5 Foods Americans Think Are Healthy but Totally Aren't

May 29th 2016

Almie Rose

We like to think we know a little something about health and nutrition — just look at how many blogs, YouTube channels, and Instagram accounts are dedicated to healthy cooking and eating.

But although we may have the best intentions, recent surveys reveal that when it comes to certain foods, Americans aren't as clued into healthy eating as we'd like to believe.

Here are 5 foods that Americans think are healthy, but really aren't.

1. Hamburgers

"There's no way people think burgers are healthy," is probably what you're thinking.

But a survey from the data research firm Mintel found that 82 percent of Americans believe that hamburgers are a good source of nutrients. While it's true that red meat has its upsides, like niacin, vitamin B12, zinc, and selenium, it is also high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and trans fat, according to SELF Nutrition Data. Plus, the hamburgers that most Americans are consuming come from fast food places that don't use the leanest meat and have added sugars in their sauces and hamburger buns. When you add it all up, the nutrition benefits do not outweigh the negatives — you're better off cooking your own hamburger at home, where you can pick how lean your meat is and exactly what you're putting into the burger.

2. Cereal

Americans love their cereal and have long relied on it as a trusty breakfast staple.

But your childhood breakfast food could have some hidden secrets: The majority Americans' favorite cereals are loaded with sugar. "Some cereals are as healthy as salad, others are like scarfing down a chocolate eclair," registered dietician Dawn Jackson Blatner told Health magazine.

The Washington Post presented a chart showing the best-selling cereals in America with undeniably sugary choices like Frosted Flakes, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms, and Froot Loops in the top 10.

Frosted Flakes have almost 11 grams of sugar in one serving, according to the USDA. Original Cheerios, however, only have slightly over 1 gram of sugar per serving. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 24 grams of added sugar a day for women, and 36 grams for men, so one serving of the former clocks in almost half of that.

"Even if a cereal is made from whole grains or loaded with other healthful ingredients, a high sugar content disqualifies it from my list of top picks," registered dietician Joy Bauer told Reader's Digest.

3. Smoothies

Smoothies have taken the U.S. by storm. As NPR said, "Busy, health-conscious Americans are sucking them down like mad." And if you're getting the right smoothie, it isn't a bad health choice. Fruit is good for you and compared to other breakfast options, smoothies can be nutrient dense. The problem is that most Americans buy smoothies that are full of — you guessed it — sugar. "A store-bought fruit smoothie can pack 58 grams of sugar in a single 16-oz bottle," according to Time. "By comparison, 12 ounces of cola has about 40 grams of sugar."

The sugar in smoothies can add up quickly, especially if you are adding just fruit. “It’s good to add protein and veggies,” Laura Jeffers, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic, told Time. She suggests sticking to a ratio of 70 percent veggies and 30 percent fruit and adding fruits with a low glycemic index, like apples and pears.

4. Gluten-free foods

Obviously, if you have celiac disease, or another medical reason as to why you shouldn't eat gluten, a gluten-free diet can be key to feeling good.

The problem is that gluten-free eating has become a trend, and a 2015 Gallup poll showed that 1 in 5 Americans try to eat gluten-free, despite the fact that only roughly 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease.

People who can safely eat gluten, aren't, so they're missing out on a lot of nutrients of whole grains, like B vitamins, iron, and fiber and added health benefits like a decreased risk of heart disease or diabetes, according to WebMD.

"Unless people are very careful, a gluten-free diet can lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber," Dr. Peter H.R. Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, told WebMD.

And when we're talking about "gluten-free foods," we're not talking about foods that are naturally gluten-free, like fruits and vegetables. We're talking about replacements for foods with gluten, like traditionally made pastas, breads, and crackers. By substituting those with gluten-free products, you're omitting whole grains, which are a healthy option.

Many gluten-free foods also have a lot of additives, like artificial sweeteners, artificial food colorings, and carrageenan, the effects of which are still being evaluated, so it's important to keep an eye on labels.

5. Packaged Turkey

A turkey sandwich seems like a healthy option for many Americans.

And it can be. Turkey can be a good source of protein, and it's leaner than red meat.

When you're buying packaged turkey in a grocery store, however, what you're getting the most of is sodium. "One 2-oz. serving of some brands contains nearly one-third of the maximum recommended daily sodium intake," reports Cooking Light. (A 2 ounce serving fits in the palm of your hand.) Too much sodium can cause fluid retention and high blood pressure, which can lead to something more serious, like heart disease.

Look for turkey marked "low sodium" and avoid exceeding recommended portion sizes, because even lower-sodium turkey has almost 200 mg of salt in each slice.

No one is saying that you can't eat these foods, by the way.

But it's important to pay attention to portions, the quality of the food consumed, as well as how often you eat it. No shame in a #TreatYoSelf burger once in a while, but a daily habit might need to be curbed. And maybe you already knew that the foods on this list weren't the best nutritional options. If you did, give the nearest bald eagle a hearty American high five.