People love to give food labels; this is “good”, that is “bad”, this is “healthy” and that is “unhealthy”. Although that seems like such an easy way to explain nutrition, people have gotten things oh-so-confused, so allow me to elaborate and explain the top 10 “bad” foods that are good for you.
I have written a lot about “good” foods, and “bad” foods in my recent posts. I’ve talked about how there actually are no “good” or “bad” foods, there is only real food and a bunch of other processed stuff we call food. In the buzzing nutrition climate of 2017 it is really easy to get swept up in trends, fads, and misinformation, however, getting back to basics is the easiest way to settle some of these complicated nutrition debates. When it comes to determining if a food is healthy or not, the simplest thing to ask yourself is “Is it real food?”. Although that might seem like an incredibly silly question, it is surprising how quickly people forget to look at the basics because we have been taught to think that nutrition is a complicated beast that we can’t figure out on our own. Due to this misinformation, we have ignored traditional cultures and allowed ourselves to be marketed silver bullet solutions and ‘health foods’ that no longer resemble real food at all.
“Bad” Foods that are Healthy
So, let’s ignore the fad diets, let go of the guilt, go back to basics, focus on whole foods, and discover why those confused “bad” foods are good for you after all.
1. White Potatoes
White potatoes are considered comfort food and they most certainly are, however that does not make them bad for you. Think about it for a second; potatoes are grown in the dirt and come from the ground, just like carrots, beets, and parsnips. White potatoes have been used by various cultures for generations, in fact, many evolved to eat potatoes, so to consider them unhealthy seems absurd. The truth is, a potato is an exceptionally healthful food that can serve as a great source of complex carbohydrates, fiber, and antioxidants. In fact, given potatoes have very small levels of phytic acid they are an ideal source of carbohydrates as compared to some grains and legumes which contain higher levels of phytic acid, which can reduce the digestibility of foods. Of course, the cooking method will impact the nutrition of potatoes, so opt for baked, mashed, or roasted, and leave the deep-fried versions for once in a while.
Butter is the poster child for “unhealthy” foods, blamed for everything from heart disease to high cholesterol, however, butter has received a reputation that it does not deserve. Yes, butter might be high in saturated fat and cholesterol, but that is actually a good thing. Butter contains saturated fats, including short and medium-chained fatty acids that are beneficial for energy, metabolism, and cholesterol that can serve as a potent antioxidant. Butter also contains a good balance of essential fatty acids, containing more omega-3 than omega-6 fatty acids (from pastured grass-fed cows), which is ideal as excess omega-6 fatty acids (found in vegetable oils) can increase inflammation in the body. Given butter is a source of natural fatty acids, it also contains fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K which are essential for health, as well as lecithin which assists in the proper assimilation and metabolism of cholesterol. So forgo the vegetable oils, skip the margarine, and spread your butter the way grandma used to.
3. Egg Yolks
Demonized by the persistent myth that dietary cholesterol should be avoided, egg yolks have been given a bad rap since the 1970s. For years we have been told to discard the yolks and opt for egg white omelets as a “healthier” choice. However, the reality is that by discarding the yolk, you are robbing yourself of the most nutrient-dense part of this incredible food. In fact, there is little evidence that links egg yolks to heart disease, and if anything, they likely help to protect against it. One egg provides 13 essential nutrients, all present in the yolk, and a whole egg is a rich source of protein, providing a complete range of amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin A, selenium, and magnesium. Additionally, all of the fat-soluble vitamins, as well as 100% of the omega-3 fatty acids are present in the yolks, making it the most nutrient-dense part of the egg. So get cracking, because the truth is, 3 eggs a day might just keep the doctor away.
4. White Rice
Contrary to popular belief, much like white potatoes, white rice is not bad for you. White rice is often called out for its high glycemic index, as compared to brown rice which is said to contain more nutrients and fiber, however, white rice is not half as bad as it is made out to be. All white rice starts out as brown rice, and a milling process helps to remove the rice’s bran and germ. Although this might seem less than ideal at first glance, the bran and germ are difficult to break down for some people, as they contain many anti-nutrients and gut irritants that make it difficult to digest. Therefore, for much white rice is much more easily digested and absorbed than brown rice, and can serve as a great source of energy. So it is no wonder why Asian cultures have been consuming white rice for generations, as it is a perfectly acceptable food to include in a healthy diet. When opting for white rice, be sure to choose the most unprocessed versions available; basmati, jasmine, short-grain, or long-grain are ideal.
Believe it or not, bananas (and fruit in general) have gotten a bad rap in recent years for their high sugar content. Although they might have a higher sugar content than some fruit that does not make them a poor choice, and there are in fact many other fruits with a higher sugar content and a higher glycemic index than bananas. To provide some context, suggesting bananas are unhealthy would be like suggesting you should avoid Brussels sprouts because they have a higher glycemic index than broccoli, it’s not worth the battle. When it comes to whole foods it is important to keep some perspective and a banana is likely not going to cause any harm. Plus, bananas are widely accessible and inexpensive, and they also pack a powerful health punch; well known as being a rich source of potassium, they also contain fiber, vitamin C, vitamin B6, manganese, biotin, and copper. When it comes to fruit, it is best to consume a wide variety and focus on local seasonal fruit as much as possible.
It might not technically be food, but it certainly needs to be included on the list. Yes, coffee contains caffeine but in reasonable amounts coffee has been shown to have many health benefits, including antioxidants. However, in excess, even a good thing can be bad for you, so simply be mindful of the amount of caffeine you consume. Although coffee might contain antioxidants, we know that’s not why most people drink it, and relying on coffee as a stimulant to get you through your day is a less-than-ideal choice. So if you chose to drink coffee it is best to limit to one cup per day, forgo the heavily sweetened versions, and opt for it either black or with a splash of milk or heavy cream.
7. Fatty Cuts of Meat
There remains an idea that healthy meat is lean meat, and that fatty meat is unhealthy, but the reality is that they can both be good for you. For many years, we have been told to focus on muscle meats like chicken breasts and lean cuts of beef, however avoiding the odd cuts of meat is completely unnecessary. Chicken legs, thighs, wings, and even skin are whole foods that can be incorporated into a healthy diet, as well as rich cuts of beef such as brisket, shanks and ribs, pork shoulder, and even bacon. Think about it, traditional cultures did not have the option to pick and chose what cuts of meat they wanted to eat, they simply used the whole animal, bones and all. The benefit of these richer sources of meat is that they contain higher amounts of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K2, as well as glycine (from the skin, bones, cartilage, etc) that we don’t get in isolated lean cuts of meat. When it comes to fatty cuts of meat the one thing to consider is the quality of the meat you are consuming, as conventional sources might not contain a well-balanced omega 3 to 6 ratio, so opt for local, pastured, or grass-fed animals when possible. Aim to eat nose-to-tail, there is no need to limit yourself to the leaner cuts.
Ok, let’s get clear, I’m not talking about the movie theatre stuff! Popcorn, the real deal, is made by heating whole corn kernels in a natural cooking fat over heat, so when well prepared it can be a great healthy snack. Corn itself is a whole grain, which is fairly low in phytic acid, and when eaten with butter it can actually help to mitigate its effects. The most concerning part of conventional popcorn is the oil used to cook the corn and the excess amount of salt added, so although microwavable bags are handy and convenient, the added vegetable oils and salts make it a less-than-ideal choice. Instead, pop whole kernels at home on the stove top in butter, coconut, oil, or ghee and season with sea salt and spices to your own liking for a fun and healthy snack.
If you are eating a diet rich in processed foods you should most certainly be concerned with the added refined sodium content of your meals, however, if you are eating a diet rich in whole foods salt has many beneficial functions in the body. Salt is important for balancing the fluid level of the blood, managing the body’s acid-alkaline balance, functions of the nervous system, adrenal function, stomach acid production, and proper nutrient absorption in the intestinal tract. Sodium is one of the electrolytes, along with potassium and chloride, that helps to regulate the body’s movement of water as it is a major component of the extracellular fluid. But remember, not all salts are created equal, so it is important to opt for natural sea salt over table salt to ensure you are getting the least refined format possible.
The concept that fat makes you fat is old news that needs to go. Real cheese is made of whole milk with no additives and can be a healthy addition to a diet. When produced from whole milk from grass-fed cows, real cheese contains a surprising array of nutrients including omega-3 fats, vitamin E and CLA, and serves as a healthy source of fat in small amounts. However not all cheeses are created equal, so it is best to avoid processed cheeses, cheese slices, cheese spreads, or low-fat cheeses. Cheeses made of unpasteurized milk from pastured animals are ideal, and if you are unsure of what to buy, simply read the ingredients labels of your favorite grocery store cheese, as you might be surprised at what you see. For those who struggle with cow’s milk, sheep’s milk and goat’s milk are often more easily digested for many. However, keep in mind that although cheese might be considered a healthy real food, dairy does not necessarily agree with everyone, so always pay attention to your body’s personal cues.