It may be prime time for a pantry cleanout.

By Betty Gold
Updated September 11, 2019

There are some ingredients we know we should be eating as often as possible: fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and plenty of other nutritious plant-based foods we’re included in this roundup. Indeed, at Real Simple, we’re all about the positive when it comes to wellness: we’d much rather hear about (and share!) all the delicious ways we can eat more for better health. We’ll forever be in the moderation-is-key camp.

That being said, are there foods we should avoid at all costs for health reasons? According to a roster of Registered Dietitians (RDs) we spoke with, yes there are. Here are the foods nutrition experts advise we avoid whenever possible. If some of these are in your fridge right now, don’t worry. Balance is everything—just try not to eat them every day.

The Impossible Burger—and any other highly processed meal replacer

"The food you should avoid is anything that you can’t imagine growing and that your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize,” says Natalie Forester, RDN from Miraval Austin. “If there’s a packaged product you want to consume, first check the ingredients and ask yourself, can I imagine this ingredient growing? Then ask your ever-so-wise great-great-grandmother’s spirit if she knows what each ingredient is—and move forward from there."

As an example, Forester highlights the Impossible Burger. “Would it pass the test? No, no it would not.” The Impossible Burger ingredients, along with other plant-based “burgers” like Beyond Meat, are highly processed and promote inflammation within cells and tissues of the human body that can lead to disease and dysfunction. “As a matter of fact, let’s go ahead and add the meal replacement, Soylent, to this list. We should be working with the body versus tricking the body, shall we?” Well-stated.

Packaged cookies, pies, pastries, and biscuits

They may be convenient and tasty, but stick to the homemade variety. Why? According to Mia Syn, MS, RDN, it’s likely that these grocery store delicacies contain trans fats. “They’re added to help prolong shelf life and enhance taste and texture of products in a cost-effective way by manufacturers,” she explains. “There is no safe level of trans fat consumption because it can increase your risk of many chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.”

Additionally, it is important to note that even if a package lists 0 grams of trans fat, it is not always the case. In the U.S., if a food has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat in a serving, the food label can read 0 grams trans fat. Therefore, it is important to recognize and avoid foods that may contain it.

White bread and other refined grains

Grain consists of three parts: the bran, germ, and endosperm. The bran is where the fiber is found. The germ is where the majority of the nutrients are found. The endosperm is the starchy part of the grain where you find most of the carbohydrates. When a grain is processed or refined, they remove both the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm. “That means you lost almost all of your fiber and nutrients, just keeping the carbs and calories. Therefore, refined starchy items such as white bread, white rice, crackers, and bagels have little nutritional value and no fiber to help with blood sugar control, explains Rebekah Blakely, RDN for The Vitamin Shoppe. As an alternative, Blakely recommends choosing whole grain or sprouted grain breads, bagels, crackers, brown rice, or quinoa instead.


These sweet drinks will add a lot of sugar and calories to your daily intake and they have no nutritional value. “It’s easy to add a few hundred calories from sugar by having one to two sodas per day,” says Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN.  Blakely agrees, citing a recent study by JAMA showing that consumption of both sugar-sweetened and artificially-sweetened soft drinks are associated with a higher risk of mortality. “Soda has many downfalls, and no redeeming qualities,” she says. Some of the harmful ingredients include caramel color (linked to cancer), phosphoric acid (regular exposure is bad for your teeth), and high fructose corn syrup (linked to obesity), among others. “Sugar-sweetened versions carry all the health risks of consuming excess sugar, while diet versions contain artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame) that are linked to numerous health issues,” Blakely adds.

Instead, both Davis and Blakely recommend opting for water whenever possible. If you are craving something more flavorful, try tea or a sparkling water flavored naturally with fruit, like La Croix.

Charred meats

When meats—including beef, pork, fish, and poultry—are cooked at high temperatures and/or exposed to smoke, you get an increase in the formation of carcinogenic chemicals. “These chemicals are called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). They have been linked to an increase cancer risk in both animal studies and human epidemiologic studies,” explains Blakely. When cooking at a higher temperatures, avoid prolonged cooking times (avoid “well-done” meats) and exposure to open flames, and remove charred portions before eating.

Flavored instant oatmeal packs

Ever compared the sugar content of a flavored oatmeal pack to plain oats? “Plain oats will have 0 to 1 grams of sugar, while a flavored pack will often have 11 to 14grams of sugar,” points out Blakely. Since most of these contain very little, if any, real fruit, the majority of that sugar is added sugar. “It’s recommended we stay under 25 grams per day of added sugars. That means you’ve already had half your sugar for the day with one 150 calorie oatmeal pack!” In addition, instant oats have a higher glycemic index than regular oats (66 vs. 55), which means your body will break them down faster and your blood sugar will rise more and quicker.

Always choose plain oats. For extra flavor, top them with fresh fruit, nuts, seeds, and spices (like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla extract). “You can still cook regular oats in the microwave in one to two minutes if needed—and if you really want to stick with the instant oatmeal packs, choose the original unflavored version,” she says.

Fat-free ice cream

"I know people love eating a pint of 'ice cream' that only has 280 calories in it, but it’s not for me," says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN and author of Eating in Color. "These diet ice creams do contain some of the ingredients that real ice cream does (milk, cream, and sugar), but then they add a scary amount of calorie-free sweeteners and gums." Instead, Largeman-Roth recommends going for real, full-fat ice cream. "Yes, I said that. Here’s the thing—you do want to stick to the serving size of half a cup, but when it’s the real deal, that’s super satisfying. I serve mine in a small vintage glass, which looks really full with that half cup serving. And I eat it slowly and enjoy every rich spoonful."

Reduced fat peanut butter

Many people think they’re making a healthier choice by eating reduce fat peanut butter, but according to Blakely, the full-fat version is actually healthier. “Yes, peanut butter is about 70 percent fat, but it’s primarily monounsaturated fat which is heart healthy and you get a good source of fat-soluble vitamin E, an antioxidant important for eye, heart, and immune health,” she says.  Additionally, when manufacturers remove the fat from peanut butter, they usually add more salt and/or sugar to make it taste better. These are additions that have no nutritional value.

Gummy candy

“Trust me, gummies used to be my go-to treat when I was a stressed-out magazine editor,” says Largeman-Roth. “I also craved them during my first two pregnancies. But I realized that I was just getting a whole lot of sugar, plus in most cases, artificial colors and flavors, so I quit them.” Give frozen grapes a try instead. “If you need something sweet to munch on during that Netflix binge, a bunch of frosty grapes is just what the nutritionist ordered.” They’re satisfying, delicious, and provide natural sweetness without any added sugars. Frozen grapes are super easy to make, too: rinse and drain them and place on a cookie sheet. Freeze for two hours and enjoy (they’re also fantastic as ice cubes).

Ranch dressing

“Avoid creamy sauces, like ranch dressing or mayonnaise-based dips,” Davis recommends. They’re high in fat and can add a lot of calories to an otherwise healthy meal. Choose olive oil with some vinegar for a lighter, healthier option.

Fruit danish

Flaky pastry and a sweet fruity center make this a super sweet and delicious morning treat. "I get it—but with about 300 calories and 7 grams of saturated fat, plus 19 grams of sugar, it’s definitely not a daily indulgence," says Largeman-Roth. She suggests swapping in a Health Warrior Strawberry Shortcake Chia Bar for a grab-and-go breakfast. "When you’re craving something fruity and want something that feels like a treat, this bar checks all the boxes. The fresh strawberry flavor tastes sweet, but the chewy bar only has 3 grams of sugar and just 100 calories. The number one ingredient is chia seeds, which provides healthy fats and fiber."

Deep fried foods

According to Davis, “deep fried foods—such as fries, corn dogs or falafel—are some of the worst things you can order when eating out at restaurants.” Deep frying adds calories and saturated fats to many foods that would otherwise be healthy. Instead, Davis recommends going for dishes that are sautéed, wok-tossed, or steamed and contain veggies and protein. Panda Express, for instance, offers some great options on its Wok Smart menu such as String Bean Chicken Breast, Mushroom Chicken, or Broccoli Beef.