You always hear that breakfast is the most important meal—but what you have for lunch can make or break a big chunk of your day, too.
Instead, try to imagine your foods on a better-to-worse scale. There are some you should eat more often, and other you should eat less often. Here are nine you should steer clear of when you can, and the swaps you should consider instead.
If you assemble your sandwich with the right ingredients, it can be a healthy and satisfying midday meal. But more often that not, you might turn to not-so-great for you options when you’re in a time crunch—and white bread is one you want to avoid if you can, says Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness Studios.
With very little fiber and a high glycemic index (GI), white bread is likely to spike your blood sugar, meaning that afternoon slump will hit you hard. That’s because foods with a high GI often cause a “rebound” drop in your blood sugar, which is responsible for the energy crash and cravings that may hit later on in the day, White explains.
The fix: “Switch to whole grain bread for a filling and nutritious boost in fiber,” says White.
Plus, whole grains are great for your heart: Nutrients like fiber, B vitamins, and zinc work together to lower your cholesterol, improve your blood sugar, and prevent obesity, an English study suggests.
What you put on your bread matters, too, says St. Pierre. Even just one tablespoon of mayo bumps your sandwich by nearly 100 calories. And since it’s virtually all fat, you’re not reaping many more nutrients, either, he explains.
The fix: “Other healthy fats like guacamole or pesto are rich in vitamins and minerals,” says St. Pierre. They also contain less overall calories, more filling fiber and flavor, and have a similar texture to mayo, he says.
Granola bars seem like they’d be a great snack to pair with your lunch, but they usually offer very little nutritional value, says White.
“Many popular granola bars are high in sugar, with very little fiber or protein to keep you full,” he explains. Their high sugar content—coupled with the lack of protein and fiber—can set you up for a serious blood sugar crash, leaving you hungry afterwards.
The fix: If you love granola bars for the convenience, you can look for ones made of whole ingredients (think nuts and seeds), which will usually boost its fiber and protein. Aim for less than 10 grams of sugar per bar, suggests White.
Better yet, nix the bar completely and replace it with a quarter cup of nuts and a serving of fruit for lasting energy, he says. The nuts are a good source of protein and healthy fats, while the fruit offers a dose of fiber and disease-fighting antioxidants.
While yogurt is typically classified as a “health food”, some flavored varieties can pack a ton of added sugar, says White. In fact, your favorite fruit-on-the-bottom variety probably contains more sugar than a can of soda.
Plus, flavored yogurt contains little fiber, and unless we’re talking about the Greek kind, it skimps on the protein, too. So you’re basically looking at a cup of empty calories.
The fix: “Make your own fruit and yogurt parfait, with plain Greek yogurt, berries, chopped walnuts, and a drizzle of honey,” suggests White. “This combination provides less sugar and offers more fiber, protein, and healthy fats.” (Looking for quick, healthy meal ideas? Check out the Metashred Diet from Men’s Health. It’s packed with recipes that will help you meet your fitness goals.)
Chips don’t really add anything but empty calories to your meal, says White. With no fiber or protein, they aren’t going to help keep you full, either.
St. Pierre agrees: “Chips are highly processed, and are specifically engineered so that it makes it hard to stop eating them. In fact, chip companies know exactly how much oil and salt to add, and precisely how crunchy to make their chips to maximize your consumption,” he says.
Translation: Your chips are literally designed to be can’t-put-them-down delicious, meaning you probably won’t stop at one serving. So while one serving of Lay’s—about 15 chips—clocks in a 150 calories, you can easily double that if you’re mindlessly crunching from the bag. And when’s the last time you counted out your chips beforehand?
The fix: If you want something savory and crunchy, go for roasted chickpeas or snap pea crisps for a better source of protein and fiber, says White.
Or, snack on a handful of roasted nuts, since they “provide lots of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, magnesium, fiber, and protein,” says St. Pierre. Plus, they mimic the salt and crunch factor you’re looking for with chips.
Soda isn’t the only sweet drink you need to avoid. Energy and sports drinks load up on the added sugars, too, says White. That translates to excess calories, which can quickly increase the number on your scale, he explains. Not to mention, these drinks also spike your blood sugar levels, causing an energy crash later on.
Chugging sweetened beverages can be bad news for your overall health, too, since downing them frequently has been associated with weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, and tooth decay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Diet drinks aren’t the answer, either. When people sip on the zero-calorie stuff, they tend to overcompensate by excessively eating foods high in calories, sugar, and salt, a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found.
The fix: Swap your sugary drinks for water or herbal tea, says White. That simple switch can save you the 140 calories a day you’d get from a can of Coke, adding up to nearly 1,000 calories per week.
If you craving a little carbonation, choose a zero-calorie sparkling water instead. You can always flavor it yourself with a wedge of lime or lemon.
But salad is healthy, right?
“Lots of people think a large mixed green salad with grilled chicken is a smart lunch,” says Keri Gans, M.S., R.D., author of The Small Change Diet. “However, it usually leaves them wanting more, a lot more!”
The problem with eating nothing but chicken and lettuce for lunch is that your meal is missing some kind of fat and fiber, both of which help keep you feeling fuller for longer. If you’re skimping on those ingredients, you’ll likely crash or feel hungry before your next meal, says Gans.
The fix: This one is simple, since your meal is already on the right track.
In addition to chicken or some other form of protein, Gans recommends adding avocado and legumes, like beans or chickpeas, to your salad. You’ll get a nice boost of healthy fats from the avocado, and a bump in fiber (and protein!) from your legumes, both of which will keep you satisfied and provide long-lasting energy, she says.
Pasta isn’t evil, but eating a giant portion of white noodles for lunch without any added protein won’t keep your stomach satisfied throughout the rest of your afternoon. In fact, you might end up feeling sluggish afterward.
Plus, if you don’t add anything else to your plate, you can easily go overboard on calories, according to Gans.
The fix: “It’s not the pasta that is the problem per se, it is the lack of protein,” says Gans.
So opt for just one serving of whole grain pasta. The rest of your plate should consist of vegetables, like broccoli sautéed in some olive oil, and protein, like chicken. This way, you’re getting some carbs, protein, and a little bit of fat for a more balanced meal, says Gans.
A side of vegetables? Great choice. A side of vegetables dipped in ranch? Not so much.
Ranch, much like mayo, is packed with calories and contains few nutrients, says St. Pierre. If it gets you to eat your vegetables, great, but there are plenty of other dips that offer a greater nutritional bang for your buck.
The fix: Reach for hummus instead, suggests St. Pierre. It’s loaded with fiber from the chickpeas and healthy fats from the olive oil, which will make your side of vegetables a little more appetizing—not to mention, satisfying.