Generally, nutritionists and dietitians refrain from labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” as it can promote unhealthy attitudes towards food — and, for the most part, any food can be eaten as long as it’s in moderation. But we’re all familiar with junk food: heavily processed and often packaged food products that are high in calories, fat, sugar, and sodium and generally void of nutrients. Cheeseburgers, Cheetos, Twinkies, and french fries might come to mind. But some “junk foods,” like the ones listed below, actually have some redeeming nutritional qualities. They may not be as nutrient-dense as whole, unprocessed foods like blueberries, kale, salmon, and lentils, but they do have a place in any healthy diet (especially when you’re in a pinch and are staring at a Cinnabon menu!). Just eat them in the most unprocessed form you can find– think air-popped popcorn instead of movie theater popcorn.
As long as you’re sticking to dark chocolate–with a cocoa content of 70% or higher–a few pieces of chocolate might just be the perfect dessert. Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids, antioxidant compounds also found in green tea and red wine, that have been shown to boost heart health by improving cholesterol levels and relaxing blood vessels. One study from San Diego State University, comparing the health effects of dark chocolate versus white chocolate, found that individuals who ate dark chocolate had lower blood sugar levels, perhaps because its antioxidants help the body use insulin more efficiently. But more noteworthy, perhaps, is that white chocolate-eaters experienced a decline in skin blood flow, indicating that the antioxidants present in dark chocolate cancel out the negative effects of fat and sugar.
Pick it: Chocolove Currants & Almonds in Dark Chocolate (73% cocoa content); Scharffen Berger Dark Chocolate (70%); Michel Cluizel Grand Noir (85%)
Skip it: White chocolate; milk chocolate; grocery store truffles
A recent study found that popcorn contains more antioxidants than many fruits and vegetables. Because popcorn is only 4% water (fruits and vegetables, in comparison, contain up to 95% water), the antioxidant polyphenols, found in the hull, are more concentrated. One of these polyphenols–ferulic acid–has been found to reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases. Of course, smothering your popcorn in oil, butter, and salt will reduce the protective benefits of its antioxidants and fiber. Air-popped popcorn is best, as it’s an undoctored whole grain; add flavor with ingredients like turmeric, cardamom, cumin, parmesan cheese, and truffle oil. Microwave popcorn has twice as many calories, so indulge in moderation.
Pick it: Air-popped popcorn with spices, herbs, nuts, or a little butter or parmesan cheese
Skip it: Microwave popcorn; movie theater popcorn
Full-fat salad dressing
Restaurant and fast food salads are often at the top of “worst foods for your waistlines” lists, and that’s often because their dressings pack a ridiculous amount of calories and fat. On The Border’s Chipotle Honey Mustard Dressing adds at least 310 calories and 29 grams of fat to your meal–and that’s only if the chef adheres to the serving size. But the fats found in salad dressings help us absorb nutrients like fat-soluble vitamins A, D, K and E, lycopene, and beta carotene. In one study, individuals who ate a salad with avocado (rich in monounsaturated fats) absorbed two to fifteen times more lycopene, beta carotene, and alpha carotene than those who ate a fat-free salad. The key is portion size: a standard serving size for salad dressing is two tablespoons, a mere fraction of what you’re likely served at restaurants. Ask for dressing on the side and pour judiciously; or simply dip each bite into the dressing. Look for dressings made with monounsaturated fats (look for olive, canola, avocado, or sesame oil); these will enhance nutrient absorption no matter how much you use, so you can keep calorie consumption in check.
Pick it: Olive-, canola-, avocado-, sesame-, peanut-, and other monounsaturated fat-based oils
Skip it: Fat-free and reduced-fat salad dressings; high-sugar salad dressings; salad dressings high in saturated or trans fats; salad dressings with more than five ingredients
Red wine might steal the spotlight when it comes to antioxidant-rich alcoholic drinks, but don’t overlook beer: it contains just as many antioxidants as wine plus B vitamins and minerals. The hops (which are actually flowers from the plant Humulus Iupulus and are responsible for adding that bitter taste and aroma to beer) contains xanthohumol, an antioxidant that exhibits antiviral, anti-allergic, anti-clotting, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor activity. According to Donald Buhler, PhD., lead author of a study testing beer’s antioxidant effects, xanthohumol is especially potent because of its unique chemical structure that allows it to survive longer in the body, thereby maximizing its disease-fighting effects. As always, drink in moderation: research shows that one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men is associated with improved brain and heart health and stronger bones. Pick stouts or dark ales, which contain higher levels of antioxidants.
Pick it: Guinness Draught; Newcastle Ale; Beck’s Premier Light
Skip it: Sierra Nevada Bigfoot; Samuel Adams Boston Lager; high-calorie beers; sugary cocktails
Good news for most Americans: it’s perfectly healthy to indulge in steak, bison burgers, and lamb chops every so often. Red meat is packed with protein (20-24 grams per three ounce serving), as well as iron, vitamin B12, and zinc. And grass-fed beef has even more benefits: it contains up to one third the amount of fat as corn- or grain-fed beef, and the fats it does have contain more omega-3 fatty acids in addition to conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat that is linked with weight loss and a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. Pick leaner cuts of meat like sirloin and top round; steer clear of fattier cuts, like rib-eye, T-bone, and strip steak, as well as processed meats like bacon, sausage, and deli meats.
Pick it: Grass-fed beef; eye, top, and bottom round roast and steak; sirloin; leg of lamb; bison meat
Skip it: Bacon, sausages, cured meats; hot dogs