25 Seemingly Healthy Foods that are Actually Unhealthy

If some company is telling me their product is healthy, I know it probably isn't.

We all know intuitively what a healthy food is. For example, no one has to take out an advertisement in a magazine to convince us to eat apples and that they are a healthy choice -- we already know that in our hearts. Similarly, we're not seeing commercials for cantaloupe or eggplant or bell peppers on primetime TV. No one is trying to convince us an eggplant is healthy and we should eat it...

Don't be fooled by clever marketing. So many foods touted as "healthy" aren't. Packaging, magazines, commercials -- they're all deceptive. It's an ADVERTISEMENT after all.

Snack foods seem to be the worst offenders -- so many snack foods get a gold star when they shouldn't. We offer a comprehensive list of 50-calorie and 100-calorie snacks on the meal plans, but you won't find brand names and packaged foods in a box. Rather you'll get simple, whole food suggestions like celery and hummus, apple slices and peanut butter, roasted chickpeas with spices, baby carrots and dip, sweet potatoes baked with cinnamon, whole-wheat bread with applesauce, and so on.

Do your snacks deserve a gold star? Find out! Shape magazine recently compiled a list of 50 Seemingly Healthy Foods that are Bad for You and here are the highlights (you might be surprised!):

25 Not-so-Healthy "health" foods:

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1. Microwave Popcorn - high levels of sodium and the chemical diacetyl. Use our oil-free popcorn brown bag method instead.

2. Yogurt - we already know dairy is bad for the bod, but even non-dairy yogurts can be loaded with sugar. Buy plain, unsweetened varities whenever you can and add your own fresh fruit (i.e. blueberries) with a drizzle of maple, agave, or honey if desired.

3. Flavored Milks - soy milk, almond milk, etc. are so much better for us than dairy milk but some of the flavored varities (like the dark chocolate almond milk that's been all the rave lately) are like a candy bar in a glass. They're tasty, but they're also full of sugar, fat and calories and you can drink them down faster than you can eat a candy bar. These are fine for an occassional treat (think of it as a dessert), but when purchasing your non-dairy milk, opt for unsweetened and plain or vanilla if you can.

4. Dried Fruit - Dried fruits can be sneaky calorie bombs (you can eat 200 calories of raisins easily, but it's hard to swallow 200 calories worth of grapes that fast!) but they're also typically loaded with added sugar, oil and sulfur. If you must eat dried fruit, look for unsweetened and unsulfured varieties -- choosing fresh fruit instead whenever possible.

5. Trail Mix - nuts and dried fruit can be sneaky calorie bombs. You can easily gobble up a few hundred calories in the blink of an eye. Worse still, most trail mixes use nuts that have been salted and roasted and dried fruits that have added sugar and oil. All of that is unnecessary junk. If you must eat trail mix, elect for mixes using raw nuts and dried fruits with no additives and measure out a serving size.

6. Granola - Most granolas, even "low fat" granolas are loaded with fat (oil), sugar and calories. Toast oats and make your own granola.

7. Corn Chips - even "baked" corn chips are still high in fat and salt. Cut a corn tortilla into triangles using a pizza cutter or knife and bake your triangles for a few minutes at 350F until they're crispy. It's so easy!

8. "Gluten-Free" - "Gluten-free" is all the rage right now, but this term doesn't mean it's automatically healthy. After all, there are "gluten-free" potato chips, cookies, and candies. If it's packaged or processed -- gluten or no gluten -- it's not as healthy as a whole food like fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes or whole (naturally gluten-free) grains. If you need to follow a gluten-free diet due to allergies or sensitivities, by all means do it, but make sure you're gluten-free convenience foods are still healthy choices. A gluten-free cookie is still a cookie!

9. Frozen Dinners - even vegan/vegetarian frozen dinners leave much to be desired in the nutrition department. They're easy, but so is a bean burrito. Avoid preservatives and truckloads of sodium and try our meal plans. You can prepare all 3 meals for the day in as little as 15-20 minutes, or you cook all your meals once for the whole week in 2-3 hours and reheat all week long.

10. Vegetable Pizza - Going cheeseless is awesome, but make sure the vegetables haven't been soaked or sauteed in oil before they're loaded onto the crust. Keep an eye on vegan cheeses too. They're often loaded with fat (oil) and calories. If you must use faux cheese, try to stick to a bare sprinkling or use Happy Herbivore's Tofu Ricotta.

12. Canned Soups - even organic, vegan, "low sodium" canned soups can have upwards of 400mg of sodium per cup. Throw some vegetables in a pot with broth and let it simmer while you watch TV or fold laundry if you can. Then you have enough soup for several meals and without the sodium. Or try our 3-ingredient vegetable soup. It takes seconds!

13. Vegetable Pastas - vegetable-based pastas, like spinach pasta (which is green), look lovely but aren't much healthier than white pasta. The amount of spinach included in the pasta is so small it doesn't add up to much benefit. Stick to whole grain pastas (like 100% whole-wheat or brown rice pasta) and add some spinach to your dish instead.

14. Wheat Bread - make sure your "wheat" bread is 100% whole-wheat and not white bread with a tan. If it doesn't specifically say "100% whole-wheat" it's not whole wheat. Also check the ingredients and nutritional information. There should be at least 2g of fiber if it's whole wheat.

15. Reduced Fat Peanut Butter - Low fat peanut butters are rarely a nutritional bargain. The fat is processed out, but the calories remain the same because sugar and other fillers are added. Ick! Buy a natural peanut butter that is just peanuts (no oil and preferably no salt or sweetener added) and use it sparingly.

16. Fruit Cocktail - loaded with sugar and syrups -- eat fresh fruit instead.

17. Fruit Juice - Quoting Dr. Essy "It's like dumping the sugar bowl down your throat." Some juices are higher in calories than soda!

18. Pretzels - pretzels might be lower in fat than potato chips but they're nothing but white flour and salt - empty calories. Use crunchy vegetables like celery and carrots as a dipper or snack instead.

19. Kale Chips - most commercial kale chips are coated in nuts or seeds so it's like eating a little bit of kale with a big helping of nut butter. Kale is healthy, true, but don't drench it in fat with extra calories. Try Happy Herbivore's oil-free kale chips instead -- tasty, healthy, low cal and low fat!

20. "Raw" Foods - At the core raw foods are great -- whole fruits, whole vegetables, greens, but packaged "raw" products are often sneaky calorie bombs high in fat and calories. I recently picked up a "raw" cheesecake and it had over 1,000 calories - in a single slice! It may be raw, but I shouldn't eat a dessert that high in calories, period. Have raw banana ice cream instead.

21. Protein & Meal Bars - even vegan brands like Luna and Cliff have alarming lists of ingredients. They're easy, but so is a bean burrito, yet it's much healthier and satisfying. If you're super busy and pressed for time, consider using our meal plans. You can prepare a days worth of meals in 15-20 minutes, or do all your cooking for the entire week in 2-3 hours. If you must buy protein and meal replacement bars, make sure they're less than 200 calories and have no more than 8g of sugar.

22. Sushi - Have you ever eaten 3 rolls of sushi than wondered why you're starving an hour later? That's because sushi is typically made with white rice which is full of calories but provides little long-term satiety. Opt for brown rice sushi (filled with vegetables, not fish or avocado) for the healthiest option. Also be wary if some of the sauces (they contain mayo) and tempura - it's fried.

23. Veggie Burgers - Although a veggie burger is healthier than a meat patty, nothing beats homemade in terms of taste or nutrition. Try Happy Herbivore's 6-ingredient bean burgers. They only take 15 minutes!

24. Multi-Grain Chips - a step up from potato chips, but these snacks are still processed, not 100% whole-grain (meaning they contain processed white flours) and they're often high in salt and fat (oil). Try baking a whole-wheat pita or tortilla into chips (see #7 for directions) or choose cooked whole grains instead.

25. "Organic" - Just because it's "organic" doesn't mean it's automatically healthy. One trip to the health food store and you'll find "organic" chips, cookies, candies and other junk foods. Don't let buzz words fool you! A conventional apple is still a better choice than "organic" potato chips.

Need healthy snack and meal ideas? Try our meal plans. We include healthy snacks into the plan each day plus provide additional healthy snack ideas.

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Does Calorie Restriction Really Work for Weight-Loss?

A few times a week I'll get a question about weight-loss and calorie restriction similar to this one:

Question: In the past I've had no success restricting my calories. I noticed your meal plans are calorie-based, how will I know they will work for me?

In my personal experience, that simple math formula, "calories in calories out," never worked in absolutes with my weight-loss. For example, when I was exercising vigorously, while also not going over my "calorie allowance" I couldn't seem to lose weight, or I lost very little, which as I later realized, was because my diet was crappy. Pizza, cupcakes, french fries, oil, coca cola, chips a hoy. It didn't matter that I limited myself calorie-wise, I didn't experience real results or the weight-loss I wanted (or the flat belly!) until I cleaned up my diet.

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Once I cleaned up my diet, the weight finally started to melt away and rather easily. After a while I stopped having a calorie allowance and just let myself eat, as long as it was healthy, and whole foods (and plant-based/low fat). It seemed that as long as I ate right and I was good about exercising regularly, the weight kept coming off. Eventually I hit my weight-goal, and I recently blogged about how I maintained weight without exercising for two years.

While I think exercise is important for overall health and it makes weight-loss easier, I have found that diet was far more important for both health and my weight-loss (and later, weight maintenance).

Moral of the story: It's true you should be mindful of calories when you're trying to lose weight, but it also matters where those calories come from -- what are you eating? In my personal experience, you just can't compare a 1,600 calorie diet made from whole plant-foods, to a 1,600 calorie diet filled with junk food.

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How to Shop for Clothes During Weight-Loss

Recently Carolyn posted the following question on Facebook: "For those of you who have lost a lot of weight...what are you doing about your wardrobe that will not break the bank? I know this is a terrible problem to have :)"

Indeed it is a good problem to have! WTG Carolyn!

When I was losing weight, I was still in school so money was impossibly tight. I tried not to buy new clothes until I reached my goal weight but I eventually got to a point where I had to buy some in-between sizes. Most of my old clothes were just too big and wearing them looked sloppy (not an impression I wanted to give to potential employers!) or they fell off.

My advice: While working towards your goal weight, try buying items that are very cheap or on sale (i.e. hit up stores like TJ Maxx, Target or Kohls, esp. if they are having a big holiday sale) and get acquainted with your local thrift store. (Some towns also have clothing swaps!). If possible, look for items that will work for your changing body, too. For example, when I was still losing I found a black skirt that was pretty stretchy, and it gave quite a bit, so I was able to wear it as my body went down 6 sizes. It wasn't until I was at my goal weight that it was too big to wear and by then I'd worn it to shreds. I also found a few dresses that were a little tight, but wearing them was still flattering, and they only looked better as I lost so I got great use out of them. Also, stick to basics -- black skirt, black pants, brown capris, a few basic tops that you can dress up with items you own (i.e. necklaces and scarves, or ties for men) so it looks like a new outfit.

I also recommend sticking to a color palate so you have many combinations and options. That "minimalist" approach to clothing is great when you're losing and even better for saving money on your wardrobe in general.

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Dozens of comments from others also poured in-- here are some of the highlights:

"I like repurposing clothes. I made the cutest skirts out of old Tshirts. So comfy and forgiving with sizes since they are soft and stretchy."

"I'm relying on dresses and leggings. They're pretty forgiving and can usually fit one or two sizes either way."

"A friend lost a lot of weight in the last year so I asked if she had any old sizes lying around. She gifted me two garbage bags filled with her old clothes in my new size, and some smaller sizes. It never hurts to ask for what you want or need!"

"Host clothing swaps. I get a bunch of friends together for the evening, and everyone brings clothes they're done with, and leaves with new-to-them things. Anything left over gets donated."

"I find great bargains at "Ross, Dress for Less." They seem to be in most parts of the country now. And Tuesdays is "Senior Discount Day," 10% off for anyone 55+"

"Check out free cycle - look for a group in your area. You can post items you have to give away and post requesting items you are looking for. I've given and received so much through this site."

"I've lost 20lbs and I still have a LOT of pants that are pretty loose but I wear a belt!! Unless they look reaaaalllly bad or won't stay up at all..."

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3-Ingredient Vegetable Soup (Soy-Free) (Gluten-Free)

This soup is faster than any fast food and as quick and easy as canned soup -- but so much healthier! It's a warm and comforting snack and a great start to any meal. Add a salad and some crackers and voila!

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Vegetable Soup (serves 1) 1 cup low sodium vegetable broth, 1-2 tbsp tomato paste, 1 cup frozen mixed vegetables, hot sauce - optional

Whisk all ingredients together and heat until warm-- in microwave or on stove top (stove top works best). Season with salt and pepper if desired. For heat lovers, add hot sauce to taste or drizzle on top.

Per serving: 160 calories, 0.4g fat, 33.9g carbohydrates, 9.3g fiber, 10.6g sugars, 6.6g protein

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How To Jazz Up Simple Meals

Recently a client wrote in saying while she loves simple foods, they get boring after a while. Eventually she starts losing her desire and resolve to eat clean and returns to junk foods.

My advice? Fall in love with condiments.

Happy Herbivore's 6-ingredient bean burger on a whole wheat bun is a healthy choice, but I admit a little boring on it's own.

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Add a lettuce leaf or some baby spinach, a slice of tomato, Dijon mustard and voila! That plain ol' burger becomes magical and even more healthy. Or serve it burger-style with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickles and condiments. These additions require very little extra effort but make such a difference in your eating experience!

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One of my favorite snacks is a slice of whole wheat bread, toasted, slathered with a little bit of hummus, topped with a slice of tomato and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. It's so easy to make but tastes so good and feels so much fancier than just a tomato, or just a piece of toast or even a tomato sandwich. Sometimes I put the hummus and tomato on top of cucumber slices or I skip the tomato and add chopped green onion instead.

Maybe I'm a bit of a diva but I swear a plate of cucumber slices topped with hummus and onion is way more enjoyable (a more foodie-like experience) than dipping cucumber slices into a tub of hummus -- and I like that pre-spreading also forces good portion control too!

Next hummus, fat-free vegan mayo (or unsweetened vegan yogurt), Dijon mustard, hot sauce, salsa, yellow mustard -- these condiments can really spruce up any dish that feels a little too simple or a little too boring. Ketchup and BBQ sauce work too, but can sometimes be high in sugar or calories, so keep an eye out with those.

You can also add flavorful fruits like pineapple or mango (keep frozen chunks in your freezer for easy grabbing) to any dish for more color and flavor. (Remember, you eat with your eyes too! That's one of the reasons simple meals feel so boring!)

Finally, spices are a great way too. I was really into eating steamed sweet potatoes as a snack but as much as I love them, they started getting boring on me. That's when I started adding cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice to my sweet potatoes. I also like using garam masala.

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Same thing happened with white potatoes, by the way. My resolve? I started putting salsa on top, or Cajun seasoning or balsamic vinegar. All these additions have negligible additional calories (if any at all) but they made the experience new and exciting. Similarly, I like to jazz up leftover brown rice by drizzling a little hot sauce and soy sauce on the rice then adding chopped green onion on top. It's so fast, so easy and way better than boring plain rice in a bowl!

Do you have any tips for jazzing up a dull recipe?

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Does That Food Pass The 5-Finger Rule?

In a perfect world I would make everything from scratch -- my bread, my beans, my almond milk, etc. but I don't live in a perfect world. I'm not ashamed to admit I often rely on a few short-cuts like store-bought tortillas, wraps, breads, crackers and unsweetened almond milk to get by. I even buy canned beans from time to time and precooked grains (like brown rice) that takes a minute or two in the microwave.

I know it's not 'ideal,' but I'm all about progress, not perfection, and doing the best I can within my limits and circumstances.

Still, I want to make the best choice possible when it comes to purchasing these premade items which is where my finger rule comes from. If there's more ingredients than I have fingers, I probably shouldn't buy it.

Most of the items I buy that are commercially prepared (i.e. almond milk) easily meet this rule. If the item I'm considering has more than 5-ingredients, I ask myself how many ingredients I would need to make it from scratch at home. If the list on the store-bought product is substantially longer I look for another options.

For example, when I'm buying beans, the only ingredient should be beans (and water) because that's all I need to make beans at home. Similarly, when I'm buying bread, it should be flour, water, yeast, salt and perhaps a sweetener. If it has a list like this bread, something is very wrong!

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Less is definitely more when it comes to store-bought foods!

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