There’s no shortage of advice – from friends and family, talk show hosts, your favorite bloggers – on what foods we should and shouldn’t eat; and once a certain food is "canceled,” there’s almost no coming back. Many of us have heard these tropes: Carbs are bad for you; fruit juice is loaded with added sugars; eggs can raise your cholesterol. Yet these foods, however vilified, do offer nutritional value and may even be beneficial to include in your diet.
Why Are Certain Foods Considered Unhealthy?
Much of the misinformation around food seems to stem from (at least in part) good intentions or the science available at the time. You’ve likely heard how the nutritional advice around eggs has shifted countless times over the years, and that’s due to developments in research. Removing fruit from your diet, for example, seems to come from fad diets that advertise quick and long-lasting weight loss. And while that may be true, how healthy is eliminating whole foods and food groups? Following fad diets can be easy in the beginning, but many are harmful in the long run.
These fad diets focus on eliminating food groups, because it’s often easier to cut “bad” foods from your diet than to understand the nuance of nutrition and food science. Finding the right diet for your specific needs can be difficult, especially if you suffer from food sensitivities, and removing a food or food group may seem like the easy solution, especially in the short term. There must be a better way!
Seven Foods That Aren’t Actually Unhealthy for You
Categorizing food as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ isn’t constructive when trying to find which foods and diets work best for you. Food provides fuel for your body in the form of calories, and calories are what keep you going. Fueling your body properly with foods that are not just healthy but healthy for you can leave you feeling ready to make the most of your day. Misinformation is behind much of the confusion around the idea that certain foods are “bad” for you; a deeper look paints a more nuanced picture.
Red meat is generally thought of as less healthy than options like poultry and seafood, but why? This is because red meat contains fat – specifically, saturated fat ‒ and saturated fat consumption is linked to higher levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and inflammation. Eating lots of red meat and processed meats has also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends limiting your daily amount of saturated fat to as little as 5% to 6% of total calories.
This having been said, incorporating red meat into your diet offers benefits, too. Its high protein content makes it a popular source of protein worldwide, and red meat contains a whole host of vitamins, including B vitamins, iron, creatine and carnosine. Vegetarians and vegans may be low in creatine and carnosine levels, since they come almost exclusively from animal products, and lacking these nutrients can affect muscle and brain function.
For decades, eggs have been maligned for their high cholesterol content. And while high cholesterol is a serious health issue, in 2015 the American Heart Association (AHA) - the organization responsible for providing guidelines for a heart-healthy diet - adjusted their recommendations based on new research regarding cholesterol intake. The AHA agrees that eggs are part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Dietary cholesterol doesn't necessarily become cholesterol in the body - consuming fat doesn’t equal adding fat to your body. Eggs are an easy and inexpensive source of protein, as well as other macro- and micro-nutrients. Vitamin D, found in the yolk, aids in bone health and keeps your immune system working well, and choline (also found in the yolk) regulates your metabolism and helps your liver function normally. Plus there’s about a million ways to cook eggs, so including them in your diet doesn’t have to be a chore.
White potatoes have received their share of hate over the years and aren’t generally thought of as nutritious. And while many of the ways we prepare potatoes can lean into “unhealthy” territory, the spuds themselves offer many nutritional benefits. Potatoes are low in sodium and fat- and cholesterol-free. Plus white potatoes contain fiber and resistant starch, which is essential fuel for keeping your gut microbes happy!
Sweet potatoes offer even more nutritional bang for your buck, though white potatoes don’t lag far behind. The average sweet potato contains more fiber (3.3 grams and 2.1 grams, respectively), more vitamin A (107% daily value [DV] vs. 0.1% DV), and slightly more vitamin C (22% DV vs. 14% DV). It boils down to how you prepare the potatoes (no pun intended). Most of these nutrients are in their skins, so keep them on while cooking to get the entire nutritional benefit.
Cow’s milk has fallen out of favor in the last few years, giving way to plant-based milk alternatives that include almond, soy, cashew, hemp, and rice milk to name a few. If you’re lactose intolerant, these alternatives are a kind of saving grace, but there’s no need to avoid cow’s milk if you tolerate it. In fact, cow's milk is a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin B12, iodine, and magnesium, which is important for bone health. The whey and casein in cow’s milk can also contribute to lowering your blood pressure.
Many of us may associate breakfast cereals with sugary flakes and colorful shapes, but lots of breakfast cereals can be a great way to start your morning. Breakfast sets the stage for the rest of your day, and starting with sugar may leave you temporarily satisfied but lead to an afternoon crash and cravings for more sugar.
“Cereals are a great way to incorporate whole grains into your diet,” explains Health Coach and IIN grad Kiran Dodeja Smith. Breakfast cereal can be a great source of fiber: “Optimally, the healthy cereal will have five or more grams of fiber in a serving.” Dodeja Smith recommends checking the nutritional panel of your cereal box for phrases like ‘100% whole grains,’ 'whole wheat’ and ‘wheat bran.’
Soybeans and foods derived from soy have been a staple in the human diet for as long as many of us can remember. More recently, concerns about the effects of soy in our diets have become more well known, leading to misinformation surrounding the bean. Soybeans are rich in fiber, iron, magnesium, and are a natural source of polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that can protect your body against conditions like heart disease.
Wait a minute, fruit!? That’s definitely healthy. But not to some – low-carb and low-sugar diets like the ketogenic and paleo diets recommend eliminating fruit from your diet. It’s true that fruit does contain carbohydrates, such as the sugars fructose and glucose, but that doesn’t make any food, let alone fruit, inherently unhealthy. The benefits of eating fruit outweigh any risk of eating sugar, both real and exaggerated.
It’s the fiber in fruit that makes it a healthy option, despite its sugar content. Fiber can help you feel fuller for longer, reduce food cravings, keep your gut healthy and regular, and aid in weight loss. Consuming fiber regularly can also help regulate your glucose levels, which is especially important for people with diabetes.
How to Change Your Mindset About Food
“The language we use in our description of food is important, explains certified nutrition specialist Lauren Chaunt. “Referring to foods as ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad’ can be damaging. This can induce feelings of guilt or shame when these foods are consumed as well as even evoke fear or regret. Labeling foods as ‘bad’ can make one more susceptible to the dangers of disordered eating, as it can contribute to all-or-nothing thought patterns around food.”
Try to keep your relationship with food neutral, bearing in mind its sole purpose of nourishment. No food is inherently bad; what’s important is integrating a wide variety of foods into your diet and being mindful of what you’re putting into your body.