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14 “Bad” Foods You Can Stop Demonizing

You eliminated these foods from your diet (or still eat them, with guilt). Here's why you can stop all that.

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Vegetarian Quinoa bowl. Healthy breakfast or snack with detox quinoa, tomato, cucumber, carrot, pomegranate seeds, juicy blueberries and lettuce in portioned bowls. TopILEISH ANNA/Shutterstock

Ever-changing food news

What we hear about healthy eating and nutrition changes pretty often: first fat is the devil, then it’s not; losing weight is all about cutting calories, then it’s carbs. And sometimes one negative research claim about a food trumps all the positive benefits—giving it an undeserved bum rap. Learn the truth about these misunderstood foods, and why they can retake their rightful place in your diet.

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Dairy products such as milk, yogurt, butter, cheese, cream and kefir, view from above, space for a textFatty's place/shutterstock

Whole milk

This is the milk your momma gave you, and what you stuck with until the whole saturated-fat-causes-heart-disease news happened. Then you switched to the reduced-fat versions or non-dairy alternatives. But here’s the thing: If you can drink cow’s milk, it’s a good source of protein, with eight grams per cup (plus calcium and vitamin D); in comparison, a cup of rice or almond milk has only 1 gram of protein or less. Whole milk obviously has more fat and calories than skim—”but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” says Alissa Rumsey, RD. A little fat may help you feel fuller, longer, so you eat less, she explains. Plus, research has also cast some doubt on how harmful saturated fat really is for you. Just stick to a single-cup serving to keep calories in check.

Don’t want to feel guilty about eating? Try one of these healthy snacks.

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Overhead view of baked whole loaf of bread and wheat stalks on rustic wooden boardstab62/Shutterstock

Bread

No, no… not the sliced white kind. That loaf stays on the supermarket shelf. But feel free to reserve a spot in your shopping cart for 100 per cent whole-grain breads. Those slices contain the whole grain, and all the nutritional perks that come with it. Refined grains—used to make the white breads—are stripped of the outer bran shell and germ (where most of the vitamins, minerals, protein, and fibre occur), leaving only the starchy endosperm centre. “Whole grain carbs better regulate blood sugar and are linked to a reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers,” says Rumsey. But bread buyer, beware: Some brands will stick “natural,” “whole grain,” or “7 grain” on the package, but are still made mainly with refined grains. To make sure you’re getting the real deal, the first ingredient should be “whole grain flour” or “100% whole wheat flour.”

Learn the difference between whole wheat and whole grain bread.

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Different types of coffee in cups on dark table, top viewAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

Coffee

It’s been blamed for stunting growth, messing with blood pressure, among many other ills. But recent research finally gives your beloved cuppa joe credit it deserves. Coffee has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and certain cancers. It can also improve your mood, boost brain function, and even lead to a longer life. Three to five cups a day is the recommended amount for most adults—but go easy on the cream and flavourings that can add tons of sugar and calories.

Here’s how much coffee you can drink daily before it gets dangerous.

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potato chips on the background of black stone, flat layDande_lion_studio/shutterstock

White potatoes

You worry about the high-carb content, but the root of the problem is how most of us choose to eat potatoes—as fatty fries, salty tots, or calorie-crazy chips. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found potato chips may contribute to more weight gain per serving than any other food. But a naked, humble baked potato (without the shredded cheese, sour cream, and bacon bits) contains only about 160 calories, is packed with vitamin C, energy-producing vitamin B, fibre, and potassium. White potatoes also contain resistant starch—a type that isn’t fully broken down or absorbed by the body, so it doesn’t cause the same spike in insulin as other high-carb foods, says Rumsey. To retain the most nutrients when cooking, bake or microwave with the skin on, which is where most of the fibre resides.

Consider trying these healthy ingredient substitutions.

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Raw chicken legs on wooden backgroundJacek Chabraszewski/Shutterstock

Dark meat

Health-minded meat-lovers, hear this: white meat breast and dark meat thighs are both good sources of lean protein and packed with vitamins and minerals. Dark meat, because of the type of muscle, even has slightly more iron than white. It is also higher in calories and fat. But if you take the skin off—where you find most of the fat in poultry—a skinless chicken thigh only has 44 more calories and two extra grams of unhealthy saturated fat than a skinless breast. Plus, dark meat is juicier and has more flavour.

Here’s why you should never wash chicken before cooking it.

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Old mini banana - overhead viewIridescence Studios/Shutterstock

Bananas

Yes, they contain more calories and carbs than some other fruits, but it’s well, bananas… to ban bananas from your diet. These fruits are high in potassium—a mineral that helps regulate blood pressure and most of us lack. Bananas are also a good source of filling fibre, and research shows eating them can refuel your body as effectively as a sports drink during exercise. Plus, greener or less-ripe bananas contain resistant starch, which helps boost gut health.

You’ll wish you’d known these low-carb food swaps sooner.

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Open tin cans with different food on tableAfrica Studio/shutterstock

Canned vegetables

Before you make a stink face, consider this: Canned veggies offer the same amount of vitamins and minerals as their fresh counterparts, says Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD, author and founder of F-Factor Diet, who has a private nutrition counselling practice in New York City. In fact, research shows eating them is associated with a higher-quality diet, lower body weight, and lower blood pressure. Plus, canned veggies are inexpensive, prepped and ready, and always available, regardless of the season. Sodium can certainly be high, but that’s easily remedied: Look for low sodium versions and/or rinse them until the water runs clear to get rid of the excess sodium content, suggests Zuckerbrot.

Every home cook needs to know these microwave tricks.

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Oil and soy sauce on a black stone background. Top view. Free space for your text.YARUNIV Studio/shutterstock

Regular salad dressing

Fat-free versions may be lower in calories but are often loaded with sugar and salt to add flavour. Plus, your body needs fat to absorb many of the vitamins and other nutrients in your salad greens. Creamy salad dressings are smart to skip since they can contain a lot of saturated fat. Your best bet is a vinaigrette that lists olive or canola oil as a main ingredient (for a dose of healthy fats), followed by vinegar, water, and spices. Keep your drizzle to two tablespoons to help control calories.

Don’t miss these sneaky salad tricks to help you lose weight.

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beef jerky and spice on old tableJiri Hera/Shutterstock

Beef jerky

Call it the comeback snack—because it actually has come back a better version of its former self. Many manufacturers cut down the artificial additives, preservatives, and insane amounts of sodium, and instead offer nitrate-free varieties in gourmet flavour combos, like chili lime and black cherry barbecue. The other pluses: Jerky is super high in protein, low in calories, and supplies a good dose of iron and zinc, two essential minerals that help boost your immune system, says Zuckerbrot. If you’re not into the beef, there’s chicken or turkey jerky, or even vegan options. Look for brands that say “no nitrates” on the package, and stick to a 28 gram serving, or about the size of your thumb.

Try one of these low-calorie snacks.

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Spaghetti pasta on grey stone background, copy space.Agnes Kantaruk/shutterstock

Pasta

White versions don’t offer much in the way of nutrition, but you know that. And the first time you tried whole-grain pasta was also the last—the gummier texture and grainier taste was tough to stomach. But give it another shot. The quality of whole grain pasta is much improved, and you still get the benefits of the fibre, vitamins, and nutrients. Or better-than-white pastas include those made with semolina flour, milled from durum wheat, which is higher in protein, says registered dietician Libby Mills. Whole-wheat pasta blends, which contains both whole wheat and refined grains, are also available; as are pastas made from quinoa, lentils, edamame, and chickpea.

Here’s why you should never add oil to your pasta water.

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Roasted Prawns on white plate on gray concrete stone backgroundLisovskaya Natalia/Shutterstock

Shrimp

People malign this little crustacean for containing too much dietary cholesterol. The recommended limit is 300 mg per day; a 85 g portion of shrimp has about half that—so you can work it into your diet, says Zuckerbrot. And here’s why you want to: shrimp is a great source of lean protein and very low in fat and calories. Eat it raw as a shrimp cocktail or grilled, and serve with broccoli, barley or another high-fibre food. “Fibre attaches to dietary cholesterol found in shrimp and helps usher it out of the body so it never gets absorbed,” explains Zuckerbrot.

Find out all the ways you’ve been cooking fish wrong.

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Salted popcorn in a cup. Dark background. Selective focus. Fast food for moviesGaus Alex/Shutterstock

Popcorn

The stuff they serve at the movie theater should remain in exile: chomp your way through a large tub and you can easily ingest upwards of 1,000 calories and 50 grams of saturated fat, says Zuckerbrot. Oil-popped, flavoured, microwave, or prepackaged gourmet popcorn aren’t much better—they are often heavily processed and loaded with sugar or salt. But basic air-popped kernels are high in satisfying fibre and contain as few as 31 calories per cup. Pop your own kernels on the stove with a little bit of vegetable oil.

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Flat lay composition with bottle of wine, glasses and corkscrew on wooden background, copy spaceAtlasStudio/Shutterstock

Wine

If you don’t drink wine, this is not a reason to start. But if you do enjoy a glass now and then, swirl and sip sans the guilt. Research shows drinking a moderate amount of red wine is associated with good heart health. And a large study found light to moderate alcohol consumers were less likely to die prematurely from any cause, including heart disease, compared to those who never drank. Drinking in excess, however, can hurt your heart, and lead to lots of other health problems. Stick to one glass per day for women; one to two for men.

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Top view of fresh coffee espresso or latte with frothy foam on gray table, empty spacePiece of Cake/Shutterstock

Hot chocolate

You’ve heard a gazillion or so times that dark chocolate is a good choice, thanks to research that suggests its disease-fighting flavanols can help reduce blood pressure and protect against cardiovascular disease. You can get the same healthy nutrients in a cup of hot chocolate—as long as you make it with 100 per cent unsweetened cocoa powder (with a touch of sugar or teaspoon of pure maple syrup, if your taste buds prefer). Cocoa powder that’s been “dutched” or “processed with alkali” means it’s gone through an additional step to neutralize the cocoa’s acidity, which results in a darker, milder powder, but also significantly lowers the flavanol content. And as far as the instant hot chocolate mixes, just say no: they’re packed with sugar and additives. Not in the mood for something sweet?

Next, check out the foods nutritionists never eat late at night.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest