5 seemingly unhealthy foods that are actually good for you

If you've been avoiding potatoes, bananas, cereal, and soy because you've heard they're unhealthy, think again.
Breakfast cereal often finds itself in the crossfire between added sugar and refined grains, but it deserves another look.
Breakfast cereal often finds itself in the crossfire between added sugar and refined grains, but it deserves another look.pepmiba / Getty Images/iStockphoto
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By Samantha Cassetty, RD

According to a recent survey, 80 percent of respondents say they’ve seen conflicting information about foods to eat and those to avoid. It’s no wonder people are so confused about food. The same survey found that people often put their trust in familiar, but less credible sources — for example, friends, family, and food and fitness bloggers. Yet according to a small study by University of Glasgow researchers, the majority of nutrition and weight loss info shared by top influencers — up to 90 percent of it — is opinion-based that’s presented as science-based. Here are some of the top foods that are commonly misrepresented and the actual facts about their healthfulness.

1. Potatoes

Though it’s been hotly contested over the years, setting aside French fries and potato chips, America’s favorite starchy veggie is actually healthy. Carbs remain misunderstood because people often group doughy, refined carbs, like bagels, white bread and desserts, with other carb-containing whole foods. But these types of foods are in totally different camps and your body responds differently to whole foods than it does to heavily processed ones.

While it’s certainly true that potatoes contain carbohydrates, they also contain a range of wholesome nutrients. A small baked potato supplies 3 grams of fiber and 8 percent of the iron, 10 percent of the magnesium, 12 percent of the vitamin C, and 17 percent of the potassium you need in a day. These are just a few highlights, but potatoes also provide a slew of additional vitamins and minerals.

Potatoes also contain resistant starch — a type of prebiotic fiber that supports a healthy gut environment by providing the fuel for beneficial gut bacteria. Cooking and then cooling potatoes (think: potato salad) enhances the resistant starch, but it’s still present in baked potatoes.

Potatoes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, and while each varietal is undoubtedly healthy, potatoes are only as good for you as how they’re cooked and served. For example, a baked potato loaded with butter, heaps of cheese, and bacon bits isn’t the same as one stuffed with broccoli, extra virgin olive oil, and a sprinkle of Parmesan. Potatoes are essentially a blank canvas so play them up with extra virgin olive oil, herbs and other healthful seasonings and toppings. And explore the different types of tubers, too. From French fingerling to red bliss to Yukon golds, to the smallest varietal, creamer potatoes, there are endless healthy ways to enjoy them.

In addition to the backlash against carbs, potatoes are often maligned because they’re so easy to overeat. To help keep your portions in line with your needs, balance out your plate with other foods — a heaping helping of non-starchy veggies and enough protein to satisfy your appetite.

2. Breakfast cereal

Breakfast cereal often finds itself in the crossfire between added sugar and refined grains, but it deserves another look. It’s true that many breakfast cereals are loaded with one or both of these things, but it’s easy to find varieties made with little, if any, added sugar and that provide whole grains as the predominant or only grains. In addition to being a convenient option — a key consideration for most weekday mornings — cereal is often fortified with nutrients, like iron and B vitamins, that our diets commonly lack. That means choosing cereal for breakfast can help you meet your daily nutrient targets. Add cereal to milk or yogurt and the nutrient content goes up considerably.

An ideal breakfast cereal is 100 percent whole grain and provides at least 3 grams of fiber (more is better) with fewer than 6 grams of added sugar (less than that or no added sugar is best). To become a smarter cereal shopper, scan the serving size along with the ingredient list and these attributes. You may be surprised to see serving sizes as small as ¼ cup and no larger than 1 ¼ cup. If you’re like most people I know, this amount of food might not make a dent in your hunger so rather than double or triple up on the serving size, round out your cereal in a more nutritious way. Boost the protein content by serving it over Greek yogurt instead of with milk, or have a little Greek yogurt on the side. Toss in some fiber-rich fruit, like berries, chopped apple or pear or some juicy pomegranate seeds, and don’t forget to add in some healthful fat, like chopped peanuts, pecans, walnuts or almonds, or pumpkin, chia or ground flax seeds. Score triple bonus points if you add some grated zucchini, carrots or another veggie to your breakfast cereal! (Hey, veggies are often added to overnight oats, so why not try them in other cereals?)

If you or your kids are eating something frosted, coated, fruity or chocolate- or cinnamon-dusted in the morning, chances are, it’s closer to dessert than breakfast and you may want to healthy up this habit. For starters, mix your usual choice with a less sweetened whole grain cereal until your taste buds adapt. Continue to reduce your ratio of sweetened to unsweetened or lightly sweetened cereal until you’re eating mostly or only the less sweetened choice.

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Or just call it what it is: Dessert. There’s room in your life for a little sugar (up to six teaspoons a day for women and nine for men) and if you love sugary cereal, enjoy it as a snack or dessert. As such, it’s a lot healthier than many other super sugary things you could be eating every day. You can make it an even more nutritious treat by adding in some nuts or seeds, which will also make your dessert more filling.

3. Wheat

There are plenty of people who can’t tolerate gluten or the high FODMAP fructans (poorly absorbed carbohydrates that can trigger gas, bloating and other GI distress) in whole wheat. But there are plenty of people who can and there’s evidence that for those who are able to handle it, whole wheat can be beneficial.

One large study looked at the impact of swapping white rice for whole grain bread on type 2 diabetes risk. In truth, neither of these two foods was associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, but replacing a serving of white rice for the whole grain bread seemed to lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 18 percent over the 11 year study period.

Another study came to a similar conclusion — that consuming whole wheat products was linked to a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Whole wheat foods have also been shown to improve markers of gut health when compared to refined grains. And including whole wheat foods may even prevent an early death from, say, cancer or heart disease.

I’ve heard claims from people who give up wheat and tell me they’ve lost weight or experienced another benefit, like better energy levels, and while I’m not discounting their experience, there may be another factor at play. Giving up wheat means passing on the bread basket at restaurants and the cupcakes at school events. It also means eliminating most sandwiches, pizza, pasta and other foods that are often oversized or overeaten. If you’re reducing these foods and replacing them with whole foods — either gluten-free whole grains, like quinoa, or grain-free whole foods, like veggies, nuts, beans or poultry — it’s not surprising that you’d lose weight or feel better. However, that’s probably because of the less healthy foods you’re no longer eating and the healthier ones you’re eating instead versus the mere fact that you aren’t eating wheat.

If whole wheat doesn’t trouble you and you enjoy whole wheat breads, cereals, crackers and pasta (and even the occasional white versions), science and professional experience tells me that you can still enjoy these foods. The fine print: A serving size of these foods is often smaller than you think and it’s common to overeat whole wheat foods at the expense of your veggies. Try reversing the ratio of veggies to grains, which is more on par with what most people need. That means if you’re having a sandwich, have it on a whole wheat English muffin or two normal (not giant) slices of whole wheat bread and eat it with a generous side of veggies, like carrot, celery and red pepper sticks.

4. Bananas

Thanks to headlines, like “Why you should never eat bananas for breakfast,” people are perplexed about fruit. Bananas are higher in sugar than, say, berries, but that doesn’t make them an unhealthy choice. Your body handles natural sugar from bananas and any other fruit (including tropical fruits, like mangos and watermelon) differently than it handles sugar that’s been added by a manufacturer so this type of sugar doesn’t raise the same red flags.

Naturally sweet bananas are a good source of potassium, fiber and vitamin C, and they also bring other nutrients, like certain B vitamins, to their perfectly portable package. Bananas have other perks, too: You can eat them with one hand so they’re ideal for on-the-go occasions, and you can find them at just about every convenience and coffee shop, which is handy when you’re unprepared for hunger pangs.

The fiber in bananas makes them filling and the natural sugar means they can do double duty in recipes. Bananas can be used to sweeten and moisten baked goods in a healthier way, they can fill in for creamy goodies, like ice cream and puddings, and they can be whisked with eggs to create a decadent stack of pancakes. The fact that bananas check the healthy and delicious boxes make them A-OK in my book.

5. Soy

A major trend in marketing and manufacturing is the “free from” claim, which highlights when a food is free from certain ingredients, like dairy or soy. Though originally driven by the demand for products that were free from highly allergenic ingredients (which includes soy), according to the marketing research firm, Euromonitor, it’s now driven by health-conscious consumers who think these are more nutritious options. As a result of this belief, soy foods are taking a hit, with soy milk in particular seeing steep declines in sales.

But let’s be clear on food marketing. Claims, like soy free, aren’t necessarily the best indicator of health and as with other whole foods, there’s a huge difference between whole or minimally processed forms of soy, which include edamame, tofu and soy milk, compared to heavily processed forms, such as the soy protein concentrate used in the Impossible Burger. The former — whole and minimally processed forms of soy — are plant-based proteins that provide all the essential amino acids found in animal-based proteins (which is unique for a plant source) along with fiber and some key minerals, like potassium and magnesium. Whole and minimally processed forms of soy food also provide environmental benefits if you’re swapping them for animal proteins so they’re good for you and for future generations.

As for the highly processed forms of soy foods — like those found in fake meat products, soy-based protein shakes, and some high protein bars — questions remain. That means we just can’t say what the long-term impact might be, neutral or otherwise. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid these foods altogether, but I’d suggest modest intake. Seeing highly processed soy in the ingredient list is usually a sign of other highly processed or not-so-healthy ingredients, like excessive salt, or artificial sweeteners, so there’s more than one reason to eat these foods sparingly.

While most people can safely include and benefit from whole and minimally processed forms of soy in their diet, soy is a top allergen and many soy foods contain those undigestible carbs (those FODMAPs again) that can trigger GI distress. So while soy foods can be really healthy, some people still need to avoid them.

MORE FROM SAMANTHA CASSETTY, RD

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