The Best and Worst Choices in Every Food Group

The best and worst choices in every food group, according to registered dietitians.

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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.

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Best Veggie: Dark, Leafy Greens

Dark green veggies, such as spinach, Swiss chard, kale, and broccoli are one of the best sources of vitamin E. Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant and may be key in protecting the body against pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines, according to a 2020 study published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research.

Dark green veggies are also high in nutrients like calcium, iron, and disease-fighting flavonoids.

02 of 29

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," said 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.)

However, keep in mind that canned vegetables are a better choice than not eating any vegetables at all. If fresh or frozen veggies aren't an option, look for canned vegetables with no added salt or sugar.

03 of 29

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," said Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, author of Belly Fat for Dummies.

"Aim to consume a minimum of 1 cup per day," said 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 recipe for cauliflower pizza crust.)

04 of 29

Worst Veggie: Starchy Vegetables

Corn, peas, potatoes, pumpkin, squash, and yams are all considered starchy vegetables. However, not all starch vegetables offer the same nutritional benefits. For instance, yams and pumpkins are excellent sources of fiber and beta-carotene. While potatoes are high in potassium.

Overall, starchy vegetables are high in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals and should be included in a healthy diet. However, they should make up about one-quarter of a healthy plate since they are sources of carbohydrates.

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.

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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," said 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.

06 of 29

Worst Legume: Canned Baked Beans

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 can greatly reduce the sodium content. (The leading brand of baked beans contains 3 teaspoons of sugar per serving, and 50% more sodium, said Nicole Rodriguez, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist).

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," said 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.

07 of 29

Best Fruit: Avocado

Nutritionists like to call the avocado a powerhouse superfood. Technically fruits, avocados deliver on healthy fats—and are packed with anti-aging, disease-fighting antioxidants and nearly 20 different vitamins and minerals.

According to the US Department of Agriculture: One whole Hass avocado—without the skin and seed—supplies over 30% of the daily fiber target; 30% of the daily value for folate, a B vitamin needed to make new healthy cells; 36% for vitamin K, necessary for blood clotting and bone health; 20% for immune and skin supporting vitamin C; 13% for vitamin E, an antioxidant that also supports immune function; 20% for potassium, needed for heart, muscle, and nerve function and blood pressure regulation; and 10% for magnesium, a mineral required for over 300 reactions in the body, including heartbeat, bone health, blood sugar regulation, and nerve and muscle function.

08 of 29

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, according to Harvard Medical School, the use of artificial sweeteners can make you pass over healthy, filling, and highly nutritious foods while consuming more artificially flavored foods with less nutritional value.

And it's not just bottled juices you should avoid. Juicing a whole fruit concentrates its sugars and often eliminates the fiber.

09 of 29

Best Fruit: Berries

Berries contain antioxidants and phytonutrients that help power your heart, keep your mind sharp and kick start digestion.

Berries contain polyphenol compounds, which are known to have anti-inflammatory effects in human beings, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

10 of 29

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," said 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," said Rodriguez.

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Best Fruit: Frozen Fruit

Frozen fruits are some of the healthiest foods in the freezer section. Because most frozen fruits are frozen shortly after they're harvested, they're allowed to fully ripen.

This means they're chock full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, locking in many of their nutrients, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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Best Grain: Whole Grains

Whole grains deliver on fiber, healthy plant-based protein, vitamins, minerals, and a variety of phytochemicals. Adults need about 25 to 35 grams of fiber daily, and whole grains contain two types—soluble and insoluble—which are both beneficial to your health.

You'll get 5.8 grams of fiber in two slices of dark rye bread, but only 1.9 grams from the same amount of white bread.

If your mornings are hectic, overnight oats are a nutritious and tasty meal that can be ready the moment you wake up. Think about arranging ingredients or making an entire week's worth of breakfasts.

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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," said 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," said 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.

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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," said Rodriguez. "Mix feta, fresh parsley, and a bit of fresh lemon juice into hot farro for a tasty accompaniment to chicken or salmon."

15 of 29

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," said 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," said Brandeis.

16 of 29

Best Grain: Oatmeal

Oats are rich in folate, fiber, potassium, and, if fortified with omega-3s, a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.

This makes them a heart-healthy food that lowers cholesterol and burns fat. Avoid packaged packets, which can be swimming in added sugar. Instead, use plain old-fashioned oats, and sweeten them with fruit and honey.

17 of 29

Best Protein: Fish

Fish supply us with omega-3s, fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines) are a prime heart-healthy food.

Omega-3s help reduce inflammation in the body. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, omega-3s have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.

Fish also contain antioxidants. American Heart Association recommends having at least two serving of fish (and ideally fatty fish) every week.

18 of 29

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.

In a 2019 study published in The BMJ, Harvard scientists calculated that an increase in total red meat consumption of at least half a serving a day (about 1.5 ounces) was associated with a 10% higher death risk. Red meat has also been shown to increase "bad" LDL cholesterol, and negatively impact blood pressure and artery stiffening, per a 2016 study in the Journal of Internal Medicine.

19 of 29

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.

20 of 29

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," said 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, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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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," said 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.

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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.

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Best Protein: Eggs

According to the USDA, one large raw egg contains:

  • 6.30 grams of protein
  • 147 milligrams of choline
  • 0.53 milligrams of vitamin E
  • 2.05 micrograms of vitamin D
  • 0.02 milligrams of folate

But do they pack in too much cholesterol? A 2018 study published in the journal Heart suggests that people who eat eggs aren't any worse off than those who don't. People who reported eating up to one egg per day had an 11% lower risk of developing heart disease—and an 18% lower risk of dying from it—than those who did not eat eggs.

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Best Dairy: Greek yogurt

Creamy and delicious—Greek yogurt tastes like dessert, and boasts more protein (12 to 20 grams of protein per container) than traditional yogurts. The fat-free variety is packed with twice as much protein as regular yogurt. And just one serving provides about one-fourth of a woman's daily calcium needs.

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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, said 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," said Brandeis.

26 of 29

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 recommended keeping your cottage cheese intake to around a half cup per day, and choosing one low in sodium.

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Worst Cheese: Processed Substitute Cheese

Processed cheeses (like the yellow squares of American you loved as a kid) are high in sodium, approximately 300 mg of sodium per slice, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A sandwich with sliced, processed cheese, turkey, mustard and break can add up to over 1500 mg of sodium, according to the CDC.

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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.

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Best Fat: Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra virgin olive oil may help reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, according to Medline Plus.

On its own, olive oil contains antioxidants. But on top of that, cooking with this type of oil increases your body's ability to absorb antioxidants from veggies.

A 2015 study published in Food Chemistry found that vegetables fried in extra virgin olive oil improved their antioxidant capacity and the amount of phenolic compounds, which prevent chronic degenerative pathologies such as cancer, diabetes or macular degeneration.

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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