synthetic vitamins in an attempt to replace the protein and calcium lost in processing. Overall, there’s really little benefit to buying fat-free dairy products. You want to keep the processing and denaturation to a minimum.
Margarine is the inexpensive butter substitute that took the late 1800s by storm when chemists learned how to harden liquid oils. Nutritionally speaking, it has less saturated fat than butter because it’s made from vegetable oils, not animal fat; all in all it depends if you want to rely on cows or chemists. But that tub of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! you have in your fridge today is scarier than it seems. Vegetable oil is extracted from corn, soybeans, or safflower seeds, then steamed to remove impurities (along with vitamins and antioxidants), hydrogenated to make it semi-solid (producing a lumpy, grey grease), emulsified to remove lumps, bleached to remove the grey color, steamed again to remove chemical odors, and then synthetic vitamins and colors are added in the end. Does your “healthier" butter seem so healthy now?
Most packaged fruit juices are sugar-packed; not the health elixirs we so desperately want them to be. Fruit in its whole form has healthy fiber in its flesh and vitamins and nutrients in its skin that’s lost in juice form. Plus, you’re not chewing the liquid, so all the fructose-laden sugar is rocketed to your liver where it can be lodged and stored as fat. If you want a glass for breakfast, opt for tart cherry or grape juice (unsweetened) to get a recovery boost after tough workouts.
That tiny cup of yogurt you eat for breakfast (that doesn’t fill you up and leaves you rummaging for more food) is packed with more sugar than you’d ever suspect. Most brands have close to 15g per 6oz serving. Stop wasting your money and ruining your diet; make the switch to plain Greek yogurt. You’ll feel more satisfied and have a dose of protein to really start your day right.
Canned soup is the solution for last-minute lunch or dinner laziness. The problem is that you’re overloading your system with sodium (some have 400mg per cup) and some cans’ plastic linings have BPA. Make a giant homemade batch over a weekend and freeze it in smaller portions to get you through the colder seasons.
Nearly all pita chips are made with enriched wheat flour (a refined grain that doesn’t have nearly the fiber or nutrients found in whole-grain flour) or white flour, oil, and salt. It may not seem that bad, but a study published in Current Atherosclerosis Reports found a diet full of refined grains and starches increases a person’s risk for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, even cancer. Plus, they may not be that greay, but they still pack a caloric punch and it's hard to stop after eating just a handful.
It’s an amazing yogurt add-on, great with a splash of milk, and even a filling snack on its own, but nearly all granola brands add sugar and oil during the cooking process. Some are loaded with seeds, nuts, and dried fruit, which up the fat content, too. Opt for brands that have a blend of oats, whole grains, and other natural ingredients.
Surprise! Fruit and veggie chips actually contain very little fruits and vegetables because of how processed they are. What’s more, most of the nutrients are destroyed because of this, as well. What you end up with is a chip that’s artificially colored and flavored to look and taste like a vegetable or fruit.
Fruit cocktail is an appealing snack whether you eat it from the can or those little portable cups. The issue is one cup has about 110 calories and over 25g of sugar (In. One. Small. Cup.). They’re often packaged in syrup, which isn’t doing you any favors either. Grab a pear, peach, apple, or any other piece of fruit instead; they’re just as portable and way more nutritious.