12 Foods You Need to Stop Buying—and 17 You Should Eat More
Are you eating as healthy as you think you are?
If you're eating a mix of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, then you're probably pretty far ahead of the nutrition curve. But even if you're hitting your five-a-day, steering clear of the junk food aisle, and are at a healthy weight, there's still a chance you're making mistakes with your food choices without even realizing it. Not all foods are created equal—even the healthy ones—and you might not be getting as many vitamins and nutrients as you believe. In fact, you may inadvertently be loading your body with excess sugar and sodium. We asked top nutrition experts to identify the best and worst foods in every category—veggies, fruits, legumes, grains, proteins, dairy, and fats—so you can close the gaps on your nutritional needs.
Best veggie: Dark, leafy greens
The best greens are the darkest and richest in color, including spinach, kale, romaine, collards, turnip and mustard greens, and broccolini. "They’re some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet—packed with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that help protect the cells and build the immune system, all for a skinny little calorie level,” says Sharon Palmer, RD, a southern California-based registered dietitian. Aim to get between 1½ to 2 cups of these leafy veggies each week. (One way to do it is with the spinach and sweet potato quesadilla recipe in the video above.) Eat them in salads, wraps, or sandwiches, or serve them as a side dish with some lemon and garlic. If you’re not a fan of the bitter taste that comes along with many greens, try infusing them into your smoothies. This masks the flavor while still offering up their nutritional benefits. Or, turn them into chips by mi in some olive oil and sea salt and heating them in the oven until they’re nice and crispy.
Worst veggie: Anything in a can
Canned veggies are often stripped of fiber and other nutrients, and are often loaded with sodium. If canned veggies are your go-to, you’ll experience decreased nutritional quality or, worse, unknowingly consume them with sugar, additives, sodium, or flavorings that detract from good nutrition and make it harmful.
If you need the convenience of canned vegetables, opt for frozen instead. They're just as healthy as fresh because they’re flash-frozen at the site of harvest. “They have no added sodium and are less wasteful, since you can cook only what you need and keep the rest in the freezer,” explains Rachel Brandeis, RDN. Plus, now frozen vegetables come in microwavable bags, which makes them very convenient for busy families trying to get veggies on the dinner table. (Just be sure you're buying plain vegetables, and not ones coated in any type of sauce.)
Best veggie: Kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and other cruciferous vegetables
Kale isn't the only nutritional superstar in the cruciferous vegetable category. Don't forget to also include cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables in your diet, as well. “Besides adding flavor to your meal, these veggies are packed with antioxidants and have been shown in multiple studies to help reduce cancer risk thanks to the phytochemical sulforaphane,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, author of Belly Fat for Dummies. A study published in Clinics in Dermatology found that the carotenoids zeaxanthin and lutein, both found in cruciferous vegetables, may help protect the eyes against harmful UV rays from the sun and free radicals in the environment. “Aim to consume a minimum of 1 cup per day,” suggests Palinski-Wade. “If you’re not a fan of their texture, try pureeing cauliflower into a rice, which you can also make into a pizza crust!” (Here's a cauliflower rice recipe, as well as a recipe for cauliflower pizza crust.)
Worst veggie: Starchy vegetables
Corn, peas, potatoes, pumpkin, squash, and yams tend to contain fewer vitamins and minerals and less fiber than other types of vegetables. Plus, they often contain two to three times as many calories per serving as their non-starchy vegetable counterparts. One recent study from Harvard University found that eating leafy greens and cruciferous veggies resulted in significantly more weight loss than potatoes, peas, and corn. “These types of vegetables are best eaten earlier in the day as they’re higher in carbohydrates,” says Roger Adams, PhD, a Houston-based nutritionist.
RELATED: 7 Health Benefits of Sweet Potatoes
Best legume: Simply cooked beans
Chickpeas, black beans, and pinto beans provide an excellent meatless backbone for a healthful meal when combined with whole grains and vegetables. “These are especially good because they are whole-plant foods and are very rich in fiber and plant protein,” says Palmer. “Plus, consuming cooked beans has been linked with reducing your risk of chronic diseases and obesity.” You can cook them yourself or drain and rinse them from a can and add them to salads, soups, casseroles, or curry dishes such as Indian dal. Unlike canned vegetables, canned beans can be a healthy addition to your pantry—they're nutritionally equal, and as long as you rinse them before eating, you won't take in any extra sodium.
Worst legume: Canned baked beans
Unlike regular canned kidney or navy (white) beans, the leading brand of baked beans contains 3 teaspoons of sugar per serving, and 50% more sodium, says Nicole Rodriguez, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist. Cut sugar and salt by making your own. Drain and rinse a can of navy beans and whip up a tomato-based sauce with a touch of barbecue sauce.
You should also be wary of canned bean soups. “Any kind of bean soup is full of fiber and protein, but you if you’re choosing a canned black bean soup or lentil soup, be sure you check to the label,” says Brandeis. “Many of these canned soups are loaded with sodium, well over 900 milligrams per serving.” Look for low-sodium versions with less than 500 mg per serving.