I see you, veggie chips.
It's no secret that many of the "healthy" foods lining supermarket shelves are actually junk foods in disguise (ahem, OJ), but there are some so deep undercover that they've probably infiltrated your pantry without a second thought. They flaunt their misleading health halos like it ain't no thing—meanwhile, they're loaded with added sugars and other naughty ingredients that are a total buzzkill for the body.
I hate to break it to you but...nutritionists think these 12 staple foods should be on your sh*t list.
Flavored instant oatmeal
Flavored instant oatmeal (think: maple brown sugar or apple cinnamon) are often high in added sugar and sodium. "Look for oatmeal varieties that list the first ingredient as 'oats,' contain less than six grams of sugar, and less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving," says Jacquelyn Costa, R.D., clinical dietitian at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. Or, choose steel-cut or rolled oats and flavor it using your own cinnamon, nutmeg, and fresh fruit.
Boxed vegetable pasta
The differences between vegetable-enriched and regular pasta are so nutritionally insignificant that swapping one for the other doesn't impact your health very much at all, says Emily Rubin, R.D., clinical dietitian at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. The legit healthier alternative: swapping your go-to pasta for spiraled vegetables or spaghetti squash.
This one really hurts. "Pretzels are basically made out of sugar," says Cara Walsh, R.D., of Medifast Weight Control Centers of California. "The refined-carb product contains no nutrients that are beneficial for health and aren't satisfying, hence why so many people tend to overeat them."
A fried chip is a fried chip, no matter if it's made from beets or potatoes. "The harmful ingredient isn't (necessarily) the thing being fried but the saturated and trans fats being used in the frying process," says Adrienne Youdim, M.D., physician nutrition specialist at the Center for Nutrition in Beverly Hills. Plus, most veggie chips have potatoes listed as their first ingredient and contain the same amount of calories as regular potato chips, adds Rubin. Try baking your own veggie chips from kale, carrots, or zucchini instead to cut back on the fat and sodium and pack in more nutrients.
Pre-made smoothies are often made using fruit juice as a base, making them high in added sugars and calories, says Costa. "A 20-ounce commercial smoothie can be upwards of 200 to 1,000 calories, one to 30 grams of fat, and 15 to 100 grams of added sugar," she says. Instead, make your own smoothies using frozen fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk, yogurt, and protein powder.
Reduced-fat peanut butter
If you're buying fat-free or reduced-fat peanut butter in an attempt to shed pounds, save your money—they have roughly the same amount of calories as regular peanut butter with tons of added sugars to make up for the missing fat, says Lauren Blake, R.D. at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Look for a natural peanut butter with an ingredient list that contains no added oils, cane sugar, or trans fats.
"Diet" frozen meals
Frozen meals that are marketed as low-cal and emphasize portion control often clock in at less than 300 calories per entrée and lack vegetables and whole grains, leaving you hungry again in no time, says Costa. These products also tend to be loaded with sodium to preserve freshness (hello, bloat!). "As a healthier and more nutritious alternative, cook your favorite heart-healthy recipes in bulk and freeze individual portions for convenience," says Costa.
Sure, this delish snack conveniently gives you access to protein on the run, but most jerkies are chock-full of sodium to preserve the meat. "The increased sodium intake can cause water retention and bloating," says Rebecca Lewis, R.D., in-house dietitian at HelloFresh. Lewis recommends opting for low-sodium turkey jerky instead. "It's just as delicious without all the salt," she says.
Fake meat products
Vegetarian "meat" products are often filled with a host of questionable ingredients, such as processed soy protein, canola oil, caramel coloring, and xanthan gum. "If you're a vegetarian or plant-based eater and rely on meatless meals, choose whole protein sources, such as beans, lentils, eggs, dairy, fermented soy, nuts, and seeds most of the time," suggests Blake.
Fat-free salad dressing
Fat-free = healthy, right? Not so. "Salads are full of greens, which contain fat-soluble vitamins, essential minerals, and antioxidants that protect our bodies from disease," says Blake. If you don't have some healthy fats in here, your body won't be able to fully absorb those great nutrients you're getting from the salad, Blake says. The more you know.
Bottled coffee and tea
Although they might be convenient, pre-bottled coffees and teas are often packed with added sugars or sugar substitutes. “I never buy them, since you can easily pack in the calories and the sugar without even realizing it,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, R.D., owner of BZ Nutrition in New York City. Instead, brew your own cup at home, add ice, and take it with you in a to-go cup/
Full-fat cheese packs on saturated fat, which most nutritionists recommend limiting. But since cheese is also high in protein and calcium, is fat-free the perfect compromise? Not so much. “In most cases, fat-free cheese tastes like rubber,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read it Before You Eat It. "It doesn’t melt well and it lacks the creamy mouthfeel of the real deal." Instead, satisfy your cheese craving with a serving as a snack paired with fruit or whole-grain crackers.
True, light mayo has about half the calories and fat of the full-fledged versions. But as with other light products, cutting the fat often meads adding in sugar and other additives to make up for flavor. “A little healthy fat with your meal helps you absorb key nutrients like vitamins A, D, E and K, so there’s no reason to go low-fat,” says Karen Ansel, R.D., author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging.