Cutting your grocery bill is a tempting and worthwhile endeavor. Unfortunately, those cheap treats aren’t always as good for your waistline as they are for your budget. In fact, a number of low-cost foods that seem like they should be healthy are actually anything but. Moreover, eating oversized portions of even the healthiest foods can lead to weight gain.
You don’t have to give up your favorite snacks to stay fit, but you should practice moderation when making meal choices. And if you want to eat healthy for super cheap, avoid eating too much of these low-cost foods known for packing on the pounds.
Cost: $1.97 per 3-liter bottle
Soda might be the ultimate source of low-nutrient calories. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 120,000 men and women who added just one 12-ounce can of soda a day to their normal food intake gained an average of 1 pound of fat every four years.
And diet sodas aren’t much better. A study published in the journal Stroke revealed that participants who drank between one and six diet soft drinks a week had an increased risk of both stroke and dementia.
Instead of grabbing a soda next time you’re on the go, reach for a bottle of water to stay hydrated.
Cost: $2.00 per 1.75-liter carton
Fruit juice is natural, so you might assume it’s better for you than soda. Although that glass of orange juice does contain a plethora of vitamins and minerals, not everything that’s natural is good for you. Just look at all-natural poisons like arsenic, ricin and hemlock.
Moreover, the high calorie counts of many popular juices make them damaging to your diet. Believe it or not, a 12-ounce serving of OJ has the same number of calories — a whopping 180 — as three chocolate chip cookies. And according to a recent Atlantic article, juice has just as much sugar as Coke.
Nutrition experts have long suspected that sugar is hazardous to our health. According to a recent study in the journal Obesity, children who consumed less processed sugar for just nine days experienced a significant reduction in blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.
Cost: $1.28 per bar
A number of snack bars have the word “nutrition” on the label — and many don’t deserve it. Because consumers assume nutrition bars are healthy snacking options, they often overindulge in these treats. After all, it’s easier to rationalize eating a nutrition bar every day than a candy bar.
However, when portion sizes are equalized, so-called nutrition bars are not so different from their candy aisle counterparts. An average nutrition bar has 200 calories, 8 grams of fat and 11 grams of sugar, while a Snickers candy bar contains 215 calories and 12 grams of fat.
If you’re going to include nutrition bars in your diet, treat them like candy. Eat these snacks in moderation, barring any health conditions that require you to limit your sugar intake.
Cost: $1.98 per 16-ounce box
If you want to save money on groceries and stock up on satisfying snacks, crackers might be your go-to buy. Crackers and other grain-based snacks aren’t inherently bad for you, but their nutritional profiles can vary widely. For example, a serving of five saltines has about 70 calories, 2 grams of fat, 0 grams of sugar and 135 mg of sodium, whereas a serving of wheat crackers has 140 calories, 5 grams of fat, 4 grams of glucose and 190 mg of sodium.
Saltines seem like the better choice, but both can negatively affect weight loss by causing blood sugar to spike and prompting more cravings. It’s easy to overeat when a snack is salty, crispy and delicious, so stick to the portion sizes provided on the boxes for best results.
Cost: $1.28 per 5-ounce muffin
If you have kids, there’s a good chance they’ve requested cake for breakfast on occasion. And while you probably wouldn’t feed them this sweet treat in the morning, many of us have served up breakfast muffins. However, a look at the nutritional profiles of these two items reveals more similarities than differences.
A 5-ounce blueberry breakfast muffin has a whopping 620 calories, 30 grams of fat and 80 grams of carbs, while a 5-ounce piece of chocolate cake with frosting has 520 calories, 23 grams of fat and 77 grams of carbs. Still, you’d be wrong to assume the cake is the healthier choice.
In fact, overconsumption of sugar can cause a number of negative effects. According to a study published by JAMA Internal Medicine, individuals who consumed 17 percent to 21 percent of their calories from added sugar had a 38 percent higher chance of cardiovascular death than those who consumed just 8 percent of their daily calories from sugar.
For best results, skip the breakfast muffin and opt for some eggs and fruit instead.
Cost: $2.49 per 12-ounce bottle
A salad packed with plenty of healthy proteins and hearty vegetables is a great dinner option. Unfortunately, many dieters make the mistake of dining on lettuce-dense salads. Eating too much iceberg and not enough of other foods could actually lead to malnourishment.
On the other hand, eating a salad-heavy diet could cause you to overshoot your recommended daily caloric intake, as well as your daily fat, sugar and sodium intakes, because of excessive salad dressing. Whether you go with an oil-based vinaigrette or a mayo-based dressing, you’re still consuming anywhere from 3 calories to 9 calories per gram of dressing. The main difference between the two is the macronutrients from the egg yolk used to emulsify the mayo.
To dress a salad with just the right amount of flavor to enhance a salad and not drown it, refrain from pouring dressing on the salad. Instead, spread a tablespoon of your chosen dressing around the sides of the bowl and toss the salad to coat.
Cost: 99 cents per 12-ounce package
The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates bologna — that limp, pinkish lunch meat sold in blister packs — by mandating that it undergo comminution, or a process of grinding the protein, fat and filler into a slurry. Additionally, bologna and hot dogs must contain no more than 30 percent fat, 10 percent water or a combination of 40 percent fat and added water. And food manufacturers can use up to 3.5 percent non-meat binders and extenders (such as nonfat dried milk, cereal or dried whole milk) and 2 percent isolated soy protein.
It’s not just the components of this meat that make it a poor meal choice. Because throwing together a sandwich is so much easier than cooking a full dinner, dieters who purchase bologna and other lunch meats tend to use them as substitutes for healthy meals. You can easily eat up your entire daily recommended allowance for fat calories by slapping a few slices of bologna and cheese between a couple slices of white bread spread with mayo.
Cost: Free to 25 cents per packet
Calorically dense yet lean in the micronutrient department, condiments can account for a large portion of the “hidden” calories that contribute to weight gain. And getting these packets free from fast-food restaurants makes it even easier to overindulge.
One packet of honey mustard sauce from a fast food restaurant, for example, has 60 calories and 4 fat grams, while a packet of mayo has 80 calories and 9 grams of fat. An occasional packet of mayo isn’t going to do much harm to your diet, but if you eat it consistently and in large quantities, you’re liable to pack on the pounds.
Cost: $1.28 per 16-ounce loaf
Put white bread in the same category as pretzels, crackers, white rice and other refined grains. Although moderate consumption won’t send your weight skyrocketing, overindulgence can lead to problems. And bread is an incredibly versatile food, which makes it a popular staple.
If you’re on a diet, try replacing white bread with whole-grain alternatives. Whole grains provide more dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals than refined grains, and according to a 2017 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, they support fat loss by boosting metabolism and reducing the calories retained during digestion.
Cost: $1.98 per 10.5-ounce bag
Whether made from potatoes, corn tortillas or soy, chips are an American snack food favorite. There’s no denying the salty satisfaction of this treat, but chips contain high levels of fat and carbohydrates. Not only are chips a convenient snack option if you’re hungry, but the addictive crunch also encourages you to keep eating.
For best results, save chips for special occasions and moderate your intake by putting a few on a plate rather than eating out of the bag.
Cost: $2.99 per 14-ounce package
If you’re trying to shed pounds, you might be tempted by any item bearing the label “fat free.” Unfortunately, these products tend to contain additives to make up for the missing fat. Used in fat-free baked goods to emulsify, bind and thicken, substances like guar gum, xanthan gum and agar mimic the mouthfeel and structure of fatty treats but don’t offer the same level of satisfaction.
The truth is that fat isn’t the evil substance scientists once thought; in fact, fat is just as important to a healthy diet as protein and carbohydrates. For best results, avoid foods labeled low-fat and opt to eat a smaller portion of the real thing.
Cost: 64 cents per 16 ounces
Rice has gotten a bad reputation in recent years. However, the truth is this dietary staple isn’t all that bad for you. In fact, enriched white rice has decent amounts of folate, thiamin, niacin, iron and manganese, little fat and almost no sodium. Granted, brown rice is better for you, thanks to the dietary fiber of the bran layer and germ, but white rice fits nicely into both weight-loss and maintenance diets.
Still, dieters should keep portion size in mind when consuming this item. If you eat too much rice — or too much of any carb — you will pack on the pounds.
Cost: 50 cents per 1.75-ounce package
Nuts are often labeled “superfoods,” or nutrient-rich foods said to boost health. Most nuts do offer tremendous nutritional value, but calling them superfoods can mislead consumers and encourage them to overeat.
Numerous peer-reviewed studies exist toting the health benefits of nuts, and they all have one thing in common: moderation. You can eat just about any food and still lose weight, but you can gain weight just as easily by overindulging — and nuts are known for their high caloric content. For best results, enjoy the occasional portion of nuts but steer clear of “nut diets” and other health-food fads. In general, if a diet has a silly label like “juice detox” or “fast flush,” it’s probably not as healthy as it claims.
Cost: $1.85 per 16-ounce can
Not much separates energy drinks and regular soda nutritionally. Sure, you’ll get a serving of vitamins and minerals with an energy drink — a 16-ounce Monster Energy, for example, boasts 100 percent of the daily recommended value of niacin, riboflavin and vitamins B12 and B6. However, it also contains 210 calories, 54 grams of sugar and 160 mg of caffeine. On the other hand, a 16-ounce Mountain Dew has 230 calories, 61 grams of sugar and 72 mg of caffeine.
Many people are drawn to energy drinks because they think the caffeine is good for their health. Although caffeine can curb your appetite and stimulate thermogenesis, which increases energy use, it’s important to consider the calories and sugar that go along with your buzz. Further, drinking too many energy drinks could be actively harmful.
The Journal of the American Heart Association compared the blood pressure levels of people who drank energy beverages with those who drank soda. While both groups had higher blood pressure levels after their drinks, those who consumed the energy beverages experienced higher levels for longer — more than six hours after drinking.
Cost: $1.00 per 16 ounce-package
Cheap, filling and highly versatile, pasta has everything you want in a staple food. It’s also delicious.
Nutritionists have advised dieters against this food in recent years, but the truth is that pasta’s association with weight gain has a lot more to do with the secondary ingredients in many dishes than the item itself. You can easily exceed your daily recommended caloric intake when you combine a large serving of pasta with high-calorie sauces like Alfredo.
When in doubt, top your serving of spaghetti with cooked veggies and a little olive oil rather than butter and cheese.
Next Up: The Best Dollar Menus in America