Most of us can enjoy the occasional junk-food splurge without doing too much damage, but making a habit of eating unhealthy fare can lead to health issues over time. Modern food-processing techniques and the availability of foods lacking in nutrients and high in calories, added sugars and sodium are contributing to many of today’s chronic diseases, including diabetes, obesity, heart disease and some cancers.
Potatoes are loaded with valuable nutrients. A medium potato provides 5 grams of fiber, 26 percent of your daily potassium and 70 percent of your daily vitamin C — all for 165 calories! Potato chips, on the other hand, are stripped of their nutrition. For the same amount of calories, potato chips provide just 10 percent of your potassium and vitamin C and only 1 gram of fiber. Not to mention the fact that this snack also adds unnecessary sodium. Chips are a highly processed food with very little nutritional value. They have carbohydrates, which give us energy, but there is nothing else to boast about.
While they appear to be a convenient, complete meal, most frozen dinners leave a lot to be desired in the nutrition department. Most frozen pizza, mac-and-cheese and potpie options are loaded with refined carbohydrates, processed meats, saturated fats and an overabundance of sodium, while also coming up short on a decent serving of vegetables. For instance, one chicken strip and macaroni-and-cheese dinner on the market packs 680 calories, 1,500 mg of sodium and 11 grams of saturated fat. Frozen meals are not typically made with the best quality of ingredients and include additives and preservatives.
Sugary Coffee Drinks:
By itself, coffee contains virtually no calories and provides helpful antioxidants. So what’s the harm in choosing a creamy, sweetened version? More harm than most folks realize. A 20-ounce serving of chocolate mocha coffee made with 2-percent milk and whipped cream contains a whopping 580 calories, 14 grams of saturated fat and 13 teaspoons of sugar, making it less healthy than a McDonald’s Big Mac. To save calories and cut down on saturated fat and sugar, try black coffee with milk or a milk alternative. Another option is green tea with a touch of honey and a side of fresh fruit.
In a study published in the British Journal of Cancer in September 2012, researchers analyzed the diets of 6,060 adults with and without various forms of cancer. They found a significant link between the intake of processed meats and cancers of the mouth, breast, prostate, bladder, colon, stomach, esophagus and throat. Hot dogs, salami and salted meats were among the processed foods most closely associated with cancer risk. If you must have your dog try a nitrite-free version to reduce your risk of cancer and choose a chicken or turkey dog to decrease the level of fat.
A stick of margarine is one of the unhealthiest available foods because of its trans fat content. Trans fats are created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils, which hardens them to form a solid fat. Trans fats can also harden your arteries by increasing bad LDL cholesterol and lowering your healthy HDL cholesterol, says the American Heart Association, increasing your risk for heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. While reading a nutrition label to avoid trans fats, look out for products that list partially hydrogenated fat as an ingredient. Heart-healthy oils like olive oil are safer because they don’t contain this trans-fatty ingredient.
A medium order of fast-food french fries contains more than 375 calories, 18 grams of fat and 4 grams of fiber. The fiber content is valuable, but eating a large skin-on baked potato instead is a much healthier choice. Many french fries are also loaded with sodium and paired with other unhealthy foods like fatty burgers and sugary soft drinks. For a healthier alternative, chop a potato with the skin on into thick slices and season with spices like cumin, paprika and even cayenne for spicy kick. Compared to french fries, this balanced, nutritious option will keep you satiated and energized longer.
Commercial Cake Frosting:
It may save some time to buy prepared frosting for your homemade baked goods, but it’s not a great idea. When you pick up a tub of store-bought frosting to spread over your cakes or cookies, you are not only getting a lot of sugar, but also a product that’s high in trans fats. Two tablespoons of prepared coconut frosting contain about 1.5 grams of trans fats. This may sound low, but the American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fats to less than 1 percent of your total daily calories — that’s 2 grams per day in a 2,000-calorie diet. To avoid cardiovascular risks associated with trans fats, make your own frosting or buy varieties that don’t contain hydrogenated vegetable oil.
One cheese Danish contains more than 265 calories, 5 grams of saturated fat and less than 1 gram of fiber. The real problem, though, is that it replaces more nutritious breakfast fare. Research shows that eating a breakfast high in whole, fiber-rich foods, such as whole grains, may guard against obesity and chronic diseases. Try eating a balanced breakfast like oatmeal made with milk and topped with fresh fruit — and ditch the sugary pastries. This healthier alternative will keep your blood sugar and appetite in check while providing essential nutrients.
The biggest dietary sugar source in the United States is beverages sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose or fruit-juice concentrates — a category that includes soft drinks, energy drinks and fruit drinks. The trouble is, there’s a close connection between the rise in sugar intake and the world’s obesity and Type 2 diabetes epidemics. Soda contains roughly 10 teaspoons of sugar per serving as well as a dose of caffeine. Unfortunately, that is all it provides. I recommend drinking more water: It’s sugar-free and calorie-free, and most people don’t get enough of it.
Some of the more obvious sugar sources should be swapped out for unsweetened dried fruit or fruit-topped yogurt. Gummy candy is another item that is processed and typically made up of straight sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Half a cup of gumdrops contains 360 calories, the amount found in a turkey breast sandwich on whole-grain bread. On average, Americans consume 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day, says the Harvard School of Public Health, which amounts to 350 “empty” calories that contain no nutrients. Eating this type of sweet stuff leaves less room for food that’s good for you and makes it more likely that you’ll gain weight.
If you must indulge in unhealthy food, don’t overdo it. For added benefit, stay active, manage your stress, don’t skip your annual physicals and aim for healthy nightly sleep. It’s how you live overall that matters most. Which unhealthy food is hardest for you to avoid? What healthy alternatives have you found? Did anything on this list surprise you? Is there a food you feel should have made the list? Let me know in the comments below.