Do nutrition headlines make your head spin? One day eggs can clog arteries, the next they’re a heart-health champion. Butter is bad for you — now it’s back!
How chocolate, eggs, and certain other “bad” foods can fit into a healthy, balanced diet.
Well, we’re going to let you in on a little secret: Most foods can fit into a balanced, healthy diet.
It’s true. No food is completely off-limits, says Melissa Mitri, a registered dietitian with WellnessVerge, based in Milford, Connecticut. There are definitely some foods you’ll want to enjoy only on special occasions. These include sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda, store-bought cookies and pastries, and processed meats such as hot dogs and deli fare. But that leaves a long list of foods that have been unfairly bad-mouthed.
These taboo foods range from the indulgent (hello, chocolate!) to trendy targets such as carb-heavy fruit and bread. And many, including the six below, are actually super healthy, wholesome picks that can help protect you against chronic diseases.
Let’s put the tabloid back-and-forth to bed. Here are six “naughty” foods that really belong on the “nice” list.
As the star ingredient in many desserts and sugary goodies, chocolate often tops the list of “bad” foods. But chocolate, especially dark chocolate, can be surprisingly healthy.
Chocolate comes from the cacao plant, which contains antioxidants called flavonoids. These have been linked with a lower risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
The more cacao a chocolate bar packs, the more disease-fighting antioxidants it has. In fact, dark chocolate has two to three times the amount of flavanol-rich cacao as milk chocolate, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
So how do you get those benefits? Opt for dark chocolate that’s at least 70% cacao, says Mitri. And keep your servings small, about 1 or 2 ounces per day.
You may want to turn the package over and look at the nutrition facts label too, says Rebecca Valdez, a registered dietitian based in New York City. “Just because a bar is high in cacao doesn’t mean it’s low in added sugar.”
Her simple marker of a healthy pick: look for cacao, not sugar, as the first ingredient on the label.
Snacking on unsalted, unbuttered popcorn can help you score essential nutrients without adding loads of calories. (We’re looking at you, butter-bathed movie theater popcorn.)
That’s because popcorn is simply a corn kernel that’s been heated to its puff point. “It’s naturally low in calories but high in fiber and healthy plant compounds called polyphenols,” says Mitri. “Polyphenols are antioxidants that have been linked to improved circulation, digestive health, and a reduced risk of chronic disease.”
Fiber, meanwhile, is vital for digestive and heart health, and it may help you reach a healthy weight, according to the Mayo Clinic. And yet, research published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine reveals that only 5% of the U.S. population get the recommended amount of fiber. That’s 25 grams per day for women and up to 38 grams for men.
Fiber-rich snacks may help you bridge that gap. Enter: popcorn. It boasts nearly 4 grams of fiber in every 3 cups. Just be sure to limit added salt and butter. Instead, try seasoning your popcorn with lime or cinnamon, Valdez suggests.
3. Whole eggs
Because egg yolks contain cholesterol, it was once thought that eating them would increase cholesterol levels in the body, putting heart health at risk.
But new research shows that eggs (yolks and all) can be a healthy part of an overall nutritious diet. And they may even boost heart health, according to a large study in the journal Heart.
In fact, whole eggs contain a host of good-for-you nutrients, according to the AHA. This includes satiating protein, healthy fats, bone-strengthening vitamin D, and important eye health antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration. Plus, “the protein and fat content of eggs helps you feel full and satisfied,” says Valdez.
Your job: Use a light hand when adding any trimmings (such as butter, oil, salt, or cheese). Aim to use vegetable oils such as corn, canola, or olive oil. Or you can cook eggs oil-free on low to medium heat in a nonstick skillet.
Coffee can be a healthy part of your diet — when sipped in moderation.
“Coffee provides several health benefits, including improved brain function and focus, and it may even help you burn fat and improve your physical performance,” Mitri says.
In addition, the natural brown pigments in coffee (known as melanoidins) act as antioxidants. And this may help explain why drinking coffee has been linked with a lower risk of cognitive decline, type 2 diabetes, and even heart disease.
Boost your coffee benefits by keeping the additions to a minimum. “Drink your coffee black whenever possible to keep calories and added sugar low,” Mitri says.
Keep an eye on how much coffee you pour yourself. The Food and Drug Administration says that 400 milligrams of caffeine — that’s about four or five cups of coffee — a day is generally safe for adults. But some people may be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine than others.
You’ll know you’ve had too much caffeine if you experience insomnia, jitters, a fast heart rate, upset stomach, headache, or nausea. And remember to take other sources of caffeine (such as black tea, soda, energy drinks, and dark chocolate) into account when deciding how much coffee to drink.
Related reading:6 Ways Your Body Changes When You Walk for 30 Minutes a Day
5. White potatoes
Sweet potatoes seem to get all the attention for their nutritional perks. But those Yukon Golds and Idaho russets can be a healthy option too.
In fact, white potatoes and sweet potatoes have a similar nutritional profile. A 3.5-ounce serving of white potato (about half of a medium baked potato with the skin) offers:
- 92 calories
- 21 grams of carbs
- 2 grams of fiber
- 2 grams of protein
- less than 1 gram of fat
Meanwhile, an equal serving of sweet potato has:
- 90 calories
- 21 grams of carbs
- 3 grams of fiber
- 2 grams of protein
- less than 1 gram of fat
So why should you add these spuds to your shopping list? Well, they’re a rich source of nutrients, including vitamin C, B vitamins, iron, and magnesium. One medium potato has more potassium than even a banana. Potassium can support muscle and heart function and can also help lower blood pressure.
Healthy cooking options include baking, boiling, roasting, and air frying. And again, keep those trimmings (butter, oil, bacon bits, cheese) to a minimum. “My recommendation would be to keep the skin on, as the skin also contains lots of nutrients and fiber,” Valdez says. “Just be sure to give your potatoes a good scrub before cooking them.”
Repeat after us: Bread is not the enemy. “Bread is a great source of carbohydrates, which provide your body and brain with energy for your daily activities,” Valdez says.
The key to a healthy loaf starts with flour that comes from whole grains, including whole wheat, oat, and rye, says Valdez. Whole grains contain all three parts of the grain kernel: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The bran is the outer layer of the grain that houses fiber, B vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The germ is the core of the seed. It’s rich in healthy fats, vitamin E, and antioxidants.
White bread, on the other hand, is made with refined grains. These grains are stripped of the bran and germ. While this creates a fluffier end product, it also strips away valuable health-promoting nutrients.
Valdez’s recommendation: Look for bread made with whole grains. You’ll know it’s a good choice when the word “whole” is in front of the flour name on the ingredients list. For example, “whole wheat flour.”
These foods help put the balance into a balanced diet. With a little bit of grocery store smarts, you can work your favorite foods into meals that nourish you — body and soul.
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