Foods You Don’t Have to be Afraid Of
Following a healthful diet can leave you feeling deprived when you think your favorite foods (meat, cheese, pasta or eggs, for example) are off-limits. Fortunately—unless you have an allergy, intolerance or a medical condition that prevents you from eating these foods—the key to keeping them on your plate is knowing how to choose wisely, with an emphasis on a reasonable amount of the highest quality products.
Enjoying these foods without derailing your efforts for a healthy lifestyle is absolutely possible, with a little bit of know-how:
Meat and dairy have been vilified for decades because of their saturated fat and cholesterol content. Here are the facts: Some saturated fats can raise your blood cholesterol, which in turn increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. However, the dietary cholesterol in meat and dairy isn’t a big contributor to most people’s blood cholesterol levels. And both meat and milk are complete proteins, meaning that they contain all of the essential amino acids our bodies need for growth and tissue repair. In addition, grass-fed meat (and dairy from grass-fed cows—a relatively new offering) contain heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which most of us don’t get enough of in our diets.
How to Choose Wisely: When shopping for meat, the ideal choices are grass-fed and, if possible, organic (antibiotic-free and growth hormone-free) and pasture-raised (also known as free-range). This will ensure the highest quality of both the nutrient content of the food as well as the environment in which the animal lived. Choose lean cuts of beef such as eye of round, sirloin tip, top round or top sirloin, and stick with a 3- to 4-ounce portion (about the size of an average smartphone). When choosing dairy, go for organic, and consider opting for 1% or 2% over skim milk, as the fat will help you feel more satisfied. Even cheese and butter don’t need to be off limits—again, have a small amount of a high-quality product (one serving of cheese is the size of two small dice). And don’t forget about yogurt. It’s a great source of protein and contains immune-boosting probiotics.
Egg yolks have a fair amount of cholesterol, and many continue to fear them based on an outdated idea that the cholesterol in food raises our blood cholesterol levels. The key to appreciating eggs is to understand that, for most of us, the amount of cholesterol in a food—a.k.a. dietary cholesterol—has only a small influence on our cholesterol levels, which are more strongly influenced by our saturated fat intake and genetics. (The same is true for meat and dairy). This means that most of us can eat one egg—with the yolk—a day without concern. (If you have heart disease, check with your doctor about the amount of egg yolks that are safe for you.) Eggs are also naturally portable, portion-controlled and easy to prepare, making them a fridge staple for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
How to Choose Wisely: Celebrate the egg for the ideal food that it is—whether hard boiled, scrambled, in an omelette or poached (try our Cajun Poached Eggs), you can enjoy it in many healthful preparations. Choose free-range, organic eggs with omega-3s when possible. Most importantly, don’t always skip out on the yolks—while the white contains most of the protein, the yolk contains many of the vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.
Of all the foods on this list, fruit’s reputation has truly been bruised. Many elimination or fad diets require that you ditch fruit altogether for the first weeks or even months of following a plan. Why? Fruit is high in sugar, which means it can contribute to weight gain. But the difference between fruit and a candy bar is that fruit’s sugar is naturally occurring and comes packaged with important nutrients: fiber, which helps you feel full and lowers your risk of diabetes and heart disease, and antioxidants, compounds that protect your cells from damage. The candy bar is also going to be higher in sugar, as well as unhealthy fats.
How to Choose Wisely: If you’re a fruit fanatic, just keep in mind that you can have too much of a good thing. Aim for 2 to 4 servings of fruit a day (depending on if you’re trying to lose weight and/or have high blood sugar). Pair them with a protein—like an apple with a small amount of cheese, berries mixed with milk or yogurt in a smoothie or a banana with a smear of nut butter—to help balance your blood sugar levels and ensure you get a steady source of energy. The key to reaping the antioxidant benefits of fruit is variety. Opt for a rainbow of seasonal, local produce when possible; fruits have the highest antioxidant content when they are eaten at the peak of their season. Choosing organic is most important for porous fruits, like strawberries, and those with edible skins, like apples and nectarines, because of their tendency to have high pesticide residue levels. (See the Environmental Working Group’s annual Dirty Dozen Plus list for more.)
Gluten, Grains, Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates grains and gluten aren’t inherently bad for you, unless you have a condition that keeps you from digesting them properly. In fact, carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. The bad reputation surrounding carbs is due to the fact that most people overeat the highly processed kinds that are high in calories and low in fiber. Whole-food carbs are high in B vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. We suggest that carbs should comprise about 40 to 50 percent of your daily calories (40 to 45 percent if you’re trying to lose weight). Remember that carbs aren’t just grains—they also include include vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and legumes, which are all important sources of nutrition
How to Choose Wisely: Emphasize whole-grain, minimally processed carbohydrates with at least 5 grams of fiber per serving, while limiting highly processed, refined carbohydrates like baked goods, sugary cereals, cookies and crackers. Some people do benefit from a gluten-free diet, including those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. We also recommend a gluten-free diet for any autoimmune disease (specifically to reduce inflammation) and for most gastrointestinal conditions. Many people have less gas and bloating on a gluten-free diet. But if you are going gluten-free, it’s important to remember that junk food minus the gluten isn’t better for you; it will likely contain more fat and sugar to replace the mouth-feel lost with gluten. Instead of turning mainly to processed gluten-free foods, opt for more whole-food carbohydrates that are naturally gluten-free such as quinoa, amaranth, winter squash and legumes.
The controversy surrounding fish has little to do with their nutrition content and everything to do with the environment in which they are raised. Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are of concern in the larger, long-lived fish, namely blue fin tuna, king mackerel, shark, swordfish and tilefish. Many fish farms are cramped and have unclean conditions, and the fish are fed an unnatural diet, which alters the quality of the protein on your plate. However, the risks of eating fish don’t outweigh the benefits, particularly the fact that fish is low in saturated fat and high in omega-3 fatty acids.
How to Choose Wisely: Buy local when possible, or frozen fish from the coastal regions. Avoid the long-lived fish listed above and instead go for a variety of both fatty fish (anchovies, herring, mackerel, salmon and sardines) and low-fat seafood (cod, shrimp, sole and tilapia) to ensure you aren’t overly exposed to any one type. The key to choosing the best fish is being an informed consumer. Visit our article Safe Ways to Eat More Fish for more advice, and look to resources, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, for seafood sustainability ratings on both wild and farmed fish available in your region.
Compounds in soy called isoflavones can act like a weak estrogen in the body, so some women fear that eating soy foods will increase their risk of breast cancer, while some men wonder if these foods will affect their testosterone levels. The association between soy and breast cancer continues to demand more in-depth research. Animal studies have found an association between high doses of soy and tumor growth, but soy foods appear to protect women in some populations from breast cancer, particularly if they started eating them early in life. And soy doesn’t appear to affect men’s hormones; it may even protect against prostate cancer. While researchers continue to investigate these potential associations, soy remains a high-quality, vegetarian protein source that is low in both saturated fat and cholesterol.
How to Choose Wisely: Soy foods in moderation (two to three servings per week) can be part of a balanced, healthful diet for most people; breast cancer survivors may want to eat less. Avoid highly processed soy foods, such as veggie dogs, and supplements or powders that contain high levels of soy protein isolate, which is significantly altered from its natural state. We recommend choosing organic soy foods to limit exposures to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and pesticides.
More: Is Soy Safe to Eat?