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8 "Healthy" Foods That Are More Like Junk Foods

December 02, 2016

8 ‘Healthy’ Foods That Are More Like Junk Foods

Emily Cooper, RD, LD

       With thousands of new health foods hitting the market at an alarming rate, it is hard to keep up with which ones are true to their namesake, and which ones are simply too good to be true. A lot of these foods have duped people into thinking they’re making a healthy choice, but most of them are really just junk foods in disguise. Here are eight popular health foods that you should think twice about, with some tips and alternatives to make them better for you.

Granola Bars

       A seemingly innocent and healthy snack, granola bars are perfect for stashing in your work bag when the afternoon slump hits. In reality most granola bars are more like glorified candy bars than a health food. While they may be studded with some heart healthy oats, nuts, and seeds, the list of added sweeteners and chocolate dipped exteriors can rack up just as much sugar as a chocolate bar. (1)


       Look for bars that contain minimal ingredients and the lowest amount of added sweeteners as possible, or better yet make your own! Most bars are easy to make, are less expensive, and allow you to control what exactly what goes in them, and how much sugar they contain.

Premade Smoothies

       It seems like smoothies get an automatic gold star in the realm of health foods, with bonus points given to those made green. While smoothies themselves can be a quick and easy breakfast or post-workout snack, not all of them are created equal. A lot of the commercial and pre-made varieties of smoothies are packed with sugar, preservatives, and calories that give a can of soda a run for it’s money.

       It’s easy to think that gulping down a big green smoothie from your favorite smoothie shop first thing in the morning is a good start to your day on the right path, but with upwards of 500 calories and 112 grams of sugar in most large orders, you may be taking in a whole lot more than the fruit and kale you bargained for. (3)


       Much like granola bars, your best bet is to check the nutrition facts and ingredients list of the smoothies before buying. Look for smoothies that list vegetables as some of the primary ingredients, and choose one that has the lowest amount of sugar possible. This will help make sure you are getting as many nutrients as possible for fewer calories.

       Busy in the morning? You can also stash a SaladPower in your work bag or purse to sneak in some fruits and veggies any time in the day without the sugar, preservatives, or hefty price tags hiding in other premade smoothies or juices.

Breakfast Cereals

       Taking the ‘candy in a box’ kid cereals that are infamously unhealthy out of the equation, there are still plenty of so-called ‘health’ cereals out there that aren’t much better for you. Their brown and twig-like appearance, misleading descriptions such as all natural and whole grain, and earthy packaging makes it easy to believe that some cereals out there are the poster child of a healthy breakfast. Their nutrition facts and ingredients list tell a different story.

       Often times, these bran-like cereals are coated in sugar, with as many as four teaspoons of sugar in a one cup serving. (4) Double that amount for how much you would realistically add to your breakfast bowl, and you’re talking as much sugar as two jelly doughnuts! (4)


       Pay attention to the nutrition facts panel, and look for a cereal with the lowest amounts of sugar as possible. Opt for whole grain cereals such as unfrosted shredded wheat or toasted oat varieties for added fiber and little to no added sugar. Sprinkle your bowl with fresh berries or your favorite fruit for a touch of sweetness and flavor, and extra dose of nutrients without the crash you can expect with sugar laden cereals.

Fat Free Foods

       Thanks to the 90s diet craze, fat has been labeled as the bad guy in the diet and food world ever since. This lead to the rise in popularity of many fat-free (and nutrition-free) foods such as cookies, chips, and other snack foods that were thought to be a better choice.

       The fact of the matter is that most fat-free foods are packed full of sugar. Removing the fat cuts down on calories, but it also cuts down on flavor. The fat is replaced by sugar to give products more flavor, as well as more calories that you thought you were saving. This misconception that fat-free foods are automatically healthier often allows people to indulge more than they would with the full-fat versions. This can lead to taking in more calories and sugar to get the same satisfaction as one regular serving would provide. 

       Now the trend is moving away from making fat the villain. Healthy fats are more satisfying, and can actually cause you to eat less than if something was loaded with sugar instead. (5)


       Check the labels for low-fat or fat-free versions of foods for added sugars. Aim for less than 10 grams of sugar per serving, and indulge in treats such as cookies and cakes in moderation. Add healthy sources of fats such as nuts, seeds, avocados, and fatty fish like salmon into your diet to increase satiety and get your daily dose of heart healthy omega-3’s. Focus on getting mostly fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains for most of your meals.

Frozen Yogurt

       Much like smoothies, frozen yogurt seems to get a fast pass to being considered a health food, but you should stop and take a second look before you take that second scoop.

       Similar to the fat-free food craze, frozen yogurt is often higher in added sugar (notice a theme here?!) than regular ice cream, making it no lower in calories. Also, since people perceive fro yo to be healthy, they’ll often eat a larger serving than if they had regular ice cream, which can lead to taking in more calories and sugar without even noticing.


       Whether you prefer regular ice cream or frozen yogurt, keep portions under control. One serving is equal to ½ a cup, or about the size of half a baseball. Look for varieties with minimal and simple ingredients, with as little sugar, preservatives, additives, and colorings as possible.

Trail Mix

       This portable snack can be a healthy choice for on the go, but on the other hand it can be a secret source of added calories, sugar, and sodium if you’re not careful. Some store-bought trail mixes are loaded with salty nuts, chocolate, candies, and sweetened dried fruit that it starts to resemble a candy jar more than a healthy snack.

       It’s also easy to overdo it on trail mix as well. Some can contain over 350 calories and 18 grams of sugar in a ½ cup serving, or roughly a large handful. If you find your hand reaching into the bag multiple times throughout the day, this could easy add up to the amount of calories you need in an entire day. (6)


       Look for trail mixes that only include nuts, seeds, and dried fruits rather than candy and chocolate. Much like most foods and snacks, preparing your own at home is a great way to keep sugar and salt levels under control. It is also helpful to measure out portions into individual containers to keep calories and servings in check. Scoop ¼ cup serving into resealable bags or small containers with lids to keep stashed away for a satisfying snack you can take anywhere. 

Gluten-Free Foods

       There has been a lot more attention and interest given to the gluten-free diet in the past few years, with more and more products on the market to come with it. This is great news for those with Celiac disease, or gluten allergies, but is seems as though some are using this as the latest and greatest fad diet.

       The fact is a gluten-free cupcake is still a cupcake, but most likely with a higher price tag. A lot of times the label of “gluten-free” gets perceived as “healthy” when it’s really just made with different ingredients to make it suitable for those who can’t tolerate the protein gluten found in wheat, barley, and rye.

       Gluten-free junk foods such as cakes, cookies, and pastries are still loaded with refined flours, added sugars, and empty calories, regardless of whether they contain gluten or not.


       Gluten-free foods are best suited for those with allergies or intolerances to wheat or gluten. Pastries, cupcakes, and dessert foods should be eaten in moderation, as a special treat or celebration, whether it contains gluten or not.

Sugar-Free Foods

       It is no surprise that sugar is not a nutrient-dense ingredient that is found in a lot of the foods listed above. While most people are aware that they should limit the amount of sugar they are taking in each day, what might not be so apparent is that sugar-free foods aren’t such a sweet deal after all.

       Just because something is labeled as sugar-free doesn’t mean that it isn’t sweetener-free. A lot of times, added sugar is replaced with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin. Studies are still inconclusive to what the long-term effects of these man-made sweeteners are, but it has been shown that these additives can increase the chances of excess weight, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. (reference 7) The use of these sweeteners aren’t just limited to cupcakes and candies, but can also be hiding in all types of foods such as pasta sauces, pickles, and canned fruit.


       It is best to limit both the amount of sugar and artificial sweeteners in your diet to a minimum. Always read the ingredients list to find hidden sources of sugar, even if something is labeled as sugar-free. There are many different types of added sugars and sweeteners, making it difficult to decipher whether or not a food contains added sugars. A good rule of thumb is to look for ingredients ending in ose, such as sucrose, sucralose, and fructose. Most of the time, these ingredients are hidden sources of added sugar or sweeteners, and should be avoided if possible.

Bottom Line:

       It’s safe to say that not all health foods are created equal, and there are some easy tips to help you navigate the sea of options. 


  • Keep it simple. Look for snacks and foods with minimal and simple ingredients. Avoid colorings, additives, and preservatives whenever possible.
  • Inform yourself. Instead of blindly listening to advice, learn about the basics of nutrition such that you can make intelligent decisions in every aisle of your grocery store.
  • Less is more. Aim for foods with no or minimal added sweeteners. The lower the sugar amounts the better.
  • Know your foods. Just because claims to be healthy on the front, the truth lies on the back. Always read the ingredients list and nutrition facts before buying, and ask yourself, is this food going to fuel me, or add to my waistline and make me more hungry? 








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