All foods have a place in a balanced diet. However, too many low-nutrient foods can take a toll on your health.
The more we learn about nutrition, the more researchers find that many of the processes we use to make food delicious and shelf-stable strip the food of what makes it nutritious.
While occasionally eating highly processed foods can be offset by a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and proteins, certain food preparations simply don’t bring much nutrition to the table. When the following foods make up the primary part of your diet (or you don’t also benefit from lower-oil, higher-fiber foods) they’ve been associated with negative health outcomes.
While the following foods are particularly lacking in nutritive value, the point of paying attention to this list is less about cutting each item out entirely and more about realizing how little they bring to your diet. We don’t recommend you avoid these foods completely as food restriction can potentially trigger disordered eating. The main takeaway here is that it’s OK to eat the foods this list, as long was you’re also eating nutrient-rich foods that provide you with the vitamins and minerals you need.
Many of the following foods contain highly refined grains, high amounts of trans fats or other processed fats that are hard for the body to use effectively. The food sources simply lack many of the key nutrients like dietary fiber that promotes gut health. Over time, depriving your body of the many vitamins, minerals and nutrients of whole foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains may create deficiencies that have medical symptoms.
White bread is made with a kind of bread flour that is processed from wheat. The processing removes bran and germ: parts of wheat grain. Whole wheat will generally be darker and denser, due to the fact that it contains more nutrients and more fiber. These two aspects are great for your digestion and give your body the nutrition it needs. White bread has a nice light flavor but it’s made of just the endosperm layer of a wheat grain, and it contains less nutritional value. Instead, opt for whole grain bread, which is loaded with essential nutrients.
To learn more about how complex carbs help keep you healthy, check out why you should be eating more carbs, not less.
Many of the reasons why eating too many chips can be harmful is because they don’t provide a balanced source of calories. The amount of oil and simple carbohydrates they contain makes them calorie-dense, but they aren’t correspondingly full of useful nutrients like vitamins. Chips that don’t contain any preservatives are a nice option for an occasional delicious indulgence, but eating nothing but chips in a meal will leave your body wishing for more vitamins, protein and fiber.
French fries include many of the same nutrients as chips, though there’s more actual potato in a french fry. The crispiness of a french fry, however, doesn’t have to be due to deep fat frying, which has a lot of oils if you eat them often. In an air fryer, a thin sheen of oil (or even zero oil) can still get you a homemade, low-salt batch of french fries made from basically only potatoes. If your diet already has enough oil in it, this could be a good way to get a crispy treat without going over your daily value.
Chicken is a delicious lean protein, but the breading on fried chicken tends to include a ton of white flour, oil and salt. These three ingredients are fine in moderation, but opting for grilled chicken or air fried chicken could help you to reduce unhealthy ingredients if you’re already getting more than the recommended amount.
Generally, processed meats have few nutrients in them that, when consumed in excess, have been linked to negative medical outcomes. Processing meats sometimes involves adding nitrates and nitrites, which have been linked to higher cancer risk when eaten out of moderation. Also, sodium is built into processed meat at fairly substantial levels. Whenever possible, cook and eat fresh meat.
Like eating candy, sugary cereal often has a lot of simple carbohydrates and sugars compared to a lower protein, fiber and vitamin content. As a breakfast option, sugary cereals can also result in a blood sugar crash that makes you feel hungry soon after eating the cereal. Opting for a lower sugar cereal that has more protein and fiber included, as well as a plant-based or dairy milk can help you feel full and energetic longer.
Margarine was turned to when the saturated fats in butter were seen as a negative for our health. However, margarine varies: in some countries, they have harmful trans fats that aren’t easily processed by the body and in many cases they have a similar amount of processed saturated fat. Read the label or opt for a less processed oil, like olive oil, as a bread topper if you really want to cut butter from your diet.
All frozen entrees aren’t created equal — flash-frozen vegetables and cooked chicken, for instance, sometimes are low in preservatives and are a great way to eat if you need convenience food. However, for premade meals, check what kinds of food and other items are in your meal, especially if you’re worried about preservatives or coloring in your diet.
Boxed mac and cheese
While some of the prominent brands of mac and cheese have been found to be high in harmful chemicals, a big reason they’re considered unhealthy is due to the high amount of simple carbohydrates and fats and low nutritional value. If you love the cheesy pasta, though, don’t despair: There are a variety of versions now that are either incorporating whole grains, vegetables like cauliflower and lower levels of preservatives and fats.
Cakes, donuts and other baked goods can be delicious. But they can also be loaded with simple carbohydrates and saturated fats. Plus, they have very little fiber, protein or vitamins. If you make your own baked goods, however, it’s easy to make a treat that will deliver more nutrition, be it with some whole wheat flour substituted in, an unsaturated fat substituted for butter or adding fruits or grated zucchini to increase vitamin content.