The Most Underrated Healthy Foods, According to Nutritionists
If you’re sick of hearing about how kale changed your sister's roommate's cousin's life, you're not alone. Kale advocates -- along with coconut oil champions, quinoa supporters, and chia spokespeople -- are singing an old and long-winded tune.
So if you want to mix up your go-to healthy foods, check out some of the options that nutritionists and health professionals think are underrated.
Red bell peppers
When it comes to vitamin C, oranges get all the credit. But one red bell pepper serves up more than twice the vitamin C you need in a day, landing it on the list of nutritionist Karen Ansel, author of Healthy in a Hurry: Simple, Wholesome Recipes for Every Meal of the Day. Vitamin C keeps your skin smooth and healthy by helping you make more collagen, which is essential for firm, strong skin.
So many people focus on what you shouldn’t eat to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, but an equally important part of the equation is what you can eat -- like oatmeal. Ansel likes oatmeal because it's rich in soluble fiber, which reduces cholesterol in your bloodstream. It's also full of fiber, so it can help control those mid-morning cravings.
Just like fresh salmon, canned salmon is also a tremendous source of heart-friendly omega-3 fats -- and many brands pack theirs without bones or skin, making it an incredibly convenient option and another of Ansel's favorites. Another perk? It keeps for a long time on the shelf, so you can always store it in your pantry to whip up a quick salmon salad for lunch.
Low-sodium vegetable juice
Stop spending upwards of $10 on fresh fruit juices, and turn your attention toward low-sodium vegetable juice. Ansel advocates this option because low-sodium vegetable juices are usually jammed with vitamins A and C, plus potassium, not to mention the fact that they're low in sugar and calories... and, perhaps most importantly, lower in cost than the stuff you'll get at the trendy neighborhood juice bar.
Dates aren’t just your grandma’s favorite fruit, they’re also loaded with fiber, vitamin A, potassium (over three times more than bananas, ounce for ounce), iron, fluorine, and B vitamins. Nicknamed "nature's candy," dates are wildly easy to digest, providing instant energy, says Talia Pollock, plant-based chef, health coach, and blogger behind Party in My Plants.
Remove their pits and re-stuff them with nut butter, blend them into a smoothie, or use a food processor to turn them into snack balls and bars, and you’ll have the perfect pre-workout snack.
Everyone loves miso soup, so it’s weird that miso itself doesn't get more credit. But Pollock thinks it should: made from fermented soybeans, miso is a probiotic food, which means it boosts your immunity, digestion, and overall well-being. It's also high in B vitamins, making it a great choice for easing stress and PMS, improving memory, and even reducing the risk of heart disease.
Pollock suggests using the slightly sweet and super-salty paste as a replacement for salt -- it's a great addition to homemade dressings, pestos, and other dips.
Ginger may not be anything special to look at, but it's got a hunk of health benefits that Pollock loves. Known in India as the "universal medicine," ginger has long been used to combat all kinds of gastrointestinal distress, and its flavor is pretty amazing, too. Add it to tea, smoothies, baked goods, soups, stir-fries -- you get the picture. Add it to everything.
This supposed aphrodisiac has a lot more to offer than a healthy sex drive, says Laura Smith, nutrition consultant and product & innovation manager at Weight Watchers International. Packed with protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, zinc, B12, and vitamin C, just six oysters can provide you with 6g of protein and 31% of your daily iron intake.
Feeling adventurous? Sardines are also packed with omega-3s and other cardiovascular health-supporting qualities... just be sure your toothbrush is standing by if you plan on going out in public after eating a tin of sardines.
Beans and lentils
Let's get one thing out of the way first: yes, beans make you gassy -- but a few farts here and there will be worth it to reap the benefits they have to offer. These plant-based proteins are packed with protein, fiber, folate, iron, and other essential nutrients, according to Smith. Add them to any salad or pasta, or consume them on their own with a little salt and pepper.
Red leafy greens
"Red greens" may sound like an oxymoron, but that's exactly what makes them underrated. Some of the most nutrient-dense veggies are things like red cabbage, red lettuces, radicchio, and red kale. Smith warns that if you're not buying these items fresh from a farmers' market, eat them within two days of purchase: fruits and vegetables lose their nutrients fast, and the ones in the store have often traveled for several days and may have been on the shelves even longer before winding up in your fridge.
Watercress clocked a perfect 100% nutrient density score in a study put out by the Centers for Disease Control. Compare that to kale, which comes in at a modest 49%. Lorna Jane Clarkson, founder of activewear label Lorna Jane and active-living site Move, Nourish, Believe, calls it, “The garnish that’s literally the unrivaled champion in the greens department.” Dayum. Bonus points for appropriately using "literally."
Wondering "WTF is semolina?" You're familiar with it in the form of pasta or Italian bread, but according to Peggy Kotsopoulos, Holistic Nutritionist & Culinary Expert at Gabriella’s Kitchen, it's rich in energy-boosting B vitamins and the mineral selenium, an essential trace mineral. Semolina is also low glycemic, meaning you’ll get a steady stream of energy without experiencing a spike in your blood sugar levels. Kotsopoulos recommends combining it with non-GMO proteins (like a pea protein) for a nutrient-dense homemade pasta.
Olive oil's gotten a bad rap ever since coconut oil ascended to the top of the healthy-fat mountain. That doesn't mean olive oil isn't the star it once was -- you just need to use it appropriately. The heart-protective oil is made up of monounsaturated fats, which help to lower your LDL (bad cholesterol) without hindering your HDL (good cholesterol). Research shows that olive oil's oleic acid can even help lower blood pressure -- just think of it as a finishing touch instead of a cooking oil, and you'll be good to go.
Instead of cooking with it on the stove, nutritionist Amy Shapiro, founder of Real Nutrition NYC, suggests adding olive oil to cooked food, or as part of a salad dressing. Extra-virgin olive oil has a relatively low smoke point, which means that when you cook with it, you run the risk of creating carcinogenic compounds.
Often overlooked (almonds and pistachios tend to steal the spotlight), these legumes are a powerful folate source, which is essential for brain development (and may even prevent cognitive decline), and is part of the reason Shapiro loves them. A perfect food for vegetarians and vegans, who can sometimes struggle to find folate sources, peanuts are also high in the antioxidant vitamin E.
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Erin Kelly is a writer, runner, and triathlete living in New York City whose grandma has been schooling her on the importance of dates for YEARS. You can follow her on Twitter at @erinkellysays.