If you’ve ever been on the internet before, chances are you’ve stumbled across a list article or two about nutrition. They usually have such catchy titles as “10 foods to never eat” or “5 Healthy foods that will make your head explode”.
There seems to be a lot of general negativity in the world of health and food, with everyone appearing (on the surface at least) to want to cut out more foods than everyone else because that guarantees victory, optimal health and great abs.
Well, that’s not the case – not at all.
Truth is, there aren’t many foods out there which are objectively ‘bad for you’ and in the hunt for them we seem to have caused some collateral damage which I’d like to attempt, here, to un-do.
Here are my top 8 foods which generally appear on “DON’T EAT THAT” lists but which, really, aren’t so bad after all.
Some of them may not be the absolute best option every time, of course, but nutrition isn’t black and white – it’s a big old grey spectrum which changes all of the time depending on a massive amount of context.
Forgetting that is why we have spurious ‘superfoods’ and why you may have been told some of the below causes instant death.
Both ideas are misguided, so put down to Goji berries and let’s start re-introducing some old favourites.
White potatoes, in recent years, have been WAY overshadowed by their orange-y sweet cousins, the sweet potato.
The interesting thing is, nobody seems to actually have any idea why. Perhaps it’s because white potatoes are white and the advice to ‘avoid white carbs’ (which I’ll talk about in a second) swept them along for the ride?
Maybe it’s one or two epidemiological studies that show that people who eat them (including people who eat copious amounts of the deep fried, chipped variety or the deep stuffed, bacon sprinkled, breaded sort, and the occasional reformed waffle…) end to be fatter than those people who tend to not eat them.
Whatever the reason, the white potato has taken a really undeserved beating, and that beating is SO undeserved they make the top of this list.
Not only are potatoes really rich in fibre, potassium and vitamin C, they rank higher than ANY OTHER CARBOHYDRATE in terms of satiety (how full you feel).
Boiled white potatoes are, calorie for calorie, more filling than broccoli, than chicken breast and even more so than the sweet potato which has been considered the dieter’s friend.
Bake ‘em, roast ‘em, bake ‘em with some olive oil and herbs to make chips or simply boil, cool and throw on a salad. It’s time to welcome back the sweet potato’s pasty alter-ego, and we probably owe it an apology too.
In the wake of the Paleo movement, the low carb movement and the gluten-free movement, pasta pretty much stood no chance.
It's now "common knowledge"that pasta is bad for you and you should avoid it like the back end of a skunk, but again we need to think about this logically.
First of all, carbohydrates are a good thing – we need them to be awesome in the gym or on the field, and even if you have no intention of doing either of those things your brain and vital organs are pretty fond of carbs too.
And Gluten? Look – if you feel better not eating gluten that’s perfect, you shouldn't eat a food you are reactive too, it's only going to de-rail your chances of reaching optimal health.
Pasta is a great source of easy, cheap, store-able, portable and massively versatile carbohydrates. We love it, it tastes amazing, and it's not all that calorie dense.
If you opt for a wholeweat version you get a decent little protein source there too, and of course it's a brilliant vessel for getting veggies into children via spaghetti bolognaise or meatballs and sauce.
Pasta isn't your enemy; it's just misunderstood, much like our next food item…
Ask anyone for two healthy oils and you’ll hear olive and coconut just about every single time. Olive oil is great, and there’s some pretty robust data to show that the extra virgin variety does have some small beneficial effects when eaten as a part of the diet.
Olive Oil’s only downfall is that you can’t really cook with it – the impurities present in the oil burn really quickly which makes it taste bad, but also the heat alters the fatty acids present which remove some of the health-giving properties.
In steps coconut oil, the super-oil in vogue which promises almost as many benefits as olive oil (depending on whom you ask) but which can be cooked at high heat with no risk of spoiling the fats, owing to its high heat stability.
The problem here is that the health benefits of coconut oil aren’t actually that well displayed in the numerous studies we have on it, and as yet we don’t REALLY know whether the MCT oils present in it are good, neutral or even bad for us.
It’s one of the most expensive oils on the market, and it has a really distinct flavour which can be either highly pleasant or disgusting – again, depending on whom you ask.
From the back of the room comes Rapeseed oil. Rapeseed oil has been brushed aside – potentially because it’s similar to the often poor quality Canola oil from the USA (though more expensive canola oils are great, too) and possibly simply because it isn't coconut or olive oil, but by dismissing it we have made a big mistake.
Extra Virgin Rapeseed oil is not only the cheapest of the three, it contains almost the same amount of healthy Monounsaturated fat and vitamin E as Olive oil while having a FAR higher tolerance to heat and virtually no taste – making it perfect for stir fries or general cooking use.
If you like coconut oil and don’t mind the price, that’s cool, but a balance of saturated, mono and polyunsaturated fats is wise, so by using both coconut and rapeseed to cook and olive for drizzling you are covering all of your bases!
In the turn of the 20th Century, fruit juice went from being the elixir of life, full of vitamins, minerals, fruity goodness and incredible taste to being the equivalent of nature’s Pepsi, pretty much overnight.
This is because some genius realised that fruit contains sugar, and therefore the fruit juice does too, and that means you can’t drink as much as you want of it and still expect to not get really fat.
Health advice changed in the blink of an eye – no longer were we to accompany our breakfast with a refreshing glass of OJ, we were to cut out fruit juices because it simply contains too much sugar and too many calories.
This kind of knee jerk reaction is common in the world of nutrition, but it’s a total overreaction and oversimplification of the facts. Ultimately, yes, you ARE better off eating the whole fruit if there was to be a direct comparison between the two, but we can’t view things like this.
We don’t eat foods, we eat meals, and we have a diet. If the rest of your diet provides plenty of fibre then you’re not really losing out a great deal by having juice instead of an orange with your breakfast if you really want it.
But the obvious does remain, it’s easy to clock up the calories with fruit juice, most eat an orange, while with a glass of OJ you are getting several, getting all the extra calories and sugar with it, so like alcohol, liquid calories will add up fast, so just be aware.
If having a 200ml glass of juice with breakfast is an easy way to help your child meet their daily needs of some essential vitamins (while only providing around 80 calories) then there are far worse things they could be having alongside their egg on toast
Yes – toast.
Much like the pasta fiasco, bread has become a shining beacon of all things fattening, gluttonous and to be removed quick sharp from the food basket of anyone who ever wants to fit into that little black dress/those trousers again.
Was it the gluten? Was it the erroneous white vs brown thing?
Maybe, but it might also be the case that those who cut out bread tend to lose weight really quickly. This is for two reasons:
1. People who cut out bread and lose weight generally do other stuff, too, like start exercising and drinking less alcohol, because they change their whole lifestyle rather than just swapping breakfast options (that and the calories often lost from cutting it out).
2. People don’t just cut out a food, they swap meals around. That lunchtime sandwich becomes a salad. Toast turns into bacon and tomatoes. Pizza becomes ANY other food.
What people are doing is making swaps for foods that are more filling for fewer calories. By serving your chicken next to 200g of broccoli rather than putting it in a bagel you are getting more fibre, more nutrients and less calories for what looks like more food – that’s powerful.
But it’s not bread’s fault. Bread is really filling calorie for calorie, it’s packed with nutrients, it’s cheap and convenient and it tastes really good. By exercising portion control and looking at those other habits (the alcohol, exercise and broccoli things) you can still lose weight and improve your health, without having to skip the baguettes.
**Wholemeal bread/rice/pasta have more nutrients, but I refer you back to the juice vs fruit argument – are you eating vegetables, meats and other things today? If so, it might not be the worst thing in the world if your wheat wrap is white rather than wholemeal because you’re getting all you need from other sources, and wholemeal wraps are objectively rubbish and too dry to wrap around things.
The film fan’s best friend has had a revamp lately and it’s looking good
Air popped popcorn is probably the lowest calorie snack you can eat which still looks and feels like you are eating a respectable amounts of food. A large bag may contain 120 calories, with the same sized bag of crisps totalling double that or more.
The nutrient profile is hardly world beating, with a little bit of fibre and protein, but the main benefit here comes simply down to dietary adherence, portion control and calorie restriction.
Popcorn has a really neutral taste compared to crisps or crackers and as such can be flavoured sweet, savoury and even spicy to suit any cravings. It’s easy to transport and feels like a ‘cheat’ or ‘indulgence’ but you’re consuming about the same amount of calories as 1/3 of a chocolate bar which usually fills the same kind of gap.
It’s not a nutrient powerhouse, but it’s fairly neutral, and the improved ability to stick to your diet is a MASSIVE boost all by itself.
Cheese is one of those things which can be your best friend or worst enemy depending on how well you can judge and control portions. A typical portion of cheese is about 30-40g and will provide 120-160 calories or so, not that much, but that same piece of cheese has a ton of benefits.
It’s rich in calcium and B Vitamins which help energy production, the taste and creamy texture makes it incredibly filling for such a small amount of food, and there’s one other secret which doesn’t’ appear on the label – it’s covered in bugs (if you get a good, proper, artisanal one).
‘Real’ cheese is covered in tiny microbes which live on the surface and in the little crevices of a good cheese. It’s these microbes which turn the milk into this form in the first place and it’s the same microbes which give each cheese such a distinct smell.
The microbes which make some smelly cheeses which often are described as smelling like feet, give the cheese this smell because they are THE SAME microbes which often live in between your toes. It’s not that the cheese smells like feet, it’s that you are eating the same aroma-emitting bacteria as you have in your socks. The more you know…
These microbes are crucial for a huge variety of aspects of your health, and there is a very strong suspicion that the reason the French (who eat over 1000 varieties of cheese nationwide and average around 180g per day each) live longer and healthier lives than we Brits or the Americans do, despite eating more saturated fat, exercising less, smoking more and drinking all of the time is because of the health-boosting effects of these microbes.
It’s a young body of research which is only emerging of late, but it’s an interesting one, and whether it’s the cheese bugs that are responsible for the long lives of the French or not, we cannot say.
What we DO know, though, is that some of the microbes which live on cheese can be transferred to your gut to join the trillions of microbes living there already, and the ones which we can pick up are almost certainly beneficial.
Think of your cheese on toast as a kind of tasty probiotic.
Last up is the British favourite: The humble baked bean.
The UK is the world’s largest consumer of baked beans by a significant margin, going through almost 800 million tins per year (second place Australia eat around 60 million… that’s a big gap and this shows no sign of slowing – which may not be a bad thing).
A large tin of Baked Beans provides 350 calories which is relatively low compared to the amount of food volume there, but as we know it’s not just about calories. That same tin gives you just under 40g of complex carbohydrates which are vital for sports performance and optimal day-to-day function alike.
On top of that they will give you 20g of protein. This protein isn’t ‘complete’ meaning that it must be combined with other foods to create a perfect amino acid profile for absorption, but thankfully there is one food perfect for the job with a profile so well matched you could have almost designed it – bread.
Yep, you heard me, beans on toast gives you a complete source of dietary protein, ideal for building muscle mass (and with those carbs, an ideal pre or post workout, no?).
And as for the sugar? A can will give you 20g of sugar which is not insignificant, but the protein content along with the massive 15g of fibre (over half of most people’s daily needs) more than offsets this as it will radically slow absorption into the blood and the subsequent liver strain or blood glucose increases.
Do you get all of these benefits from a tin of kidney beans without the extra sugar? Yeah sure, but they are a lot less appetising on a fry up and good luck getting a child to eat a plain tin of kidney beans on toast.
Ben Coomber is a performance nutritionist (BSc, ISSN), educator, speaker and writer.
Ben run’s Body Type Nutrition, an online nutrition coaching company that also runs a multi-level, online nutrition course, the BTN Academy. Ben has the UK’s #1 rated health and fitness podcast on iTunes ‘Ben Coomber Radio’ with regular Q&A’s and expert interviews. Ben also owns Awesome Supplements, a brand offering clarity in the confusing world of supplements. Connect with Ben over on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Instagram.
For everything else visit: http://www.bencoomber.com