The 1990s were good in a lot of ways: brown lipstick, dark roots, etc. But the diet foods of 20 years ago leave something to be desired. It makes sense when you consider how much science has changed in the last two decades. As nutrition and weight loss research continues to progress, our definition of a "healthy" diet becomes closer and closer to the truth. Today, nutritionists tend to agree on what constitutes a healthy eater. As registered dietitian Jenny Champion puts it, healthy eaters "choose real food over anything processed, value the quality of food they eat and have a healthy relationship with food without obsessing over it."
But foods that were considered nutritious and good for weight loss in the "heroine-chic" era subscribed to a completely different philosophy. Today, we're reflecting on the five worst diet foods of the 1990s—and recommending modern alternatives.
1. Fat-Free Snacks and Desserts
"People were obsessed with fat-free in the 1990s for weight loss," says Daryl Gioffre, DC, celebrity nutritionist and founder of the Alkamind cleanse. But according to Gioffre, the fat-free craze was not rooted in science. In the late 1960s, three Harvard researchers were paid a large sum of money to publish a review on sugar, fat, and heart disease, featuring studies that were "handpicked by the sugar industry, which minimized the link between sugar and chronic disease, while fully placing the blame on fat," Gioffre says.
Subsequently, the market took notice and flooded consumers with fat-free foods; baked chips, no-fat butter, and fat-free desserts were especially popular. "The goal was to provide consumers with a 'healthy' alternative to sweets while still helping them achieve their weight loss goals," says licensed nutritionist Jaimi Jansen. But companies were simply replacing the fat with processed additives and extra sugar, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, which Gioffre says "is immediately turned to fat" and causes a "higher occurrence of chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity."
Today, nutritionists agree that healthy fats from sources like hemp seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, raw nut butter, coconut oil, and wild-caught salmon are essential to a nutritious diet. For healthier snack and dessert options, Jansen recommends "apples drizzled with chocolate and almond butter" or homemade kale chips that are "dehydrated at low temperatures for long hours instead of baked or fried at high temperatures, which alters the food and the oils they are cooked in."
2. Entrée Salads
Twenty-some years ago, restaurants began advertising big salads as "healthy" alternatives to traditional entrées, and many people still buy into this. "Classics from the '90s include the chicken Caesar salad, mandarin orange chicken salad, and cobb salad," Gioffre remembers. The problem is that most of these dinner salads are loaded with sugar and omega-6 fat, "the kind that causes inflammation and acidity in your blood," says Gioffre. Dressings, both full-fat and fat-free, contain highly inflammatory ingredients, like soybean oil and artificial sweeteners. Add with toppings like croutons, bacon, fried noodles, and cheese, the calorie count on these salads skyrockets.
Obviously, salads don't have to be unhealthy. "A better option is to go to the salad bar where you can choose healthy 'rainbow' ingredients such as beets, broccoli, asparagus, red bell pepper, cucumber, avocado, celery, and dark green leafy greens," says Gioffre. For dressing, reach for an apple cider–based vinaigrette, or lemon and extra-virgin olive oil. This is "the best option for optimum health and weight loss," Gioffre says.
3. Diet Soda
As a '90s kid, my parents practically put Diet Coke in my baby bottle—but modern nutritionists are highly skeptical of artificially sweetened drinks. "Recent studies, while conflicting, have suggested that these artificial sweeteners are linked to weight gain says physician nutrition specialist Adrienne Youdim, MD. The logic is that that these products trick our brains into thinking we have consumed real sugar. "This trickery may, in fact, promote the desire to consume sugar or drive cravings for sugar and in turn cause weight gain," Youdim explains.
4. Veggie Chips and Pretzels
In the '90s, we all seemed to be very confused about what constituted a "healthy" snack. A lack of education about ingredients had us thinking that fried, processed beets were healthier than potatoes and that if a snack tasted plain, it must not be that bad for you.
"This was one of my pet peeves in the 1990s," says registered dietitian Sandra Woodruff. "Pretzels were a daily snack for many people. ... 'What’s so healthy about white flour and salt?' I used to ask people in my weight control classes." Now most of us realize that pretzels have a high glycemic index, tons of sodium, and barely any nutrients.
Then there were all the veggie chips our moms used to buy instead of Lay's—remember those? "A fried chip is a fried chip," Youdim says. "The harmful ingredient is not the thing being fried but actually the saturated and trans fats used in the frying process, which are harmful to cardiovascular health."
Today, any nutritionist would recommend roasted nuts over these snacks from the '90s. "[Nuts] provide protein, fiber, and other nutrients; have a low glycemic load; and are linked to lower risk of diabetes, CVD, and other health problems," Woodruff says.
5. The Atkins Diet
Our nutritionists agree that the Atkins diet, which everyone from your English teacher to your grandma was on in the '90s, is perhaps the worst diet of all time. According to Gioffre, "Protein in moderation is a healthy thing, but the Atkins diet took this too extreme." Atkins dieters were asked to completely eliminate carbs, including fruit, and encouraged to eat a high-protein, high-fat diet instead. "While a high-protein, low-carb diet can help for short-term weight loss, it does not show to have lasting results due to its highly restrictive nature," says Jansen.
According to Colette Heimowitz, vice president of nutrition and education at Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., the Atkins diet of today "is not an unlimited protein diet." Instead, it "stresses nutrient-dense carbohydrates as part of a balanced eating plan, provides a moderate amount of protein and good fats, while restricting those carbohydrates which have the greatest impact on blood sugar." As Heimowitz states, studies show that the results of low-carb diets are shown to last as long as two years.
But overall, 2017 diet experts support a "well-rounded diet—and yes, that includes healthy carbs," says Jansen. Leafy green vegetables, healthy fats, moderate protein, and small portions of non-processed carbs are all essential.