Give in to those indulgencesOlha Afanasieva/ShutterstockIf you assume heavenly foods can't also be healthful, you're in for a sweet surprise. "Many times people think that healthy means bland, but in fact it's quite the opposite!" says Kristi King, MPH, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, senior dietitian at Texas Children's Hospital, and clinical instructor at Baylor College of Medicine. "Fruits and vegetables are a great example; they give you fiber, vitamins, and minerals necessary for your body to function properly." Heather Mangieri, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of Fueling Young Athletes adds that preparation and moderation are key. "Many of the foods considered too delicious to be nutritious actually do carry some health benefits; it's the portion size and the way they're prepared that can be problematic," she says. "My clients often include peanut butter and coffee as foods they are ashamed of, and are shocked when I share how they can fit into a healthy meal plan."
Savor aged cheeseJill Battaglia/ShutterstockIf you've got a thing for aged cheese, go for it! "The bacteria used to break down the lactose in aged cheese are also good probiotics for the gut," says King, adding that aged cheese has more recently been found to contain vitamin K2, which is needed for brain, heart, and bone health. What's more, a few tablespoons of the Italian hard cheese Grana Padano eaten every day "had the blood pressure-lowering impact typical of antihypertensive medications in a small blinded, randomized trial," according to MedPage Today. Aim for one-ounce serving of aged cheese or the size of six dice staked together, King advises. Turns out cheese is a secret fat-burner.
Love your peanut butterneil langan/ShutterstockThere's great news for peanut butter lovers, says Mangieri. "Peanuts are packed with more protein than any other nut, and contain good fats that help fight hunger." When it comes to nutritional value, she adds, you get a little bit of everything. Two tablespoons deliver 180-210 calories, 8 grams of carbohydrates, 7 grams of protein, and 16 grams of fats, while acting as a good source of vitamin E, potassium, fiber, and other nutrients. "Though higher in fat than most protein sources recommended, the combination of nutrients gives it a high satiety value and makes it a good alternative to animal protein sources," Mangieri explains. As if that's not enough, studies support the consumption of peanuts and peanut butter for people with diabetes. While brand doesn't matter (by law, any product labeled "peanut butter" in the United States must be at least 90 percent peanuts, Mangieri says), portion size does. "The key to including peanut butter as a health food is eating it in moderation," Mangieri points out. Try these tasty twists on a classic PB&J sandwich.
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Avocados are just awesomeNatashaPhoto/ShutterstockAvocado is a "powerhouse," according to King, who says these green machines provide fiber, mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), plenty of vitamins, and other amazing health benefits. "The combination of MUFAs and fiber help to regulate appetite," she adds. "They also help reduce risk for heart disease and promote good gut health." In addition, avocados have vitamin C, which helps boost the immune system. Serving size is one-third of a medium avocado, King specifies. Try these delicious avocado recipes.
Bake some sweet potato friesvm2002/Shutterstock"Sweet potatoes alone are a one-stop shop for several key nutrients, including beta-carotene, vitamin C, fiber, and potassium," Mangieri raves. A 3.5-ounce sweet potato delivers 116 calories, 4 grams of fiber, and a boatload of beta-carotene (a powerful antioxidant). This veggie's bright color comes from its high levels of carotenoids (the precursor to vitamin A in the body), which help strengthen eyesight, boost immunity to disease, and, as antioxidants, ward off cancer and protect against the effects of aging, Mangieri says. "Cutting a sweet potato into strips, coating them with a small amount of olive oil or cooking spray; then baking them into sweet potato fries is just another way to get the nutritional benefits of this super food," she adds, specifying that you should limit the olive oil to approximately 1-2 teaspoons per 3.5-ounce potato in order to keep the calories and fat within reason. Can you tell a sweet potato from a yam?
Coffee is healthful ... with a caveatAumnuaysin Pookraksa/ShutterstockWhen it come to dragging yourself out of bed in the morning, coffee not only acts as a pick-me-up, it also carries health perks—to a point. "Coffee is quite controversial as a health food because the caffeine it contains can cause the jitters in some people," says Mangieri. "Still, studies show that compounds in coffee may be beneficial in disease prevention and improve cognitive function." Due to the amount of java consumed by Americans, coffee is considered a top source of antioxidants, she adds. It also contains small amounts of potassium, niacin, vitamin E, and magnesium. "The exact mechanism behind the disease prevention benefits of coffee is not yet understood, and as with most foods, more is not necessarily better," she points out. Most benefits are associated with drinking 2-4 (8-ounce) cups—the equivalent of 300-400 mg of caffeine—each day. Find out how young is too young to start drinking a daily cup of java.
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Unwind with your nightly wineNikuwka/ShutterstockWhen it comes to winding down at night, feel free to look forward to your evening glass of vino; experts say red wine in particular has been found to have heart protective properties. "Red wine is thought to increase dilation and increase blood flow, thus preventing blood clots from forming," says King, adding that antioxidants found in the wine have been proven to decrease or slow cancer cell growth. "But this is all in moderation," she points out. Stick to 1 glass (5 ounces) of wine per day, she says; 1-2 (5–10 ounce) glasses for men. Learn how these health benefits extend to red wine vinegar.
Chocolate is chock-full of antioxidantsAfrica Studio/ShutterstockWhen it comes to chocolate, it's okay to go to the dark side. The flavanols found in dark chocolate have antioxidant properties that have been found to reduce blood pressure, King says. "The higher the percentage of cacao, the more antioxidants," she adds. "Aim for 1 ounce of 70 percent or higher." What's more, dark chocolate has also been found to boost "good" HDL cholesterol and battle "bad" LDL cholesterol. Check out these next-level dark chocolates packed with superfoods.
Go for yogurtGeorge Rudy/ShutterstockYogurt is a yummy food that packs a powerful health punch, says King. Full of natural probiotics needed to promote gut health, yogurt is also a good source of protein. Greek yogurt has even more protein than regular yogurt (approximately 17 grams versus 10 grams). "Consuming the probiotics found in yogurt has been found to be beneficial in gut health such as preventing colon cancer, constipation, and helping with preventing yeast infections in women, just to name a few!" King says. A good serving size is 1 cup. Here are more great foods to boost your good gut bacteria.
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Dip into hummusYulia Davidovich/Shutterstock"The Middle Eastern chickpea spread is an easy, protein-rich snack that fights hunger and balances blood sugar levels," raves fitnessmagazine.com. In addition, it could help lower cholesterol levels, according to an Australian study of adults who ate chickpeas each day. When compared to a second group who got their daily fiber from wheat products, those who had eaten chickpeas "consumed less fat and had a small reduction in cholesterol," according to huffingtonpost.com. Check out these unique hummus recipes that will have you double-dipping.
Bring back black beansMr.Boonrawd Muangsri/ShutterstockWhile we don't tend to binge on black beans for their sinful flavor, you're missing out on some mega health benefits if you ignore this tasty fare. "Black beans are a food that I feel is definitely underutilized in our diets," says King. "These guys are full of protein, fiber, and antioxidants." The phytonutrients, or antioxidants, in black beans help the body fight any lurking free radicals, she explains. The fiber promotes colon health by providing nutrients to the good bacteria in the gut, plus it can help to prevent cardiovascular disease and maintain blood sugar. "To top it off, black beans are a great source of folate, which plays a role in DNA synthesis and repair," King adds. A good serving size of black beans is one half-cup.
Three cheers for cherriesSteve Allen/ShutterstockThese summer treats are not only fun to eat; they're also full of B-vitamins, which are necessary for the metabolic pathways that produce energy, says King. And it gets better: Cherries are a great source of potassium (which is needed for healthy blood pressure) and have plenty of flavonoids (which help fight free radicals in the body). Bing cherries in particular have been shown to lessen inflammation by actually reducing the amount of C-Reactive protein that is produced, King adds. A good serving of cherries is 1 cup. Don't miss more delicious foods that are way healthier than you realize.
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