8 Surprisingly Healthy Foods You Don’t Have to Avoid

Surprisingly healthy foods

Certain foods have caught a pretty bad rap in the past. But many of these “unhealthy foods” are unexpectedly healthy. So today, we’re taking a look at eight of the most surprisingly healthy foods.

What makes a food good for you? Is it that it fits into a specific regimented diet or features some variety of magical ingredients? It’s really a matter of opinion these days.

Sneaky health foods are everywhere. Sometimes they’re even sandwiched between unhealthy foods. The truth is that the health value of food is purely contextual. Fresh or frozen blueberries? Clearly healthy. Fresh or frozen blueberries sprinkled over three scoops of ice cream or a loaded milkshake? Take a wild guess.

But not everything is so clear cut. Surprisingly nutritious foods are far more common than you might think. Read on for details on eight “deceptive” health foods.

8 Surprisingly Healthy Foods

1. Beef

Is beef unhealthy? Let’s see. It’s rich in protein to help you build and maintain muscle, nails, skin, and virtually every cell in your body. Protein also plays a role in your immune system.

Beef is also a great source of the following nutrients:

  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin B12
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Selenium
  • Niacin
  • Phosphorus

Selenium is a powerful antioxidant, zinc is needed for immune health (and may help prevent and treat colds), and iron can help prevent anemia.

So why is beef commonly viewed as unhealthy? It is high in saturated fats, a type of fat associated with cardiovascular problems. Interestingly, many studies have found that the naturally occurring saturated fats in beef, and other meats, are neutral.

“Neutral” means they don’t offer any benefit. It also means they don’t cause harm.

Get the healthy benefits by picking your spots: don’t cover it up in a burger with sugary sauces and buns. Select leaner cuts when possible, like extra-lean ground beef, sirloin, or flank.

Avoid processed meats, as they can be harmful. When products are processed, assume they are unhealthy.

2. White Potatoes

Starchy and used to make chips and French fries, potatoes have unsurprisingly lost their status as a health food in the public consciousness. But, when they’re unprocessed and served baked, mashed, or roasted, they become a health food.

Potatoes are an excellent source of potassium and vitamin C. Potassium plays a number of key roles in your body’s health and functionality, including:

  • Blood pressure
  • Muscle contractions
  • Water balance (hydration)
  • Digestion
  • Heart rhythm
  • pH balance

When well-scrubbed and eaten with the skin on, potatoes can also be a decent source of fiber.

Filling about a quarter of your plate with potatoes is a safe bet to get the most out of this unexpectedly healthy root vegetable.

3. Eggs

Eggs are one of the most controversial health foods out there. Fear of eggs is part of the reason why liquid eggs whites are touted as a health food.

However, egg yolks are packed full of nutrition. Yolks feature vitamin A for eye health and choline for memory (cognitive function), and they’re one of the few nutritional sources of vitamin D for bone health and immune strength.

Eggs also contain a decent serving of protein.

The controversy around eggs is similar to meat: they are high in cholesterol. Yet the cholesterol in eggs seems to have little, if any, effect on cholesterol in the body. Eating eggs in moderation is completely safe for most people.

4. Popcorn

Popcorn is “sneaky healthy” in a big way. In fact, it could be the healthiest “junk food” there is. The truth is that when popcorn is air-popped and seasoned, even lightly buttered, it’s probably the most deceptively and surprisingly healthysnack you can reach for.

How can popcorn feel so wrong yet be so right?

  • It’s a whole grain.
  • It’s very high in fiber.
  • It’s extremely low-calorie.
  • It’s highly filling.

Like most foods, context is king. Not all popcorn is created equal. Avoid movie theater popcorn, microwaved “buttery” popcorn, or sugar-laden bagged popcorn. Air-pop your own, or select plain air-popped bagged versions. Add your own seasonings and a little butter to give it a bit more taste if needed.

5. Full-Fat Dairy

Full-fat dairy is healthy. It might even be healthier than skim or no-fat alternatives. It’s also got more value than non-dairy alternatives like almond milk, so if you’re not lactose intolerant you’re doing your health a disservice by avoiding them.

Dairy products are the best sources of calcium, and offer protein and other valuable vitamins and minerals. Fatty acids in whole-fat milk can also offer protective benefits for your heart.

Research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that people who had circulating levels of dairy-related fatty acids were less likely to die.

By comparison, dairy alternatives like almond milk are fortified with milk’s natural nutrition, raising questions about nutrient quality and bioavailability.

Reduced-fat dairy products, like yogurt, are also generally sweetened with added sugars that make them highly unhealthy.

Because of its effects on overall health and satiety, full-fat dairy is a health food you may find surprisingly healthy.

6. Chocolate

There is a fine line between chocolate being a health food and an unhealthy one. If you prefer the creamy sweetness of milk chocolate, you’re out of luck. But if you like the bitterness of minimally processed cocoa, or dark chocolate, you’re enjoying a sneaky health snack.

Dark chocolate is a rich source flavanol and polyphenol antioxidants. These compounds may:

  • Improve blood flow and lower blood pressure
  • Boost “good” HDL cholesterol
  • Protect cells from oxidation caused by free radicals
  • Improve brain function

Servings sizes are essential in keeping dark chocolate healthy. Although the treat is very nutrient-dense, it could be unhealthy to eat too much of it. Stick to one or two small squares of 75%+ cocoa to stay on track.

7. Coffee

Coffee is another healthy food often mistaken for being unhealthy. But does something unhealthy:

  • Serve up high levels of antioxidants?
  • Improve focus and alertness?
  • Potentially lower the risk of type 2 diabetes?
  • Have potential protective abilities against dementia?
  • Help lower the risk for liver disease?

Coffee can be very healthy if you take it black or with some milk. Adding heaps of sugar or syrup can make it as unhealthy as a piece of cake. Limit the other stuff, and coffee could be a surprising health food.

A quick note a about caffeine: if you don’t tolerate it well, don’t start drinking coffee. Individual tolerance differs, but too much caffeine can lead to anxiety and poor sleep.

8. Chicken Thighs

In comparison to breasts, chicken thighs always come out as the unhealthy loser. The reason? Fat content. Chicken thighs aren’t as lean as chicken breasts. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t super healthy.

First, they aren’t that much fattier than chicken breasts. The difference in a three-ounce serving is only about four grams. Second, the fat in a chicken thigh’s dark meat is monounsaturated fat, the same kind in avocados that promotes a healthy heart, lower cholesterol, and more.

Not only is this “unhealthy” type of chicken good for you, it’ll also come at a much lower price tag than chicken breast.

Unhealthy Foods vs. Healthy Foods: What’s Not Good for You?

Outside of a few choice items when consumed on a regular basis, like French fries, candies, donuts, pizza, and other processed, refined foods, there aren’t very many truly “unhealthy” foods. Sometimes these items can even provide value under certain circumstances.

If a food is minimally processed, like the items on this list, they are almost inherently, yet surprisingly, healthy. It’s when a person eats too much of them, or alters them with sauces and other additives, that they can become “unhealthy.”

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