12 Foods You Need to Stop Buying—and 17 You Should Eat More
Are you eating as healthy as you think you are?
If you're eating a mix of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, then you're probably pretty far ahead of the nutrition curve. But even if you're hitting your five-a-day, steering clear of the junk food aisle, and are at a healthy weight, there's still a chance you're making mistakes with your food choices without even realizing it. Not all foods are created equal—even the healthy ones—and you might not be getting as many vitamins and nutrients as you believe. In fact, you may inadvertently be loading your body with excess sugar and sodium. We asked top nutrition experts to identify the best and worst foods in every category—veggies, fruits, legumes, grains, proteins, dairy, and fats—so you can close the gaps on your nutritional needs.
Best veggie: Dark, leafy greens
This veggie-packed meal is high in nutrients and low in calories—and it’s tasty to boot. The spinach in these sweet potato and spinach quesadillas contains iron, the sweet potatoes provide immune-boosting beta carotene, and the mozzarella cheese has bone-strengthening calcium. You get an immune boost from the beta carotene in the sweet potatoes, and 20% of your daily iron needs are met with this veggie quesadilla. Plus, this recipe provides more calcium than a glass of milk.
Worst veggie: Anything in a can
Canned veggies are often stripped of fiber and other nutrients, and are often loaded with sodium. If canned veggies are your go-to, you’ll experience decreased nutritional quality or, worse, unknowingly consume them with sugar, additives, sodium, or flavorings that detract from good nutrition and make it harmful.
If you need the convenience of canned vegetables, opt for frozen instead. They're just as healthy as fresh because they’re flash-frozen at the site of harvest. “They have no added sodium and are less wasteful, since you can cook only what you need and keep the rest in the freezer,” explains Rachel Brandeis, RDN. Plus, now frozen vegetables come in microwavable bags, which makes them very convenient for busy families trying to get veggies on the dinner table. (Just be sure you're buying plain vegetables, and not ones coated in any type of sauce.)
Best veggie: Kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and other cruciferous vegetables
Kale isn't the only nutritional superstar in the cruciferous vegetable category. Don't forget to also include cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables in your diet, as well. “Besides adding flavor to your meal, these veggies are packed with antioxidants and have been shown in multiple studies to help reduce cancer risk thanks to the phytochemical sulforaphane,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, author of Belly Fat for Dummies. A study published in Clinics in Dermatology found that the carotenoids zeaxanthin and lutein, both found in cruciferous vegetables, may help protect the eyes against harmful UV rays from the sun and free radicals in the environment. “Aim to consume a minimum of 1 cup per day,” suggests Palinski-Wade. “If you’re not a fan of their texture, try pureeing cauliflower into a rice, which you can also make into a pizza crust!” (Here's a cauliflower rice recipe, as well as a recipe for cauliflower pizza crust.)
RELATED: 7 Health Benefits of Kale
Worst veggie: Starchy vegetables
Corn, peas, potatoes, pumpkin, squash, and yams tend to contain fewer vitamins and minerals and less fiber than other types of vegetables. Plus, they often contain two to three times as many calories per serving as their non-starchy vegetable counterparts. One recent study from Harvard University found that eating leafy greens and cruciferous veggies resulted in significantly more weight loss than potatoes, peas, and corn. “These types of vegetables are best eaten earlier in the day as they’re higher in carbohydrates,” says Roger Adams, PhD, a Houston-based nutritionist.
RELATED: 7 Health Benefits of Sweet Potatoes
Best legume: Simply cooked beans
Chickpeas, black beans, and pinto beans provide an excellent meatless backbone for a healthful meal when combined with whole grains and vegetables. “These are especially good because they are whole-plant foods and are very rich in fiber and plant protein,” says Palmer. “Plus, consuming cooked beans has been linked with reducing your risk of chronic diseases and obesity.” You can cook them yourself or drain and rinse them from a can and add them to salads, soups, casseroles, or curry dishes such as Indian dal. Unlike canned vegetables, canned beans can be a healthy addition to your pantry—they're nutritionally equal, and as long as you rinse them before eating, you won't take in any extra sodium.
Worst legume: Canned baked beans
Unlike regular canned kidney or navy (white) beans, the leading brand of baked beans contains 3 teaspoons of sugar per serving, and 50% more sodium, says Nicole Rodriguez, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist. Cut sugar and salt by making your own. Drain and rinse a can of navy beans and whip up a tomato-based sauce with a touch of barbecue sauce.
You should also be wary of canned bean soups. “Any kind of bean soup is full of fiber and protein, but you if you’re choosing a canned black bean soup or lentil soup, be sure you check to the label,” says Brandeis. “Many of these canned soups are loaded with sodium, well over 900 milligrams per serving.” Look for low-sodium versions with less than 500 mg per serving.
Best fruit: Avocado
Here are a few creative ways you can use the superfood.
Worst fruit: Processed fruit drinks
Often marketed as "real juice," the labels on these products prove otherwise. They’re loaded with sugar, empty calories, and artificial sweeteners. Some companies try to get around the sugar in fruit beverages by adding artificial sweeteners that reduce the amount of sugar on the label, but those can increase cravings for sugary, salty, and unhealthy fatty foods. And it's not just bottled juices you should avoid. Juicing a whole fruit concentrates its sugars and often eliminates the fiber.
Best fruit: Berries
Here’s a morning smoothie that packs superfood punch. The berries contain antioxidants and phytonutrients that help power your heart, keep your mind sharp and kick start digestion. So watch the video for a demo and get your day started right.
Worst fruit: Canned or dried fruit
Fruit is naturally sweet, so it shouldn’t need any added sugar or "sugar-based flavor enhancers" often found in the canned kind. That can include heavy syrups, nectar, or honey. The added sugar only adds excess calories that are totally unnecessary. Dried fruit can also contain added sugar. “While they can add fiber and texture to trail mix, yogurt, oats, and home-made energy bars, they pack a serious caloric punch,” says Rodriguez. Think about it: a raisin is just a shriveled-up grape, so a cup of raisins is going to contain a lot more calories than a cup of whole grapes. “Mind portion sizes by checking the nutrition facts for sugar content and consume in moderation,” Rodriguez says.
Best fruit: Frozen fruit
There’s a smoothie bar inside practically every high-end gym, but that doesn’t mean all smoothies are healthy.
Best grain: Whole grains
Worst grain: White bread and pasta
In refined grains—which include white bread, pasta, rice, crackers, and pretzels—the bran and germ are stripped away. “This type of grain has a higher glycemic index, meaning the sugars can be absorbed into the bloodstream faster, often causing a spike in blood sugar levels,” explains Palmer. This may lead to rapid digestion over consuming calories. “A good way to check whether something is whole or refined grain would be to make sure the first word on the bread or cereal label says ‘whole,’ which means whole grain-based bread,” explains Brandeis. “If the first ingredient is ‘wheat,’ that's a refined grain and offers less nutrition.” Aim for 48 grams of whole grains per day, suggests Brandeis.
Best grain: Ancient grains
Ancient grains are called "ancient" because they haven't changed much in the last several hundred years, unlike modern types of wheat (which have been crossbred). Many ancient grains are nutritional powerhouses rich in protein (quinoa has the most), calcium (teff has more than any other grain), fiber, and an amino acid called lysine, which helps your body burn fat. Rodriguez loves farro: “With a pleasing, chewy texture and slightly nutty flavor, it’s an excellent source of fiber and iron and contains 7 grams of protein per serving,” she says. “Mix feta, fresh parsley, and a bit of fresh lemon juice into hot farro for a tasty accompaniment to chicken or salmon.” (Learn more about the ancient grains you need to try.)
RELATED: 5 Ancient Grains You Need to Try
Worst grain: Sugary cereals
You can't eat just one—serving, that is. A serving of cereal is just half a cup, and a big bowl may rack up as much sugar as a candy bar. “A good way to judge whether a cereal is too high in sugar is to avoid brands with more than 12 grams per serving,” says Brandeis. Those are usually the ones that are at eye level in the cereal aisle and are strategically positioned so little ones can easily see them. “If you really enjoy the high sugar-based cereals, try filling your bowl with half high-sugar cereal and half low-sugar cereal to dilute the amount of added sugar,” she says.
Best grain: Oatmeal
Oats are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, folate, fiber, and potassium, making them a heart-healthy food that lowers cholesterol and burns fat. Avoid packaged packets, which are swimming in added sugar. Instead, use plain old-fashioned oats, and sweeten them with fruit and honey. Want to save time in the morning? Try this recipe for overnight oats.
Best protein: Fish
This salad combines plenty of nutrient-dense superfoods into one delicious dish. Watch this video for a quick demonstration of the grapefruit and avocado salad with seared salmon.
Worst protein: Red meat
The case against red meat (which includes beef, pork, and lamb) seems to grow stronger by the day. It can be high in cholesterol and saturated fat, and eating a lot of it has been linked to several chronic health conditions, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. And in January, two new studies provided even more reasons to cut back on burgers. The first found that red meat may raise the risk for diverticulitis, a common inflammatory bowel condition, and the second found a link between consumption of grilled, smoked, and barbecued meat and higher rates of early death among breast cancer survivors.
Best protein: Chicken
Skinless chicken has less saturated fat than red meat. It's an excellent source of niacin, which helps the body turn food into fuel, as well as selenium, which is important for cognitive function and immune system health. Plus, it's packed with protein and low in calories. One 3.5-ounce breast packs 31 grams of protein for just 165 calories.
Worst protein: Processed meats
It’s always a good idea to limit processed foods of all types when making healthy food choices—and proteins are no exception. “Processed meats, like deli meats, hot dogs, sausages, and cured selections tend to be high in sodium, preservatives, and saturated fat,” says Adams. Although an occasional sausage or hot dog is fine, research suggests eating it regularly may increase the risk of heart disease and colorectal cancer.
Best protein: Tofu
Tofu contains 10 grams of protein per serving, making it a great plant-based protein for anyone, but especially vegetarians and vegans. “It’s basically the curd of soybeans pressed into a sliceable cake that can become firm and sub in quite nicely for meat,” explains Palmer. “Studies link consuming moderate amounts of tofu with lots of benefits, including heart health and even cancer protection.” Use it in stir-fries, curry dishes, lasagna, and vegetable scrambles.
Best protein: Nuts
These bite-size nutrient bombs set you up with heart-healthy fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Avoid nuts packaged or roasted in oil, and instead eat them raw or dry-roasted, and with no salt added. For more info, check out the best and worst nuts for your health.
Best protein: Eggs
Best dairy: Greek yogurt
Here’s a healthy treat you can serve at your next BBQ and the preparation is easier than (peach) pie. Simply grill peach halves, top with honey and Greek yogurt, and serve. Watch the video for a step-by-step demonstration.
Worst dairy: Flavored yogurts
Many flavored yogurts contain up to 30 grams of sugar (that's six and a half teaspoons!) per 6-ounce serving, says Rodriguez. Here's some perspective: a Snickers bar clocks in at 27 grams. While you’re at it, skip the drinkable, squeezable yogurts too, as many contribute more calories from sugar than they do protein, and sipping instead of chewing can compromise satiety. In other words, have a flavored yogurt drink for breakfast and you'll be hungry again well before lunchtime. “Look for yogurts that have less than 10 grams of added sugar and at least 6 grams of protein per serving,” suggests Brandeis.
RELATED: Are You Eating Too Much Sugar?
Best cheese: Cottage cheese
Rich in protein and low in carbohydrates, cottage cheese makes a great choice for those who need to limit their overall carb intake. It’s also a very versatile food. Blend it into smoothies or use it to make protein pancakes for a breakfast option that actually fills you up without the added refined carbs. Palinski-Wade recommends keeping your cottage cheese intake to around a half cup per day, and choosing one low in sodium.
Worst cheese: Processed substitute cheese
Processed cheeses (like the yellow squares of American you loved as a kid) are high in sodium. A grilled cheese sandwich with two slices of white bread and two squares of one popular processed sliced cheese racks up 700 milligrams of sodium, or nearly half of what the average person should consume in a full day.
RELATED: How to Make Vegan Queso Dip
Worst fat: Trans fat
Trans fats are found in fried foods, baked goods, and processed snack foods in the form of partially hydrogenated oils. Food manufacturers love them because they are easy to use, inexpensive to produce, and last a really long time—but they're really bad for your health. Trans fats raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while lowering your HDL (good) cholesterol, and eating lots of them increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. The good news? You won't find hydrogenated oils in foods for much longer. Manufacturers must remove trans fats from their foods by 2018, per a ban by the Food and Drug Administration.
RELATED: What Are Trans Fats, Anyway?
Best fat: Extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil may help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis. On its own, olive oil contains antioxidants, and on top of that, cooking with this type of oil increases your body's ability to absorb antioxidants from veggies. Plus, research proves over and over again that following a Mediterranean diet—which is rich in olive oil—boost longevity and overall health.
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