by Nate Widom
This article has been reviewed by Jeannie Versagli, RD, LDN. Jeannie is a Registered Dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a national professional organization, and is licensed in nutrition with the State of Delaware.
Many of us have misconceptions about our food, frequently finding out that some of our favorite foods are much unhealthier than we thought. But what about the other way around? Here are several foods – some of which have even been stereotyped as unhealthy – that can provide several fantastic health benefits when consumed in moderation.
This sweet, delectable treat has many different health advantages if you manage to find a bar with a 70-85 percent cocoa content. Conde Nast’s nutrition data website reports that a 1-ounce (28g) piece of dark chocolate provides 27% of the daily value (DV) for manganese, 25% of the DV for copper, 19% for iron, 16% for magnesium, and 12% for fiber.
In addition to those stats, a 2011 study from the Yale University Prevention Research Center found that the antioxidants in cocoa beans have some positive effects. According to the researchers, not only does cocoa “contain more phenolic antioxidants than most foods,” but they found that antioxidants may directly influence insulin resistance, reducing the risk for diabetes. Furthermore, they stated, “Cocoa can protect nerves from injury and inflammation, protect the skin from oxidative damage from UV radiation in topical preparations, and have beneficial effects on satiety, cognitive function, and mood.”
But don’t eat up all the chocolate like Willy Wonka! While dark chocolate may provide some benefits, that 1-ounce (28g) portion still has 168 calories and plenty of fat and sugar. Thankfully, you only need 1 ounce of dark chocolate to receive nutritional and antioxidant benefits.
For context, the standard milk chocolate Hershey’s bar weighs about 44 grams. However, remember that, ounce for ounce, milk chocolate and dark chocolate have different nutritional profiles. To be assured you’re eating a healthful size of dark chocolate, check the nutrition label on the packaging.
This powerful and delicious ingredient contains many surprising vitamins and minerals. According to Conde Nast’s nutrition data website, just adding three cloves of garlic to a meal will add 5% of the DV for vitamin C, 6% for B6, and 8% for manganese. Additionally, garlic is a good source of phosphorus and selenium.
Healthline reports that garlic contains several antioxidants and consistent consumption can improve cholesterol levels and reduce blood pressure. Garlic was even used as a performance enhancer for those in ancient societies, including Olympic athletes.
Clams have many surprising health benefits and are frequently cited as one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. According to Conde Nast’s nutrition data website, a 3-ounce serving of steamed clams is only 126 calories and contains over 1400% of the DV for vitamin B12. That serving will also have 132% of the DV for iron, 78% for selenium, 43% for protein and manganese, 31% for vitamin C, and 29% for phosphorus and copper.
If that wasn’t good enough, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reports that clams contain omega-3 fatty acids which are shown to prevent heart disease and stroke. Specifically, a 3 oz serving of clams has 241 mg, and according to Healthline, most health organizations recommend a daily amount of 250-500 mg.
Still, both raw and steamed clams are generally healthier than their breaded or fried counterparts, which are likely to have excess salt and other undesirable components.
Like their shellfish cousin clams, oysters are surprisingly nutritious. At only 68 calories per 3.5-ounce serving, Healthline reports that oysters have 7 grams of protein, 605% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for zinc, 324% for vitamin B12, 223% for copper, 91% for selenium, and 80% for vitamin D.
In addition, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, oysters can change their sex, are vegetarians that feast on algae, and a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. Of course, these facts don’t contribute to the nutritional value of your half-shell dinner, but they’re impressive nonetheless.
The nutrition world has been relatively divided about the health benefits of coffee. However, recent studies suggest that coffee may have health benefits if one drinks it in moderation. According to Diane Vizthum, MS, RD, research nutritionist for Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, coffee has antioxidants that may protect against disease and reduce internal inflammation.
In addition, Healthline references several medically reviewed studies on the health benefits of coffee. One review of 12 studies found that coffee may be associated with decreased body fat. Another review associated a lower risk of death to those who drink two to four cups of coffee a day! To summarize, they write that coffee can lower the risk of diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia, depression, liver disease, heart disease, and stroke.
While vegetables certainly have health benefits, many believe that frozen veggies are less nutritious than their fresh counterparts. However, that isn’t necessarily the case. And in some regards, frozen vegetables may be healthier.
According to Fiona B. Lewis, DrPH, MS, RDN, LDN, frozen vegetables are frozen at their peak when freshness and nutritional value are optimal. Then, they are blanched – scalded in steam or boiling water and then quickly cooled to halt the cooking process – thereby killing off bacteria while retaining the vegetables’ nutritional value.
Regarding the health benefits of frozen vegetables, a 2013 University of Chester and Leatherhead Food Research study found that many frozen veggies studied had increased amounts of vitamin C, beta carotene, and lutein compared to the fresh counterparts.
Unlike frozen veggies, another study published in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis found that fresh veggies lost vitamins over time during refrigerated storage. The likely reason for this result is that the blanching process that frozen veggies undergo deactivates the enzymes found in fresh fruits and vegetables. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, enzymes lead to losses of color, nutrients, and flavor in fresh fruits and vegetables over time.
When you pick your frozen veggies, make your selections with care. According to Healthline, while most frozen veggies are free of additives and preservatives, some contain added sugar, salt, and sauce.
This delicious condiment and spread is known to be very high in calories. Two tablespoons of Jif® Creamy Peanut Butter are 190 calories! However, don’t stop reading. Like dark chocolate, peanut butter may be high in calories but has several health benefits when consumed in moderation.
According to the USDA’s Food Data Central, two tablespoons of the average peanut butter provide about 7 grams of protein, 1.5 grams of fiber, 24% of the RDI for manganese, and about 15% of the RDI for both vitamin E and copper.
Peanut butter is additionally known for its healthy fats. Healthline reports that half of the fat in peanut butter is a healthy fat called oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid found in olive oil. That being said, these healthy fats (especially coming from something so calorie-dense) should be consumed in moderation.
Like other foods on this list, there are specific things to look out for to find the healthiest peanut butter. Web MD recommends looking for all-natural peanut butter with no additives other than small amounts of salt since typical commercial peanut butter contains added sugar, vegetable oil, and trans-fat.
It’s well known that pickles tend to contain a large amount of sodium! In fact, one large dill pickle has about two-thirds of the recommended amount, according to WebMD. However, many may not know that pickles can be a relatively low-calorie and tasty treat in moderation.
According to Conde Nast’s nutrition data website, one cup of pickles contains 17.2 calories, 3.7 grams of carbs, .2 grams of fat, and 91% of the DV for vitamin K.
The fermentation in the pickling process makes pickles high in probiotics. According to Healthline, probiotics can reduce depression and improve your heart and digestive system. However, these probiotic effects only apply to pickles not made with vinegar.
If that wasn’t good enough news, Eat This Not That writes pickles contain about the same vitamins and nutrients as their cucumber counterpart, citing vitamins K, C, E, B, and fiber. In terms of picking the healthiest pickles, they recommend looking for an unpasteurized package in the grocery store’s refrigerated section. However, it’s even better if you make your pickles yourself.
Popcorn comes from the whole-grain family of foods, contains many nutrients, and is also low-calorie depending on the method of preparation and seasoning. A 1-cup serving of plain, air-popped popcorn contains 31 calories and has about 1.2 grams of fiber and 1 gram of protein. Also, that serving of popcorn will provide small amounts of magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese.
In addition, the American Heart Association states that popcorn is linked to lowering the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers thanks to its high fiber content relative to serving size and total calories. Also, the organization mentions the benefit of popcorn’s high satiety, citing that the high fiber content, low energy density, and calorie count make the food ideal to aid in weight loss.
However, be careful when picking out your popcorn! Popcorn can vary widely, and the American Heart Association states that a tub of movie popcorn may contain up to 2,650 milligrams of sodium and 1,090 calories, with smaller portions still having high amounts. The organization asserts that air-popped and lightly seasoned popcorn is the healthiest option.
While popcorn might not have as many health benefits as other foods in this article, it’s certainly much healthier than other frequently compared foods like chips!