10 “healthy” foods you didn’t know were unhealthy

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published January 16, 2019

Key Takeaways

Health-conscious consumers are often tempted to buy foods that are marketed as “healthy.” But just because a food has “healthy” printed on its label or in its advertising, doesn’t mean that the food is actually healthy. The nutrition label of every food purchase must be carefully scrutinized for high calories, artificial ingredients, preservatives, and other red flags to determine whether it can be part of a balanced diet.

Let’s take a look at 10 foods associated with healthy eating that are actually unhealthy when consumed in excess. Please keep this guidance in mind when advising your patients on healthy eating habits or personalizing your own diet.

Fat-free foods

Many foods are promoted as “light,” fat-free, low-fat, or reduced-fat. Keep in mind, however, that these no- or reduced-fat options come at a steep (health) price. Specifically, because these foods can taste bland, fat is often replaced with sugar, resulting in higher calories. Remember that fats are a necessary component of a healthy diet, so you don’t need to be scared of them.

Diet soda

Although the term “diet soda” may bring to mind diet and health, there is no evidence that these calorie-free alternatives result in weight loss or prevent other chronic health conditions, such as diabetes. Despite the artificial sweeteners and other chemicals used in diet soda, one or two cans a day will probably not harm most people. However, it’s best to avoid drinking too much diet soda in favor of better alternatives such as water, unsweetened tea, skim milk, or coffee.

Sports drinks

Sports drinks are filled with electrolytes and sugar, and are promoted as replenishing after exercise. While these drinks may be beneficial for athletes, most people don’t need the extra electrolytes or high sugar content, which is comparable to that found in soft drinks. Instead of reaching for a Gatorade or Powerade after a workout, go for plain old water instead.

Gluten-free foods

Lots of people are getting on the gluten-free bandwagon, and it’s tempting to think that these foods provide health benefits to more than just those with celiac disease. But according to results from a 2017 study published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences, in people without celiac disease, following a gluten-free diet did not significantly change their risk for heart disease or metabolic syndrome. Furthermore, in a 2018 study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers found that gluten-free foods are no healthier and more expensive than gluten alternatives. Finally, refined starches used as a substitute for wheat lack nutrients and may result in blood sugar spikes. Bottom line: Gluten-free is good only for people who can’t tolerate the gluten in wheat products.


Yes, the dried fruits and nuts in granola are good for you in small amounts. But it’s unclear how much fat or sugar is really in the granola that you buy at the store given the addition of sweeteners and oils. Consequently, granola could be packed with calories. Instead of eating granola by the handful, use it as a topping on plain yogurt, fruit, or salad for an added tasty crunch. You can also mix granola into lower-calorie cereal made of whole grains.

Vegan foods

As with gluten-free, many people are tempted to think that the buzzword “vegan” automatically implies health. But vegan foods, which are made only of plant products, can be very high in sugar, calories, fats, salts, and preservatives. Examples of vegan foods that can quickly turn unhealthy include imitation meats, vegan pastas, veggie chips, and seitan (which, in excess, is apparently the devil).

Agave nectar

Agave is a plant found in the hot, arid regions of Mexico, South America, and the United States. It’s often processed into a fructose syrup devoid of nutrients. Because this sweetener isn’t glucose, it’s often marketed as natural, healthy, and diabetes-friendly. But like glucose, high levels of fructose are converted to fat by the body and contribute to obesity and insulin resistance.

Dried fruits

In limited amounts, dried fruit can be good for you, and contain up to 3.5 times the fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants of fresh fruit. But remember that dried fruits are also high in calories and sugar. By all means, avoid buying dried fruit with added sugar (you can find out whether sugar is added by reading the ingredient list on the label).

Processed fruit juices

Although the word “fruit” often resonates with the idea of health, processed fruit juice is mostly just sugar-water with a splash of antioxidants and vitamins. Furthermore, fruit juice lacks fiber. Even fruit juices that are labeled “not from concentrate” or “100% pure” contain added sugar and flavors. In the end, a 12-oz serving of apple juice can have even more calories than a 12-oz serving of Coca-Cola.

Store-bought smoothies

Smoothies sound delicious and healthy. Although they may be delicious, store-bought smoothies can be high in artificial sweeteners, fruit juice, fat, and sweetened dairy products. Instead, opt for making your own smoothies at home where you can control the quality and quantity of ingredients used.

On a final note, remember that many of these foods touted as “healthy” do contain some nutrients. Although limited consumption of any of these items can be part of a balanced diet, overconsumption is unhealthy. When advising your patients, remember to stress moderation not abstinence.

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