5 Foods Dietitians Say You Should Avoid — and What to Eat Instead

With so many food options available at our fingertips, many that tout the “healthy” label, it can be hard to know which ones are truly worthy of earning a spot on our plates.

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As humans living in the 21st century, our options are almost limitless in almost every category — especially when it comes to food. While our ancestors used to have to forage and hunt for every meal, we can simply stop at a fast-food joint, a convenience store or the grocery store to pick up whatever our hearts’ desire. 

The ease with which we can access food is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s also the technology that has been put in place to transform foods from a natural state of being to something that’s come out of a lab. “Once upon a time, food was simple and came from natural sources that were local to that region and from the land; foods we now refer to as whole foods: fruits, vegetables, tubers, nuts, legumes, rice, corn, etc.,” explains Maria Sorbara Mora, RD, founder of Integrated Eating. “Fast-forward to today and processing, preserving, pesticides and genetic engineering has evolved food availability, which has caused us to become more disconnected from food than ever before while simultaneously having the most access to it.” 

What has also been lost in translation through the ages is what it truly means to eat healthy. According to Mora, the closer a food is to coming straight from the earth, the better for you it is.

“Foods such as fruits, vegetables, fats such as olives and avocados, and starches and grains like potatoes, brown rice and quinoa occur in nature and are the most ‘whole,’ since they require the least amount of processing,” she says. “Bodies tend to digest, process and absorb nutrients easefully from these foods.” 

That being said, putting all processed foods onto the naughty list is not necessary. “Many foods need to be processed, like pasta — we can’t pick spaghetti off a tree or find it in the wild, but it is a natural food made of flour, egg and water,” she says. “On the other side of the spectrum, you may take something like a buffalo-flavored chicken nugget, which may contain artificial colors and flavors, different parts of the chicken, as well as manufacturing that includes toxic preservatives.”

All in all, it pays to be smart about what you put in your body — not only to make sure your body is functioning optimally now but also so that the parts work well for the long term. Here, dietitians share some of the foods they recommend avoiding and what you should be eating instead. 

5 Foods to Steer Clear of (and How to Replace Them)

1. Fruit Canned in Heavy Syrup

Canned fruit can be a fantastic way to add fruit to your diet. However, it’s important to make your selections wisely. “Some fruit is canned in light or heavy syrup, which means there is a significant amount of sugar added to the fruit — and you just don’t need to waste your daily added sugar allotment on sweetening something that is already sweet,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, plant-based registered dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats in Stamford, Connecticut.” 

Instead of reaching for a high-syrup container of canned fruit, she recommends looking for fruit canned in water or 100 percent fruit juice or opting for fresh fruit. Vandana Sheth, RDN, certified diabetes care and education specialist, certified intuitive eating counselor and author of My Indian Table: Quick & Tasty Vegetarian Recipes (Vandana Sheth, 2019), is partial to pomegranates since they’re full of vitamin C and antioxidants. “They have been shown to fight cancer, protect cardiovascular health and are high in iron to help with anemia,” she says. “They can be added to salads, guacamole or even in fruit salads.” 

2. Low-Fat Peanut Butter

This one might sound harmless and potentially even a good way to cut down on fat. However, Gorin recommends avoiding low-fat peanut butter at all cost. “Low-fat peanut butter sounds healthy, but it contains extra sugar and filler ingredients to compensate for the fat being removed,” she says.

Instead, she recommends exploring different nut butters, such as almond, cashew and sunflower that are made from 100 percent nuts with only oil or salt. “Nuts are a hybrid of protein and fat — a combination that helps control blood and keeps energy levels stabilized — and the fats in nuts are poly[unsaturated] and monounsaturated, which means they aid in unblocking arteries,” she says. “Nut butters can be spread onto your favorite bread or waffle for a satisfying meal, paired with fresh fruit or crackers in between meals, or even added to smoothies.” 

3. Fake Meats

As more and more people hop on the vegan bandwagon, there are more and more brands coming out with meat alternatives. Unfortunately, most of them are littered with fillers, colors and protein isolates that may be harmful snack foods doctored up with more fiber and protein, warns Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, founder of Essence Nutrition in Miami. “The added fibers and proteins are highly processed and can cause disruptions in gut health,” she says. 

If you’re vegan or vegetarian but are craving some kind of meat-like product, consider tempeh, which is made from fermented soy and has a meaty texture and offers a ton of protein. “Per a 3-ounce serving, you get 16 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber per serving,” Gorin says. Research published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine has shown that tempeh can reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which can be helpful in those with high levels.

4. Protein Bars 

Marketed as a healthy snack option, protein bars often use sugar alcohols to “create” a low-carb, high-protein bar that meets the requirements for those following Paleo and low-carb diets. “Sugar alcohols draw water into the digestive system, have a laxative effect, and have been known to cause digestive problems and exacerbate IBS,” Mora says. “Sugars, believe it or not, are not the enemy, as they are able to break down into usable quick energy needed for snack times when blood sugar is low or before or after workouts.” 

Instead, she suggests trying bars that have a balance of protein, complex carbohydrates and fats without sugar alcohols. If you really want a protein source that’s whole, consider avocados, which score you some healthy fats to boot. They offer almost 3 grams of protein in 1 cup and can be used instead of mayo and added to smoothies, notes Stacy Roberts-Davis, RD, a registered dietitian at Flavorful Nutrition LLC. 

5. Chicken Nuggets

Chicken nuggets in general are a food that is often heavily processed. “Certain brands are made with chicken parts instead of chicken breast and use STPP (sodium tripolyphosphate), a chemical preservative also used to keep pigments in paint evenly dispersed and a tanning agent for leather,” Mora says. Instead, she recommends opting for chicken nuggets made from 100 percent chicken breast with no fillers, preservatives, antibiotics or hormones.