Perception: Coconut has saturated fat in it so it can cause heart complications and clog your arteries.
Reality: While it may be packed with saturated fats, they come from a plant-source so they are not as detrimental to cholesterol levels as something animal-based. Coconut helps raise the bad cholesterol yet also boosts the good. Heitman notes they are “mostly medium-chained saturated fats so they are more easily digested in our bodies”.
What to look for: Be mindful of portions as it’s still high in calories, but an unsweetened coconut will help keep your glucose levels in check.
Full fat salad dressings
Perception: Full fat foods will make you fat.
Reality: The fat in dressings actually helps absorb more of your vegetable’s nutrients. When fat is missing in foods, it’s typically replaced with sugars so, calorie for calorie, it might not be that different. Full fat varieties are more satisfying, keeping you fuller longer and needing less to get more flavor.
What to look for: If you don’t want the full fat dressing, opt for vinaigrettes. If you’re watching portion sizes, Heitman recommends “putting your dressing in a cup on the side and dipping your fork into that before each bite of salad. You’ll use less dressing, but still be able to taste it.”
Perception: It tastes good so it must be bad for you. And there’s fat and sugar!
Reality: Cocoa contains antioxidants, helps support heart functions and lowers blood pressure by helping increase blood flow in your body. Cocoa is stronger in dark chocolate, which decreases bad cholesterol, improves moods, enhances thinking and memory, and decreases stress.
What to look for: Dark chocolate for more antioxidant benefits and less sugar…and it’s richer so you need less to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Pizzas and burgers
Perception: Cheesy and greasy…
Reality: Made with the right ingredients and some quick swaps can make it be quite a healthy dish. Pizzas are great ways to use up leftover vegetables. Whole grain buns or crusts, quality cheeses (the tastier it is, the less you need), and even topping them with fruits helps increase their nutritional quality.
What to look for: Heitman recommends piling on the vegetables and looking for leaner proteins. “This helps you feel full faster so you won’t eat as much, and it will increase your vegetable consumption. For burgers, choose leaner proteins such as ground turkey, venison, or a black bean burger.” Adding a salad or fruit to your meal can help keep it balanced as well.
Perception: They are packed with bad fats and sodium.
Reality: Chips are no longer always the deep fried, nutritionally void snack. They now come baked, higher in fiber, made of beans or combinations of vegetables, and can be whole grain.
What to look for: If you want something salty, pick plain or baked chips. Choices like Beanitos are a whole grain chip high in fiber and protein. If you are just looking for something salty, Heitman notes that popcorn or pretzels are low-fat alternatives.
Jerky or pepperoni
Perception: They are unhealthy meats loaded with preservatives.
Reality: Jerky is a high protein food that makes for a great snack, especially if you are looking for weight loss. Both jerky and pepperoni can be full of preservatives, but there are also some that are chemical free and made of natural ingredients.
What to look for: “One thing to watch for is both fat and sodium content as these can be very high,” says Heitman. “Turkey jerky may be a healthier option and can come seasoned to enhance flavors.”
These foods have shown up on many people’s Do Not Eat list. Making some quick swaps or keeping portions in mind can help include them all in a balanced lifestyle, without the guilt.
Gina is a registered dietitian and culinary coordinator for Culinary Services at Michigan State University.