Every now and then, a certain food will catch fire. It’s all over social, featured on magazine covers, passed along by word of mouth at our gym or workout studio.
Their moment of fame may come and go pretty quickly, though there are also those foods that continue to receive more than their fair share of glory for what seems to be forever into perpetuity.
This isn’t about saying that these foods are bad – many just don’t live up to the hype of being a perfect ‘diet’ food, superfood or any other ‘best of’ category. Few foods do.
They may provide necessary nutrients, but they’re not the best source. Or, those benefits may be offset by unwanted calories, carbs, and/or sugars.
Here’s a look at five foods and ingredients that – in my opinion – have been given too much hype; and five less glamorous options that are well worth adding to your plate.
For more details on these foods, check out the related episode on my podcast, FUELED Wellness + Nutrition.
5 Overhyped Foods
Coconut Sugar (and Maple Syrup)
Coconut sugar – or, even better – raw, organic coconut sugar – it just sounds so much better than regular table sugar. And the same goes for maple syrup and agave. They’re touted as natural sweeteners with a lower glycemic index than sugar – which is true – meaning that these sweeteners like coconut sugar, or maple syrup, have less of a spike or crash in blood sugar or insulin levels.
This may be true, but coconut sugar is still just 100 percent sugar – and added sugar, at that.
Added sugars are inflammatory. they’re also detrimental to our gut microbiome. and, according to Dr. Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College London and one of the world’s leading experts in gut microbiome research, our gut microbes see these sugars – coconut sugar, maple syrup, agave – the same as sugar, as ‘nonsense’, as he puts it. You can hear my full interview with Professor Spector as he shares his fascinating research on microbes, genetics and diet – and how they’re all connected, in my FUELED Wellness + Nutrition podcast.
So how much is too much? My recommendation is to keep added sugars as close to zero as possible. Our Ochsner Eat Fit criteria allows up to five grams of added sugar (the equivalent of about one teaspoon) in most dishes, in order to give our chefs a little flexibility. The American Heart Association recommends that we limit added sugars to no more than 25 grams daily for women and 37 grams daily for men, and raw coconut sugar and maple syrup falls into this category of “added” sugars, right alongside table sugar, molasses, honey and high-fructose corn syrup.
Feel addicted to sugar? Check out these strategies and swap-outs to cut back.
Compared to regular table sugar (sucrose) with 45 calories and 12 grams of added sugar per tablespoon, coconut sugar isn’t any lower in calories, and it’s not much lower in sugar: Every tablespoon of coconut sugar adds 45 calories and 10 grams of added sugar. And maple syrup is higher: Every tablespoon packs in 55 calories and 14 grams of added sugar (for comparison, honey has 60 calories and 17 grams of added sugar per tablespoon; agave has 60 calories and 16 grams added sugar per tablespoon).
So if you’re just using a teaspoon here and there, using sweeteners like raw coconut sugar or maple syrup are really a non-issue. But if you use sweeteners on a more substantial basis, my preference is one of the many plant-based, 100% natural sweeteners on the market with zero calories and less than a gram of sugar per tablespoon, like Swerve (erythritol based), allulose or monkfruit. Wholesome Sweeteners offers an allulose syrup, and Lakanto has a monkfruit-sweetened maple-style syrup. I’ve covered these in depth in a variety of podcasts, most recently in A Sweet Shift: The Food Industry’s Move Away From Added Sugar with Dr. Darryl Holliday, associate professor of food science at the University of Holy Cross in New Orleans.
It may not sound familiar, but you’ve probably seen cassava flour on the label of products like grain-free chips, tortillas and crackers. Cassava flour is made from the whole cassava root, also referred to as yuca, a starchy root vegetable that has been peeled, dried, and ground. It’s a grain-free, gluten-free and nut-free flour, but that doesn’t make it nutritious. It’s fine – but when it comes to nutrition, we want more than ‘fine’.
Cassava flour has 130 calories, 31 grams of carbs and just 2 grams of fiber, compared to 120 calories, 24 grams carbohydrate and 1 gram of fiber for all-purpose white flour. My preferred flour is almond flour (twice as much fiber and six times the protein of cassava flour) or coconut flour (five times more fiber and six times more protein than cassava flour); both are also richer in plant-based fats.
A potassium-rich diet is linked to lower blood pressure, a reduced risk of stroke, and is a common remedy for muscle cramping. And when most people think about how to get more potassium in their diet, the banana is usually the first food that comes to mind. And while bananas are certainly high in potassium – with 450-500 mg per 120-calorie banana, they’re not necessarily the best source of potassium.
A cup of cantaloupe packs in 473 mg of potassium for half the calories of a banana, and a cup of cooked spinach and a grilled Portobello mushroom each have more potassium (839 mg and 630 mg, respectively), with one-third the calories of a banana, and almost zero sugar.
Protein-rich foods, such as fish, scallops and pork loin, are among the lesser-known top sources of potassium, with many providing 450 to 550 mg of potassium per six-ounce serving. And Greek yogurt provides the extra benefit of 20-plus grams of protein along with 345 mg potassium.
Quinoa, pronounced keen-wa, has been dubbed a supergrain for years, touted for its high protein, fiber and iron content. And compared to a grain like white rice, quinoa is higher in these nutrients.
But along with 8 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, and 15 percent of the daily value for iron, quinoa also packs in 220 calories and nearly 40 grams of carbs per cup (about the same as white pasta).
A cup of black beans, in comparison, has the same calorie content, but double the protein and three times the fiber of quinoa, with about 30 percent more iron. And a cup of cooked spinach has more than twice as much iron as quinoa, for a mere 40 calories.
Plain Greek yogurt gives us 23 grams of protein per 140-calorie cup, and a three-ounce serving of fish has 21 grams of protein for 100-120 calories — far better ratios of protein to calories than quinoa’s eight grams of protein per 220 calories.
So for those who aren’t concerned about carbs or calories, quinoa is perfectly fine. But if you’re looking to use quinoa as a protein substitute in place of lean meat, poultry or seafood, be aware that it’s a calorie-dense protein alternative, and there are plenty of other non-meat options with more protein, fiber and iron, for far fewer calories.
Incorporating oatmeal is one of the first nutritional changes that many people make when diagnosed with high cholesterol. And while it’s true that oats contains soluble fiber that can help lower bad LDL cholesterol levels, the National Institutes of Health’s National Cholesterol Education Program recommends increasing soluble fiber to 10 to 25 grams daily in order to reduce LDL levels. A cup of cooked oatmeal has just two grams of soluble fiber — that means it could take 5-plus bowls of oats — daily — to effectively lower LDL cholesterol.
Our better bets when it comes to foods high in soluble fiber: Beans and lentils, for example, give us about 4 to 6 grams soluble fiber per cup of cooked beans. Nature’s Path Organic Smart Bran is my top pick for a cereal rich in soluble fiber with 3 grams of soluble fiber per half-cup serving. And ground psyllium (the main ingredient in many fiber supplements) is one of the top sources of soluble fiber, with 6 grams of soluble fiber per tablespoon.
5 Foods That Deserve More Press
If you’ve read my past articles or listened to my podcast much, you’re probably expecting me to say that products like collagen peptides, apple cider vinegar and fresh-pressed vegetable juices top this list – I’ve covered them in-depth, in a variety of ways. But here’s the thing – these foods actually do get plenty of time in the spotlight.
So instead, we’re featuring five humble foods that are often-overlooked, that we could all benefit from adding a bit more into our diets.
A South Louisiana favorite, red beans are loaded with nutritional benefits. A single cup packs in 16 grams of fiber, as much as you’d get in five slices of whole grain bread. A cup of red beans also provides 20 percent of the daily value for iron and one-third of the daily value for folate, which can help to reduce homocysteine levels, a compound that’s associated with increasing our risk for heart disease.
Red beans are among the top plant-based sources of protein, with one cup providing 16 grams of protein, as much as you get in two cups of milk. And ounce-for-ounce, red beans have a higher concentration of antioxidants than the same amount of blackberries, garlic, raspberries, blueberries or almonds.
For maximum nutritional benefits, try red beans without rice (give it a chance, you just might like it, really), and add them to salads, soups and slow-cooker dishes.
Almonds and walnuts tend to get most of the attention, but pecans actually have the highest total antioxidant content of all types of nuts. Try incorporating them into your usual rotation of nuts and seeds, adding a tablespoon or two of chopped pecans to salads, Greek yogurt or oatmeal, or blend them into protein shakes for a dose of appetite-squelching fat.
It has about five times the antioxidant content as green cabbage, with the deep red color representing its anthocyanin content, the same type of antioxidants found in blueberries, blackberries and cranberries. These anthocyanins also seem to have an anti-inflammatory effect and may be helpful in lowering blood pressure and improving vision. A cup of raw red cabbage also provides 85 percent of the daily value for vitamin C, and nearly half a day’s worth of vitamin K. And with less than 30 calories per cup, it’s figure-friendly, as well. Try it in salads or in a lightened-up slaw, or, my favorite, braised with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Don’t toss the yolks! Egg yolks are one of the top sources of choline, a nutrient necessary for healthy cell membranes and brain function, plus it plays a critical role in how we metabolize fats. The yolk of the egg is also a good source of vitamin B12, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that are linked to a reduction in age-related macular degeneration.
Eggs are relatively low in saturated fat (just 1.5 grams per large egg, less than what’s in one tablespoon of olive oil), with just over half the recommended daily limit of cholesterol. The American Heart Association says that we can have one yolk a day, as long as we limit our intake of other cholesterol-containing foods. Eggs are also protein-rich, with about 7 grams of high-quality protein in one large egg (4 grams in the white and 3 grams in the yolk). I’ll typically recommend that clients add one whole egg to four egg whites, giving them as much protein as they would get in 3 ounces of lean meat.
Tomatoes are celebrated for their cancer-fighting lycopene content, but ounce-for-ounce, watermelon can have 40 percent more of the cancer-fighting antioxidant than tomatoes. And, unlike tomatoes, which need to be cooked in order to maximize lycopene absorption, we can still reap the same benefits from raw watermelon.
Watermelon is classified as high glycemic, meaning that its sugar can spike our blood sugar levels faster than say a plum or a pear. But glycemic index is generally based on consuming 50 grams of carbohydrates of a specific food, and since watermelon has just 11 grams of carbohydrate per cup (compared to 27 grams of carbs in a cup of grapes), that means an average, healthy person would have to eat nearly five cups of watermelon — without any type of protein or fat-containing foods — in order to experience a negative effect on blood sugar or insulin levels.
Added bonuses: Watermelon is more than 90 percent water, so it’s hydrating, plus it’s low in calories, with a generously sized wedge providing just 85 refreshingly sweet calories.
Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD is a registered dietitian + nutrition journalist in New Orleans, and founder of Ochsner Eat Fit nonprofit restaurant initiative. Tune in to her podcast, FUELED | Wellness + Nutrition and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @MollyKimballRD. See more of Molly’s articles + TV segments at www.mollykimball.com.