7 “Bad” Foods That Are Actually Good for You
Some foods don't deserve their bad reputation—here's why.
There’s no shortage of advice on what we should and shouldn’t eat, especially on the web—and once a food is labeled as a no-no, it’s a hard rap to beat (even if that rap is based on shaky science, if any science at all).
It feels like we’ve heard it all: carbs make you gain weight, fruit juice is loaded with more sugar than fruit, eggs are bad for your cholesterol. The list is endless, and in some cases, the foods that we’re being told to ghost actually offer some pretty important health perks.
Here are seven foods that you shouldn’t write off entirely, and how to make the most of them:
1. Red Meat
People demonize red meat because it’s relatively high in unsaturated fat, but it also offers many key nutrients, including protein and iron, says Boston-based registered dietitian Sheri Kasper, R.D.N. Instead of avoiding it altogether and feeling deprived, the trick is to choose your products wisely and prepare them thoughtfully.
For example, buying lean and low-fat meats and creating blended meat options: high-quality ground beef with finely diced mushrooms can make for healthier meatballs, meatloaf, or taco fillings that are just as satisfying. There are even blended burger options on the market now, such as Grateful Burgers, which are made with 60 percent meat and 40 percent veggies—a super-convenient way to enjoy red meat and add to your veggie quota while you’re at it.
Because potatoes are on the starchy side of the spectrum and are most famous for being transformed into unhealthy eats such as french fries and chips, they tend to be overlooked as a healthy meal option. “Potatoes actually provide several vitamins and minerals, including potassium and vitamin C,” says Kristen Smith, R.D., registered dietitian and founder of 360 Family Nutrition. “They also offer a moderate amount of fiber, especially when eaten with the skin on.”
When cooked and flavored just so, potatoes can easily be included as part of a balanced, healthy meal. Aim to fill about a quarter of your plate with potatoes (skin intact), Smith recommends, and stick to cooking methods like baking, boiling, or broiling, as opposed to frying. Be mindful of added fat as you prepare potatoes—flavor with olive oil, flavored vinegars, or fresh herbs instead.
3. Cow’s Milk
With so many milk alternatives on the market, the dairy aisle’s become a pretty crowded place. “People are tempted to explore other options because there’s a tendency to assume that plant-based means healthy,” says Kasper. “But the reality is that non-dairy alternatives vary in their nutritional values, and their health impact hasn’t been thoroughly studied.”
Meanwhile, traditional cow’s milk has been well-studied for decades and has been found an important source of nine essential nutrients, including calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and protein. Plus, you can be certain that plain cow’s milk won’t contain added sugar—the same cannot be said for all non-dairy milk alternatives, says Kasper.
The best way to make the most of your milk intake is to mix things up. “Whole milk may promote fullness, and serve as a better vehicle for fat soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A and D, compared to low-fat and fat-free alternatives,” says Edwina Clark, R.D., head of nutrition and editorial content at Raised Real. The calories and saturated fat content can add up quickly, however (one cup of whole milk contains roughly 148 calories and 5 grams of saturated fat, which is about one-quarter of the daily recommendation for most people), so it’s best to keep your whole milk dairy to one serving per day and enjoy the other two recommended servings as reduced fat products, says Clark.
Yet another food that’s been vilified for its saturated fat content in the past, recent evidence shows that eating eggs—in particular, the yolk—doesn’t have the negative effect on cholesterol once thought, says Clark. Eggs are a rich source of protein, and the yolk contains many important nutrients, including vitamin A (eye health), choline (cognitive function), and vitamin D (bone health, immune system). Eating up to seven eggs per week is safe for most, says Clark. Easy ways to incorporate them include: whipping up a quick scramble for breakfast, adding hard-boiled eggs to salad, or a fried egg over a veggie stir-fry.
Previously, peanuts got a bad rap because of their calorie and fat content, with 1 ounce (roughly 35 peanuts) clocking in at around 170 calories and 14 grams of fat, says New York-based registered dietitian Maya Feller, R.D. Fortunately, the fat content is primarily healthy fatty acids—and when substituted for saturated fat in the diet, can help reduce bad cholesterol levels while maintaining good levels, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Peanuts are also an excellent source of protein and dietary fiber.
“The key to keeping nuts healthy is to have them without added sugars or fats, and for those that are salt sensitive, without added salts,” says Feller. One serving of raw or roasted nuts each day can be a nutritious snack as part of a well-rounded diet. They can also be added to a wide variety of dishes, such as salads, stir-fry, or even your favorite frozen yogurt.
Sure, bread is a carb—but contrary to popular belief, not all carbs are bad for us and don’t necessarily equal weight gain, says Carrie Walder, R.D., registered dietitian and founder of Walder Wellness. Some breads are an excellent source of complex carbs and fiber, as well as B vitamins, iron, and magnesium.
To get the most bang for your buck, choose whole wheat bread that has a high fiber content, suggests Walder. Look for the first ingredient on the label to say “whole wheat,” and for there to be about 5 grams of fiber per slice.
“Other ingredients should be simple and recognizable, such as yeast, water, salt, and seeds,” she says. Be cautious of added sugars (anything that ends in “-ose”) and other ingredients you have trouble pronouncing. When eating bread, keep the toppings nutritious—sandwiches loaded with veggies, tuna salad with mashed avocado, or peanut butter with mashed berries and cinnamon, are all convenient and super-healthy ways to enjoy your carbs.
7. Fruit Juice
Fruit juices have earned a reputation as being more sugar-filled than nutrient-dense—however, so long as it’s 100 percent fruit juice, it can be part of a healthy eating plan, says registered dietitian Toby Amidor, R.D., author of Smart Meal Prep for Beginners. In fact, the most recent dietary guidelines for Americans counts 100 percent fruit juice toward your daily fruit quota. Although you don’t want to your entire fruit intake to be in juice form (it’s lower in fiber than whole fruit, and drinking it in excess can cause an uptick in calories), consuming an 8-fluid ounce class here and there is a tasty way to take in your daily dose of fruit when fresh isn’t within reach, says Amidor