When you think about health food, chances are the foods below aren’t the first that come to mind. In some cases it may be because health research on certain foods—fats in particular—keeps evolving, and so our perceptions of them keep shifting, too. Other foods on this list may suffer from guilt by association with unhealthy foods (see sauerkraut), or their benefits simply aren’t as well-known as they should be (coffee!). Regardless of the reason, these seven foods should be on your radar, because each represents substantial health benefits that don’t always get the attention they deserve.
It’s hard to believe how good coffee is for us, particularly for those of us who grew up hearing coffee would cause ulcers (no longer thought to be the case), or would stunt our growth (always just a myth). Really, nothing else on this list competes with coffee and its many benefits. A 2015 article in The New York Times entitled “More Consensus on Coffee’s Effect on Health Than You Might Think” summed up the situation nicely: In recent years, research has suggested that long-term coffee drinking was associated with a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease and type 2 diabetes; may have a protective effect against cognitive decline; and is associated with better outcomes for those with liver disease, among other benefits. Science suggests that caffeine is part of the picture, but doesn’t alone explain the benefits associated with drinking coffee. Based on the research, most coffee lovers can justify drinking as many as four cups a day (one of the few exceptions is that lower levels of caffeine are recommended for pregnant women). One other note: The health benefits of coffee are limited to plain coffee—additions such as creamer, sugar, flavoring syrups, whipped cream, etc., all affect the health profile of these beverages, and can quickly make a healthful drink into an unhealthy one.
If you’ve ever spent a moment thinking about what’s in those little cups of creamer that can sit out on restaurant tables and hotel coffee bars for hours without refrigeration, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that they contain no actual cream. So what does make up those tiny cups or packets of powder? Unfortunately, it’s a blend of highly processed ingredients including corn syrup, soybean oil, high fructose corn syrup and preservatives. Most “gourmet” coffee creamers are not much better, containing mostly corn syrup, preservatives and unhealthy hydrogenated vegetable oils such as soybean and canola. Some “natural” creamers at least contain ingredients we’ve all heard of, such as actual milk, but they’re still high in sugar.
We all know eating fruits and vegetables is good for us, but if you had to name the single healthiest fruit or vegetable, what would it be? A 2014 study published by the CDC named watercress No. 1 because it has so many nutrients with so few calories. This is just one ranking, but it draws attention to the many reasons to love watercress, a leafy green in the same league as the more well-known kale and spinach. (Incidentally, on this study’s list of 41 “powerhouse” foods, the top 10 were all leafy greens.) Watercress is particularly rich in vitamins K, C and A, and is packed with antioxidants. A 2007 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that eating watercress may have protective effects against DNA damage and possibly decrease cancer risk. Watercress can be eaten in salads or prepared like other leafy greens.
If you don’t think of sauerkraut as a health food, it may be because so many of us eat it solely on hot dogs. But we have many good reasons to pair this delightfully tangy topping with healthier foods, including meats, potatoes and vegetables. First, sauerkraut, like yogurt, is a live-culture food that helps promote healthy gut bacteria, which research overwhelmingly tells us is vital for good health. Also, both sauerkraut and cabbage are rich in the particular compounds found in cruciferous vegetables that appear to help fight cancer. Sauerkraut is also full of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, as well as vitamin K and iron. While sodium can be an issue, you can reduce the amount of salt by rinsing it before eating. Also, sauerkraut loses those probiotics when it’s heated, so look for brands that advertise live cultures, or make your own at home.
When we’ve absorbed the idea that we should all eat more fresh (and fewer packaged, processed) foods, it’s a little hard to get our heads around the idea of a healthy food that almost always comes out of a can—especially amidst concerns about BPA in can linings. However, sardines are just such a food. First, about the cans: Some of the most popular brands of sardines have made an effort to remove BPA from their packaging, including Wild Planet, which has no BPA in can linings and uses only sustainably caught fish, and Crown Prince, which offers several products in BPA-free cans (find out more at Crown Prince). Once you’re free to focus on the fish, sardines start looking like a great choice. They make the short list of best fish choices from the Environmental Working Group because they’re low in mercury and high in health-promoting omega-3s—compounds that perform many vital functions, especially for growth and development. Sardines are also a great source of protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, among other nutrients. Because their populations can rebound quickly, sardines are also generally considered a sustainable choice, although some specific locations—notably the U.S. West Coast—have had problems with sardine populations in recent years, and the issue remains in the news.
Long considered too fatty to be healthful, this fruit has improved its reputation as our national consciousness has shifted from the “all fat is bad” perspective of previous decades to the broader understanding that fat is necessary for health, and that different types of fats have different health effects. But even now, we may not appreciate all that avocados have to offer. First, about that fat: Avocados have one of the kinds we want. “Avocados are a good source of healthy, monounsaturated fats,” says Libby Mills, a registered dietitian nutritionist, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. They’re also full of nutrients, including potassium and vitamins C, E and K. But a less appreciated benefit is that they contain plant sterols, Mills says. “While we don’t usually give them a lot of attention, they absolutely can help reduce dietary cholesterol, which has a real impact, particularly for diabetics.”
That brings us to one more item on our list, and it may be the most surprising. A 2016 study published in the journal Circulation suggests that people with the most dairy fat in their diets had a reduced risk for diabetes. It’s not a completely new idea; in fact, it lines up well with earlier research that full-fat dairy is also associated with a lower risk of obesity. However, for most of us, this news is confusing. “It is very counterintuitive to what we’ve been conditioned to think,” Mills says. The issue is that dairy fat is saturated fat—not unsaturated “good fat”—and typically we’re advised to eat less of it. In fact, in much government-funded nutrition advice, you will continue to find recommendations for low-fat dairy. So what does this mean? Mills suggests that we keep in mind that science doesn’t have all the answers yet, but that this is another example of how research needs to look at the individual effects of specific fats rather than lumping them all together. For example, the positive health effects from dairy may be based not just on the fats, but on the conutrients that go with it. Research has also found that dairy products from cows raised on pasture, who eat a natural diet of grass and not grains, contains significantly more nutrients than milk from factory-farm cows. We also recommend choosing dairy products from cows not treated with the growth-enhancing hormone rBGH.
Many people are cautious about nuts because of concerns about salt, calories and—again—fat. But the first concern is easily dispensed with by choosing unsalted pistachios. In terms of calories and possible weight gain, that could be an issue if you overdo it. However, pistachios are lower in calories than many other nuts. Finally, when thinking about fat, pistachios are another one of the kinds we’re usually told to eat more of. “It’s a great example of a polyunsaturated fat, and we are learning that if we’re able to dietarily displace saturated fat with plant-based proteins, we can lower our cholesterol,” Mills says. What else is good about pistachios? Like eating other kinds of nuts, eating pistachios is linked with a lower risk of heart disease. Another study found that for patients with prediabetes, eating pistachios had positive effects on blood sugar and insulin levels. Pistachios are also high in protein, phosphorus, vitamin B6 and many other nutrients, including being a good source of antioxidants.
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