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Don’t Shun These 7 Foods: Their Bad Reputations Are out of Date

Science and guidelines have changed, so your choices can too

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Do you fear the fat in avocados? The carbs in popcorn? The cholesterol in egg yolks?

If so, you may be missing out on some nutritional winners that, for one reason or another, have iffy, outdated images. Despite encouraging research and, in some cases, updated guidelines from health agencies and medical groups, certain healthy foods and beverages still have bad reputations with too many consumers, nutrition experts say.

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Here’s what you need to know about some perfectly nice foods that might be on your naughty list. 

1. Eggs

Eggs are high in cholesterol, with about 200 mg in every yolk. Health groups, including the American Heart Association, long recommended eating no more than three or so a week for that reason. But it turns out that the cholesterol in our diets is only weakly related to the harmful, artery-clogging cholesterol in our bloodstreams. So, recommendations have changed.

Since 2015, the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans have set no specific cholesterol limit. The guidelines say eggs can be part of a healthy diet. More recently, in proposed new rules, the Food and Drug Administration said eggs can be labeled a heathy food. The heart association now says that an egg a day is fine for most people and that older adults with normal blood cholesterol and a heart-healthy diet can safely eat up to two. People with high cholesterol should be more cautious about consuming cholesterol, the group says.

“The egg is a packed nutritional powerhouse,” says Angel Planells, a registered dietitian in Seattle and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The nutrients in eggs include plenty of protein and vitamin D, he says.

Egg yolks also are an especially rich source of the “brain nutrient” choline, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Chicago registered dietitian and author of Superfood Swap.

2. Avocados

While it might seem that avocados are now a well-known superfood, Blatner says she still hears from people concerned about their fat content. And avocados do have a lot of fat: 22 grams in a medium one, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But “this is healthy fat … the types of fats that help to lower your heart risk,” says Lena Beal, a registered dietitian in Atlanta and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Beal says she urges clients to “go for the guacamole.”

A classic healthy recipe could include just avocados, cilantro, lime, salt and a little (sugar-free) salsa, if you like it a little spicy. Some people include onion and jalapeños. Make it your own but skip the sour cream, spice packets and processed versions full of additives. 

In addition to healthy unsaturated fats, avocados are surprisingly rich in fiber, Blatner says: “Avocados are so smooth and creamy,” she says, but they can have 14 grams of fiber. Even half an avocado has more fiber than an apple, she says. U.S. dietary guidelines say someone eating 2,000 calories a day should aim for 28 daily grams of fiber.

3. Popcorn

People often assume that popcorn belongs in the same category as pretzels and crackers, which are rarely made from whole grains, Blatner says. But popcorn “actually is this fun food that people already enjoy that happens to naturally be a whole grain,” she says.

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Beal says popcorn “has wonderful fiber in it.” The healthiest popcorn is a batch you pop at home, with an air popper or a little vegetable oil, Beal and Blatner say. A tub of heavily buttered stuff from a movie theater is a completely different matter. That movie theater tub can contain up to 1,090 calories and 2,650 milligrams of sodium, according to the heart association.

Beal adds that it’s important to read labels when buying bags of grocery store popcorn: Some types are too high in sugar or salt for people with health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, she says.

4. Coffee

A few decades ago, coffee was listed as a “possible carcinogen” by the World Health Organization. That changed when newer studies showed coffee actually reduced certain cancer risks and was probably wrongly maligned because so many coffee drinkers also smoked, according to Harvard’s public health website. Today, there’s a “flow of pro-coffee research,” suggesting the brew lowers risks of diabetes and heart disease, as well as cancer, Blatner says. Coffee might also lower risks of depression and suicide, Harvard says.

One big reason coffee might boost health is that it contains high levels of antioxidants, substances that prevent or delay cell damage.

Of course, caffeinated coffee also is a stimulant, known for increasing alertness, attention and mood — as long as you don’t overdo it or drink it too late in the day, when it can interfere with sleep, Blatner says. And be aware that too much coffee also can raise blood pressure and lead to anxiety and heart palpitations, the heart association says. Coffee is healthiest with “zero or minimal” adds-ons, such as cream and sugar, Blatner adds.

5. Frozen veggies

Decades of reminders that “fresh is best” have steered too many consumers away from minimally processed frozen fruits and vegetables “picked at the peak of freshness” and full of nutrients, Planells says. “You can have multiple servings of veggies with a microwave in a matter of minutes,” he says.  

Blatner says that frozen fruits and veggies are ideal backups for days when you run out of fresh produce: “The frozen spinach can be in your omelet. The frozen cauliflower rice can be in your lunch bowl. The broccoli can be your side dish, the frozen berries can go in your smoothies.”

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6. Nuts

Like avocados, nuts are fatty foods. But most nuts, including walnuts, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts and pecans, are highest in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are good for your heart, Beal says. They also provide lots of vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber, she says. Macadamias and cashews are higher in saturated fat, she says, so should be more occasional treats. Just watch your portions: An ounce of nuts has 160 to 200 calories, Beal says.

The FDA says nuts and seeds could be labeled healthy, regardless of saturated fat level, under its new rules.

7. Full-fat salad dressing

If you are still squeezing lemon juice on a bowl of greens and other veggies, you may not have heard the news: The nutrients in raw vegetables are better absorbed when your meal includes some fat. Avocados, nuts and seeds on a salad can help, Blatner says, but so can a dressing made with a healthy olive or avocado oil. “You don’t need to use fat-free salad dressing anymore,” she says.

In fact, Beal says, bottled dressings with reduced fat often have extra sugar or salt to add flavor, making them less healthy choices.​

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