We already know that food manufacturers and the media tend to exaggerate the benefits of popular health foods, but what about all the wonderfully healthy foods they ignore?
It’s time to shine the spotlight on 10 of my favorite healthy foods that never get the attention they deserve.
Top 10 Most Underrated Health Foods
Per calorie, oysters are one of the most nutritious foods on the planet, and are particularly high in essential omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, which is notoriously tough to get from food.
Also, because oysters lack a central nervous system and are 95% of the world’s supply are sustainably farmed, some vegetarian thought leaders have argued that oysters can be included in the diet as an ethical source of natural vitamin B12 (present in significant quantities only in animal foods).
2. Sauerkraut & kimchi
I’m the first to admit that fermented foods can be a little pungent, but that doesn’t preclude them from tasting delicious and being one of the healthiest things you can eat. In a recent conversation I had with Michael Pollan, he suggested that a lack of fermented foods is one of the most notable differences between the Western diet and all other successful diets throughout history. This is a point worth considering.
Traditionally, fermentation has been used to preserve foods, but it also serves to increase nutritional value and add friendly bacteria to the gut. These healthy microbes help with digestion and nutrient absorption, and without them our gut health deteriorates substantially, setting the stage for many chronic diseases.
3. Dark & organ meats
People often demonize meats, especially the darker varieties, for their fat content and overlook how nutritious they are. Of course they are relatively higher in calories as well, which is why you don’t need to eat very much in a sitting. But fear of saturated fat shouldn’t deter you from enjoying the occasional piece of fatty meat every now and then. Organ meats in particular, like liver and kidney, are rich sources of essential nutrients. And they can be delicious when prepared properly.
Okinawa is a small island in Southern Japan that is home to some of the longest lived people on earth. Sea vegetables are a staple of the traditional Okinawan diet, and are thought to be responsible for many aspects of health. Seaweed is also a good source of iodine for people who prefer to use high-end sea salts or kosher salt for cooking, which typically lack iodine. I make an effort to eat seaweed often and try as many different kinds as I can get my hands on.
5. Egg yolks
I realize I might be beating a dead horse with this one, but until I stop seeing friends and family throwing out perfectly good egg yolks I’m just going to keep drilling home this point. Egg consumption is not associated with heart disease, and for some people they improve blood lipids. Also, you’re throwing away so much goodness. And keep in mind that if you buy fresh, pastured eggs (hens frolicking in grass eating bugs—find them at your local farmers market) then nutrient values will be significantly higher than conventional eggs.
6. Beans & lentils
My favorite thing about last year’s biggest diet trend, The 4-Hour Body, is that Tim made beans and lentils cool to eat. I’ve been telling readers this for years, and finally people are listening, but there are still a lot of folks out there who don’t appreciate how wonderful they really are.
For myself and many others, weight loss is much easier when I include beans and lentils as opposed to eliminating carbohydrates completely. Plus they fill you with energy without the bloating and other negative effects that can sometimes come from grains. They’re also a great source of iron, folate and other essential nutrients.
7. Root vegetables
Root vegetables are right up there with the green leafys in my book. In fact, many of them are from the same cruciferous family. I never come home from shopping without at least one bunch of radishes, salad turnips or carrots. I also have a lot of love for beets, sunchokes and even all the different kinds of potatoes. Vegetables don’t need to be green to be good for you.
Many people view their morning brew as a vice, but in reality coffee is a healthy beverage. Coffee is one of the best sources of polyphenols and antioxidants in many people’s diets, and has been proven to protect against liver disease, type 2 diabetes, and a host of other diseases. The biggest problem most people have with coffee is confusing the brew itself with the creamy, sugary drinks that are closer to milkshakes than the beverage studied by scientists in the studies I linked to above. And the only real risk of too much coffee is that it can upset your sleep.
9. Hard cheese
Hard cheeses that have been aged (think parmesan and asiago) are the most significant dietary source of vitamin K2, a nutrient that has been shown to protect against heart disease and cancer. Like meat, cheese has a lot of calories so you still have to be careful with how much you eat. But it’s important to understand that cheese is not just empty calories, and in reasonable amounts it can actually be good for you.
American’s tend to view mushrooms as neutral foods, but they been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Though there really isn’t enough evidence to make conclusive statements about the health benefits of all mushrooms, many compounds have been identified in mushrooms that show potential for boosting immunity and possibly protecting against cancer. Mushrooms are also an unappreciated source of vitamins and minerals, and shouldn’t be ignored as low calorie sponges that only go on pizza.
What are your favorite unappreciated health foods?
Originally published March 27, 2013.