Top 10 Most Underrated Health Foods

by | Mar 5, 2014

Photo by Michael Hodge

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

1. Oysters

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.

4. Seaweed

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.

8. Coffee

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

Yes, I just called cheese healthy. But of course I’m not talking about the processed American “cheese” that may or may not contain milk. Sadly, I’m not even talking about burrata.

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.

10. Mushrooms

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.

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63 Responses to “Top 10 Most Underrated Health Foods”

  1. del rashid says:

    Hi Darya,

    I an researching natural health, and one thing i have noticed is how many people define food and its purpose. I believe Mother Nature does not create life so it can be eaten as food, and that we should only take from nature only what we need for nutrition.

    As such there is No such thing as HEALTH or SUPERFOODS, for example you mention coffee….coffee is made from the embryonic bean of the plant, the bean is roasted the grounded to provide a beverage. In Nature caffeine is a biological Toxin designed to kill insects and competing plants. In Humans caffeine increases cellular metabolism which you body then has to adapt to.

    Drinking Coffee is not good for your health, the Coffee plant did nit evolve caffeine as a health food but as a biological toxin .

    What do you think ?

    • KD says:

      “Drinking Coffee is not good for your health, the Coffee plant did nit evolve caffeine as a health food but as a biological toxin ”

      I’m not an expert in this (at. all.), but I think the basic idea is that some foods might be health-promoting BECAUSE they contain toxins.

      These links might help explain some of it?:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hormesis

      http://blog.lib.umn.edu/denis036/thisweekinevolution/2009/06/the_bitter_fountain_of_youth.html (there’s a link in the first paragraph to the full article they did)

      • Darya Pino says:

        Thank you, I had also cited an article with a ton of references (I wrote it for a different blog) that it is clearly good for your health.

      • del rashid says:

        Hi KD,

        No coffee should not be considered a health food, I certainly would not recommend coffee for children.

        The only benefit of drinking coffee is placebo, providing you with a fetal comfort psychological effect.

        Remember a Coffee bean is the embryo of the plant, it is designed to survive digestion, caffeine is designed to interfere with cellular metabolism, which explains why some people have a relaxing feeling one moment and then crave for the next cup of coffee.

      • SonicT says:

        Del Rashid you make a hell of a lot of claims without so much as one primary peer-reviewed source. Either back it up or back out. Your personal opinions matter, but not in this context.

      • del rashid says:

        Hi Sonic,

        I am sorry you feel this way , but i am a person who THINKS outside the Nutritional Box.

        I am amazed at how Mother Nature over billions of years of evolution has allowed life to exist without any peered review Nutritional Paper.

        I believe that it is wise to avoid foods which can cause an addictive dependency and coffee is one of those foods.

        Anyway i got my information from the following site;
        http://www.medicininenet.com/caffeine/article

        Its a good site for those like me who do not have a Phd.

      • del rashid says:

        ps,
        there are also reports on the side effects of coffee consumption, people who have tried to give up coffee have reported headaches, and feeling lethargic ….

      • del rashid says:

        oh i also forgot to say, people have also reported being irritable, unable to concentrate etc etc. Drinking coffee creates caffeine “food dependency” which is not good for your health. it easy to self test to see if you have a toxic “food dependency” just give up drinking coffee for a week a see what happens!!!!

      • YASMIN E says:

        Remember that drinking coffee not only contains caffeine, is a beverage rich in antioxidants, especially chlorogenic acid, which not only regulates the production of reactive oxygen species but also reduces oxidative stress associated with multiple neurodegenerative diseases. While caffeine in large quantities is not good nor is the consumption of fat in large amounts, nor alcohol, etc … in the market there are many coffee drinks with reduced caffeine content, so I’m according to this in the top 10 health food.

    • CreLa says:

      Actually, a recent Science paper has shown that plants put small doses of caffeine in nectar (Science 339: 1202-4) to pharmacologically alter pollinator behavior. As you stated, the caffeine level in roots, stems, and leaves is found at a toxic concentration. The amount of caffeine present in the nectar, however, is at a level lower than the “bitter threshold.” Through experimental comparisons of caffeinated vs. non-caffeinated nectar, it was shown that bees are more likely to remember and return to caffeinated nectar. This is a clear example of host-manipulation (by the plants) to enhance pollination. Therefore, it appears plants DID evolve to produce changes in the brain of its consumer. I don’t even know how to begin to address the rest of your argument, other than if you are interested in Mother Nature take some ecology, botany, or evolution classes and get informed about plant/animal interactions rather than shunning science! You will be fascinated. :)

  2. Stephanie says:

    I love this article!! These are definitely true and I must say I’m glad I have access to these foods and have the opportunity to incorporate them in my diet :)

  3. Most unappreciated foods? That would be raw nuts and seeds IMO. Full of fiber, nutrients and healthy oils. I enjoy a handful daily.

  4. Alessandro says:

    However isn’t Tea healthier than coffee? I mean if you had a choice what to drink in the morning I would pick Tea.

  5. Johanna says:

    Sigh, I wish (organic, sugar-free) peanut butter were in this list. Is it in the top 20 at least? I love PB so much and when no one is watching, I pimp an apple with some PB and indulge.

  6. John Simms says:

    I don’t think oysters are very clean. I eat a whole egg everyday. I can live without coffee. Especially since it’s high in acid. Sauerkraut tastes good with mashed potatoes. And beans and lentils are a health food. My Dad used to make some really good liver and onions in a nice gravy. Nice and tender. And a treasure trove of vitamins.

  7. Jason says:

    Home made kosher dill pickles. The dill and garlic flavor together with the sour byproducts of fermentation are amazing when done right. The high sodium loses points as a health food but the probiotics make up for that. They are also a satisfying low calorie snack for those who can’t break the habit of cracking the refrigerator every few hours or so.

    I’d have to mention bait fish as well. White anchovies, sardines, and herring are underrated sources of omega3s and are usually harvested from cool waters far from human industrial waste. For this reason I would suggest certain Washington and Canadian oysters over gulf bivalves that filter the effluent from the Mississippi River.

    On that note I would also stay away from organ meats from older animals and factory farms. There is a big difference between an organic calves liver and liver from a feed lot dairy cow past her milk producing years.

  8. Tora says:

    This is great, so good to see coffee and egg yolks make the list! Wish I liked oysters and organ meats, but I just can’t do the texture…! Great article, thanks for sharing.

  9. Great article. And I love the coffee inclusion. For all the coffee doubters can I also be really selfish and link to an article I wrote on coffee (including positive and negative news!) a while ago…

    http://wineandbutter.com/2011/12/08/coffee/

    Same conclusion, as well. Only real risk is disruption to sleep and mood.

    Whilst studying nutrition I also read a book on mushrooms by a really intelligent and rational sounding man ( I WISH I could remember the author). He believes that mushrooms and seaweed are the two super foods that can actually save the world, on account of being highly nutritious and widely available. I’ll try to re-investigate the author and name.

    Can I add artichokes which are wonderful for the liver, filling and stupidly delicious? Especially good marinated in lots of olive oil. I’m a big fan of grass fed butter (duh), avocadoes (not under-rated but somewhat under utilised) and fresh herbs too.

    Also final note, fermented foods need to be acidic on account of having undergone proper fermentation, to be nutritious. Sounds obvious but lots of cheaper saurkrauts are just pickled in vinegar to give that fermented taste (so they dont have the proper pro-biotics). They still taste good and give you some cabbage, but not probiotics unfortunately…

  10. arni says:

    Great post! I’ll strive to try them all.

    Enjoy the cherry blossoms in Japan and congrats!

  11. ben says:

    Ever since i discovered kelp noodles, this is **THE** preferred way for me to eat seaweed. I tried shiratiki (yam) based noodles but they were gross.

    Two thumbs of for Shitaki mushrooms and magic mushrooms!

    I’ll add to the underated list, raw (unsweetened) cocoa. Except for baking it, almost no one uses it raw, but instead they’ll use the sweeter milk chocolate/butter.

    I’ll also add FRUIT & vegetable juicing.. as bad as sugar is, I don’t want to lose sight of the big picture, and there’s no nutritionally superior way to get your phytonutrients than the bio-availability of JUICING!

    Let’s make a list of OVERRATED foods…
    #1) SOY – GMO, potentially wreaks havoc with hormones, known goitrogen that inhibits iodine uptake… anything else? Oh yeah, adds nothing nutritionally.

    #2) WHOLE wheat/oats/etc – Just because “WHOLE” is MUCH better than refined, doesn’t mean it’s good to eat it in and of itself. Between the phytic acids, and the gluten, I think I’ll get my fiber the old fashion way.. FRUITS & VEGETABLES!

  12. Dee says:

    Darya,
    I agree 100 % with the list – like the article.

    - I tasted oyster once, I kept away because of potential contamination, what’s your opinion
    I use canned mushrooms all the time, I’ll venture to try fresh ones – does it make a difference?
    What is your favourite way / recommendation for preparing the offals

    • Darya Pino says:

      I’ve only used fresh or dried mushrooms. I generally avoid canned foods because of BPA. I haven’t cooked offals at home, but will eat them at nice restaurants.

    • Chef ManCave says:

      Dee…I used canned mushrooms for many years until I discovered that the canning process robs the mushroom of most of it’s nutritional value. Here is an extensive article about The Mushroom. The mushroom has Vitamin B6, C, D, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Folate and Pantothenic Acid. It also has Phosphorus, Potassium, Zinc, Iron, Copper and Selenium. I call the mushroom “Nature’s MultiVitamin”.

    • Lin says:

      I grew up on canned mushrooms (my mom used to put them in just about everything). When I started cooking for myself, I tried fresh mushrooms (sliced in soups, mostly), and the texture difference is incredible. Now my favorite way is to sautee them with onions with eggs.

      • Dee says:

        I’ve since tried dried mushrooms and ventured into fresh (too much prep, how do you clean these guys!?) …. Definitely more DELICIOUS.

    • Alexandra says:

      You clean them with a paper towel just gently rub them, do not rinse. Fresh are awesome.

  13. sonya says:

    Recent studies have found that mushrooms contain very high levels of vitamin D which is amazing since they don’t grow in the sun. Vitamin D prevents all forms of cancer, a little known fact scientists have known since the 1920s.
    On the coffee subject, it is my understanding that coffee beans from plantations are covered in very high amounts of toxic sprays to control pests and mildew etc because they are grown in the tropics. I would worry that this out weighs any health benefits. I love coffee by the way, but unfortunately am allergic to it.

    • Dianne says:

      There are organic ground coffees & coffee beans that are also backed up by ‘Fair Trade’. These are the brands that I use in their decaffeinated form as I am extremely sensitive to caffeine in coffee. [I'm fine with tea & chocolate.] They taste superb.

  14. Jen says:

    Did not know oysters were so good for you – thanks! Do you know if tinned oysters have the same benefits as fresh ones?

  15. Chef ManCave says:

    Darya, I am going to put in my vote for the sweet potato. I use a website called nutritiodata.self.com to research health benefits of food. The site has all sorts of charts and stats. Here is the Sweet Potato breakdown. It is one of the most outrageously healthy foods on the planet and it is easy to incorporate into virtually any recipe.

  16. sonya says:

    I have recently found out about the Moringa tree, or ‘miracle tree’. It is being used across the globe as an answer to malnourishment, and even to purify water. Its fast growing and the entire plant can be eaten from roots to leaves to flowers and pods. The Moringa tree provides 7 times the Vitamin C in oranges, 4 times the calcium in milk, 4 times the Vitamin A in carrots, 2 times the protein in milk, and 3 times the potassium in bananas. It is the most nutritionally dense plant ever studied on earth.

    • julie says:

      I ate the leaves of this tree, available at an unhip non-tourist farmers market in SF. I often buy what I call “strange veg of the week”, but this one was tasty and inoffensive, so it’s become a normal veg now. Just bought my first of the year last week, yum. They call it “malongai” here, which sounds Tagalog, but I haven’t researched too much.

  17. Catherine says:

    I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes last May. Since then, a few small changes in my diet have greatly improved my blood sugar levels.

    However, one of the first things I was told was to avoid caffeine at all costs. From the information I have gathered, people who drink coffee have a reduced risk of developing Type 2 diabetes BUT in people already afflicted, it impairs the action of insulin.

    Do we know if the positive effects of coffee are based only on caffeine? Or are those also available in a good cup of decaf? (and yes, I have found a couple of those….they do exist!) :)

  18. Jennifer says:

    I love mushrooms but recently was shocked to read that button and portabellos should always be cooked prior to eating. I was disappointed because I like raw button mushrooms in salads and marinated. Have you heard this? I tried to research it and found a few sites that seemed to corroborate this information and other sites that made no mention of the need for cooking them. Please let me know your take. I hope you are enjoying your honeymoon!

  19. Joe Garma says:

    Wonder if I can get some readers to weigh in on a prevalent debate among health bloggers et al re coffee, one of the health foods named in this post.

    Yes, there’s the pro and the con camps re coffee, and of late there seems to be more info on the pro side of things.

    My concern with coffee, however, is that it clearly boosts cortisol, which is called the “death hormone” for a reason.

    Cortisol bathes the body in stress which compromises the ability of telormerase to keep telomeres from receding too quickly during cell division.

    (If this is Greek to you, read this: http://bit.ly/TQ8U1Q)

    Dr. Mark Hyman also weighs in on this topic with a lively and informative debate with Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald on Huffpost here:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/19/is-coffee-bad-for-you_n_1895557.html,

    and here: http://bit.ly/LzXTuP

    In an era when even some respected heath types are declaring saturated fat (from grass fed animals) does not cause cholesterol or clogged arteries, perhaps coffee, too, is good for you.

    Surely, coffee provides antioxidants, and that’s good, but it might be the case that coffee, like red wine, provides a net positive effect at only one cup per day.

    What do you think?

    -Joe

  20. Asher says:

    Great list of healthy foods. Out here in the Middle East, organ meats are quite popular. I’d add chicken hearts and spleens to your list of livers and kidneys. They’re quite tasty as well (once you get over the initial apprehension we Americans have about eating animal organs)!

  21. Susan Alexander says:

    Dumb question! I LOVE sauerkraut, but I’m confused – the stuff I buy in the store – is it “good” for me? Or do I have to make my own to get the good fermented effects? It’s on my long-term “To Do” list, but with 3.5 very little children, I just don’t have the time right now to tackle this! Or if the kind I’m buying at the store isn’t right, could I find “better” options at Whole Foods or a health food store? Thoughts?

  22. I’m so glad you’ve included egg yolks. It’s a travesty to see the egg white omelete on a menu. All 45 calories will fill up nobody and what a waste. I’ve been adding in more fermented foods because you’re so right. We are missing this in the American diet and it’s important for the gut. I try to eat as many vegetables as possible. I was just tested and doctor said I had a beautiful colon. He came out and said “those vegetables paid off.” Good words to hear since I have a best friend dying from cancer that started in the colon.I eat 9 of the 10 regularly (no seaweed). I also do green tea.

  23. Dee says:

    Darya, are starchy root vegetables underrated? Like the ones typically used in Latin American / tropical cuisines – cassava, yams, taro? What do you think.

    Personally I feel like I can run for miles when I eat a small amount

    They are typically an alternative to potatoes but I recently tried making muffins with some cassava flour …. I’m even thinking if one can make pastas – ravioli etc with the flour of starchy roots

  24. JustHer says:

    Wonderful list! I love the fact that people are discovering Kimchi! Oh the lovely things you can do with Kimchi! :)

  25. Wayne says:

    I’m not going to give you awesome/crazy reasons why coffee should not be on the list. (I truly just can’t stand the smell. It’s worse than kissing an ash tray, to me) I do love the other 9 though. :D

  26. Scott says:

    Great list, Darya! I have a few that I think are underrated:

    1. Nut butters
    2. Seeds
    3. Greek yogurt (unflavored, of course)
    4. Raw organic cocoa powder

  27. Shannon C says:

    I absolutely agree with you about coffee being underrated as a health food, however, I think that you are excluding an uncommon but important negative effect. For those with gastrointestinal conditions like ulcers, acid reflux, irritable bowel disease, etc., coffee is just about the worst thing you can ingest as it seriously aggravates all of these things. But for most people, it’s not an issue.

  28. Amanda says:

    Regarding coffee: THANK YOU. I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear people sheepishly admit to “being bad” because they can’t cut down on their “coffee addiction” of 1 cup a day or when they quickly wave away a cup of coffee because they “don’t drink THAT.”

  29. Justin says:

    Awesome blog post…but…

    How could you leave Jack-In-The-Box Tacos of this list? Sure no body knows what is in them, but it has to be pure healthily goodness. Look at how smooth Jacks skin always is. lol

  30. Ken says:

    Thanks :)

  31. Todd says:

    Just curious, how come the article says “Originally published March 27, 2013.” but there are comments from 2012?

  32. Todd says:

    How about Kombucha? It would fit in with the fermented foods like Sauerkraut & kimchi but many people don’t even know what it is. I would also make the case for dark chocolate. With high cocoa content, it has many health benefits. I think most people think of it however more as a vice like coffee.

  33. Dava says:

    One underrated “food” in the US is clean water. Which I use in my coffee.

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