And the reputations of foods are no different. Once something has been dubbed an "unhealthy" or "fattening" choice, many health-minded folks won't think twice before leaving it in the dust. But not all foods deserve their bad reputations! (Or their good ones, for that matter—health halos, we're looking at you.) With nutrition research emerging every day, there are a number of nutrient-packed eats that scientists are now finding won't pack on the pounds, or contribute to a slew of health issues like we once thought.
In fact, a number of foods that we've been told are "bad" can actually help the scale tip in your favor. Not only that, but they offer many protective health benefits that can help ward off the very disease they were initially connected to. Learn the truth about these misunderstood foods below, and cross them off your "do not eat" list.
Everything With Fat
Out with the old: All fat makes you fat.
In with the new: The right kinds of fats help increase satiety, maximize your metabolism, protect against heart disease, speed nutrients through your body, and improve your fat-soluble vitamin uptake.
You thought people who eat fat are fat? Well, no, not necessarily. Our bodies need dietary fat (which is why many fats are called "essential") in order to lose weight and function properly. And the right kinds of fats do wonders for weight loss and nutrient intake. Not to mention, most of the minimally processed, high-fat foods also come packaged with many important micronutrients, from vitamins and minerals to free-radical fighting antioxidants to help you stay fit and trim. You won't get that with sugar-laden, low-fat, ultra-processed junk. Case-in-point: many studies have found that when people reduce how much fat they eat, they typically replace it with sugar or carbohydrates, both of which can have disastrous effects on insulin and diabetes risk.
Out with the old: Egg yolks are high in cholesterol, which means eating them will raise your cholesterol levels, putting you at risk for heart disease.
In with the new: New research has found that cholesterol levels in our bodies are impacted by the types of fats in our food, not as much from the dietary cholesterol content.
When it comes to eggs, it seems we've been given scrambled messages. Many of us opt for egg whites over whole eggs because word on the street is that the yellow contains too much cholesterol and raises the risk of heart disease, which scientists now know isn't really the case. In fact, eating the whole egg can help keep you slim. The yolk contains a nutrient called choline that boosts metabolism and turns off belly fat genes. Not to mention, yolks contain nutrients that may help lower the risk of heart disease, including protein, vitamins B12 and D, folate and riboflavin.
Out with the old: For years the belief was that butter is a dietary bad guy because of its high saturated fat content.
In with the new: Cassie Bjork, RD, LD of Healthy Simple Life says that "we now know that the fat in butter is not linked to heart disease."
Butter and other high-fat dairy products are nothing to fear. In fact, real butter—particularly grass-fed—is an excellent source of fatty acids that can support weight loss. Though most people don't know it, grass-fed butter carries many health benefits. "I consume grass-fed butter every day because I consider it a health food," says Bjork. She continues, "It's an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids, and it helps slow down the absorption of sugar and carbohydrates, leading to consistent energy levels and improved brain function." By picking up a grass-fed butter, you're getting an excellent source of cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and butyric acid, which can help dieters by improving the function of mitochondria—the "batteries" in your cells that essentially keep you young. Just be sure to avoid lower-calorie margarine and butter "spreads" that are made of artificial trans fat—they've been directly linked to weight gain and gut fat.
Out with the old: Nuts are high in saturated fat, which could lead to an increased risk of heart disease, so you shouldn't eat them often.
In with the new: Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, and founder of Manhattan-based private practice, The NY Nutrition Group says, "While nuts and seeds do contain some saturated fats, they're also chock full of nutrients from heart-healthy fiber, MUFAS (mono-unsaturated fats), omega-3s, bone-building magnesium, calcium and energizing iron."
Unfortunately, this old wisdom is still interfering with our healthy choices now. For example, KIND recently came under fire for making the claim that its snack bars are "healthy." And even though they're made with whole nuts, fruits, whole grains, and ingredients you can pronounce, the FDA standards prevent fatty foods like almonds, coconut, and sunflower seeds from being branded as "healthy" because these foods contain more than 1 gram of saturated fat. (For some perspective, this same criterion would allow a non-fat pudding to be considered "healthy." That's some outdated thinking if you ask us.) Many studies have linked consumption of nuts to lower rates of heart disease (yes, even in lieu of their saturated fat content!), type 2 diabetes and total mortality, but because they're high in calories, just be sure to eat them in moderation.
Out with the old: Bacon is full of bad saturated fats, plus I hear it can give you cancer!
In with the new: The right kind of bacon that has been prepared properly can be a part of a healthy diet.
Thanks to the Paleo trend, bacon became more popular than ever. Then the World Health Organization claimed bacon (and other processed meats) can give you cancer. And everyone went back to hating it again. But if we take a closer look at the reason why these meats can give you cancer, we see we can still eat them. Many processed meats are preserved with sodium nitrites, and under conditions of high heat (like grilling or frying) or even just stomach acid, sodium nitrite reacts with amines to form cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines. Luckily, many companies are now making bacon cured without sodium nitrites now—just plain old sodium—meaning they're safer than traditional cuts. Plus, pork bacon can even relay health benefits since pork is a great source of protein and heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAS). Just bear in mind that serving size matters, so don't pig out. A few slices are all you need.
Out with the old: Carbs are bad, and potatoes are full of them.
In with the new: Potatoes might be full of carbs, but they're also very filling, which means they'll keep your hunger pangs away more than refined carbs.
Thanks to the popularity of low-carb diets, white potatoes have been unfairly blacklisted. (It could also be because people associate them with fatty foods like fries, chips, and loaded baked potatoes.) After taking a second look at the science, you'll see there's no need to be scared of the spuds—they're actually powerful hunger tamers that can help you slim down. In an Australian study that measured the satiating index of 38 popular foods, researchers discovered that potatoes even ranked better than healthy picks like brown rice and oatmeal. As a result, research participants ate less on the days they consumed them.
Not to mention, this root vegetable is also a good source of potassium, vitamin C, and belly-filling fiber. To maximize their flat-belly benefits, throw 'em in the refrigerator and make a potato salad. The cooling process will crystallize the tubers into resistant starch, which takes longer to break down in your intestine, producing fat-burning butyrate and delaying hunger pangs.
Out with the old: One glass contains 8 grams of fat! Ahh, fat!
In with the new: A recent review published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that people who eat full-fat dairy are no more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes than people who stick to low-fat dairy.
This might blow your mind even more: the same review linked full-fat eaters to lower body weights, less weight gain, and even lower rates of obesity compared to those who eschewed fat. While skim milk may have seemed like the healthiest option on supermarket shelves, we now know you're missing out on important fat-soluble vitamins if you don't opt for at least 1% (and we recommend going all out with whole, which is around 3.5%). To get the most health benefits out of your milk, look for organic and 100% grass-fed varieties. These have more omega-3 fatty acids and two to five times more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) than their conventional counterparts. Although you may not have heard of CLAs before, they're vital to optimal health: they boost immunity, improve bone mass and even reduce body fat!
Out with the old: Coconut oil contains more saturated fat than most other cooking fats.
In with the new: Coconut oil has saturated fat, but it's "healthy" saturated fat.
Yes, the oil is loaded with saturated fat, but more than half of that comes from lauric acid, a unique medium-chain triglyceride that battles bacteria and increases the 24-hour energy expenditure in humans by as much as 5 percent. And get this: A study published in Lipids found that dietary supplementation of coconut oil actually reduced abdominal fat. That's because your body preferentially converts it into energy rather than fat, aiding weight loss efforts. And as for saturated fat and raising total cholesterol levels? Well, that part is true, but that's because it's specifically increasing the amount of HDL or "good" cholesterol, in your blood—which actually lowers your risk of heart disease. Sprinkle unsweetened flakes over yogurt or use coconut oil in a stir-fry to start whittling your waist.
Out with the old: It's fatty and has been linked to health problems!
In with the new: If you eat the right amount of it, and the right type, red meat can help keep your weight loss goals on track, decrease inflammation, and boost your energy.
Red meat is an oft-vilified protein source because of it's saturated fat content—and the fact that many Americans' number 1 source of it is an unhealthy, fast food hamburger. But the extent to which many Americans are eating it may actually be causing the health issues you've heard of more so than the meat itself. (According to the Federal Dietary Guidelines, teen boys and adult men are eating way too much protein.)
If you consume no more than two or three servings (each about 3 ounces) of red meat per week, and stick to lean and grass-fed varieties whenever possible, eating moderate amounts of lean beef can actually help you lose weight and improve your overall diet quality. Grass-fed meat naturally has fewer calories than conventional meat and contains higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s have been shown to reduce inflammation, improve insulin resistance and help the liver carry fat out of the body, so it's the best bet for your waistline. It's also jam-packed with a nutrient that can supercharge your workouts and fry flab: iron. Getting adequate amounts of this mineral can keep your metabolism humming and boost your energy, allowing you to hit the gym with gusto and sculpt the body you've always wanted.
Out with the old: All alcohol is created equal, they're just empty calories and full of sugar.
In with the new: In moderation, red wine can actually offer up some notable health benefits due to its high levels of antioxidants.
We're not saying you should be pounding back multiple glasses at a time, but you can hit the bar and enjoy a glass for the sake of your well-being. Purdue University researchers discovered that red wine, in particular, contains a compound called piceatannol that binds to fat cells' insulin receptors and prevents them from maturing and growing. Another compound, called ellagic acid, has been shown to change the way "fat genes" express themselves, boosting your metabolism and slowing the growth of existing and new fat cells. More research suggests yet another healthy antioxidant in wine—resveratrol—could help to counter some of the negative effects associated with lack of exercise, like muscle loss and blood sugar sensitivities. If those aren't enough reasons, check out these 23 Healthy Benefits of Alcohol.
Out with the old: It makes you super jittery—that can't be good.
In with the new: Coffee is actually one of the top sources of heart-healthy flavonoids in the U.S. diet.
Not only does coffee give you energy, but it also has many health benefits like boosting metabolism, burning belly fat, and reducing anxiety. And drinking that second cup of coffee may do more than get you through the work day, it may also save your life. Research published in the journal Circulation found that those who drank between three and five cups of java daily were up to 15 percent less likely to die of any cause than those who weren't as friendly with their neighborhood barista. They also found an inverse association between coffee consumption and type 2 diabetes. In the paper, the researchers explained that java's unique combination of compounds and nutrients are to thank for its health-protective effects. One of coffee's phytochemicals, chlorogenic acid, might be the unsung hero. How does it keep you healthy? The compound reduces glucose absorption in the intestine and liver glucose output, helping to ward off diabetes.
Out with the old: Chocolate is fatty and sugary and it tastes good, which obviously means it can't be good for you.
In with the new: Dark chocolate is rich in stress-reducing, fat-blasting flavonoids (but its waist-whittling effects do not extend to the fake, highly-processed stuff).
Well, the old wisdom isn't all that wrong. Some milk, white, and even dark chocolates can be full of sugar, artificial additives, and even trans-fatty partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. What's worse, if the chocolate is alkalized, it's stripped of its bitterness at the cost of cocoa's natural, healthy compounds.
But if you stick with dark chocolate that's 74 percent or more cocoa solids, you'll be in good shape. The higher the percentage of cocoa means the higher percentage of heart-healthy, monounsaturated fats and anti-inflammatory flavanols, two components which have helped connect chocolate to lower risk of stroke and developing heart failure. Not only that, but chocolate has been connected with having a healthier gut: the good bacteria in our belly (probiotics) eat cocoa, fermenting it into anti-inflammatory compounds.