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15 Ingredients Nutritionists Never Cook With

There are some foods that the pros say are off limits. These are 15 foods nutritionists say they won't eat and—what to choose instead.

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Artificial sugar

If white sugar is off limits, does that mean artificial sweeteners are better? Not so much, says Ashley Reaver, MS, RD, CSSD. “Whether it is in my own pantry or buying processed food from the grocery store, I always avoid artificial sweeteners,” she says. “Research links them to increased sugar intake and disruption of the microbiome. They also can negatively impact the brain-gut connection.” Reaver says she’ll use real maple syrup in recipes, or add fruit or cinnamon to foods boost the perceived sweetness of dishes. Nutritionists love to share their tips and tricks, including the healthy diet plan they use to lose weight.

Cheese butter or margarine baking ingredient backgroundLove the wind/Shutterstock

Margarine

When this oil-based butter substitute became popular in the mid-20th century, it seemed like an answer to nutritional prayers. These products had less saturated fat than butter, so doctors encouraged their patients to make the swap. Now, margarine has a bit of a shadow cast on it because some brands contain trans fats, artificial fats created when liquid fats are turned into solids. “Just use real butter,” Reaver says. “There is no need to continue using this artificial butter.” If you don’t want to use regular butter, Reaver says, try plant-based spread alternatives—coconut or avocado, for example.

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White flour

Thanks to the popularity of alternative flours, you may not need this pantry staple any longer. “I keep almond flour, ground flaxseed, oat flour, and buckwheat flour in stock for waffles, pancakes, cookies, muffins, and breads,” says Monica Moreno, MS, RDN. These flour alternatives, Moreno says, are higher in fiber and have more micronutrients than the bleached all-purpose alternative. Healthy-eating secrets from nutritionists can help you make every meal healthier and better for you.

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White sugar

Not all sweeteners get a bad rap with nutritionists. However, some are entirely off limits. “You will never find refined white sugar in my pantry,” says Erin Assenza, an integrative nutrition health coach and health educator. “I use coconut sugar, maple syrup, or honey as a sweetener.” Coconut sugar, says Laurel Jakubowski, MS, RD, LDN, is a sugar darker in color that also has fiber and added nutrients that regular bleached sugar does not. “It still has the same amount of calories and carbohydrates as regular sugar, but with a slight nutritional advantage,” she says.

Aluminum cans of foodJon Schulte/Shutterstock

Canned cream soups

“Cream soups are typically laden with fat and sodium, not to mention the chemical stabilizers required to keep it on the shelves indefinitely,” Reaver says. “Instead, make your own cream-based broths, using a touch of cream, cow’s milk, or non-dairy milk.” Reaver explains that you can eliminate milk entirely if you’re lactose sensitive. Use pureed cauliflower or potatoes for the creamy factor sans cream. Nutritionists also don’t always take vitamins—here’s why you might want to skip them, too.

Group of open canned vegetables shot from a high angle. Assorted veggies carrots, corn, green beans, peas and mixed vegetables.Steve Cukrov/Shutterstock

Regular canned beans or vegetables

Canned beans and vegetables are a fast option for speedy sides, but they’re not always the best option when it comes to nutritional might. Jakubowski says it is possible, however, to find alternatives. “When choosing canned goods, I always make sure it is low sodium to prevent excess added sodium that is hiding in canned tomatoes, beans, and vegetables,” she says. “It is easy to consume far more than the recommended amount of sodium per day (2300 milligrams), so avoiding these can help bring overall sodium intake down.” If you have a few cans of black beans stockpiled in your pantry, don’t panic. Research shows you can actually eliminate up to 41 percent of sodium from canned foods by giving it a quick rinse under running water before eating it.

A TV dinner consisting of turkey, ham, peas and mashed potatoes isolated on whiteJoe Belanger/Shutterstock

Frozen meals

When it comes to convenience, Jakubowski draws the line at frozen, pre-packaged meals. They’re handy, but they’re not so healthy, she says. “I never buy frozen meals, even Lean Cuisine or other brands that are marketed as ‘healthy,'” she says. “These are almost always full of fat, sodium, and preservatives.” If you need a fast ready-made alternative, Jakubowski recommends prepping ahead. “For convenience, I prep lunches that are freezer-friendly meals—stews, chilis, soups—and freeze leftover portions that are easy to reheat in a pinch.”

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Sweetened condensed milk

Bakers may keep petite cans of this thick, syrupy milk on hand, but Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD, LDN, says it’s time to clear the shelf space for something healthier. “I try to avoid using any pre-sweetened food products since I like to have control over the amount of sweetener that goes in my food or drinks,” she says. “In the case of condensed milk, coconut milk tends to work well as a substitute.” Gulbin says coconut cream is a great alternative for creamy soup bases or sauces. Stock up on healthy foods with this list of nutritionist-approved buys at Costco.

A very close view of raspberry yogurt.BW Folsom/Shutterstock

Flavored yogurt

For years, sugar-rich yogurt products made a lot of people feel good about their snack choice, but now we know those flavored yogurts aren’t much healthier than candy. “While flavored yogurt is a hugely popular ‘health food,’ depending on the brand, many contain loads of added sugar, additives, artificial flavors, and preservatives,” says Catherine Brennan, RDN, LDN, CLC. “While there is nothing wrong with eating foods with added sugar from time to time, if you want a truly satisfying breakfast, I recommend buying plain yogurt and adding in your own fresh or frozen fruit.” Brennan says mixing in your own fruit to plain yogurt will increase the fiber content, and you’ll get less sugar. “That will keep you satisfied and fuller for longer,” she says.

Sports Energy DrinksChuck Wagner/Shutterstock

Energy drinks

Energy drinks may provide a jolt of energy for late nights at the office or extended periods of studying but they aren’t good for you, Brennan says. “Not only may there be serious health risks with consuming energy drinks on a regular basis, but there are so many better options if you need a boost,” she says. Don’t trust energy drinks that make health claims or tout vitamins on the label. “Vitamins are not something that gives us energy. Only macronutrients—carbs, protein, and fat—can do that,” Brennan says. What can you reach for instead? Plain old coffee. “Drinking a cup of coffee or nibbling on some dark chocolate will give you a caffeine boost, and they are a safer alternative to any energy drink.” Learn the “healthy” food rules nutritionists ignore all the time.

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Salad dressings

“You’ll find no reason, besides marketing gimmicks, to buy a salad dressing,” Moreno says. Instead, Moreno says the healthier—and more budget-friendly alternative—is to make your own. “Use olive oil, vinegar, any herbs, any mustard without added sugar, and any non-syrupy vinegar,” she says. “Voila! Real food dressing.” If you want a creamier finish—think ranch dressing—Moreno says you can blend in peas, plain yogurt, or avocado to get that luscious richness.

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Low-fat or reduced-fat foods

In the 1980s, food manufacturers produced a multitude of low-fat and reduced-fat foods, such as half-and-half, peanut butter, and cookies, to appease fat-phobic customers. Today, however, we know these fat fears were unfounded. “While past dietary guidelines recommended a low-fat diet, the current guidelines recommend only limiting intake of saturated fats,” Brennan says. “But even though the days of the low-fat craze are over for the most part—fat is a very essential nutrient—many people fall prey to these low-fat foods as they believe them to be a ‘healthier’ alternative to the real stuff.” Brennan says corn syrup, stabilizers, and other unhealthy additives often replace the fat in these products. “The resulting foods are often lower in calories, but their lack of fat may not satiate you in quite the same way,” she adds. You won’t feel full, and you’ll end up eating more later.

Penne rigate background top view a lot of dry raw pasta piecesKateryna Bibro/Shutterstock

Regular pasta

Carb fears haven’t eliminated the much-loved boxes of dry pasta from your grocery store. However, demands from consumers for better alternatives have driven food manufacturers to make basic white pasta work harder and be healthier. “I prefer whole-wheat or pasta enriched with protein,” says Natalie Allen, RD, an instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University. Find out the things nutritionists always do at the grocery store that you might not. 

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Cereal

“Cereal is a processed food,” Moreno says. “It is often laden with sugar and easy to over-portion.” Instead of pouring technicolor cereal puffs into your bowl, Moreno suggests making your own granola. You can control the fat, sugar, and ingredients when you DIY this breakfast basic. “I’ll make my own with no sweeteners, using oats, goji, avocado oil, and at least eight different nuts or seeds and three different spices if I want some ‘cereal.'”

Beef dripping or Tallow a rendered form of beef or mutton fat used in cooking or as a shorteningD. Pimborough/Shutterstock

Shortening

Some home cooks swear by this fat. It’s notorious for making crusts flaky and biscuits tender. “But I just find it unnecessary and would rather use something closer to nature that has flavor,” says Michelle Dudash, RDN, a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and chef. She prefers butter or virgin coconut oil for that reason. “Shortening is made of soybean oil and fully hydrogenated palm oil,” she adds. In other words, it delivers little in the way of flavor—and sometimes contains trans fats. Next, find out the 50 things nutritionists never eat—so you shouldn’t either.