While we know everyone has a varying understanding of what's healthy and what's not—and it's clear all food affects each body differently—there a few foods and ingredients that are no good across the board. You'll never hear us preach about dairy, gluten, or veganism as the only way to be healthy—only offer information based on expert advice, studies, and our own bodies. However, we feel comfortable saying the below foods are best to eliminate from your diet (or at least consume in limited moderation).
To do so, we asked nutritionists, sugar experts, and the like for the unhealthiest foods that fall into such a category. Below, find their science-backed advice.
"Studies show that aspartame actually leads to weight gain and more difficult weight loss," says Brooke Alpert, MS, RD, CDN. "Artificial sweeteners do not activate the food rewards pathways in the brain like natural sugar does. Your brain never gets the signal that your craving has been satisfied, so you keep eating—even more than you would have eaten had you just used regular sugar. Plus, research finds aspartame increases hunger more than glucose, which is natural sugar."
Meet the Expert
"Artificial sweeteners from nonnatural sources, otherwise known as 'high-potency sweeteners,'" adds Arianne Perry, sugar expert and the president of Sweet Defeat, a clinically proven, natural lozenge that stops sugar cravings. "Depending on the sweetener, these chemicals are 10 to 600 times the sweetness of sugar. Think aspartame, sucralose (like Splenda), and saccharine. They're typically found in the colorful packets at the coffee shop, on a diet soda label, or in many 'low sugar' or packaged keto food products. Not only will these sweeteners cause cravings since they are so sweet, but they also dull your taste for natural sugars like fruit or dairy."
Alpert explains that the chemicals in aspartame interfere with fat metabolism and storage by disrupting the hormones leptin and insulin, leading to greater weight gain. She also cites that there have been some carcinogenic properties discussed, but studies are still inconclusive.
"If it's not olive oil, coconut oil, or other specific plant oil, it's not great for human consumption," says Perry. "Typically used to prepare fried foods, fast food, or boxed baking mixes, these oils are scary. Not only are they calorically dense but our bodies struggle to break them down, and the byproducts that are formed during digestion are basically toxic. These oils can contain high amounts of trans fat, which raises LDL, 'bad' cholesterol, and lowers HDL, 'good' cholesterol, throwing your body totally out of whack."
This is actually not the first time we've been warned against refined oils. The co-founders of Honey Hi, Kacie Carter and Caitlin Sullivan, caution against canola, soybean, safflower, sunflower, and corn oils. "These are some of the most dangerous substances on the market," says Carter. "They absolutely saturate many of the foods that make up the 'standard American diet' because they are cheap, flavorless, and abundant. Refined oils are higher in inflammatory omega-6s, and they are often damaged by processing, light, oxygen, or overheating—which means they create free-radical stress in your body. It's like eating pure inflammation." Sullivan adds: "Essentially, skip foods in a package."
"If you're trying to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle," recommends Perry, "avoid energy drinks. They average over 30 grams of sugar per can and have way too many stimulants. These somewhat murky blends of caffeine, taurine, ginseng, and L-carnitine are intense, and, although you might get a quick pick-me-up and even temporarily lose your appetite, you're headed for a crash later on. They throw off your appetite, sleep, hydration, and mood—all at the same time. Don't forget—sometimes when you feel tired, you might be dehydrated, and a glass of water might do the trick."
"Studies find soda intake is associated with increased caloric intake and increased body weight," says Alpert. "It's also associated with lower intakes of milk, calcium, and other nutrients, as well as with severe medical problems like Type 2 diabetes. Moreover, findings suggest that soft drinks increase hunger, decrease satiety, or simply readjust people to crave a high level of sweetness that causes them to consume more calories than necessary, with a specific consumption increase in sweet foods (i.e., it's easily addictive)."
Alpert also cautions that soda contains high-fructose corn syrup, which can cause issues with fat processing in the liver and can lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease over time.
"Nitrites are added to processed meats like bacon, deli meats including ham and salami, sausages, and hot dogs. They're added as preservatives to improve the color and appearance of the meats but also to add salty flavor," says Alpert. "At high temperatures, these nitrites can combine with specific proteins in the meats to form toxic compounds known as nitrosamines—which are carcinogenic and believed to increase the risk of pancreatic, gastric, and colon cancers."
"Trans fat is created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid—it makes it so processed food can be more shelf-stable and last longer," explains Alpert. "Avoid anything that includes 'partially hydrogenated oil' on its label, as consumption increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes. It's so bad for you that the FDA has even banned them."
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
"Used by commercial food manufacturers, high-fructose corn syrup is made by converting some of corn syrup's glucose into fructose, another form of sugar," says Alpert. "High-fructose consumption from high-fructose corn syrup can cause issues with fat processing in the liver, which over time can lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease."
"Yellow #5 and #6 found in cereals, puddings, and even Sunny D are linked to learning and concentration disorders like ADD in children," says Alpert. "Norway and Sweden have already banned the use of these artificial colors, and in the rest of the EU, foods containing these additives must be labeled with the phrase: 'May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.' In fact, Yellow #5 can cause allergic-type reactions like hives in a small portion of the population."
"The FDA has reported that a chemical coating used in some microwave popcorn bags breaks down when heated into a substance called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)," says Charles Passler, DC, the founder of Pure Change. "This substance can cause cancer in animals and is 'likely to cause cancer in humans.'"
"Unprocessed meat can be healthy and nutritious, but the same cannot be said for processed meats," explains Passler. "Based on a 2010 study from the Harvard School of Public Health, researchers found that consuming processed deli meat, sausage, and bacon increased the risk of heart disease by 42 percent and Type 2 diabetes by 19 percent. In addition, processed meats are high in sodium. Just a single slice of bologna can contain from 310 to 480 milligrams."
Similarly, factory-farmed meat and fish should be avoided. "Not only did these animals live a miserable and inhumane existence, but the mass production of meat is horrific for the environment and very detrimental for our health to consume," explains Carter. "They are loaded with hormones and inflammation from an unhealthy, stressed animal. I avoid meat unless I know exactly where it came from or if I've cooked it myself."
FYI: These are the natural (and effective) ways to de-bloat almost instantly.
Abington - Jefferson Health. Are Artificial Sweeteners Making You Gain Weight?. Updated October 19, 2017.