Everyone loves a “cheat meal” or an overindulgence of food from time to time, after all—we are human. Some of the best-tasting food are actually some of the worst in terms of fat and calories. But don’t worry! You don’t have to resort to living like Tom Hanks in Castaway.
There are plenty of food that you can turn to that taste amazing and won’t jeopardize your well-being. It’s about learning why certain food are bad, so you can make better choices on a day-to-day basis. That being said, here are some dietary landmines to watch out for, and step around.
A new study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease revealed that 84 percent of packaged food that listed “0 grams trans-fat” on their Nutrition Facts label still had partially hydrogenated oil (the main dietary source of trans-fat) in the ingredient list. Current laws allow companies to “round down” fewer than 0.5 grams of trans-fat per serving to zero.
The good news? The amount of trans-fat we eat has dropped in the past 30 years, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Men are consuming 32 percent less trans-fat, and women 35 percent less, than they were in 1980. Still, 1.9 percent of men’s daily calories and 1.7 percent of women’s daily calories come from trans-fat today (the American Heart Association recommends limiting trans-fats to no more than 1 percent of total calories consumed).
Even a few daily grams of these fats increase bad cholesterol, decrease good cholesterol, and clog arteries; and Harvard researchers estimate that trans-fats cause up to 228,000 cases of heart disease and 50,000 deaths annually. Since 2 grams is the most you should have in a day, allowing food with 0.5 gram or less to call themselves trans-fat free is a real problem. You’re best off avoiding trans-fat-containing food completely.
- Nondairy Coffee Creamer
Half a gram of trans-fat in creamer can quickly turn into multiple, since consumers tend to use more than the serving size of a teaspoon per cup (and the typical American coffee drinker guzzles an average of three cups of joe per day). On many “0 trans-fat” labels, you can find partially hydrogenated oils as the second or third ingredient listed.
- Peanut Butter
Some companies use partially hydrogenated oils to achieve a long shelf life and creamy texture, so check the label. To be safe, opt for the natural variety; although it’s chunkier, it’s also healthier and normally made with just salt and peanuts—not oils loaded with trans-fat.
- Frozen Pizza
Trans-fat sneaks into the dough of many frozen pizzas, with about 0.3 grams in just one slice. San Diego mother of two Katie Simpson sued Nestle for $5 million last year over the use of trans-fat in its frozen pizzas sold by DiGiorno, Stouffer’s, and California Pizza Kitchen. (The case was dismissed since she knowingly purchased and consumed the pizza.) One solution? Make your own pie at home. #Popcorn It’s your Friday night movie staple, but microwaveable popcorn puts the spotlight on trans-fats.
The true culprits are toppings: Butter flavoring can include 0.5 grams of trans-fat per serving, while caramel flavoring can contain as many as 1.5 grams. Some extra-buttery varieties can have up to 15 grams of trans-fat per bagwhich is all too easy to inhale in one sitting. “Stay away from the microwave popcorn,” says Napoli. “Just do the old-fashioned air pop or use an actual oil to pop the kernels in.”
- Packaged Cookies
Even the beloved Girl Scout Cookies still sneak some trans-fat in, despite a label that says “trans-fat free”. You may be able to justify those because they only happen a few times per year, but check to see if your favorite store bought cookies are made with partially hydrogenated cooking oils, chances are they are including Chips Ahoy and Keebler, although some brands like Oreos now use “high oleic” oils instead so they can provide shelf-stable cookies at a reasonable cost.
Margarine consumption boomed during the butter shortages of World War II, with even Eleanor Roosevelt promoting it as her toast topping of choice. But it’s a recipe for trans-fat overload. To create that creamy spread, liquid vegetable oils are blasted with hydrogen. The more solid the margarine, the more it’s been hydrogenated. Many labels claim to have “0 grams” of trans-fat, but if the label lists partially hydrogenated oils, those small amounts of trans-fat can add up when you slather margarine on your food.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
This is an ingredient that didn’t exist before 1960, but has a strong appeal to food manufacturers because it’s so very sweet, cheap to make, and easy to store. According to David Zinczenko in The Abs Diet, the human body doesn’t have a shut-off switch for HFCS the way it does with real sugar. This leads us to keep drinking a cola or eating sweet treats long after we would have stopped if they were naturally sweetened.
Those who pay attention to what they eat may have noticed high fructose corn syrup creeping into an alarming number of food in the supermarket aisle. Corn subsidies and other trends have pushed this relatively unhealthy substance into many of the general “food groups” that we shop for on a regular basis.
Here are some of the popular food and drink items that contain high fructose corn syrup, an element with a lot of sugar that has been known to contribute to diabetes and other conditions when eaten in excess.
- Soft Drinks
It’s no surprise to most of us that soda is chock full of high fructose corn syrup. To those who aren’t used to the drink, the stuff can be almost sickeningly sweet. Even diet varieties can have a large amount of this sweetener. Add the fact that soda machines can be found on the street corner, in the lobbies of buildings, and in almost any public area. Therefore, this shows that obesity and sugar-related conditions are seen as a worldwide issue.
- Sauces And Salad Dressing
Most ketchup ends up on French fries, and a few stop to consider that it’s actually acting to make the fries unhealthier. That’s because it uses High Fructose Corn Syrup as its #3 ingredient – at least a bottle of America’s #1
Bestselling ketchup: Heinz. There are 4g of sugar total, and the majority of that will come from HFCS.
Although many dieters add yogurt to their daily menu, they’d better watch out at the sweeteners it contains, with many of the brands using High Fructose Corn Syrup to make them taste good. Going with a light version of yogurt no doubt means you’re getting an artificial sweetener, which can be just as bad.
- Processed Snacks
There are other items that the average consumer wouldn’t think of as HFCS candidates. Look at the labels for things like breaded meats or processed potato items, and make sure that the sweetener is not lurking somewhere on the label.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
Monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG, is a commonly used food enhancer whose taste is described as umami-like. Taste is usually divided into four categories: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Glutamate is said to have a fifth, unique taste called umami, which is described as the savoury flavour of meats.
MSG is used to enhance this so-called umami flavour and is known to have negative side effects even when ingested in small amounts. Since MSG is found so frequently in processed food, it is very hard to avoid except in cases when the packaging specifically states that the product contains no MSG. Even then, manufactured free glutamic acid can be found in different forms, such as torula yeast.
MSG, torula yeast, yeast extracts and hydrolysed proteins can raise levels of glutamate, which in turn overstimulates neurons. Synthetically produced glutamates may have different names but are all essentially MSG. Some common glutamates strongly related to MSG include hydrolysed proteins, autolyzed yeasts, protein concentrates, yeast extract, glutamic acid, and the list goes on.
These glutamates can be found in very common grocery items such as low-fat yogurt, canned soups chips, and most ranch- and cheese-flavoured food.In a 2014 study published in Life Science, researchers found that young rats treated with MSG were more susceptible to developing anxiety and depressive behaviours.
- Vegan Breakfast Sausage
Torula (Candida utilis) is a species of yeast that has become popular as a food additive in vegetarian and vegan food. Torula yeast can lend beef a more savoury, meaty flavour. Not surprisingly, it is also commonly added to vegetarian burgers and meatless food products. The food additive is made by growing the yeast in a controlled environment in which was fed with sugar and minerals from molasses or wood.
After the initial harvesting, the yeast will be laid out to be cleaned and dried. Field Roast’s Apple Maple Breakfast Sausages contain yeast extract and “natural hickory smoke flavour with torula yeast.” This brand’s Frankfurters also use “naturally flavoured yeast extract” which is another term for MSG. Their Celebration Roast also uses “naturally flavoured yeast extract.”
- Bacon Bits
Perhaps this does not come as a surprise, but many brands which sell bacon-flavoured bits include MSG. McCormick’s Bac’n Pieces bacon-flavoured bits contains yeast extract and disodium guanylate, another flavour enhancer that’s often used in conjunction with MSG. Safeway’s bacon bits contains autolyzed yeast, and Bac-O’s bacon-flavoured bits has hydrolysed vegetable protein, all of which are other names for MSG.
- Veggie Burger And Nuggets
If you have ever eaten a Gardenburger Portabella Veggie Burger or a MorningStar Farms Grillers California Turk’y Burger, then you have eaten torula yeast! Gardenburger Portabella Veggie Burger and MorningStar Farms Grillers California Turk’y Burger both contain torula yeast. MorningStar Farms Chik’n Nuggets contains both autolyzed yeast extract and yeast extract.
- Fried Food
Set aside the high amounts of trans-fat, saturated fat, calories, and cholesterol that come with frying food, since that’s been covered many times before and most of us already know about those dangers. Another reason to avoid eating fried food is that most of them will contain MSG.
One of the easiest ways to get fried food with MSG in it is to stop into KFC and order anything fried from their menu. They’re not the only culprit, not by a long shot. MSG is prevalent in so many packaged food. If it comes from a major food supplier, is fried and comes in a package, it will contain some amount of MSG.
Walk into any big box grocery store and you’ll find that artificial sweeteners are everywhere. They’re tucked into soft drinks, baked goods, and fruit juices to make them taste sweet without the extra calories. Most products that contain artificial sweeteners are usually labelled as “diet” or “reduced sugar,” but not all are (you can even find some in food that claim to have “natural” ingredients).
Because they’re not always clearly labelled on food packaging, consumers may not realize that they’re eating them. Artificial sweeteners have been under the spotlight for decades now as health food advocates point out that they can come with a list of side effects, much like a drug.
The side effects that are claimed by those against sweeteners like aspartame include some really severe conditions, such as depression, insomnia, blindness, tinnitus, hives, and a contributing factor to things like Alzheimer’s and MS.
- Light Food And Beverages
If you’re calorie conscious you might be attracted to food that are advertised as Lite or Light, since they’ll have fewer calories than their regular counterparts. But what you’re trading the calories for is typically artificial sweeteners that might be calorie-free but have their own side effects and health hazards.
- Diet Coke
Diet sodas don’t contain High Fructose Corn Syrup, but in its place are sweeteners like aspartame. Aspartame got a bad rap back in the day when some poorly done studies linked it to cancer. Scientists have recently found, however, that the link doesn’t hold up. Still, those with a rare disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU) may be sensitive to the chemical.
The debate rages on whether aspartame is as bad as the claims being made, but why get involved with it? It’s definitely not good for you, and if you’re drinking diet drinks you’re concerned about your health and well-being. It’s best to replace them with all-natural beverages that are low in calories, but still have some flavour, like green tea.
- Packaged Snacks
Many of these snack packs come in 100 calorie sizes, which appeals to many dieters. But in order to get them to taste good and not add too much to the bottom line they include different unnamed artificial sweeteners in them. Whether or not these are bad for you is under question, but they’re certainly not good for you, and it’s a little unnerving when they won’t tell you exactly what’s in the food.
High levels of sodium, or salt, can really wreak havoc on your body. Not only does it cause you to retain water, but it also increases blood pressure and can lead to complications with the heart. Almost all heart patients are put on a low-sodium diet, whether they suffered a heart attack, stroke, or are at risk for them. It makes sense to watch your sodium levels long before it reaches the point of a doctor telling you to do so, or forcing you onto a diet to help save your life.
Cheese also has copious amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol, which is why you want to go easy on it as far as your daily diet goes. But there is another factor of cheese to consider, and that is the amount of sodium it contains. Be sure to stay away from Cheez Whiz, as that has almost a quarter of the RDA of sodium in one serving. And even cheeses that are often considered healthy pack of sodium punch. For example feta cheese has about half the daily limit of sodium in a 100-gram serving.
- Salty Snacks
The problem with salty snacks is that the salt makes you keep eating them. Once you have the salty flavour on your taste buds you automatically reach for another chip. And the sodium is only one concern, as these snacks are usually cooked in partially hydrogenated oils giving them trans-fats, and use artificial seasonings and flavourings.
- Frozen Meal
The frozen food section of your grocery store can be another hiding place for salt. Frozen meals like pizza or meatloaf dinners might contain up to 1,800 mg of sodium — enough to put you over the AHA’s daily limit in just one meal. Excess salt causes your body to retain fluid, which will not only leave you feeling bloated, but can also lead to high blood pressure. Look for low-sodium options or, better yet, cook your own meals from scratch.
- Bread And Tortillas
When it comes to breads, rolls, and tortillas, once again, you need to read the labels carefully. Don’t assume that all grains are the same. One 6-inch flour tortilla can contain more than 200 mg of sodium, and that number jumps to over 500 mg for a 10-inch tortilla. Instead, choose plain corn tortillas, which contain just 11 mg of sodium for each 6-inch round.
And if you’re grilling this summer, a hamburger bun can add an additional 250 mg of sodium to your meal. Instead, try swapping in a lettuce wrap or Portobello mushroom bun for added nutrients and flavour, without any extra sodium.
Food high in calories can really add to your waistline in a hurry if you’re not careful. The reason they’re so sneaky is because you can consume hundreds of calories quickly and not even be aware of it. A popular dieting theory is that the fewer calories taken in the more weight you’ll lose, all else being equal. That’s why you see people going on low-calorie diets and trying to burn calories in the gym. You don’t have to go to extremes, but minding the calories you consume will lead to a healthier you.
- Pasta Dishes
A plain bowl of pasta won’t ruin your day, calorically speaking, but pasta often serves as the foundation for more calorie-laden dishes. A nice slab of Lasagna Classico from Olive Garden for example can tip the charts at 850 calories, more than half of the calories allotted to some dieters. That doesn’t leave much for the rest of the day. Also consider a small serving of Spaghetti with Meatballs from Buca di Beppo that tips the tables at 916 calories.
Dark chocolate is making a surge as a health food, but milk chocolate still rules the market and is the easiest to come by. The only problem is that it’s not as healthy for you as it’s easy to ramp up the calories if you have a chocolate binging episode. There are 3.4 calories in each M&M, 73 in each piece of Godiva chocolate, and 23 in each Hug version of Hershey’s Kisses.
It’s not as if you have to go low-carb or no-carb but you should still keep an eye on your carbohydrate intake. In fact there’s even a recommended daily allowance set at 130g. Why are too many carbs unhealthy? Food high in carbohydrates will be digested quickly and tend to increase your blood sugar levels.
This causes a release of insulin, which produces glycogen which gets stored in the body as fat. They’re also responsible for making you feel hungry again quickly, and can lead to more eating and overeating than would otherwise happen.
For a long time bagels were thought of as a healthy way to start the day, until the no-carb fad came along. Now they are gaining popularity again, but is it justified? A plain bagel from Einstein Bros. Bagels contains 59g of carbohydrates, and uses up 45% of your daily allowance. Chances are when you’re having a bagel, you’re not leaving it plain and are topping it off with cream cheese, butter, jelly, or making a breakfast sandwich with it, which only makes it less healthy for you.
- Coffee Drinks
A cup of regular Joe won’t damage your carb levels for the day, but when you get all fancy you’re ultimately creating a carb-infused cocktail. A medium cappuccino from McCafe at McDonald’s will cost you 12g of carbs, and a medium sized latte, even with sugar-free syrup, still puts you at 44g of carbohydrates, almost insuring you’re going to go over your daily budget.
- Movie Popcorn
No list of unhealthy food would be complete without movie popcorn on it. This can fit under many categories, including too many calories, too much saturated fat, too much MSG, trans-fat from hydrogenated oil, and that doesn’t even count the “butter” topping. But aside from all of that it has plenty of carbs. A large sized bucket has about 90g of carbs in it, with that number varying by location.