These Sneaky Side Dishes Are Killing Your Diet

You can’t build a good meal with an entrée alone — side dishes change up the flavors, textures, and even the colors and temperatures on your plate. Unfortunately, even the healthiest main dishes almost don’t count if their sides aren’t equally as good for you.

Many of your favorite sides, whether you’re adding them to your order or making them at home, aren’t healthy. They might seem fine at first glance, but further investigation often proves otherwise. Here are a few sneaky sides secretly sabotaging your diet, and how to choose better alternatives.

1. Baked beans

Side dishes like baked beans are hiding unhealthy ingredients.

Without sauce, beans are extremely healthy. |

Navy beans, a type of bean commonly used in baked bean recipes, are extremely healthy. They’re high in fiber and protein, and they’re on the low end of the glycemic index. You’re filling your plate with much more, though, when you opt for a side of baked beans. Homemade baked beans also offer plenty of tomato paste, molasses, brown sugar, salt, and probably bacon, too. Canned baked beans will have even more salt, and probably some added flavors and colors. Try a different bean recipe, or keep your baked bean consumption to a minimum when the next neighborhood barbecue rolls around.

2. Coleslaw

Coleslaw looks like a healthy side dish, but it isn't.

Both sour cream and mayo are mostly made of fat. |

Coleslaw is filled with healthy vegetables — mostly cabbage, carrots, and onions. But what’s good old-fashioned coleslaw without the sour cream, mayo, vinegar, salt, and sugar? Sadly, the creamier the slaw, the more fat and calories you’re adding to your meal’s grand total. Feeling creative? You can make coleslaw without mayo — just use a little honey, lemon juice, and olive oil instead. If not, maybe opt for a small side salad.

3. Creamed corn

Side dishes like creamed corn aren't as healthy as you'd like to think.

Many people still consider corn a vegetable. It’s actually a grain. |

A side of corn will keep you full long after you finish your meal because, as points out, it’s packed with protein and fiber. How you prepare this grain, though, can alter its status as a reasonably healthy side dish. Creamed corn, as its name implies, is creamy — an adjective in the food world that means it’s loaded with butter. In fact, creamed corn is a mixture of corn, butter, salt, flour, sugar, and heavy cream. It’s a dream dish for people who love things smothered in sauce, but its high calorie count and alarming amount of saturated fat pushes it further toward the nope list. Grilled corn on the cob, even with a little butter, has plenty of flavor without the creamy coating.

4. Cornbread

There's more sugar in cornbread than you might think.

Cornbread’s sweetness comes with a cost. |

Cornbread, chili’s best sidekick, is light and sweet. It wouldn’t turn out that way without the help of a few key ingredients — butter, flour, sugar, and eggs. In most cornbread recipes, butter acts as the main emulsifier, creating a baked treat with just the right crumbly texture. Even though it’s made with cornmeal instead of wheat, corn is still a heavily processed grain. You might want to stick with a whole grain-based bread if you’re looking for a healthier alternative.

5. Potato salad

Potato salad is a side dish you can probably do without.

More mayo, more problems. | MSPhotographic

Summers bring mayonnaise-based salads to the table the same way holidays bring endless creamy casseroles to the buffet. Just because it has the word salad in it, though, doesn’t mean it’s a side dish you can count on. Mayonnaise, the glue that holds a potato salad together, is a mixture of vegetable oil, egg yolk, vinegar, and mustard. And most packaged versions of the condiment are loaded with sugar, preservatives, and other food additives. Consider roasting a pound of small red potatoes with rosemary and olive oil instead. You’ll still get your potato fix, but there’s no mayo or salty relish involved.

6. Macaroni salad

Macaroni salad is not a healthy side dish.

If it’s creamy, so it’s probably unhealthy. |

We are sure you can guess this is no better than the potato salad we just mentioned. Plenty of mayo means more calories, fat, and just about everything else you don’t need more of. Smothering pasta in mayo, salt, and mustard adds more sugar and sodium to your meal than you realize. And macaroni noodles made with refined white flour also lack many of the essential nutrients whole-grain pastas provide. Baked macaroni and cheese, which is slightly healthier, can make an equally delicious substitute.

7. Pasta salad

Skip the pasta salad at your next picnic.

Salad dressing is extremely salty, especially on pasta. |

Pasta salad is probably healthier than macaroni salad, right? Not by much. This go-to picnic dish does usually include a few varieties of peppers, cheese, tomatoes, and olives. But most pasta salad recipes call for Italian dressing. Kraft Zesty Italian Dressing yields 60 calories per 2 tablespoon serving, plus 4.5 grams of fat and 300 milligrams of sodium. Using a little bit of olive oil instead of dressing is almost as delicious — and it’s much better for you.

8. Sweet potato casserole

Sweet potatoes are healthy by themselves.

Generally, casseroles aren’t on the healthy side of delicious. |

Sweet potatoes by themselves are among the healthiest vegetables you can eat. They’re an especially great source of vitamin C, The World’s Healthiest Foods says, which provides a variety of long-term health benefits. However, a sweet potato casserole recipe usually involves butter, brown sugar, vanilla extract, and, sometimes, marshmallows. That’s a lot of sugar, fat, and salt. Baked sweet potatoes — even homemade sweet potato fries — will healthfully satisfy your cravings without all that extra nonsense. Save the calorie-dense casseroles for special occasions like Thanksgiving.

9. Hushpuppies

Hushpuppies are fried with oil and butter.

It’s made of corn, but it’s still not good for you. |

An order of fried seafood, especially in the South, almost always comes with hushpuppies. A hushpuppy starts out as simple, innocent cornmeal. You then mix that cornmeal with eggs, sugar, a little bit of flour, and fry it in oil to create a classic batch of hushpuppies. As good as it tastes, fried cornmeal is a sugary, fatty side dish you should steer clear of as much as possible. They’re a much-needed treat every now and again, but try not to make them your go-to side.

10. Fried polenta

Even if you don't fry it, polenta isn't the healthiest side dish.

They always get you with the sauce. |

Think of polenta as grits’ close relative — the two dishes are traditionally made from different types of corn. Polenta itself is a mixture of cornmeal, butter, and salt. Frying it usually involves oil, plus cheese, salt, and an even saltier dipping sauce. Sticking with basic polenta, no frying included, is the easiest way to make this side dish healthier. You can also pair polenta with cooked vegetables to boost its nutritional value.

11. Zucchini fritters

Fried zucchini is high in sodium and fat.

There are better ways to eat vegetables. |

Frying your veggies isn’t the healthiest way to sneak more produce into your diet. Zucchini fritters, for example, usually involve pan-frying egg- and cheese-covered zucchini slices in vegetable oil. You might even add ranch sauce to the mix for added flavor (and calories). Dipping the finished fritters in your favorite condiment after the fact only adds to this veggie side gone salty. Grill your vegetables instead of frying them. You can add flavor to a grilled vegetable and still enjoy a healthy meal with an amazing side.

12. Sautéed mushrooms

Mushrooms aren't healthy when you fry them.

Sautéing is like deep-frying, but faster. |

Fresh mushrooms are a heart-healthy vegetable, naturally high in fiber and low in sodium and fat. However, it’s easy to take things a little too far when preparing them. Sautéed veggies aren’t as healthy as their title makes them out to be. The nutritional value of anything you sauté depends on what you’re using as your frying agent, so using large amounts of vegetable oil, butter, and flavorful sauces adds way too much sodium and fat to an otherwise healthy side dish. Drizzle a little olive oil on baked or grilled mushrooms instead.

13. Loaded mashed potatoes

Keep your mashed potatoes simple.

Does bacon really belong in mashed potatoes? |

Do you prefer your potatoes fried, baked, mashed, loaded, or all of the above? Loaded mashed potatoes might have a few healthy ingredients in them, like green onions. But they are much more likely to contain large amounts of sour cream, salt, cheese, and of course, bacon. Also, the creamier a bowl of mashed potatoes, loaded or not, the more butter you’re unknowingly eating with every bite. Stick with a mashed potato recipe with as few ingredients as possible to keep things healthy. You can also substitute mashed sweet potatoes, which Organic Facts says are loaded with nutrition, or cauliflower for a similar side option.

14. White rice

White rice lacks many of the nutrients in brown rice.

Of all the rices, this one has the weakest nutrient profile. |

Many people choose white rice over brown rice when given the option. It gives them the freedom to add their own flavoring to an otherwise boring side. It’s not a very healthy grain, though. Eat This, Not That! explains white rice is a refined carbohydrate, meaning it’s missing a large portion of its nutrition. White rice isn’t the worst side dish in the world, but you can do better. Brown and wild rice have different textures and flavors, depending on how you prepare them, but they’re healthier to eat. You can also replace rice altogether and go with a different grain. Quinoa, amaranth, and spelt are all versatile and healthy options worth trying.

15. Tater tots

Tater tots aren't any healthier than french fries.

Tater Tots is a registered trademark. Like Ziploc or Kleenex, it’s become the generic term for deep-fried cylindrical potato pieces. |

Let’s be honest — most of us crave tots for the inevitable nostalgia. They’re the most memorable part of high school lunch, probably because they’re just as unhealthy as french fries. Really, they’re just bite-sized, deep-fried potatoes that pair amazingly with (dinosaur-shaped) chicken nuggets. They taste even better with dipping sauce, which doesn’t give them much of a health boost. If you want to get creative, you can make a healthier batch of tots using different ingredients. Try using vegetables or vegetable puree as a base, coat the tots in herbs or spices, and bake them. They’re not quite the same, but you might still love the taste.