Up the health ante of your grocery cart with our good/better/best nutritional guideBy: Sally Kuzemchak, RD
Your grocery cart is filled with good-for-you basics such as fresh produce, whole grains, and heart-smart oils. Now take your shopping list to the next level with even healthier picks.
"Eating a wide range of nutrient-dense foods gives you access to more vitamins, minerals, and other disease-fighting antioxidants," says Dave Grotto, RD, author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life! Plus, having the same stuff day in and day out—even if it's great for you—qualifies as a rut, meaning you're missing out on new flavors, which help keep healthy eating fun.
Our aisle-by-aisle guide to the good, better, and best supermarket superstars will help you make smart picks based on preference, availability, and budget. Upgrade your shopping list with these weight-busting, disease-fighting, energy-revving foods.
Good: Lean beef
Why: It's high in protein but lower in calories and saturated fat than other cuts of beef—and still brimming with B vitamins, which help your body turn food into energy. Cuts that have the words loin or round in their names (like tenderloin or top round steak) are lower-fat choices. When buying ground beef, look for one that's at least 92% lean. (Beef labeled 80% lean doesn't mean it has only 20% calories from fat. It's 20% fat by weight and has closer to 70% calories from fat—about 20 g per 3 1/2-ounce serving!)
Better: Organic beef
Why: The cattle were raised without hormones or antibiotics, substances that some people worry may contribute to consumers' reproductive disorders and antibiotic resistance. Organic beef also makes a more environmentally friendly burger, since it comes from cows fed only organic feed (which was grown without chemical pesticides). Just be sure the label says the word organic, because natural beef isn't the same.
Best: Grass-fed beef
Why: It's pricier than regular beef, but the health perks make it worth the splurge. Compared with grain-fed beef, grass-fed packs twice the concentration of vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects cells from damage that can lead to chronic diseases. It's also high in the compound CLA, fatty acids that researchers link with weight loss. Plus, it's rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, rivaling some fish. According to researchers from the University of California Cooperative Extension Service, feeding grass to cattle boosts the omega-3 content of beef by 60%. Because this type of beef tends to be lower in overall fat, it can be tough—so marinate it, and use a meat thermometer to avoid overcooking.
Good: Packaged egg whites
Why: They're a low-calorie protein powerhouse, with no cholesterol or fat. In recipes, substitute the equivalent of two egg whites for each whole egg. Added bonus: Any egg-based dish makes an affordable alternative to pricier meat-based ones.
Better: Whole eggs
Why: The yolk is home to tons of nutrients, including choline, which is linked to lower rates of breast cancer. (One yolk has more than 25% of your daily needs.) It's also rich in antioxidants that may help prevent macular degeneration and cataracts. Worried about the fat and cholesterol? Though people with heart disease should limit egg yolks to two a week, a recent study didn't find a connection between eating up to six eggs per week and increased rates of heart attack or stroke in healthy people.
Best: Omega-3-fortified eggs
Why: They have all the nutrients of regular eggs, plus up to 300 mg or so of the heart-protective fatty acids in each one. Many experts recommend 1,000 mg of DHA and EPA a day; however, because most people don't eat enough fish to meet this goal, these eggs offer another way to add omega-3s to your diet.
Good: Fat-free milk
Why: It contains only traces of fat, while even 2% milk packs 3 g of the artery-plugging saturated kind in every 8-ounce glass. Each cup of fat-free also supplies 76 mg more calcium than the same amount of whole milk does.
Better: Skim Plus
Why: It's as good for you as fat-free milk, with a richer taste. Skim Plus (also called skim deluxe or supreme) is fortified with extra milk protein, making it thicker, creamier tasting, and easier to transition to from whole or 2%.
Best: Organic fat-free milk
Why: A recent study from the United Kingdom found that organically raised cows produce milk with higher levels of antioxidants and fatty acids such as CLAs and omega-3s—thanks to all the grass and clover they consume. You'll pay more for organic milk, but because it's often ultrapasteurized (heated at higher temps and labeled UHT), it may last longer in your fridge.
Good: Trans-free margarine
Why: It's a wiser pick than butter because it doesn't contain any cholesterol and has much less saturated fat. It also doesn't pack the dangerous trans fats that many margarines do--the kind of fats that boost bad cholesterol and lower the good kind. Some are even fortified with bone-building calcium or heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Better: Light trans-free margarine
Why: Your toast and baked potatoes will still get a buttery kick. But even if you use a whole tablespoon, you'll take in as few as 45 calories and 5 g of fat.
Best: Margarines with added plant stanols/sterols
Why: You'll pay more for this margarine, but it's a powerful cholesterol fighter, thanks to plant stanols/sterols, which naturally reduce the amount of LDL cholesterol the body can absorb. In a study in the American Journal of Cardiology, eating 25 g of margarine a day enriched with plant stanols/sterols lowered LDL cholesterol by 8% in 4 weeks.
Good: Low-fat flavored yogurt
Why: Cup for cup, yogurt has about 70 mg more calcium than milk, plus enough protein to make it a satisfying snack. It's rich in beneficial bacteria that can ward off tummy troubles and yeast infections. Look for Lactobacillus (L. acidophilus) and/or Bifidobacterium (B. bifidum) in the ingredients.
Better: Low-fat plain yogurt
Why: Despite the health benefits, some flavored varieties have a ton of added sweetener, such as sugar or high fructose corn syrup. For a healthier treat, pick plain and swirl in a spoonful of all-fruit spread. (You can also drizzle in honey for a bonus shot of antioxidants.)
Best: Greek yogurt
Why: "I love recommending Greek yogurt to clients," says Lara E. Metz, RD, a New York City nutritionist. "It has just as much calcium as regular yogurt and twice the protein—but it's richer and creamier." Be sure to choose the 0% fat variety to minimize calories.
Why: It's an affordable pick and a dieter's dream. Each 3-ounce serving contains only 110 calories and 2.5 g of fat— but a whopping 22 g of fill-you-up protein. According to the FDA, tilapia has the lowest mercury level of all fish. Although other fish have more heart-smart omega-3 fatty acids, tilapia is still a healthy choice at dinnertime.
Why: It boasts more heart-healthy omega-3s per serving than tilapia. In fact, a 5-ounce fillet packs your entire day's needs of EPA and DHA, fatty acids that can increase "good" HDL cholesterol and may also help prevent cognitive decline related to aging.
Why: Salmon's one of the best sources of omega-3s you can find. Research has found that a healthy diet including fatty fish like salmon is linked to lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Wild has a slight edge over farm-raised because it may be lower in contaminants such as PCBs and dioxins—but both versions are equally nutritious. "Just remove the skin after cooking, because that's where most of the contaminants are found," says Grotto.
Why: Rich in vitamins A and K, crunchy romaine makes a respectable base for any salad. Romaine also boasts more than 8 times the vitamin C of iceberg lettuce.
Why: This peppery leaf not only adds a kick to salads but also adds a small dose of calcium. A study from the University of Ulster in the United Kingdom found that eating watercress daily is linked with reduced cellular DNA damage that may lead to cancer. If you find the flavor too strong, toss it with milder lettuces (say, bib or red leaf) or layer it with tomato on your turkey sandwich.
Why: Spinach is rich in iron, which helps deliver oxygen to your cells to keep you alert and energized. And research from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary links eating antioxidant-rich spinach with a lower risk of age-related macular degeneration.
Why: It's a stealth whole grain, packing 3 g of fiber and an entire serving of whole grains in each 3-cup, 90-calorie, air-popped bowl. That's why people who snack on it get two more servings of whole grains and 22% more fiber every day than people who don't, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
Why: With as much protein as 1/2 cup of black beans, a handful of peanuts also contains 7 g of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Women who ate peanuts and peanut butter at least 5 times a week had up to 27% less risk of developing type 2 diabetes, possibly because the healthy fats increase insulin sensitivity, according to a study from the Harvard School of Public Health. Because they're easy to overeat, measure out your 1-ounce, 160-calorie portion (a small handful--about 40 nuts).
Why: "They're one of the most nutritious nuts around," says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center. Almonds are also the go-to snack when you're trying to drop weight. In one study, women who ate almonds had higher levels of cholecystokinin, a hunger-suppressing hormone, circulating in their systems. Another study found that a heart-healthy diet including almonds lowered LDL cholesterol as much as a statin drug did.
Why: They're an affordable and portable pick-me-up, ideal for stashing in your bag or desk drawer. Each little box contains a serving of fruit and nearly as much potassium as a small banana—but at 130 calories, they're a lighter pick than most energy bars. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry even debunked the myth that raisins stick to the teeth and cause cavities: They actually contain a natural compound that fights bacterial growth in the mouth.
Better: Dried apricots
Why: One-half cup contains all the virus-fighting vitamin A you need for the day, along with a big shot of potassium, plus the same amount of fiber as two slices of whole wheat bread. Sulfur dioxide is often added to lock in color, but if it doesn't agree with your gut, look for an unsulfured kind (it's browner but just as healthy) or freeze-dried apricots, which are additive free.
Best: Dried figs
Why: With about one-third of your day's supply of fiber per 1/2-cup serving, they pack more than any other dried fruit. Fiber helps you stay full, so figs are a powerful hunger suppressant. Each 1/2 cup has as much calcium as 1/2 ounce of cheese and contains phenols that may guard against heart disease and cancer, says Grotto.
Good: Low-fat creamy salad dressing
Why: If you prefer creamy dressings (such as ranch or blue cheese), these are a perfect way to add flavor to your favorite greens without drowning them in extra calories or fat.
Better: Full-fat oil-based dressing
Why: The fats in oils like canola and olive are healthier for you. They're a good source of vitamin E and help your body soak up all the vitamins in veggies. In one study, people absorbed more carotenoids from a salad with full-fat dressing than with reduced-fat dressing. (Those eating fat-free dressing absorbed just traces.) The calories add up fast, so measure out a 2-tablespoon portion.
Best: Olive oil and flavored vinegar
Why: With a do-it-yourself dressing, you don't have to worry about the quality of the ingredients. Mix 2 teaspoons of olive oil (or canola or flaxseed—they all contain higher amounts of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat) with flavored vinegar such as raspberry, then toss in any herbs you like.
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