By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
You likely know that junk foods like potato chips and cookies don’t make the cut on “Team: Healthy Diet.” However, there’s also some other, less obvious bad foods that you should have on your radar.
What are the Worst Foods to Eat?
Here are the 10 worst foods for you (in no particular order – they’re all bad)…
1. Microwave Popcorn
Quick, easy, and often very tasty, microwave popcorn’s one of the worst foods to eat for several reasons. First, the microwavable bag is lined with a substance that, when heated, releases perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and The American Cancer Society, PFOA stays in the environment and our bodies for a long time after exposure, and it has been shown to increase risk of certain cancers in lab animals as well as cause developmental irregularities. While the EPA has not officially classified PFOA as a carcinogen, it’s scientific advisory board suggested that PFOA is likely a human carcinogen after reviewing draft risk assessment data in 2005.
Second, the artificial butter flavoring in microwave popcorn may also contain 1 of 2 chemicals known to cause respiratory problems: diacetyl or 2,3-pentanedione (PD). While the biggest popcorn manufacturers have banned diacetyl from their products after it was shown to have caused lung diseases in those who regularly inhaled it (factory workers and even a consumer), many replaced the dangerous additive with 2,3-pentanedione, which recently has been shown to cause respiratory toxicity in rats.
Third, labels I have seen contain trans-fats – major contributors to arterial inflammation, the true root cause of heart disease (not cholesterol).
Lastly, keep in mind that approximately 85 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified (or “GMO”), which means it has likely been grown using extremely toxic pesticides. And, while GMOs have been shown to cause numerous adverse health effects in lab animals, they have not been tested for long-term safety in humans; read this handy fact sheet published by Alliance for Natural Health-USA for more information.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you abandon popcorn altogether, just the microwavable kind. In-and-of itself, popcorn can actually be a healthy snack: it contains lots of antioxidant polyphenols and is a good source of fiber. Just be sure to purchase organic or non-GMO corn to air pop and avoid any artificial flavorings. If you like a buttery flavor, be sure to use real melted (and preferably organic) butter rather than margarine (see #7 below). Better yet, drizzle your popcorn with heart healthy olive oil, or coconut oil. Add a few grinds of natural sea salt or sprinkle cayenne pepper on it for a spicy kick!
2. Fat-Free Ice Cream
Low-fat ice cream may sound like healthier fare, but it can cause just as many pounds gained, maybe even more! This is because sugar – another one of my heart-health villains – often replaces the missing fat in low- and non-fat varieties of ice cream. Fat helps your body feel satiated, and – like a speed bump – helps to slow any insulin surges needed to metabolize sugar in your bloodstream. Your body also needs fat to absorb and utilize fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. My advice – if you’ve got to have ice cream, keep the fat and limit portion size to 1/2 cup.
3. “Natural” Sugar Substitutes and Artificial Sweeteners
These days, many sweeteners are being touted as “healthier” options, or more “natural” sugars. Don’t buy into the hype. No matter what outfit it has on – raw sugar, agave, or molasses (and even maple syrup or honey, which offer some nutritional benefits) – if it’s sweet, comprised of sucrose, glucose, or fructose, and raises blood sugar – it needs to be used in strict moderation. Remember, sugar and its resulting insulin surge is the number one risk factor in heart disease, NOT cholesterol. Although I only touch on sugar as one of the worst foods to eat here, I’ve written about it’s damaging effects extensively in my books and on this site (this Can Too Much Sugar Kill You? article is a good place to start).
If you’re hoping artificial sweeteners are healthier options, you’ll be disappointed to learn that they’re among the worst foods for you. Chemical sugar substitutes like aspartame, sucralose, or saccharin have rap sheets riddled with controversy over their effects on the body, which include headaches, weight gain, and even the possible development of diabetes, heart disease or cancer. I recommend avoiding artificial sweeteners at all costs. If you’ve got to feed a sweet tooth, opt for very small amounts of honey, maple syrup, or the natural sweetener, Stevia.
4. Canned Soup
Although quick and convenient, canned soup can contain monosodium glutamate (commonly known as MSG), a “flavor enhancer” that is notorious for causing reactions such as headaches, nausea, heart palpitations, and more. MSG is an excitotoxin that can enter the brain and cause damage to neurons. Although it is widely associated with Chinese food, MSG is also frequently found in American fast and processed foods – be sure to carefully examine food labels for its elusive presence – MSG can go by many names; my colleague, Dr. Joe Mercola, provides great tips for keeping MSG out of your food in this Huffington Post article.
Unfortunately, MSG isn’t likely to be the only unwanted substance lurking in your soup. Canned soup is notorious for being extremely high in sodium content. And if MSG and sodium aren’t enough to send you running, most soup cans liners on the market also contain the chemical BPA which can leach into the soup. BPA has been identified as an estrogen-mimicking hormone disruptor and, although its full range of effects on the human body is unknown, I’ve seen research describing an association between higher levels of BPA and risk of high blood pressure and coronary artery disease (see #20 on my Top Toxins to Avoid list).
You can easily reduce your exposure to MSG, excess sodium, and BPA if you’re willing to spend a little extra time in your kitchen… Cook up a pot of nourishing, homemade soup with some of these healthy spices next time you want a warm and healthy meal, and freeze some to have handy next time you want a quick bowl. Here’s a recipe for my Spicy Chicken Soup.
5. Some Conventionally Grown Fruits: Apples, Strawberries, Grapes, Peaches & Nectarines
These days, it seems we are inundated with pesticide-loaded foods. Thankfully, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts out an annual Shopper’s Guide to help consumers reduce their exposure to pesticides. Strawberries topped EWG’s 2016 list as having the highest pesticide residue content, followed by apples, then nectarines. Peaches, celery and grapes ranked fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively (cherries, spinach, tomatoes, bell peppers and cherry tomatoes also made it into the top ten). EWG noted findings of 15 pesticides in a single grape, and 17 different pesticides within one strawberry sampling.
As pesticides are linked to neurological, reproductive, and hormone dysfunction, produce with significant residues are among the worst foods to eat. Infants and young children are particularly susceptible to the toxic effects of pesticides, as are fetuses. Avoiding this onslaught of chemicals is one of my top reasons to buy organic. Arm yourself with knowledge: familiarize yourself with EWG’s 2018 list enough to be able to identify which fruits and vegetables are organic “musts.”
6. Conventionally Grown Corn
As already mentioned, most conventional corn on the market today has been genetically modified or engineered (GMO). GMO crops have been controversial for numerous reasons, one of the main ones being that such crops are often engineered to withstand large doses of toxic herbicides (pesticides). Interestingly enough, sweet corn has, for the last few years, been at the low-end of EWG’s lists of fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide content, ranking in at #49. Doesn’t change my mind on eating it though, as when it comes to chemicals in or on food, my motto is “less is best.” I believe crops that have been created to take on more chemical additives have no place on your table. Buy organic corn whenever possible, and try to support your local farmers who don’t use chemicals (or use far less of them) in growing whenever possible.
On a related note, be sure to read ingredient labels, as corn ingredients like corn syrup and corn starch are found in numerous processed foods. Since corn accounts for 95 percent of total feed grain, most commercially produced beef, dairy products, poultry and eggs come from animals that were fed GMO corn; go organic whenever possible. Fast food is also notoriously high in corn content.
Once the health darling of the 1980s, margarine has become more commonly known as a source of hydrogenated oils (which can manifest as dangerous trans fats). As an imitation butter spread, margarine is generally made by hydrogenating (adding a hydrogen atom to) a liquid polyunsaturated oil, such as soybean, canola, or corn oil, so that it is solidified as if it were a saturated fat (as I wrote in my book The Great Cholesterol Myth, saturated fats have been vindicated in recent years and are no longer the poster children for heart disease). But what can pass as a saturated fat, does not affect the body like a saturated fat; hydrogenation that is partial or incomplete creates toxic trans fats, which induce free-radical stress in the body and increase Lp(a) – not a good combination. While fully hydrogenated varieties of margarine shouldn’t contain trans fats (unless the hydrogenation process was incomplete), they are still not great choices – the amount of polyunsaturated (omega-6) fats in margarine makes for an imbalanced ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fats in the body, which creates inflammation (again, the root cause of heart disease). My advice: ditch the margarine and opt grass-fed organic butter whenever possible, which will give you some heart healthy omega 3’s without all the artificial ingredients and excess omega-6 fats.
8. Hot Dogs (Bacon and Cold Cuts Too)
Hot dogs, sausages, bacon and lunch meats are all highly processed meat products. As such, they are usually full of nitrates and salt, are associated with a higher risk of developing colon cancer. Eat these foods in strict moderation, if at all, and be sure to accompany them with plenty of fiber-filled fresh fruits and veggies to help move them through your digestive tract more quickly.
This one’s a no-brainer…That ultimate grab-and-go breakfast, the daily donut, is one of the worst foods to eat. Not only are these little dietary bombs literally dripping with inflammatory sugar, but donuts are generally loaded with very unhealthy fats: omega-6 oils (which oxidize easily when exposed to high frying temperatures), and sometimes even trans fats. What’s wrong with oxidized fats in the diet? Like excess sugar, they increase arterial inflammation – the root cause of heart disease. Devoid of nutrients and fiber, donuts are really just sources of “empty calories” that will leave you hungry for more an hour or two later. If you’re stuck with “continental breakfast” choices, be sure to pass on the donuts.
While, according to the EPA, tile fish (found in the Gulf of Mexico) ranked highest in mercury content among commercial fish and shellfish (per samples taken between 1999 and 2010), it is not commonly seen in markets and on menus across the U.S. Swordfish, on the other hand, which is an American staple fish of sorts, ranks second on the EPA list. Methyl mercury, an organic mercury compound released when coal is burned, progressively infiltrates our food supply through rain, algae, and fish, especially those in fresh water. Bigger fish – those higher up on the food chain – are more likely to carry more mercury than smaller fish. Mercury is a neurotoxin and affects the central nervous system; fetuses, infants and small children are the most vulnerable to its adverse developmental effects. Pregnant women, especially, and women who want to become pregnant should avoid larger fish like swordfish, bass, grouper, tuna, and king mackerel.
Additionally, be sure to choose wild-caught over farm-raised fish whenever possible. Farm raised fish are often given heavy doses of antibiotics to combat disease caused from extreme overcrowding. The EWG also found very high levels of cancer-causing PCBs (chemical industry contaminants) in farm-raised fish through a 2003 study.
If seafood is on your menu, steer clear of farm raised fish and pick those likely to contain the least amount of mercury: salmon, scallops, cod, pollack, sardines, herring, sole, scrod, and Atlantic halibut. Want more fish-facts? Visit my Is Eating Fish Heart-Smart? Myth-or-Fact video page.
Lastly, and although it didn’t make my top 10 worst foods to eat, I had to include “Whole Grain” Bread as another food to be avoided. The term “whole grain” is misleading, to say the least. In complete form, a whole grain consists of a germ, endosperm, and an outer bran encasement (images that might come to mind are whole barley, millet, or oats). Unfortunately, what we actually get in most “whole grain” products is much more refined. Products labeled “whole grain” must contain a minimum of 51% germ, endosperm and bran, but the grain can be processed. Processed grains can be ground into flour, popped into puffs, chopped into flakes, and more. As a consequence, our digestive systems handle them differently from true whole grains. Processed grains turn to sugar more quickly during digestion and are often much lower in fiber per serving; this translates to greater chance of weight gain and degenerative illness.
Bottom line – don’t buy into the “whole grain” gimmick. Avoid hybridized wheat, rye and barley. Opt for intact grains such as amaranth, quinoa, buck and short grain brown rice whenever possible, and always eat grains and bread in strict moderation – no matter what type – to prevent frequent and high blood sugar surges.
It may seem like some of your favorite foods are on this list, but don’t despair! If you can find a little extra time and are willing to commit to preparing your own homemade versions, or are able to seek out healthier variations, you can still indulge healthfully in the foods you love, and your body will benefit instead of having to deal with toxic junk food! As a general rule, the less ingredients a food has, the better – limit, if not eliminate, those with ingredients you can’t easily pronounce or don’t know what they are.
- The U.S. Evironmental Protection Agency (EPA). Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Fluorinated Telomeres: Frequent Questions. Accessed August 29, 2014 at http://www.epa.gov/oppt/pfoa/pubs/faq.html
- The American Cancer Society. Teflon and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) – What are these substances? Where are they found? Accessed August 29, 2014 at http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/teflon-and-perfluorooctanoic-acid–pfoa
- Chameides, B. The Chemical Marketplace: Popcorn Lung–The Perils of Microwave Popcorn Return. The Huffington Post, Oct. 5, 2012. Online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-chameides/the-chemical-marketplace_b_1943728.html
- The Boston Globe. Do you need to worry about “popcorn lung” from microwave snacks? Accessed August 29, 2014 at http://www.boston.com/dailydose/2012/09/20/you-need-worry-about-popcorn-lung-from-microwave-snacks/dDkwyN1sf2YoVsyszIIz3O/story.html
- Science Daily. Butter flavoring ingredient in microwave popcorn, thought safe for food industry workers, is a respiratory hazard. Accessed August 29, 2014 at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120813115450.htm
- Alliance for Natural Health-USA. Genetically Engineered Foods FAQ sheet. Accessed August 29, 2014 at http://www.anh-usa.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/GMO-FAQ.pdf
- Blaylock, R. Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills (Health Press, 1996). Available at Amazon.com.
- Mercola, J. “Is This Silent Killer Lurking In Your Cabinets?” The Huffington Post, May 16, 2010. Online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mercola/msg-is-this-silent-killer_b_491502.html
- Environmental Working Group. Dirty Dozen List of Endocrine Disruptors. Oct. 28, 2013, available at http://www.ewg.org/research/dirty-dozen-list-endocrine-disruptors
- Biello, D. “Plastic (Not) Fantastic: Food Containers Leach a Potentially Harmful Chemical.” The Scientific American, Feb. 19, 2008. Online at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/plastic-not-fantastic-with-bisphenol-a/
- Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG’s 2014 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Accessed Sept. 2, 2014 at http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mercury Levels In Commercial Fish and Shellfish – 1999-2010. Accessed Sept. 3, 2014 at http://www.fda.gov/food/foodborneillnesscontaminants/metals/ucm115644.htm
- Environmental Working Group. “First-Ever U.S. Tests of Farmed Salmon Show High Levels of Cancer-Causing PCBs.” Accessed August 25, 2014 at http://www.ewg.org/news/news-releases/2003/07/30/first-ever-us-tests-farmed-salmon-show-high-levels-cancer-causing-pcbs
- Moyer MW. “Whole-Grain Foods Not Always Healthful.” Scientific American. Accessed August 21, 2014, at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/whole-grain-foods-not-always-healthful/
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