6 Unhealthy Foods You Thought Were Healthy (But Really Aren’t)

Eat­ing a healthy, well-bal­anced diet can be tough. With all the options avail­able, it can be con­fus­ing to deter­mine what’s healthy and what’s not. 

On top of that, many prod­ucts may seem healthy — and even be adver­tised as healthy alter­na­tives — but con­tain loads of sug­ar, sodi­um, or oth­er unhealthy ingre­di­ents. Excess sug­ar can lead to weight gain, type 2 dia­betes, and heart dis­ease, and too much sodi­um can cause high blood pres­sure, a major risk fac­tor for stroke and heart dis­ease.

How Much Sug­ar and Sodi­um Are We Real­ly Eating? 

  • Many adults eat at least 17 tea­spoons of sug­ar a day (equiv­a­lent to 3.5 full-sized milk choco­late bars) — 5 more than the rec­om­mend­ed 12 teaspoons. 
  • Most adults eat an aver­age of 3,400 mil­ligrams of sodi­um dai­ly (equiv­a­lent to 8.5 serv­ings of large fries) — 1,100 over the rec­om­mend­ed 2,300 milligrams. 

Eat­ing a healthy diet, includ­ing lim­it­ing sug­ar and sodi­um, is key to pre­vent­ing chron­ic health con­di­tions and pro­mot­ing your over­all well­ness. You can start by lim­it­ing these 6 foods (and bev­er­ages) that you thought were healthy — but real­ly aren’t.

1. Sweet­ened Yogurt

Yogurt is a healthy food and con­tains some nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring sug­ar from lac­tose, but cer­tain vari­eties also con­tain a lot of added sug­ars. Sug­ar can be added to yogurt to add sweet­ness. Try to look for yogurts that have zero added sug­ar when read­ing the Nutri­tion Facts label. 

The good news is that many com­pa­nies are com­ing out with low­er-sug­ar ver­sions of yogurt that can taste great and con­tain low­er calo­ries, sug­ars and car­bo­hy­drates. You can also try plain, unsweet­ened yogurt and add your own favorite fruits. 

2. Dried Fruit

Fruit is an essen­tial part of a healthy diet. But dried fruits can come with some downsides. 

Dried fruit makes the fruit small­er (think grapes dried into raisins), so it’s more calo­rie dense and eas­i­er to con­sume larg­er amounts and more calo­ries. For exam­ple, you could eat 15 grapes or 2 table­spoons of raisins for the same amount of calo­ries and car­bo­hy­drates. By eat­ing more food, you’ll con­sume more calo­ries and car­bo­hy­drates.

Dried fruit does have some of the same ben­e­fits as fresh fruit, like fiber and antiox­i­dants. If fresh or frozen fruit isn’t an option, sim­ply mon­i­tor how much dried fruit you eat and keep por­tion sizes appro­pri­ate by look­ing at the serv­ing size list­ed on the Nutri­tion Facts label.

Con­tact your pri­ma­ry care physi­cian to see if you could ben­e­fit from nutri­tion­al services.

3. Pack­aged Deli Meats

A sand­wich with meat, veg­gies, and whole-grain bread might sound like a healthy lunch, but your deli meat might be more prob­lem­at­ic than you think. 

Just one slice of ham has over 365 mil­ligrams of sodi­um. If you put four slices on one sand­wich, that num­ber ris­es to over 1,400 mil­ligrams. This takes up well over half of your dai­ly allotment.

Processed meats also con­tain nitrates and have been linked to chron­ic dis­eases, like dia­betes, can­cer, and heart dis­ease.

You might opt for a nitrate-free, low­er sodi­um lunch meat in mod­er­a­tion. You can also opt for a half sand­wich and pair it with a nutri­tious sal­ad full of fresh veg­eta­bles. Baked and diced chick­en breast along with tuna can be good sub­sti­tutes for deli-meat.

4. Gra­nola Bars

Gra­nola bars are often seen as a healthy go-to for peo­ple on the go. In fact, over 70% of Amer­i­cans con­sid­er gra­nola bars to be healthy — but less than one-third of nutri­tion­al experts are on the same page. 

Many gra­nola bars have fiber, pro­tein, and whole grains — all key parts of a healthy diet. Not all gra­nola bars are cre­at­ed equal. Many also have plen­ty of added sug­ar, some­times up to 25 grams in one bar. 

Read the Nutri­tion Facts label and check out grams of added sug­ar. If it has 25 grams of sug­ar, you’re already at the dai­ly rec­om­mend­ed intake for women (25 grams) and almost there for men (36 grams). With this in mind, try to find one with less added sug­ar. Also, try to find gra­nola bars that con­tain fiber (2 or more grams dietary fiber per bar) and lim­it car­bo­hy­drates to 15 – 20 grams per serving.

5. Low-Fat or Fat-Free Foods

Lim­it­ing fat, specif­i­cal­ly sat­u­rat­ed fat, in your diet can help you stay healthy and pre­vent heart dis­ease. But low-fat and fat-free foods are not the only — or even the best — way to do that. 

The prob­lem with low-fat or fat-free foods is that peo­ple tend to overindulge in these prod­ucts because they have few­er grams of fat. And while this is true, they still have sug­ar and calories. 

For instance, half of a cup of reg­u­lar whole milk vanil­la frozen yogurt has 3 to 4% fat and 104 calo­ries. The same serv­ing size of fat-free vanil­la frozen yogurt has less than 1% fat — but still 100 calo­ries.

Also, low-fat or fat-free foods some­times have more sodi­um and sug­ar, which coun­ter­acts its oth­er pos­si­ble benefits. 

Try to focus on lim­it­ing sat­u­rat­ed fat, by choos­ing low­er-fat dairy prod­ucts and lean meats. For instance, skim milk, lean ground turkey, fish and grilled chick­en breast with the skin removed are all low­er in sat­u­rat­ed fat than beef, cheese and high-fat meats like sala­mi and hot dogs.

6. Diet Soda 

Diet soda may sound like a healthy alter­na­tive to reg­u­lar soda, which is full of sug­ar (rough­ly 39 grams in one can of soda), but diet soda is not a health food and often takes the place of water. Accord­ing to some stud­ies, diet soda con­sump­tion may also be an inde­pen­dent risk fac­tor for diabetes.

Diet soda may also trig­ger more sug­ar crav­ings. Instead of soda, try jazz­ing up water with sliced fruit, like lemons or oranges, or herbs, like mint leaves or basil. If you like car­bon­a­tion, try a sparkling water too.

Eat­ing Health­i­er Is Sim­pler Than You Might Think

With all of the prod­ucts that empha­size health­i­er options, it can be con­fus­ing to stick to a healthy diet. The good news is that eat­ing healthy is prob­a­bly more straight­for­ward than you think. 

A healthy diet focus­es on eat­ing more real food includ­ing fresh fruits, veg­eta­bles, whole grains, pro­tein, and dairy. It also lim­its added sug­ars, sodi­um and processed foods. And remem­ber, healthy eat­ing is a pat­tern. If you eat healthy more often than not, you’re head­ed in the right direction. 

  • Eating a healthy diet can improve total health and doesn't have to be impossible and tasteless. I try to work with patients on realistic goals that can fit into their busy lives. I'm passionate about helping people control their diabetes, and I also love helping people with celiac disease since I was diagnosed in 2007.