Losing weight, boosting your energy, eating better: Whatever your health goals may be, dropping bad behaviors and replacing them with healthier ones is the first step to achieving them. Sometimes, though, your "better" choice has its own downsides—and may not actually be good for you at all. Here, experts reveal the truth about some of the most common health swaps to help you decide what's best to help you reach your goals.
The swap: A normal diet for gluten-free
People with celiac disease have a reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, or rye, and if they don't eliminate it from their diets they can seriously damage their intestines. But other people jump on the gluten-free bandwagon as a way to lose weight. And it's not an effective approach, says Kari Ikemoto, RD with HealthCare Partners in Los Angeles, Calif. "Many packaged, pre-made gluten free foods are often higher in calories, sugar, salt, and fat and lower in valuable nutrients like fiber and iron." If you do want to avoid gluten because you think you might have an intolerance, try to stick to naturally gluten-free foods such as fruit, corn, brown rice, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy, oatmeal, and lean proteins.
The swap: Regular soda for diet soda
Gave up sugary drinks? Good for you! Thing is, switching to diet won't necessarily help you drop pounds. A 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that people who drank diet soda daily nearly tripled their abdominal fat over nine years versus those who did not drink diet soda. Those who didn't drink diet soda gained an average of 0.8 inches around their waists, while daily diet drinkers gained 3.16 inches. "Artificial sweeteners increase your addiction to sweets and are a much stronger stimulant of the brain's pleasure center than sugar," says Brian Quebbemann, MD, a weight loss specialist in Newport Beach, Calif. "As a result, artificial sweeteners may be more addictive than sugar, and in fact cause people to crave sweets even more." Cut out soda sweetened beverages altogether or substitute fizzy water with lemon or other fruit slices.
The swap: Soap and water for hand sanitizer
You have hand sanitizer stashed in your bag, so why take the extra effort to find a bathroom and wash your hands the old-fashioned way? The problem, says Michael Schmidt, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina, is that alcohol kills microbes by drying them out and killing them. With long-term use, you will begin to deplete your skin of the protective oils and damage the elasticity of your skin, Schmidt says. Plus, alcohol-based hand sanitizer is not considered as effective at killing all types of germs. It's fine to use hand sanitizer (choose an alcohol-based one that's 60-95% alcohol) when soap and water is not available, he says, just not as a regular substitute for real soap and water.
The swap: Regular soap for antibacterial
Using antibacterial soap as a way to amp up the effectiveness of the regular variety isn't necessary, says Schmidt. "Drug resistant bacteria came about from the overuse of antimicrobials," he says. "So why add an antibiotic to something that is perfectly functional without the addition of the drug?" In addition, animal studies link a chemical in antimicrobial soaps called triclosan to cancer and liver fibrosis, and researchers say the mechanisms are also relevant in humans. Triclosan may do its damage by interfering with a protein responsible for clearing foreign chemicals in the body. (Check the label since some manufacturers are removing this ingredient.)
The swap: Whole-fat dairy for fat-free
Your waistline may thank you for choosing full-fat milk and yogurt over fat-free. Sticking to skim may increase your risk for belly fat obesity, according to Swedish researchers. Men in the 2013 study who consumed high-fat milk dairy products were less likely to become obese in their midsections over 12 years compared to men who consumed a medium amount and even less so than those who never or rarely ate high-fat dairy. "Fat slows down digestion and helps you feel satisfied," says Amy Goodson, RD, sports nutritionist for the Dallas Cowboys. For milk lovers looking to drop pounds or follow American Heart Association guidelines, Goodson suggests a compromise by suggesting switching to low-fat (such as 1% milk), not fat-free (skim milk), dairy.
The swap: Some meat for no meat
Vegetarians and vegans tend to be thinner than meat-eaters, according to a 2013 study of nearly 72,000 adults published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That said, cutting out meat isn't a surefire solution to slim down. "The problem with vegetarian, especially strict vegan, is that there is a much more limited choice of high-protein foods," says Dr. Quebbemann. "High-protein foods are extremely filling and satisfying, so they actually help you eat fewer calories." For this reason, newly meat-free eaters end up eating many more calories than they would if they included some dairy or fish in their diets, he adds. Plus, it can be hard to get vitamin B12 from an animal product-free diet. So if you do go vegan, be sure to make plant-based proteins like beans, nuts, and soy 30% of your total calorie intake, and look for vitaminB12-fortified foods.
The swap: Three daily meals for small meals all day
Many experts recommend eating smaller meals throughout the day (typically five or six) instead of three larger meals. The idea is the regular meals help stabilize your blood sugar and therefore your hunger. But it doesn't work for everyone, says Ikemoto. "The jury is out if it actually leads to weight loss," she says. "If you're not careful, eating more throughout the day can provide extra calories that can pack on the pounds." The smarter strategy: when your stomach's rumbling—and it's been at least 4 hours since your last meal—have a snack that includes a healthy carb and protein, such as a cup of Greek yogurt topped with blueberries or a couple slices of turkey and an apple.
The swap: Butter for margarine
Margarine isn't always a better choice than butter for heart health. "Stick margarines are often made through a process called hydrogenation, transforming liquid oil into a solid, resulting in the creation of trans fats, which decrease good cholesterol and increase bad cholesterol," says Ikemoto. A new study published in the British Medical Journal showed a clear link between trans fats and heart disease, while butter and other saturated fats were not associated with an increased risk of death, stroke, type 2 diabetes, or heart disease. That said, the American Heart Association still advises limiting saturated fats to no more than 5 to 6% of your total calories. Tub margarines with no hydrogenated oils listed in the ingredients may be your best bet for a healthy heart.
The swap: A regular desk for a standing desk
You've probably seen the scary reports about "sitting disease." Research shows that the more time you spend sitting, the higher your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and death by any cause. Though switching to standing desk seems like a logical solution, an all-or-nothing approach can bring its own set of problems, like leg cramps, backaches, and foot pain, says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist based in Connecticut. If you decide to try a standing desk, Holland suggests starting by standing 10 minutes alternating with sitting 10 minutes and working your way up to longer periods of time.
The swap: A desk chair for a fitness ball
Similarly to using a stand-up desk, substituting a fitness ball for your office chair all at once can prove more trouble than it's worth. In theory, sitting on an unstable surface such as a fitness ball requires your core muscles to kick in. But it only works if you consciously focus on using your core, which is difficult to do for long periods of time, says Holland. "You can easily start hunching forward if you don't remain conscious of your form while sitting," he explains. "And if you can sit perfectly on the ball to start, you likely don't even need the ball." Swap out the ball for your office chair only for short increments of time (10 to 20 minutes), suggests Holland.
The swap: Snacks for energy bars
Sure, an energy bar will give you a quick jolt—but then you'll crash. That's because some bars rev you up with sugar, unlike healthy unprocessed food snacks (like an apple and cheese), which provide longer-lasting energy with healthy carbs, fiber, and protein. "Energy bars are often packed with hidden sugars such as agave syrup, rice syrup, and high fructose corn syrup, as well as highly addictive sugar substitutes like sucralose, and 'natural flavors' that aren't," says Dr. Quebbemann. He points to one energy bar that contains 120 calories, only 2 grams of protein, and very few nutrients.
The swap: Salad greens for kale
If your stomach starts rumbling in the afternoon, it could be the kale salad you ate for lunch. "Kale can be rough to digest," says James Lee, MD, a gastroenterologist with St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif. "It contains a high amount of fiber as well as oligosaccharides, which can only be digested by our colonic bacteria. This can cause gas and bloating in some people, especially those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)." Sautéing, steaming, or making soup from kale increases its digestibility.
More from Health.com: