The Top 10 Worst Foods to Eat

Limit how much of these low-nutrient foods and drinks you consume, and replace them with healthier options.

worst snack foods white bread bacon pretzels alcohol chips processed cheese sodas donuts burgers fries cookies
Ultra-processed foods dominate the list.Canva (11)

One of the easiest ways to improve your diet is to learn how to identify the most unhealthy foods to eat — and how to replace them with better options.

However, viewing foods through a lens of “good” or “bad” can make decisions even harder, says Brogan Taylor, RD, registered dietitian at Banner Health in Phoenix, Arizona.

If it were as easy as knowing which foods were good or bad for our health, most people wouldn’t still be eating them, she says. Many of the most addictive (and unhealthy) foods are a tempting combination of carbs and fat — along with some added sugar, salt, or both — that are designed to keep us munching.

Here are 10 commonly consumed foods and drinks that Taylor and other experts recommend limiting:

  • Processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, and cold cuts
  • Sodas
  • White bread
  • French fries
  • Fast food burgers
  • Donuts
  • Processed cheese
  • Potato chips
  • Processed snack foods
  • Alcohol

When it comes to “the worst” foods, though, Taylor doesn’t forbid anything, but instead works with her clients to find long-term solutions for decreasing or replacing those foods. She encourages her clients to eat more of certain things — items packed with nutrients such as fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds, and lean proteins. Focusing on the positive can help decrease the amount of low-nutrient food they consume, she says.

“It’s about understanding how different foods can impact our health and making informed choices,” she says.

Keep reading to find out more about the worst foods to eat, along with suggestions for healthier alternatives.

1. Processed Meats Like Bacon, Hot Dogs, and Cold Cuts

bacon processed meats
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Processed meats like bologna, ham, and bacon are high in calories and salt and are linked to increased risk of heart disease due to their impact on cholesterol and blood pressure, says Julia Zumpano, RD, registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

Research suggests that processed meat has a more significant impact on the risk of heart disease and death than unprocessed red meat or chicken.

There’s also evidence that cancer-causing chemicals are formed in processed meats, says Zumpano.

As a result, processed meats are now classified as carcinogens by the World Health Organization.

Nutrients per 100 gram (g) serving, according to?U.S. Department of Agriculture FoodData Central:

Food
Calories
Saturated Fat
Protein
Sodium
Hot Dogs
310
11.4 g
11.7 g
872 mg
Bacon (cooked)
501
12.6 g
40.9 g
1830 mg
Grilled Chicken Breast (skinless)
151
1 g
30.5 g
52 mg

Healthier Substitutes

Try to go for lean protein sources like grilled chicken breast or tofu instead of reaching for that sub or hoagie, says Zumpano. “These alternatives provide protein without the harmful additives found in processed meats,” she says.

2. Sodas

glasses of soda
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Taylor sees many clients who drink a lot of soda.

“They know it isn’t something that they should consume a lot of, but it can be a really hard habit to quit,” she says.

Soda and other sugary drinks are linked to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay and cavities.

Rather than trying to get people to switch from regular soda to diet soda, she works with people to decrease their intake overall.

Healthier Substitutes

Water and herbal teas are great options to try instead of soda, says Taylor.

“My goal is to help people increase water intake as much as possible, but if they can use alternatives such as sparkling water, flavoring packets, fruit-infused water, or herbal teas it will still decrease total added sugar,” she says.

3. White Bread

slices of white bread
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Although many people express concern about how much bread they are eating, trying to completely cut it out can actually make people eat more, says Taylor.

White bread is made from refined flour, which has been stripped of its fiber and nutrients during processing. This can lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels and may contribute to weight gain, insulin resistance, and other metabolic issues.

Healthier Substitutes

Whole-grain bread is a good alternative to white bread because it contains more fiber, vitamins, and minerals and keeps blood sugars more stable, says Taylor.

4.French Fries

fries
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French fries are typically deep-fried in unhealthy oils and loaded with salt, making them high in calories, saturated fats, and sodium. Consuming fried foods regularly can increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.

Healthier Substitutes

Oven-baked potato wedges seasoned with herbs and spices are a tasty swap, says Zumpano. Use olive oil spray to make the outside of the wedges nice and crispy.

5. Fast Food Burgers

fast food cheeseburgers
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Fast foods, including hamburgers, can be a struggle for overall health as they are often higher in saturated fat, salt, and added sugars, says Taylor.

All of these can lead to chronic health conditions over time such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity, she says.

Healthier Substitutes

Swap your regular ground beef burger for a salmon burger, bean burger, or veggie burger, says Kate Patton, RD, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

A salmon burger provides healthy fats along with the protein, and bean and veggie burgers are a great source of nutrients and fiber.

6. Donuts

three different flavored glazed donuts
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Although donuts are delicious, they don’t have a whole lot to offer from a health standpoint.

“Donuts are deep fried in highly refined and processed oils, may contain trans fat, are made with bleached white flour, and contain a very large amount?of sugar,” says Zumpano.

The amount of sugar in just one donut can lead to a blood sugar spike that ends in an even bigger sugar crash.

Healthier Substitutes

A homemade muffin or scone is a good option if you’re craving a baked good, says Zumpano.

By baking your own treat, you can include ingredients like avocado oil and whole grain flour, and the sugar can be reduced or replaced with applesauce, prunes, or dates, she says.

7. Processed Cheese

processed cheeses
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Cheese products — think nacho cheese, processed cheese slices, and canned cheese dips — aren’t great health choices for a few reasons, says Zumpano.

“Processing may add saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, sugar, coloring, and flavorings which can lead to increased levels of blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. Processed cheeses also tend to have a creamier and stronger flavor which makes them more appealing, and therefore more difficult to control your intake,” she says.

Nutrients per 100 g, according to USDA FoodData Central:

Food
Calories
Saturated Fat
Protein
Sodium
American Cheese
310
13.7 g
15.6 g
1420 mg
Feta
273
11.2 g
19.7 g
1030 mg
Mozzarella
296
11.7 g
23.7 g
699 mg

Healthier Substitutes

When you’re in the mood for cheese, choose fresh mozzarella, feta, ricotta, or goat cheese, which have less fat and sodium compared with processed?cheeses, and may contain more protein and calcium, says Zumpano.

8. Potato Chips

bowls of potato chips
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Potato chips are an example of what are sometimes called “empty calories.” They lack significant nutritional value — chips are high in fat but low in protein and fiber.

Healthier Substitutes

Choose a snack food that’s higher in nutrients such as roasted chickpeas, trail mix, or seaweed crisps, says Taylor. “There are a lot of other options than just chips,” she says.

9. Processed Snack Foods

processed snacks crackers chocolate chip cookie  pretzels
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Processed snack foods like crackers, pretzels, and cookies are often high in unhealthy fats, refined sugars, and artificial additives. Although these foods are often convenient and easy for people to eat on the run, they are typically high in fat and sodium, says Taylor.

And the calories can add up — every day, the average U.S. adult eats an entire meal’s worth of calories through snacking.

Healthier Substitutes

Choose whole food snacks like nuts, seeds, fresh fruit, or vegetables with hummus, which are all good sources of essential nutrients, fiber, and healthy fats, says Taylor.

10. Alcohol

glasses of alcohol drinks and limes
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Alcohol is complicated for many people and overuse can be a struggle, says Taylor.

Alcohol not only contains calories without any nutritional value, but excessive alcohol use can also lead to many health problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. The less you drink, the better.

Healthier Substitutes

Mocktails, sparkling water with fruit, or a nonalcoholic version of wine or beer. Not only are these better for your liver and pancreas, they’re often lower in calories, too, says Taylor.

The Takeaway

While it’s tempting to label certain foods as villains, focusing on nutrient-packed alternatives may lead to a healthier mindset. Rather than banning foods outright, think about how you can replace them with healthier alternatives. Making informed swaps can help you stay on a sustainable path to better eating habits.

Resources We Trust

  • Cleveland Clinic: What Ultra-Processed Foods Are (and Why They’re So Bad for You)?
  • University of Kentucky LifeSpan Institute: Q & A with Researcher Tera Fazzino: What to Know About 'Hyperpalatable' Foods
  • Michigan State University: Processed Cheese: What is That Stuff, Anyway?
  • American Heart Association: Picking Healthy Proteins
  • Harvard Health Publishing: In Defense of French Fries
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

Everyday Health follows strict sourcing guidelines to ensure the accuracy of its content, outlined in our editorial policy. We use only trustworthy sources, including peer-reviewed studies, board-certified medical experts, patients with lived experience, and information from top institutions.

Sources

  1. Why Are Certain Foods So Addictive? Cleveland Clinic. March 2, 2021.
  2. Iqbal R et al. Associations of Unprocessed and Processed Meat Intake With Mortality and Cardiovascular Disease in 21 Countries. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. September 2021.
  3. Stern MC et al. Genome-Wide Gene–Environment Interaction Analyses to Understand the Relationship Between Red Meat and Processed Meat Intake and Colorectal Cancer Risk. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. March 1, 2024.
  4. Cancer: Carcinogenicity of the Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat. World Health Organization. October 26, 2015.
  5. FoodData Central. U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  6. Get the Facts: Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Consumption. ?Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 11, 2022.
  7. Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
  8. Sun Y et al. Association of Fried Food Consumption With All Cause, Cardiovascular, and Cancer Mortality: Prospective Cohort Study. BMJ. January 23, 2019.
  9. The 5 Worst Breakfast Foods for You. Cleveland Clinic. July 12, 2020.
  10. 7 Worst Snacks Your Dietitian Would Never Eat. Cleveland Clinic. December 28, 2020.
  11. Heitman K et al. Snacks Contribute Considerably to Total Dietary Intakes Among Adults Stratified by Glycemia in the United States. PLoS Global Public Health. October 26, 2023.
  12. Alcohol Use. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. May 15, 2024.
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