You know you’re courting nutritional disaster if you order the fettuccine Alfredo or double bacon cheeseburger when you’re eating out. But what about unhealthy foods right in your own refrigerator? If you’re like most of us, your fridge probably holds some basic food products that are adding extra calories, salt, fat, and sugar to your everyday diet — perhaps without you even realizing it.
To make my top 10 list of unhealthiest foods, the products had to be commonplace, and they had to be high in trans fats, saturated fat, sugar, or salt. Here’s my list:
It’s really easy for the calories and fat to add up when you’re slathering on the mayonnaise.
The truth is that regular mayo isn’t too bad if you’re talking about a teaspoon or two. But most mayo users spread it on thicker than that. And if you’re a true mayonnaise lover, you can rack up 360 calories and 40 grams of fat in a 1/4-cup serving.
Mayo maniacs have three better options. They can use a lower-calorie condiment instead of mayonnaise such as mustard, BBQ sauce, salsa, or taco sauce. They can switch to a light mayonnaise with 35 calories and 3.5 grams of fat per tablespoon. Or they can pare down their portion of real mayonnaise to a couple of teaspoons which has 60 calories and 6.7 grams of fat.
2. Soda and Other Sweet Drinks
Sugary drinks are everywhere. Not only are they standard fare in restaurants and vending machines, but the drinks sold in supermarkets — bottled teas, fruit drinks, sports and energy drinks — are usually sweetened as well.
Soda, sweet tea, and fruit drinks generally contribute no nutrients but add plenty of calories. And recent research shows that we don’t tend to compensate by eating less when we drink sweet drinks.
Plain water is best for hydrating the body and should make up most of what we drink each day. But there are several beverages without calories, like green and black teas, that not only hydrate but contribute healthy antioxidants. And although skim or 1% milk has some calories, milk also has key nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D, B-12, potassium, and magnesium.
4. Processed Lunch Meat
Lunch meats, including deli cold cuts, bologna, and ham, make the unhealthy list because they contain lots of sodium and sometimes fat as well as some preservatives like nitrites.
Processed meat — defined as any meat preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or adding chemical preservatives — is linked to an increased risk of colon cancer. Some experts suspect that certain substances used as preservatives in meats may change into cancer-causing compounds in the body.
The sodium in one small serving of lunch meat (one slice of bologna or five slices of salami) ranges from 310 to 480 milligrams. A diet high in sodium is thought to increase the risk of high blood pressure, a major cause of heart disease and stroke.
What should you eat instead? You eliminate the sodium and preservatives and get straight to the protein, vitamins, and minerals when you use freshly roasted and sliced turkey, chicken, or roast beef in your sandwiches. Roast your own, or look for deli brands low in nitrates and sodium.
5. Hot Dogs and Sausage
Also part of the processed meat category, hot dogs and sausage are a staple in many refrigerators. People turn to them for a quick dinner entree or, in the case of sausage, as a featured food at breakfast or brunch.
Hot dogs and sausage tend to contain lots of sodium (520-680 milligrams per 2-ounce serving) and fat (up to 23 grams of total fat and 7 grams of saturated fat per serving).
It’s a good idea to substitute leaner and lower-sodium meats — such as roasted skinless poultry, pork tenderloin, and roast beef — and fish and seafood for hot dogs and sausage in meals and recipes. Even grilled veggies such as portabella mushrooms, eggplant, or roasted red pepper are good alternatives.
But if it’s got to be a hot dog or sausage, consider the lower-fat and nitrate-free options available in most supermarkets, such as “light” franks, turkey kielbasa, or soy-based sausage substitutes. They may not be much lower in sodium, but the amounts of total and saturated fat are often cut in half.
6. Whole-Milk Products
Dairy products contain protein, calcium, B-12, and riboflavin. But whole-milk products also have an overabundance of fat and cholesterol. If you drink 16 ounces of whole milk a day, for example, it adds up to 1,904 calories, 105 grams of total fat, 59.5 grams of saturated fat, and 315 milligrams of cholesterol in a week’s time.
The good news is that lower-fat options are available for most dairy products, including milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, and cream cheese.
7. Gourmet Ice Cream
In many an American freezer, you’ll find a pint of gourmet ice cream or a box of decadent ice cream bars.
Even sticking to the modest 1/2-cup serving size suggested on the container can send your daily totals of saturated fat, total fat, and calories into overload.
A serving of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, for example, has 270 calories, 14 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat, 65 milligrams of cholesterol, and 25 grams of sugar. One-half cup of Haagen-Dazs White Chocolate Raspberry Truffle will give you 310 calories, 18 grams of fat, 10 grams of saturated fat, 105 milligrams of cholesterol, and 28 grams of sugar. And a more typical serving for most people is one cup, which doubles the totals for fat, calories, cholesterol, and sugar.
Instead, try some of the great-tasting lower-fat, lower-sugar, and lower-calorie ice cream options you can find in any supermarket. The light version of Safeway brand Mint Chocolate Chip, for example, has 120 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 3.5 grams of saturated fat, and 14 grams of sugar for a 1/2-cup serving. For an even healthier dessert, enjoy some fresh fruit with plain or nonfat Greek yogurt.
8. Creamy Salad Dressing
How many bottles of creamy salad dressing are sitting in your refrigerator? The standard refrigerator fare includes ranch, Thousand Island, and blue cheese.
Each two-tablespoon serving of these traditional creamy dressings adds about 120 calories, 12 grams of fat, 2.5 grams saturated fat, and 380 milligrams of sodium to your salad. Here’s the worst part though: most people drizzle on double this amount of dressing (1/4 cup).
So aim for downsizing to a two-tablespoon serving. You might also find some lighter dressings that you enjoy.
9. Stick Butter or Margarine
If it can hold its shape in stick form, your butter or margarine is probably high in saturated fat. It’s the saturated fat that makes fats more solid at room temperature. In years past, most margarine also contributed high amounts of unhealthy trans fat, though many have been reformulated.
It’s easier to use more stick margarine or butter than you think because its firm texture makes it difficult to spread lightly on food. And each tablespoon will give you 100 calories and 11 grams of fat. Butter has 7 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon; stick margarines have 2 grams saturated fat and 1.5 to 2.5 grams trans fats per tablespoon.
Switching to canola oil or olive oil in your cooking and baking when possible is the best option because these oils are rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fat. But if you need a spreadable fat on the table or in a recipe, try a reduced-fat margarine in a tub with no trans fat and low amounts of saturated fat. If only butter will do, use whipped butter instead. It’s easier to spread lightly and cuts the calories, fat, and saturated fat by a third.
10. Frozen French Fries
Potato side dishes such as hash browns, French fries, or tater tots are popular for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Many American freezers have a bag of frozen potato products ready to bake with a moment’s notice.
Just one small serving (3 ounces) of some popular potato products — such as criss-cut French fries, tater tots, or curly fries — contain 8 to11 grams of total fat, around 3 grams of saturated fat, 390 to 540 milligrams of sodium, and about 160 to 190 calories. And many potato lovers eat double this amount in one sitting.
Your best bet is to eat unprocessed potatoes, such as baked potatoes or roasted red potatoes, because they give you all the nutrients of potatoes without added fat, saturated fat, or sodium. Some frozen hash browns contain no added fat, so look for zero-fat grams on the label. If you need frozen French fries, the steak fries are often the lowest-fat option, but check the label to be sure.