21 ‘Health’ Foods You Should Never Eat

Health foods you should never eat - Dr. Axe

Most people I meet think that they’re pretty healthy. But when I probe a little deeper into their diets, I quickly find out that they are eating a lot of health foods you should never eat. I can’t blame them. With all of the confusion surrounding labeling and advertising, buzzwords like “sugar-free,” “all-natural” and even “organic” can be really confusing.

To makes things a little easier for you, here’s a list of the top health foods you should never eat. Many of these aren’t really health foods at all. Instead, many are secret sugar bombs, foods that set your body into inflammation overdrive, menu items that can throw your hormones into an unhealthy state or they’re tainted with seriously gross compounds.


Top Health Foods You Should Never Eat

1. Fruit Juice

Fruit juice is just as dangerous as soda, or nearly as bad, when you’re drinking it in abundance. Think of it in this way: When you sit down to drink an 8-ounce glass of orange juice, you’re consuming the juice of four medium-sized oranges in literally seconds — or a few minutes at the most. Compare this to how long it would take to eat four oranges, and you can quickly see how eating fruit in its whole form is best. (Thanks, in large part, to all of that wholesome fiber.)

Fruit juice is so dangerously largely due to the fructose factor. In June 2014, a study published in the journal Nutrition found that the average fruit juice’s fructose concentration is 45.5 grams per liter. For soda, it’s 50 grams. Our bodies aren’t designed to deal with that type of fructose overload. While glucose serves as a fuel for our body, fructose is processed almost exclusively in the liver, where it’s converted to fat. (12)

2. Soy Protein

Contrary to popular belief, soy products are not healthy for you; at least, that is, unfermented soy. Fermented soy is one thing. But eating edamame, soy milk and soy protein is quite another.

Most soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified to withstand applications of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup. A recent Norwegian study found “extreme” levels of glyphosate in U.S. soy, meaning we’re eating weedkiller when we eat nonorganic soy. That’s a problem, given that glyphosate is linked to many health problems, including human cell death. (3, 4)

It’s generally accepted that long-term use of soy dietary supplements like soy protein is unsafe because it has been linked to the following: (5)

  • Allergic rhinitis (hay fever)
  • Asthma
  • Breast cancer
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Endometrial cancer
  • Hypothyroidism (under-active thyroid)
  • Kidney disease
  • Urinary bladder cancer

All of these reasons are great reasons why soy is definitely one of the health foods you should never eat.

Better option: If you love soy sauce, choose coconut aminos instead. If you do chose soy occasionally, go with fermented soy. This includes natto, tempeh, and real miso soup.

3. Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are commonly found in sugar-free gum and sugar-free baked goods and sugar replacements. Xylitol is one of the most popular forms. Others include: erythritol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol. While often marketed as natural, these sweeteners undergo intense processing and are often derived from GMO ingredients like corn. Some of these products are also linked to allergic reactions, headaches, SIBO symptoms, rashes, gas and bloated.

Better option: Try green stevia, monk fruit or raw honey (in moderation) for sweetening.

4. ‘Atlantic’ Salmon + Other Farmed Fish Like Tilapia

Another health food you should never eat: Farmed fish. I’ve written extensively on farmed fish.  And in fact, eating tilapia is worse than eating bacon in some ways. Be sure to avoid farmed salmon, too. It’s often called ‘Atlantic’ salmon or just salmon.

Here are a other reasons inflammation-boosting farmed salmon needs to be a fish you should never eat:

  • An October 2016 study found omega-3 levels in farmed salmon are rapidly dropping and are half of what they were five years ago. Part of the reason for the nutrient loss is salmon farm feed contains less ground anchovy content. (6)
  • University of New York at Albany researchers found dioxin levels in farm-raised salmon to be 11 times higher than those in wild salmon. The environmental pollutants are linked to cancer, organ damage and immune system dysfunction (7, 8)
  • A 2011 study published in PLoS One found mice-eating farmed salmon actually showed weight gain and an increased risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes symptoms. (9) The risk comes from the persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, that tend to be high in farmed salmon.
  • A 2011 Food and Water Watch aquaculture report highlighted some concerning statistics. Hundreds of thousands of farmed fish escape into the wild. These fish are often carrying “super lice” parasitic hitchhikers that even the harshest chemicals no longer kill. Some even carry other diseases that can debilitate nearby wild fish populations. Farmed salmon have also been treated with banned pesticides, another serious toxicity concern. (10)
  • It takes about 2½ to 4 pounds of other fish to create the salmon chow needed to produce 1 pound of farm-raised salmon. The overfishing of wild sardines, anchovies, mackerel, herring and other fish upset natural ecosystems. (11)
  • In November 2015, the Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of genetically engineered salmon and will not require any labeling, leaving consumers in the dark. It was approved despite findings the GMO salmon doesn’t actually grow as fast as its creator claims. (12, 13)

Better option: Alaskan wild-caught salmon, Pacific sardines, Atlantic mackerel (And avoid these other fish you should never eat)

5. Microwave Popcorn

Another one of my top “health” foods you should never eat is microwave popcorn. Filled with questionable ingredients, it is just not worth the convenience. The main problem? The microwavable bags are coated with nonstick perfluorochemicals like perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), chemical that is liked to cancer. (14, 15)

Another major concern is diacetyl. This fake butter flavoring compound actually causes serious lung disease when inhaled in large quantities. (16)

Better option: Next time you get that hankering for some popcorn, simply pop your own. Purchase plain, organic popcorn kernels at a natural foods store. Use coconut oil or organic butter and pour 3 tablespoons into a heavy, stainless steel pan.

Put two kernels in the pan and wait until one pops, then pour 1/3 cup of popcorn in the pan and cover it. As it pops, make sure you shake the pan to allow the steam to escape and prevent the popcorn from burning. Remove from the pan when the popping stops and season as desired. Some great toppings include nutritional yeast, garlic powder and cayenne pepper.

6. Factory-Farmed Meat

Essentially, you are what they eat, and if the livestock that you’re grilling up for supper is fed hormones, drugs and an unnatural diet grown using chemical pesticides and fertilizers, well, that’s not good news for you, either.

Here are concerning findings:

  • A 2012 study looking at feather testing detected banned antibiotics, allergy medications, painkillers and even depression meds like Prozac in chickens (17)
  • Feeding poultry arsenic has resulted in higher levels of toxic arsenic in humans (18)
  • About 30 million pounds of antibiotics are sold for use in farm animals annually (19)

Better option: My recommendation is that you always purchase meat from a trusted local source. Get to know your food growers and ranchers. It’s worthwhile to become familiar with how your food is sourced and prepared. Ask the farmer if the animals are grass-fed and how they deal with sickness. (For example, if they use drugs preventatively or only if the animal is at risk of dying.) If you’re looking for poultry, the gold standard is raised on rotated green pastures and supplemented with organic feed.

7. Margarine 

You’d think that the “margarine myth” would have been put to bed years ago, but many people are still using it. The initial idea was that margarine was lower in saturated fats than butter, so it would protect heart health. But we now know that’s not true. (20)

Sadly, trans fats were the original fats used in margarines. (21) This is tragic, given that today, we now know trans fats are responsible for about 50,000 fatal heart attacks a year. (22) Trans fat also increases someone’s risk of developing type II diabetes and several other severe health problems. (23)

While trans fats have since been removed from most margarines, it’s important to note that most contain industrial, highly processed fats that would never be found in nature.

Better option: Choose butter or ghee from grass-fed cows. Or try coconut oil.

8. Shrimp

Is shrimp good for you? Not in my book.

Here are just a few of the health reasons I don’t eat it:

  • Shrimp contains 4-hexylresorcinol, a food additive used to prevent discoloration in shrimp. This additive has estrogen-like effects that could reduce sperm count in men and increase breast cancer risk in women. (24, 25)
  • Shrimp farm pond waters are often treated with neurotoxic organophosphate pesticides linked to symptoms of ADHD, memory loss and tremors. Malachite green, a potential carcinogen, is often used to kill fungus on shrimp eggs. Once it has been used, malachite green will stay in the flesh of shrimp for a very long time – more than 200 days in water that is 50 degrees F. (26)
  • Food and Water Watch notes that rotenone is a chemical used to kill off fish living in the pond before it’s stocked with young shrimp. If inhaled, it can cause respiratory paralysis. Studies have also linked rotenone to Parkinson’s symptoms in mice.
  • Shrimp farm ponds are often shocked with organotin compounds to kill mollusks before stocking with shrimp. These hormone-disrupting chemicals mimic estrogen and have been dubbed “obesogens.” That mean they mess with the hormonal system in a way that predisposes someone to obesity, regardless of what they eat. (27)
  • Oceana found 25 percent of shrimp samples labeled as wild or presumed to be wild (often called “Gulf”) were actually farm-raised shrimp. (28)

9. Vegetable Oils 

Vegetable oils also fall onto the “health” foods you should never eat list. Hand-in-hand with margarine, vegetable oils like canola oil are highly inflammatory and not healthy by any stretch of the imagination. They are usually genetically modified, are partially hydrogenated and have been linked to: (2930)

  • Atherosclerosis
  • Birth defects
  • Bone and tendon problems
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Digestive disorders
  • Heart disease
  • Immune system impairment
  • High cholesterol
  • Learning disabilities
  • Liver problems
  • Low birth weights
  • Obesity
  • Reduced growth
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Skin reactions
  • Sterility
  • Vision reduction

Better option: I recommend pure, cold pressed, extra virgin coconut oil. To make sure you’re really getting the benefits of coconut oilyou should make sure the product smells like coconut when you buy it. Otherwise there’s a good chance it’s been pasteurized and is not as healthy for you.

10. Table Salt

Standard table salt definitely makes my list of top health foods you should never eat. Pretty much everyone has heard that white table salt causes hypertension, yet that hasn’t stopped more than 95 percent of restaurants in the nation from stocking it on every table and food bar. (31)

Originally produced from mined salt, refined table salt technically starts as a “real” food then quickly becomes fake. Manufacturers use harvesting methods that strip it of all its naturally-occurring minerals and then use a number of additives  to dry it and heat it to temperatures of about 1,200 degrees.

Because it was destroyed, the naturally occurring iodine is then replaced with potassium iodide in potentially toxic amounts. The salt is then stabilized with dextrose, which turns it purple. Finally it is bleached white. (32)

Better optoin: A much more suitable replacement is not even a replacement at all, but the original product! There are more than 10 health benefits of Celtic sea salt and Himalayan salt, and I recommend that you start using either in your cooking.

Foods you should never eat - Dr. Axe

11. Artificial Sweeteners

Being “artificial,” you’d think fake sweeteners would be used cautiously by people. Unfortunately, many doctors recommend them because they are supposedly safe for diabetics because they are low on the glycemic index.

Ironically, new research has shown that artificial sweeteners causes a disturbance in gut flora and can actually cause diabetes. (33)

Adding insult to injury, sugar substitutes have been clinically linked to: (34)

  • Allergies
  • Bladder cancer
  • Brain tumors
  • Breast cancer
  • Headaches
  • Hypertension
  • Lymphomas/leukemia
  • Phenylketonuria
  • Seizures
  • Weight gain/obesity

12. Fat-Free & Low-Fat Milk

It’s time to stop being afraid of full-fat dairy. A 2016 study published in The American Journal of Nutrition makes a strong case for eating it instead of its low-fat dairy counterparts. Researchers studied more than 18,000 women and found the ones who consumed more full-fat dairy were 8 percent less likely to be overweight or obese compared to the low-fat dairy group. (35)

One theory is that eating full-fat dairy helps people feel fuller longer. Aside from that, low-fat and fat-free dairy products are often laden with added sugar, a potent risk factor for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.

Also, be sure to always choose organic milk. Research shows organic milk has a much healthier fat profile. In a 2013 Washington State University study looking at 400 samples, conventional milk had an average omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of 5.8, more than twice that of organic milk’s ratio of 2.3. The researchers say the far healthier ratio of fatty acids in organic milk is brought about by a greater reliance on pasture and forage-based feeds on organic dairy farms. (36)

I also recommend choosing raw milk. That’s because when raw milk is pasteurized, it also loses a lot of its nutritional content. Because the enzyme lactase is destroyed in the heating process, people cannot properly digest the milk sugar, lactose.

In my opinion, raw milk is healthier and can usually be found in cheese or yogurt forms in local health food stores. I choose full-fat raw milk from goats or sheep whenever possible.

13. Swai fish

Swai fish is popping up as a trendy menu item all over the country, but I’m begging you, don’t be tricked. This “river catfish” is most often raised in Vietnamese ponds with truly abysmal track records. Also called tra, basa, striped pangasius and sutchi, this fish only costs about $2 a pound but comes with a hefty price tag.

A 2016 study found 70 to 80 percent of pangasius samples were contaminated by Vibriobacteria — the microbes behind most cases of shellfish poisoning. (37) In August 2016, the U.S. reportedly turned away 40,000 pounds of swai due to contamination issues. This includes fish testing positive for malachite green, a carcinogenic veterinary drug used to treat sick fish. (38)

Swai is also implicated in widespread seafood fraud. In 2015, a Virginia seafood importer was sentenced to prison for importing $15.5 million worth of pangasius “catfish” and marketing it as sole, grouper, flounder, snakehead and other fish. (39)

14. Seitan

Seitan seems like a health food and an amazing meat replacement — until you realize it’s basically a loaf of vital wheat gluten. Because it’s such a gluten-heavy food with potential  to increase gluten allergies and gluten intolerance symptoms, I simply can’t recommend it. Add to that the fact that it’s not a complete protein and it’s very high in sodium, and it’s clear it’s a health food to avoid. Just a half cup of one pre-made seitan contains 576 milligrams of sodium. (40)

Better option: Opt for tempeh instead. The fermented soy offers probiotic benefits.

15. Shady coffee drinks

The benefits of drinking coffee are real. In fact, researchers are even finding it can protect against liver cirrhosis and help people live longer after liver transplants. (41) But those incredible benefits are wiped out when you add other coffee ingredients into the mix. I’m talking about excessive sugar found in popular lattes. Did you know a typical 16-ounce pumpkin spiced latte contains a whopping 50 grams of sugar. All of that sugar, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, is hammering our livers and even contributing to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. (42) Not to mention coffee drinks often contain gut-damaging carrageenan in whipped cream. (43)

Better option: Stick to black coffee. Or try these anti-inflammatory pumpkin spiced latte replacements.

16. Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is on almost every health food shelf in America. But it’s anything but healthy. Agave has the highest fructose content of any commercial sweetener on the market. And remember, fructose is hard on the liver and puts our body into fat storage mode. (44)

Better option: Use raw honey or green stevia sparingly when you need a little sweetness.

17. Overcooked Meat

All meats have amino acids, including creatine and sugars. Cooking them at very high temperatures produces molecules called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), though. These are carcinogenic, toxic compounds also found in cigarette smoke. Well-done meat contains 3.5 times more HCA than medium-rare meat. (45)

Using thicker, store-bought marinades containing sweeteners like sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or even honey makes charring more likely, possibly increasing exposure to carcinogens. (46)

Better option: To reduce grilling carcinogens, use sugar-free, thin, vinegar-based marinades. Also incorporate anticancer herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano and thyme into your meat marinades. Most of these herbs are rich in three compounds — carnosic acid, carnosol and rosmarinic acid — all of which are potent antioxidants. (47)

18. Garcinia cambogia

Garcinia cambogia is a tempting ingredient because it very well may help people lose weight quickly. But the side effects are so serious I had to put it on the foods you should never eat list. This pumpkin-shaped fruit is popular in weight-loss supplements. But get this: It’s also been shown to cause liver failure. It’s certainly not worth the risk.

Better option: Use my 49 secrets to lose weight fast to shed weight without jeopardizing your well-being.

19. Nonorganic Strawberries

When it comes to strawberries, always choose organic. Nonorganic strawberries rank #1 on the dirty dozen list, according to Environmental Working Group.

Strawberries tested by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2009 and 2014 contained an average of 5.75 different pesticides per sample. (That’s even after they are washed.) It’s also important to note that nonorganic strawberry fields are often fumigated with toxic gases that were initially developed for chemical warfare. I think we need to ask ourselves why these chemicals are in the food system. And if we’re willing to feed our families food grown in this type of a system. (48)

Better option: Choose organic. It’s often cheaper to grow your own or buy in bulk directly from a farmer in season and preserve.

20. Canned green beans

Canned green beans are consistently contaminated with some of the most dangerous pesticides, according to Consumer Reports. In fact, eating just one serving of U.S.-grown green beans a day is “high risk,” due to the toxicity of the pesticides typically used on that crop. Because those chemicals tend to be far more toxic than others, Consumer Reports notes that eating one serving of green beans from the U.S. is 200 times riskier than eating a serving of U.S.-grown broccoli. (49)

Aside from that, canned green beans contain bisphenol A, a synthetic estrogen. These BPA toxic effects include hormone imbalance, male and female infertility, PCOS and breast and prostate cancer, among other ills. (50)

Better option: Choose organic, fresh or frozen green beans. Try growing your own, too. They’re super easy.

21. All-American Pancake Breakfast

Pancakes seem innocent enough. But when you look at the standard pancake mix at the grocery story (or in the back kitchen of a diner), you’d be appalled. Inflammatory hydrogenated oils and trans fats are still in some of the most popular pancake mixes in America. Add to that that most syrups are loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, and it’s clear this breakfast needs a revamp.

Better option: Try one of my much healthier pancake recipes. Top with real fruit or maple syrup.


Final Thoughts on Health Foods You Should Never Eat

So what’s the moral of the story?

  • You are what you eat. Choose food sources that are less processed.
  • Get to know your local farmers and support grass-fed, organic operations.
  • The more you choose to take in only food and beverages that bring life to your body, then the more you will enjoy life.

Read Next: Here’s What Diet Soda’s Doing to Your Body (It’s Not Pretty)

Josh Axe

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