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Rethinking 'Bad' Foods: Five Surprisingly Healthy Picks

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, MPH, RD

In your efforts to achieve better health, you've probably kicked a cartful of foods from your diet…but man, do you miss them! Here's some good news: While we can't endorse donuts or fries, we can enlighten you on some crave-worthy foods that fit guiltlessly into your healthy lifestyle. In fact, some of the foods you thought you needed to avoid actually provide benefits beyond great taste and basic nutrition—you'll find big energy boosts, weight loss perks, and even cancer prevention in some unexpected places.

Pork: The Even Better White Meat
Think you'll cluck if you have to choke down one more piece of chicken? Put away your feathers and try pork for an often-overlooked healthy alternative. True, many pork products are worthy of their nutritionally dubious reputation (think bacon and BBQ), but some pork picks easily rival the nutrition of chicken. Take, for example, pork tenderloin—the leanest and most tender cut of pork. In a side-by-side comparison, a 3 oz serving of pork tenderloin has fewer calories, less fat, and less cholesterol than the same size portion of skinless chicken breast. What's more, both the boneless top loin chop or a top loin roast have less calories, fat, and cholesterol than a skinless chicken thigh, which many "healthy" recipes suggest as a substitute in the event of chicken breast burnout.

Thanks to pork producers' advances in breeding and feeding practices, the leanest cuts of pork have about 16 percent less fat than they did just 15 years ago, so this isn't your parent's pork chop. And the pork perks don't stop with reduced calories and fat; there's even more to love with this lean protein. Since pork is packed with riboflavin, which plays an important role in unlocking energy from foods, it makes a perfect addition to your gym-friendly diet. Besides milk, it's hard to find many foods that have as much riboflavin per serving as pork.

Carbs: Whole Grains are Good Grains
Did you get caught in the low-carb craze and cut out carbohydrates? Snap out of it, and help yourself to a slice of bread—whole grain, that is. A 2007 study from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine suggested that eating a daily 2.5 servings of whole grain foods is associated with a 21 percent lower risk of heart disease compared to people who eat only 0.2 servings. Whole grains are worthy of adding to your diet, but be cautious of the grain products not worth your second glance. The carb troublemakers to avoid are refined products (white bread, for instance, that has the beneficial whole grain portions removed), which cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, often signaling you to keep eating. Conversely, products with the whole grain portions (germ, bran, and endosperm) left intact are brimming with fiber, which slows the rise in blood sugar and helps you feel full.

Worse than the jiggle in the middle that extra calories can create, refined grains can lead to even more serious issues: a 2004 study found that those following a diet high in "rapidly absorbed carbohydrates" (like bagels or rolls) but low in fiber from whole grains had a significantly higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Making a great grain choice isn't tough, but it can be tricky. "Whole" is the key word, and should be the first listed on the ingredient list—for example, whole wheat, whole rye, whole oats, and so on. "Wheat flour" without the "whole" descriptor means nothing—most breads are made from wheat flour, including the dreaded white bread. And don't let healthy-sounding labels like "stone ground," "multigrain," or "12 grain" confuse you—most of the time those claims are simply a marketing strategy. And as if you didn't have enough to worry about already, add color confusion: darker bread doesn't always mean that it's whole grain. Sometimes ingredients such as molasses are added to make a bread product appear healthier.

Peanut Butter: Good for Kids, but Great for You
Often considered a kid-friendly fave, there's definitely nothing juvenile about the nutrition in peanut butter. Docked from the diet of many health-conscience folks due to the high fat content, peanut butter has suffered unfair notoriety. True, the higher fat content makes it necessary to censor spreading, but it's important to note that all fat isn't created equal. Most of the fat in peanut butter is monounsaturated, which is heart-healthy and can lower total cholesterol and LDL (bad cholesterol). Besides the healthy fat, peanut butter also contains a respectable dose of vitamin E, fiber, niacin, phosphorus, and magnesium in every serving, making it a vitamin and mineral-packed vegetarian protein choice.

Peanut butter is perfect for packing when you're busy (and who isn't?). Requiring no refrigeration and containing the magical mix of carbohydrate, fat, and protein, peanut butter gives you a long-lasting, satisfying energy boost that keeps you filling full and focused. And if you're worried about trans fat (and you should be) while making the selection between regular and natural peanut butter, the bottom line is: Pick which one you think tastes best, and don't trifle over trans. The United States Department of Agriculture recently conducted research which disclosed an undetectable amount of trans fat in samples of commercial peanut butter, both regular and natural. While the regular peanut butter did contain a very, very tiny amount of trans fat (perspective: the amount of trans fat in regular peanut butter is 156 times less than what is needed to reach the 0 g trans-fat cut-off) it simply isn't enough on which to base your selection.

Eggs: A Little Package of Nutrients
Order eggs in the company of your supposedly health-conscience friends and you may garner a raised brow. But the food once shunned for its cholesterol content is actually stealthily healthy. The research isn't new: A myth-busting 1999 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no relationship between people who ate one egg a day and an increase in cardiovascular disease. Years of additional research reinforced that 1999 cholesterol study, plus examined more benefits, too.

Eggs are packed with protein and choline, an essential nutrient in the B-vitamin complex. You already know that protein, like that found in eggs, is critical for muscle growth and repair, but you may be surprised to learn that eggs boast the highest quality protein known, second only to mother's milk (which is considered perfect). The choline in eggs—the richest source is the yolk—can help reduce the risk for certain types of chronic disease. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people with a high intake of choline, compared to those with lower intake, had significantly lower inflammatory markers—and inflammation is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, and type 2 diabetes. Plus, eggs can help aid weight loss and maintenance, since the long lasting protein satiety in eggs can keep you from pillaging for high calorie snacks—and at about 72 calories per egg, that's a caloric bargain.

Coffee: The Joys of Java
You don't have to suffer through decaf to keep your coffee cup contents healthy (but do hold the cream and sugar). In fact, your caffeinated cup might actually do you some good. A host of studies suggests coffee to provide health benefits and improve athletic performance. With caffeine-enhanced performance products lining the shelves of every athletic supply store, it's impossible to miss the fact that a little jolt is good for your game. But here's a tip: Skip the expensive products and swig a little plain old coffee instead. Most experts agree that a moderate amount of coffee (about two cups) is enough to safely improve concentration and provide an extra bit of energy without deterring your performance. Outside of athletics, research conducted by Harvard University found that those chugging up to three cups of coffee had a slightly decreased risk for type 2 diabetes. What's more, colon cancer risk is decreased by 25 percent for people partaking in two or more cups a day. And though the benefit isn't strong enough to retire your toothbrush, a little extra help avoiding the drill and fill is always nice—coffee contains a compound with antibacterial qualities that can help prevent cavities, too.

But like most swillables besides water, coffee comes with a caution—moving beyond moderate sipping can brew trouble, since it is a stimulant and in excess can increase heart rate and blood pressure. For some, coffee has been known to raise cholesterol. If you're not already a coffee drinker there's no need to start sipping, since many of the benefits from coffee are related to its antioxidant content, which you can glean from eating a good variety of fruits and vegetables. Plus, we're talking regular coffee here—fancy coffee drinks with whipped cream and sugary shots can derail your healthy intentions in a matter of swigs.