Top Five Foods to Avoid

Everyday there are new reports on what you should and should-not eat, new diet trends, and new food buzz-words. Of course if you eat a balanced diet of whole grains, lean protein, fruit, and vegetables, it's okay to indulge every once in a while in your favorite guilty-pleasure food of choice. But there are certain foods that should be avoided as much as possible, and luckily there are plenty of flavorful and healthy substitutions you can make so you don't have to feel like you are making sacrifices. Ice cream1. Trans-fats.

I'm sure you've heard the term before, but do you really know what trans-fats are? They are hydrogenated oils - oil that has been processed to become solid at room temperature. Hydrogenated oils are often used in restaurants and in processed foods in order to increase their shelf life. However, this comes at a price to our health because these oils are not only artery clogging, but they raise blood pressure and HDL (bad) cholesterol, at the same time lowering LDL (good) cholesterol.

How to avoid: Always check your food labels - foods you wouldn't normally expect to have trans fats in them often do, like cookies and frozen pizza. Better yet, instead of buying any packaged or frozen foods, use fresh vegetables and ingredients in place of frozen ready-made meals, like this homemade butternut squash pizza. Read here to see a list of foods that you normally have in your kitchen that are loaded with hydrogenated oils, it may surprise you. The more you eat food that is raw and in its natural state, the less processed and packaged foods you will consume. Try making this easy homemade lentil and barley soup with escarole, it's better than any frozen dinner out there.

sugar2. Refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.

This may seem obvious, but if you can cut out refined sugar from your diet, you will lose weight and increase your energy levels. When you eat a piece of cake or drink a soda, your blood-sugar levels skyrocket, and then drop soon thereafter, leaving you feeling tired and empty. Refined sugar does not contain any essential nutrients, and is just plain high in calories. The way your body also processes high fructose corn syrup also leads to weight gain and diabetes - it is made up of more fructose than standard sugar, which converts to fat in your body more easily.

How to avoid: One major way to cut back on sugar intake is to stop drinking soda or other sugary drinks. Have a look here for the cold hard facts on why soda is so terrible for your body - I guarantee you will think twice about going for that can of Pepsi when you need a pick-me-up. Instead try drinking kombucha, a kind of fermented tea that is naturally carbonated, if it's the bubbles you still crave from a soda. You can even learn how to make your own kombucha at home!  Another alternative to sugary drinks would be coconut water. Not only does it taste great, but it contains essential vitamins and minerals, to name a few of the many health benefits of drinking coconut water.

white rice3. Refined Grains

Refined grains include white flour, white rice, white bread etc...most baked goods are made with white flour. During the refining process, the most nutritional part of the grain is removed, the bran and germ, prolonging its shelf-life. Refined grains are quickly digested and absorbed into the blood stream, spiking sugar levels. They are also low in fiber and are easy to over-eat because they aren't as filling as whole grains tend to be. Research has shown that diets such as the Mediterranean Diet, which is rich in whole grains, leads to a healthier, longer life span.

How to avoid: Substitute refined grains with whole grains such as brown rice, whole-wheat flower, quinoa, or buckwheat. The higher fiber in these grains will keep you full for longer, and give you more sustained energy. Read here for great healthy alternatives to white rice, or try this kale and quinoa salad with roasted beets. There are so many healthy grains out there to try, and so many ways to use them, like in these lemon and herb stuffed peppers recipe.

sugar-packets4. Artificial Sweeteners

Even zero-calorie foods can be harmful to your health. Sugar substitutes like aspartame and saccharin are made with chemicals to mimic the sweetness of natural sugar. Artificial sweeteners have not been around long enough to determine any long-term side effects, so it's best to just eliminate the chances by not using them. They also tend to "trick" your body into thinking that you are about to ingest a lot of calories, so when that doesn't happen you actually crave more sweets.

How to avoid: There are many natural alternatives to sugar that are much better for your body than artificial sweeteners. Honey, maple syrup, and agave are great choices that aren't made from chemicals. When it comes to baking, read here on how to use these alternatives in your recipes. Try these lemon poppy seed muffins, which are made using all-natural sugar alternatives such as brown rice and malt syrup.

Buttermilk Baked Chicken

5. Fried Foods

Fried foods are often high in saturated fat, and are definitely high in calories. Frying food in oil adds no nutritional value, and only increases your chances of heart problems and weight gain. Also, generally foods that are fried are high in calories to begin with, so you are just packing on the calories to go from bad to worse.

How to avoid: Use low-fat cooking methods such as baking, broiling, or grilling. There are many ways to bake your favorite fried foods, and you would never know the difference. This buttermilk battered chicken recipe is baked in the oven, saving you hundreds of calories without sacrificing texture or flavor - I promise. Instead of regular potato chips, opt for baked. Try making these baked curry-cayenne zucchini chips, or the ever-so-popular kale chips.