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15 Food Ingredients Nutritionists Try to Avoid

Registered dietitians and nutritionists share the food ingredients they try to avoid when they are cooking, from low-fat products to refined pasta.

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These are the food ingredients nutritionists avoid

You may find yourself cooking at home more often either because restaurants are closed due to coronavirus or you’re avoiding takeout for the same reason. In theory, a homecooked meal can be a healthier alternative because you have more control over the ingredients. However, selecting the right food ingredients is key for optimal health.

Curious about which food ingredients might be best to try to limit or avoid? We spoke with several registered dietitians and nutritionists in the country who share what foods they try to avoid when cooking meals.

SugarMax Lashcheuski/Shutterstock

Artificial sugar

If you’re trying to limit sugar, does that mean artificial sweeteners are better? Not so much, says Ashley Reaver, RD, in Oakland, California.

“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.)

Man putting margarine on toastSyda Productions/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. Then margarine had a bit of a shadow cast on it because some brands used to contain a lot of trans fats, artificial fats created when liquid fats are turned into solids.

Now that trans fat has been phased out of most products, that’s no longer the case. Check the nutrition label because you want to limit saturated fat and completely avoid trans fat—while also keeping an eye on calories, which can be high in both margarine and butter.

Reaver recommends just using real butter. “There is no need to continue using this artificial butter,” Reaver says. If you don’t want to use regular butter, try plant-based spread alternatives—coconut or avocado, for example, Reaver says. (Find out the 9 cooking mistakes that make your food more toxic.)

flourkomkrit Preechachanwate/Shutterstock

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, RDN, in Miami. 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.)

spoon sugarOleg Golovnev/Shutterstock

White sugar

Not all sweeteners get a bad rap with nutritionists. However, there are some they avoid. “You will never find refined white sugar in my pantry,” says Erin Assenza, an integrative nutrition health coach and health educator in New York City. “I use coconut sugar, maple syrup, or honey as a sweetener.”

Coconut sugar, says Chicago-based Laurel Jakubowski, RD, LDN, is darker in color that also has fiber and added nutrients that refined sugar does not. “It still has the same amount of calories and carbohydrates as regular sugar, but with a slight nutritional advantage,” she says.

cans expiration date aluminumSuthiporn/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 your vitamins, too.)

CansNiloo/Shutterstock

Certain canned beans or vegetables

Canned beans and vegetables are a fast option for a speedy meal, 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.”

frozen mealAndrew Purcell for Reader's Digest

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.” (Here are 10 meal prep hacks for more nutritious food.)

Glass jar with condensed milk or evaporated milk on blue rustic table.Julia Sudnitskaya/Shutterstock

Sweetened condensed milk

Bakers may keep petite cans of this thick, syrupy milk on hand, but Staci Gulbin, 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.)

Plastic cup with tasty yogurt on wooden background, top viewNew Africa/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. “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. (Here are 10 healthier toppings for Greek yogurt for breakfast.)

energy drinks from overheadHandmadePictures/Getty Images

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.)

bad foods salad dressingiStock/jeffbergen

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. (Check out the salad mistakes that make you gain weight.)

overhead view of knife inside peanut butter jarvvmich/Getty Images

Low-fat or reduced-fat foods

In the 1980s, food manufacturers produced a multitude of low-fat and reduced-fat foods, such as yogurt, peanut butter, and cookies, to appease certain customers. “While past dietary guidelines recommended a low-fat diet, the current guidelines recommend only limiting the 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. (These are the signs you need more good fats in your diet.)

SpaghettiPetrut Romeo Paul/Shutterstock

Refined 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.)

CerealMoving Moment/Shutterstock

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.'” (Here are tricks to make your cereal bowl healthier.)

home remedies eczema psoriasis shorteningiStock/YelenaYemchuk

Shortening

Some home cooks swear by this fat. It can make 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.)

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Kimberly Holland
Kimberly Holland is a lifestyle writer and editor based in Birmingham, Alabama. When not organizing her books by color, Holland enjoys toying with new kitchen gadgets and feeding her friends all her cooking experiments.