We live in a world where nutrition and what we put into our bodies has become a popular topic, readily available and to the extreme that foods have become labeled as eye-catchingly “good” and “bad”. When we eat foods that are often thought to be bad for you, we feel guilty and mentally consumed about how these choices will impact our health.
I’m not saying it’s not worth the effort to improve your eating, getting in as many nutrients as you can, finding new ways to enjoy foods you like and trying new foods, but we should also have some peace of mind when it comes to occasionally choosing foods that maybe aren’t the best for us. After all, eating foods you enjoy is part of a healthy diet as well.
Here are five commonly thought of as “bad” foods, that aren’t really that bad for us, in fact, most of them should be incorporated more often!
A handful of trendy diets like Paleo and Whole30 label peanut butter as an off-limits food. As part of their reasoning, peanuts are technically a legume rather than a nut leaving them less nutritious and more carb-rich. On the contrary, peanuts per tablespoon (about 100 calorie portion) contain 4 grams of protein and are a good source of vitamin E, niacin, vitamin B6, fiber, magnesium, phosphorus, copper and a great source of manganese. They are also a plant-based fat source, which is good for our blood cholesterol and heart health. They also help to keep us feeling satisfied after eating a meal or snack.
A tablespoon is not a large portion so it is important to keep calories and portions in mind. Add a tablespoon to a whole grain slice of toast, apple slices or dollop on your oatmeal to reap the benefits, while balancing the relatively small portion. Not all brands are created equal, so if you aren’t making your own (can be done by blending the nuts in your blender or food processor), look for brands without hydrogenated oils in the ingredients. Take it a step further by selecting brands that are just roasted, ground nuts (without added sugars or salt).
You might be wondering how this is even on the list, but you’d be surprised how many times I get asked if fruit is okay to eat. Due to the carbohydrate content, albeit nutrient-rich carbs, consuming fruits on some plans has been frowned upon. Bananas are mostly praised only for their potassium content. Add it to the list of accolades because bananas are actually a good source of vitamin C, magnesium, manganese, fiber and they are a great source of vitamin B6. A medium banana is about 100 calories, and since its macronutrient profile is comprised of mostly carbohydrates, get over your fear of eating them by pairing a small or medium one with a heart healthy source of protein or fat (think banana and peanut butter).
For heart health reasons, it is often recommended to avoid red meat, due to the saturated fat content and its risk in raising blood cholesterol and increasing one’s risk of cardiovascular disease. This is somewhat of an over-simplified recommendation though. The Mediterranean Diet, which has the most scientific evidence supporting its health benefits, placed preference towards fish and seafood, especially omega-3 rich salmon and tuna due to the antioxidant and heart health benefits from these fats. While I’m not recommending to eat red meat everyday, of course, there’s value in variety and choosing the leaner portions may allow you to have it in moderation. Lean cuts like sirloin, tenderloin, filets and extra lean ground beef provide more than a day’s serving of zinc, niacin, selenium and vitamin B6. It’s also rich in vitamins B1, B2, B5 as well as iron, magnesium, potassium and abundant sources of B12 and phosphorus. To balance it all out, if you wish, incorporating leaner cuts once a week could be of value, especially if you tend to have lower iron levels.
Whole grains contain the entire, complete grain consisting of three parts – the bran, endosperm and germ. The bran is the outer layer and is the protective layer containing the fiber, minerals and B vitamins. The second layer or endosperm is where the bulk of the carbohydrates are as well as some protein and additional B vitamins. The germ is like a little seed within the endosperm and contains more B vitamins, vitamin E, minerals and antioxidants.
Whole grains do contain carbohydrates and some people feel the need to avoid carbohydrates for fear of gaining weight or not losing desired weight. Our bodies, however, are reliant on the glucose that is broken down during the digestion of carbohydrates; our brains are actually the biggest utilizers of this energy. The fat content of carbohydrates, along with the numerous B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate) and minerals like iron, selenium and magnesium, makes them a nutrient dense food to incorporate into our diets. For reassurance, studies have shown that consuming whole grains can actually play a role in weight management by helping with feelings of fullness and satiety as well as preventing heart disease, assisting in managing blood glucose levels and aiding in digestive health.
This category was the motivation behind this topic. To be honest, I don’t like the way I’ve been hearing people talk about their bodies and the way they talk about their willpower or lack thereof, or their relationships with the foods they eat. And I especially don’t like the way this could trickle down to our children. We want our kids to grow up with a healthy relationship with food and labeling them as good vs. bad or that eating one slice of pizza or king cake will ruin their health or body size is not the direction our hyper-focused health world needs to go. We are at the point now where we have to work to prevent this.
Refined grains start as whole grains and through processing the bran and germ are removed, leaving only the middle portion of the grain, the endosperm. While they do not contain as many B vitamins, minerals and fiber as their whole grain’s counterparts, they still do have some nutritional benefit. And if nothing else, the fact that you can eat what you love on occasion means they can be a part of a nutritional and healthy diet. Whether it’s pizza, pasta, white rice or king cake, you should be able to have these from time to time and there’s no need to feel guilty.
It all really comes down to portion control. Making a plan for yourself that allows you to follow the recommended portions, while eating the foods you love as well as the foods that are providing essential vitamins and minerals, is the key. The end goal is to promote health and wellness, but remember that eating foods you love – even if they pop up on an “avoid” list, is part of living and eating well.
Rebecca Miller, MPH, RDN, LDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist who shares recipes + inspiration on her blog, Twisted Nutrition. She can be reached at TwistedNutritionBlog.com.