There is a lot of confusion out there about which foods are healthy, and which are not. Here is a list of 20 foods that are generally very unhealthy.
If you want to lose weight and avoid chronic disease, then you shouldn’t eat much of these foods. In many cases, the best choice is to avoid them completely.
In this article, healthy alternatives are mentioned whenever possible.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
1. Sugary Drinks
When people drink sugar calories, the brain doesn’t “register” them as food.
Sugar, when consumed in large amounts, can drive insulin resistance in the body and is strongly linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It is also associated with various serious diseases, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease (4, 5, 6).
2. Most Pizzas
Pizza is one of the world’s most popular junk foods.
This is not surprising, given that it tastes awesome and is incredibly convenient to eat.
The problem is that most commercially prepared pizzas are made with seriously unhealthy ingredients.
The dough is made from highly refined wheat flour, and the meats on them are usually processed. Pizza is also extremely high in calories.
Alternatives: Some pizza places use healthier ingredients. Homemade pizzas can also be very healthy, as long as you choose wholesome ingredients.
3. White Bread
Bread is generally made from wheat, which contains the protein gluten.
For this reason, all wheat-based breads are a bad idea for people who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
However, most commercial breads are unhealthy, even for people who do tolerate gluten.
This is because the great majority of them are made from refined wheat, which is low in essential nutrients (empty calories) and leads to rapid spikes in blood sugar (10).
If you have problems with gluten or carbs, then here are 15 recipes for breads that are both gluten-free and low in carbs.
4. Most Fruit Juices
Fruit juice is often assumed to be healthy, but this is a mistake.
Many fruit juices are actually little more than fruit-flavored sugar water.
It is true that the juice contains some antioxidants and vitamin C, but this must be weighed against the large amount of liquid sugar.
In fact, fruit juice contains just as much sugar as a sugary drink like Coke or Pepsi, and sometimes even more (11).
Alternatives: There are some fruit juices that have been shown to have health benefits despite the sugar content, such as pomegranate juice and blueberry juice.
However, these should be considered as supplements, not something you drink every day to quench thirst. Drink water instead.
5. Industrial Vegetable Oils
In the last 100 years or so, people have increased their consumption of added fats.
These oils are very high in omega-6 fatty acids, which humans never consumed in such large amounts before.
There are many serious concerns with these oils. They are highly sensitive to oxidation and cause increased oxidative stress in the body. They have also been linked to increased risk of cancer (12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19).
Margarine used to be considered a healthy alternative to butter.
Fortunately, most people have now realized that this is far from being true.
Margarine is a highly processed pseudo-food that has been engineered to look and taste like butter.
It is loaded with artificial ingredients, and is usually made with industrial vegetable oils that have been hydrogenated to make them more solid. This increases their trans fat content significantly.
Keep in mind that manufacturers are allowed to label their products with “no trans fat” as long as it contains less than 0.5 grams per serving, which is still a significant amount.
7. Pastries, Cookies and Cakes
Most pastries, cookies and cakes are extremely unhealthy.
They are generally made with refined sugar, refined wheat flour and added fats, which are often disturbingly unhealthy fats like shortening (high in trans fats).
These tasty treats are literally some of the worst things that you can put into your body. Almost no essential nutrients, but tons of calories and unhealthy ingredients.
8. French Fries and Potato Chips
Whole, white potatoes are very healthy.
However, the same can not be said of the products that are made from them, such as french fries and potato chips.
Alternatives: Potatoes are best consumed boiled, not fried. If you need something crunchy to replace potato chips, try baby carrots or nuts.
9. Gluten-Free Junk Foods
Gluten-free is all the rage these days.
About a third of people in the U.S. are actively trying to avoid gluten, according to a 2013 survey (24).
The problem with many gluten-free diets, is that people replace the gluten-containing foods with processed junk foods that happen to be gluten-free.
These gluten-free replacement products are often high in sugar, unhealthy oils and refined grains like corn starch or tapioca starch. These refined starches lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and are extremely low in essential nutrients.
Alternatives: Choose foods that are naturally gluten-free, like unprocessed plants and animal foods. Gluten-free junk food is still junk food.
10. Agave Nectar
Agave nectar is a sweetener that is often marketed as healthy.
However, agave nectar is not as healthy as some people think. It is a highly refined sweetener that is extremely high in fructose.
The truth is, agave is even higher in fructose than other sugars.
Whereas table sugar contains 50 percent fructose, and high fructose corn syrup around 55 percent, agave nectar is 85 percent fructose (26).
11. Low-Fat Yogurt
Yogurt can be incredibly healthy.
Unfortunately, most yogurts found in the grocery store are extremely bad for you.
They are frequently low in fat, but loaded with sugar to make up for the lack of taste that the fats provided.
Put simply, the yogurt has had the healthy, natural dairy fats removed, only to be replaced with something much, much worse.
Additionally, many yogurts don’t actually contain probiotic bacteria, as generally believed. They have often been pasteurized after fermentation, which kills all the bacteria.
Alternatives: Choose regular, full-fat yogurt that contains live or active cultures (probiotics). If you can get your hands on it, choose yogurt from grass-fed cows.
12. Low-Carb Junk Foods
Low-carb diets are very popular these days and have been for several decades.
There are plenty of real foods that you can eat on a low-carb diet, most of which are very healthy.
However, this is not true of processed low-carb replacement products, such as low-carb candy bars and meal replacements.
These are generally highly processed foods that contain very little actual nutrition, just a bunch of artificial ingredients mixed together and then sold as food.
Alternatives: If you’re on a low-carb diet, eat foods that are naturally low in carbs. Low-carb junk food is still junk food.
13. Ice Cream
Ice cream is one of the most delicious foods on the planet.
Unfortunately, it is also one of the unhealthiest. Most commercial ice cream is loaded with sugar.
Ice cream is also high in calories, and it is very easy to eat excessive amounts. Eating it for dessert is even worse, because then you’re adding it all on top of your total calorie intake.
Alternatives: It is possible to make your own ice cream using healthier ingredients and significantly less (or no) sugar.
14. Candy Bars
Candy bars are incredibly unhealthy.
They are high in sugar, refined wheat flour and processed fats. They are also very low in essential nutrients.
Processed foods like candy bars are generally engineered to be super tasty (so you eat more), and have been designed so that it’s very easy to eat them quickly.
A candy bar may taste good and cause some short-term satiety, but you’ll be hungry again very quickly because of the way these high-sugar treats are metabolized.
15. Processed Meat
Even though unprocessed meat can be healthy and nutritious, the same is not true for processed meats.
Most of these studies are observational in nature, so they can not prove that the processed meat caused the diseases.
However, the statistical link is strong and consistent among studies, so I do believe there is something to it.
Alternatives: If you want to eat bacon, sausages, pepperoni and other “processed” meats, then choose wisely and try to buy them locally from sellers who don’t add a lot of unhealthy ingredients. Quality counts.
16. Processed Cheese
Regular cheese is healthy.
It is loaded with nutrients, and a single slice of cheese contains all the same nutrients as an entire glass of milk.
However, processed cheese products are nothing like regular cheese. They are mostly made with filler ingredients that are combined and engineered to have a similar look and texture as cheese.
Cheese is healthy, but processed cheese is not. Read labels, and make sure that the cheese you’re eating is actually cheese.
Alternatives: Eat real cheese instead.
17. Most Fast Food Meals
Generally speaking, “fast food” chains serve only junk foods.
The majority of the food they offer is mass-produced, highly engineered junk food with very little nutritional value.
These places are often very cheap, but keep in mind that junk food costs you twice.
For every penny you save there, chances are that it’s going to cost you many times more in the future. Poor health is expensive.
Alternatives: Fortunately, all sorts of healthy fast food places have started to appear. Chipotle is one great example.
18. High-Calorie “Coffee” Drinks
Coffee has been unfairly demonized.
It is actually very healthy and loaded with antioxidants.
Unfortunately, stuff is sometimes added to coffee that turns this wonderful beverage into harmful sludge.
If your “coffee” has a ton of artificial creamer and sugar, then it is not good for you.
It is loaded with empty calories and will be just as unhealthy as any other sugar-sweetened beverage.
Alternatives: Drink plain coffee instead. Black is best, but small amounts of heavy cream or full-fat milk are fine as well.
19. Anything That is High in Sugar, Refined Grains and Vegetable Oils
One of the most important things you can do to eat healthier, is to read labels.
It is important to avoid (or at least minimize) foods that contain:
- Added sugar (and high fructose corn syrup)
- Refined grains like white flour
- Industrial vegetable oils
- Artificial trans fats
These are some of the unhealthiest (and most common) ingredients in the modern diet.
The importance of reading labels can not be overstated, and this applies to all foods, even so-called health foods.
20. Most Highly Processed Foods
Put simply, if it looks like it was made in a factory, then it’s probably bad for you.
A good rule to remember is that real food doesn’t need an ingredients list because real food is the ingredient.
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Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
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