When it comes to taking care of your health, it’s important to know which foods provide essential nutrients and make great additions to your diet. On the flip side, it’s equally important to know which foods to avoid altogether.
Every day, we are challenged to make the right dietary choices. Unfortunately, there are so many popular foods that pose health risks. And some of them may come as a surprise.
Read on to learn more about which foods might be putting your health at risk.
What Makes Certain Foods Unhealthy?
According to the NOVA food classification system, unhealthy food is often:
- High in unhealthy types of fat (saturated and trans fat)
- High in refined starches, sugar, and salt
- A poor source of protein, dietary fiber, and micronutrients1
Unhealthy foods are linked to many health problems. The ingredients in these foods are low in nutrients and high in calories. They’re not integral to any diet.2
Unhealthy foods are often ultra-processed. Studies demonstrate that people who consume high quantities of ultra-processed foods consume more calories and gain more weight than those who eat a minimally-processed diet.3
What Are Some Of The Unhealthiest Foods Out There? Foods High In Sugar And Certain Vegetable Oils
Some of the unhealthiest foods include ultra-processed oils, low-fat processed foods, carbonated beverages, highly refined foods, conventional dairy, and processed deli meats. Let’s take a closer look at each of these six foods you should avoid at all costs.
1. Vegetable Oils: Processed And Hydrogenated
Recent findings suggest that consuming large amounts of vegetable oils may increase the risk of heart problems and other health issues.4
Most vegetable oils are made out of mono- and polyunsaturated fats. These pose a risk because the unsaturated fats found in vegetable oils tend to oxidize when they are heated. The oxidation can cause irritation and wreak havoc on your body.5,6
There are two types of vegetable oils that are commonly used in the American diet: Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. These can be either processed or hydrogenated.
Processed vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature. These oils include:
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Safflower oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
The chemical hallmark of these oils is that they’re missing a hydrogen atom. This makes them very reactive with light, heat, air, and other substances in the environment. The result is that these oils often go rancid very quickly.7
Hydrogenated vegetable oils are solid at room temperature. Unlike processed vegetable oils, these have an extra hydrogen atom. This makes them heat stable, reducing their ability to go rancid.8
Unfortunately, partially hydrogenated oils contain trans-fats, which have been proven to be incredibly damaging to your health.9,10
Fully hydrogenated fats are not quite as problematic. However, they are often combined with liquid vegetable oils in a process called interesterification, which makes them function like a partially hydrogenated oil.11
2. Ultra-Processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods are packaged or fast foods that are filled with ingredients such as:
- Added sugars
- Refined carbohydrates
- Excess sodium
- Synthetic flavors
- Other chemicals
They go through so much processing beyond their natural state that the body may not even recognize them anymore. These foods make up about 50% of people’s diets.12
3. Soft Drinks And Soda
Soft drinks and soda are carbonated beverages loaded with refined sugars and artificial sweeteners. Soda is often sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener that contains loads of empty calories and no nutritional value. These sugary drinks are the largest source of added sugar and calories in many people’s diets.13 The artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame) found in diet sodas can be just as if not more damaging than regular sugar.
As a result, people who drink sodas may experience blood sugar spikes followed by a sugar crash. Those who drink lots of soda tend to consume more carbohydrates, fewer fruits, and less dietary fiber.14
Soda is also very acidic. The acids in sodas, including citric acid, may erode your teeth’s enamel over time.15
Note: Fruit juices are also very high in sugar, even if they’re “natural.” Although they contain vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, the sugar levels and calorie count may be just as high as a can of soda.16
4. Refined Grains And White Flour
Refined grains and white flour may taste delicious, but they’re low in nutritional value. Refined flour is found in many foods, including bread, cookies, pretzels, pasta, and cereal. Baked goods are particularly refined.17
Wheat and other grains consist of three parts: the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. The bran is the outer layer. It contains antioxidants, fiber, and B vitamins. The endosperm is the middle layer. It is mostly starchy carbohydrates. The germ is the inner layer. It contains B vitamins, minerals, protein, and fat.18
The refining process strips away nearly all the nutrients, leaving behind the starchy endosperm. This is then processed and bleached with chemicals. Refined flour has been linked to a wide variety of health issues.19,20,21,22
5. Conventional Dairy
Conventional dairy refers to mainstream dairy products that are consumed daily by the public. Regular cow’s milk and cheeses may contain hormones that are provided to the cows to keep them producing more and more quantities of milk.23
These cows may also receive antibiotics to avoid infections and to make dairy safer for human consumption.
When you consume conventional dairy products and its derivatives, you may be introducing a lot of unnatural chemicals into your body, including residue from pesticides and antibiotics.24
6. Processed Deli Meats/Hot Dogs
Processed meats are meats that aren’t fresh.25 They are typically preserved or flavored by salting, curing, fermenting, and smoking. These foods include:
- Hot dogs
- Canned meat
- Lunch meats
- Beef jerky
- Corned beef
- Canned meat
Processed meats are high in sodium and usually contain nitrates and nitrites, which may lead to certain health risks.27,28 In fact, sausages and other processed meats are among the highest contributors to sodium intake of all foods. High sodium intake is linked to certain potentially dangerous health issues.29
Healthy Foods To Eat Instead: Healthy Fats, Like Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Fruits, Vegetables, And More
Food quality is an important factor in maintaining good health, and it’s much more important than food quantity.30 Rather than eating foods high in processed oils, refined flours, and sugar, consider these healthy replacements:
- Replace cooking oils with coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil.
- Replace conventional dairy products with healthier alternatives like almond milk.
- Replace processed meats with meat from grass-fed cows.
- Replace soft drinks and fruit juices with fresh fruits and vegetables.
You can replace processed vegetable oils with the healthy fats in olive oil. Use olive oil in salad dressings, or as a condiment for already-prepared food. Replacing vegetable oils with extra virgin olive oil has been associated with a significant reduction in risk for many major illnesses.31
You can use avocado oil for high-temperature frying or cooking. It has a much higher smoke point and will not oxidize as easily. The smoke point is the temperature at which nutrients and phytochemicals are destroyed as the oil begins to smoke from overheating. This process also produces harmful free radicals.32,33
You can also replace hydrogenated oils and fats with coconut oil. Use coconut oil, preferably unrefined, to maintain all its healthy properties and medium-chain fatty acids (MCTs) for which it is well known.34
Note that, in contrast to many low-fat ultra-processed foods, many high-fat whole foods can be very healthy. These include nuts, avocados and salmon.35,36
Grass-Fed Dairy And Dairy Alternatives
USDA regulations stipulate that organic milk come from a cow not treated with antibiotics or hormones. And at least 30% of its diet must come from pasture grazing.37 You should determine where your products come from and support local farmers that raise grass-fed cows and treat animals humanely.
Organic production enhances the nutritional profile of milk. The milk produced from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows contains significantly higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids than milk obtained from cows that are grain-fed with limited access to pastures.38
Another option is to buy plant-based or nut-based milks and cheeses. These can easily be found at your local well-stocked grocery.
Fruits And Vegetables
Fresh fruit is a fabulous substitute when you’re craving something sweet. In addition to the natural sugars, fresh fruit contains copious amounts of fiber, vitamin C, potassium, folate, and other vitamins and minerals that your body benefits from.39,40 The fiber also makes you feel full faster than drinking soft drinks or fruit juice.41 Similarly, fresh vegetables contain vitamins A and C, potassium, and fiber.42
Overall, eating a healthy diet of fresh fruits and vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of serious illness and many other health benefits.43 You don’t need to eat a fully plant-based diet to be healthy. But the ingredients should include copious amounts of fruits and veggies.
Swap The Unhealthy For The Healthy
Nowadays, so many healthy food options are available in the supermarket and online. There is no reason to buy unhealthy foods. It just requires a little bit of knowledge to learn what the substitute foods and ingredients are – and now that you know which foods to never eat again, you can avoid them in the future.
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