Everyone always tells you what not to eat, but that’s just no fun. Here are some formerly forbidden foods that aren’t the devil incarnate (and won’t mess with your healthy eating efforts), according to Samantha Heller, registered dietitian at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
1. White Potatoes Fries and loaded baked potatoes full of bacon, cheese, and sour cream give potatoes a bad rep, but they might as well be the new kale, Heller says. Potatoes are a good source of vitamins C and B6, and fiber (if you don’t peel them). Put salsa, olive oil, or roasted garlic on your baked potato to keep it in the healthy zone, and roast potato wedges to get your French fry fix. (Obviously they’re not the same as fast food ones, but the healthy swap will do if you’re serious about eating healthy.)
2. Peanut Butter Yes, everyone’s favorite spread contains about 200 calories per two-tablespoon serving. (And no, it’s not easy to step away from the jar once the lid comes off.) But peanut butter is full of healthy fats that help your body absorb essential vitamins from other foods you eat, so it’s totally worth every calorie, just as long as you pick the right variety. Avoid reduced-fat spreads, which squeeze out the good fats and add sugar, salt, and other fillers to restore the flavor and creamy texture. Instead, opt for natural peanut, almond, or cashew butter made from nothing but the nuts.
3. Butter In small amounts, butter isn’t that bad for you — at least compared to margarine, which contains about the same number of calories plus five times as much trans fat, which raises bad cholesterol levels and lowers good cholesterol. Butter has more saturated fat than margarine, but recent research casts doubt on the whole saturated-fat-causes-heart-disease thing. This doesn’t mean you should eat it by the stick, but don’t beat yourself up if an otherwise healthy recipe calls for a bit of butter, or if you can’t resist the pad that comes with the restaurant breadbasket. (For the record, though: Dipping bread in olive oil is always your best bet in such a situation. And now that big brands are removing trans fat from their products, vegetable oil spreads are a close second to keep on hand at home.)
4. Sugar People associate sugar with foods with lots of calories and little nutritional value, like cake and candy. However, when you eat sugar, your body turns it into glucose, an important source of fuel for every cell in your body, from your brain to the muscles that take you the distance at the gym. Whole foods like fruit contain natural sugars, but if your diet is pretty healthy overall, it’s fine to add some honey to your tea or sugar to your coffee, Heller says. Just watch your portions and save desserts made with tons of sugar for special occasions if you want to avoid weight gain.
5. Hot Chocolate Cocoa is packed with healthy compounds called polyphenols that fend off disease. You can’t say the same for processed milk chocolates and syrups though, which lose lots of the good stuff by the time they make it to your mouth. To indulge in hot chocolate the healthy way, heat a cup of unsweetened soy or regular low-fat milk, and stir in about two tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder plus a teeny drop of vanilla extract and sugar or honey to taste.
6. Pizza Eating a little pizza now and then isn’t going to kill you, which is a good thing because it brings most people a remarkable amount of *~pLeAsUrE~*. To keep the calories in a reasonable range though, opt for thin crust, load on the veggies, and go easy on the cheese, and you’ve got a perfectly balanced meal. And try not to eat the entire pie.
7. Popcorn OK, OK, so the stuff they serve at movie theaters is bad news. (It basically gets a salty butter bath before it’s served, which means it’s unnecessarily high in fat and calories.) But straight-up air-popped and light microwave varieties are just fluffy whole-grains full of filling fiber and a satisfying crunch that has as few as 31 calories in one whole cup.
8. Sports Drinks Sports drinks are often grouped with sugary juices and sodas because they contain calories that you can’t chew. While you shouldn’t throw back a gallon of Gatorade while you watch TV, sports drink calories do serve a purpose when you work out hard: They deliver carbs for quick energy and replenish the fluids and electrolytes that you sweat out. Think of sports drinks that contain calories as a post-workout snack and indulge when you sweat through endurance activities like a long-ass indoor cycling class or a super-long treadmill run.
9. Carbs As long as you focus on whole grains, like those found in whole wheat bread and pasta, brown rice, and quinoa, carbs can be a healthy part of any diet. (You’re welcome.) Despite their bad rep, whole grain carbs contain fiber and nutrients that keep your digestive system on track, which boosts your immunity, fends off bloating, and even reduces your risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, Heller says.
10. Cheese A host of new studies suggest that a mix of regular and low-fat dairy products including cheese could lower your blood pressure, steady your blood sugar, help you keep your weight in check, and even extend your life. Woo, woo! Shoot for about 2.5 servings per day to reap the benefits.
11. Regular Salad Dressing Because dressings made with vegetable oils like olive, sunflower, or grapeseed oil are full of healthy fats that help your body absorb essential nutrients in other foods (including the ingredients in your salad), full-fat dressings can actually make your salad healthier. Especially compared to reduced-fat dressings, which may contain extra sodium and sugar, a tablespoon or two of full-fat dressing really is your best bet. Just avoid the creamy-looking ones: They tend to be made with mayo or cream, which are full of unhealthy fats (and so not worth the calories).