The most important thing to remember when you begin to overhaul your diet is balanced eating: Creating a healthy pattern overall will have a far greater impact on your health and well-being than eating a bowl of spinach one day and a bowl of ice cream the next.
"Taste and enjoyment plus nutrition quality is the winning combination," says Rebecca Scritchfield R.D.N., H.F.S., author of the upcoming book Body Kindness. "The following foods end up on the 'no' list of many clients and health experts, but I say 'yes' to these as part of a healthy, mindful eating plan."
So set aside your preconceived notions, and take a hard look at the nutrition facts for these surprisingly good-for-you foods.
Okay, so white potatoes don't get the kind of praise sweet potatoes do, but these starchy tubers are still a great high-fiber, low-calorie vegetable. "Spuds offer up potassium, a key mineral in maintaining healthy blood pressure," Scritchfield says. "Baking it with the skin on will retain much more potassium than peeling, cubing and boiling," she adds. Want to make a hearty meal of baked potatoes, rather than just a side? Top with broccoli, lean proteins, and spices like paprika or cumin. (Skip the sour cream and bacon bits, though.)
If you're still holding on to a no-carb or low-carb diet, you're missing out on a lot of nutrients. Complex carbs aren't the issue; in fact, they're packed with vitamins and antioxidants. "Loaded with fiber and resistant starches, beans serve as a 'prebiotic food' that feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut, or microbiome," Scritchfield says. "The soluble fiber also helps keep you feeling full longer." Keep a variety of canned beans—like black, navy, garbanzo, and red kidney—in your pantry to add a boost of protein and fiber to meals.
Sure, there have been recent headlines how meat is making people fat—and it's fair to treat them with some skepticism—but if you're opting for lean cuts of grass-fed beef (like top round and sirloin tip), you'll get a good source of iron and zinc, the two most important minerals in the body, Scritchfield says. "Iron helps deliver oxygen to tissues and organs, while zinc supports the immune system," she explains. Plus, fat isn't always the villain. It adds to taste quality, leaving you feeling satisfied after a meal and keeping you full longer so you don't splurge on processed foods high in sugar and saturated fat later on. "Serve up a palm-sized portion, adding sliced steak into your dishes," Scritchfield recommends.
"Pasta provides energy that fuels our muscles and brain once its broken down, and can serve as the perfect foundation to a meal when paired with fiber-filled vegetables, and proteins, like chicken, shrimp, or beef," Scritchfield says. Whole wheat pasta is a better-for-you option, offering more fiber and other nutrients, while individuals with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivities should opt for rice- and bean-based pastas, she adds.
Butter, as of late, has been welcomed back into the health-conscious fitness sphere. New research suggests it's as bad as we once thought, and maybe even better than the oils we've been using in its place. "It makes foods like vegetables taste better, and the saturated fatty acid, CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), helps improve body composition leanness," Scritchfield says. "Adding a teaspoon to sautéed vegetables will also help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins (E, A, D and K)," she says. Choose butter from grass-fed cows; it has less saturated fat and more unsaturated (good) fatty acids, which can be stored in your muscle cells and provide that pumped-up look when you work out. They can also act as a fuel source during exercise.
Chocolate doesn't have to be dark and bitter to be considered healthy, although dark chocolate is the healthiest, since it's chock-full of antioxidants, flavanols, vitamins, and nutrients. "All forms of chocolate stimulate the release of 'happiness' neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins," Scritchfield says. "It's also rich in plant flavanols, antioxidants, and magnesium, which can help reduce stress." Just be mindful: Don't eat the whole bar. A few squares are good if you want to eat it every day, and 1-3 finger-lengths off the bar if you want to indulge every now and then.
Yeah, you probably heard that report from the World Health Organization suggesting that meat is carcinogenic and bacon's causing cancer. Treat that with some skepticism: "Bacon is not only a great source of thiamine, an energy-producing vitamin, but also rich in protein and nitrates," Scritchfield says. "Nitrates are actually beneficial to our heart health and immune function, and react to the acid in our stomach, forming nitric oxide, which promotes good cardiovascular function." (Don't get too excited, though: nitrates primarily come from vegetables.) "Bake bacon to reduce charring, which will reduce oxidized fats; try adding on top of roasted Brussels sprouts," Scritchfield adds. And remember: It's still high in saturated fat—and sodium, unless you're buying low-salt kinds—so don't expect to demolish half a pound of bacon and magically produce six-pack abs.
"A cup of coffee helps boost your mood by releasing the feel-good hormone dopamine," Scritchfield says. "The antioxidants and caffeine can also help improve workout performance," she adds. Just avoid a cup 4-6 hours before bed to prevent sleep disruptions. Want to reduce your sugar intake? "Doctor up your coffee with calcium-rich milks and warming spices like cinnamon and nutmeg," Scritchfield recommends.
Jump off the egg white bandwagon, and don't look back. "Eggs, including the yolks, are low in calories, rich in protein, and provide 19 valuable vitamins and minerals including choline and lutein, which support healthy nerve and muscle function," Scritchfield says. "The yolk is rich in vitamin D and cholesterol that actually doesn't impact your blood cholesterol," she adds. So get cracking!
"Coconut contains 90% saturated fat, mostly MCTs (medium chain triglycerides)," Scritchfield says. "MCTs are smaller than long-chain triglycerides, which allows them to permeate cells more easily than other fats for more immediate benefits." Coconut is also a natural source of lauric acid, which can kill harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungus on your skin. "You can use coconut oil in cooking in the same way you would use other fats, like butter and oils," Scritchfield says. Its high smoke point makes it a nice choice for baking, though you can use a small amount when sautéing, too.
The research on the benefits of beer post-workout have been conflicting, if not downright confusing, but it's actually a good choice if you're at a bar. "Beer contains several B vitamins, particularly folic acid, which is beneficial to heart health and preventing anemia," Scritchfield says. "It also has lactoflavin and nicotinic acid, which can help reduce insomnia by promoting sleep."
Corn is the vegetable pretty much everyone loves because of its natural sugars. "It's also a good source of carotenoid antioxidants that support immune, eye and skin cells from oxidation," Scritchfield says. "The rich starch and fiber combo provides sustained energy release that can help with blood sugar regulation and serves as a food source for beneficial gut bacteria," she adds. Corn is also naturally gluten-free, to boot. Serve it steamed with herbs like basil or cilantro, or use it to bulk up casseroles, soups, or chowders.
"Cheese, yogurt, and milk not only provide calcium and vitamin D, the fat also promotes satiety," Scritchfield says. "In short: The enjoyment and satisfaction you get from eating these foods helps you manage how much you eat overall." Just be mindful of your serving size.
So long as your cereal isn't rainbow-colored and studded with marshmallows, it's actually a smart snack—especially before bed, since the protein in the milk is a building block of sleep-inducing tryptophan, and carbs make tryptophan more available to the brain. "This duo also contains 10 essential nutrients, including fiber, calcium, vitamin D and potassium, which many people fall short on," Scritchfield says. "What's more, consuming full-fat dairy has been associated with lower body masses, not more." When shopping, look for cereal that contains 5 or more grams of fiber per serving and 9 grams of sugar or less per serving, she recommends; top your bowl with fruit and your favorite nuts and seeds for lasting energy.
Jerky is portable, convenient, and a great source of protein for lasting energy. "While some are loaded with sodium, you can find high-quality jerky for beef, turkey, chicken, and bacon lower in sodium," Scritchfield says. "But if you're a fit guy who's especially active and sweat a lot, you could use the sodium."