Many foods have developed undeserved reputations for being dietary disasters or nutritional wimps. But the latest research proves they have a place on your plate.
The bad rap: It's a beverage that makes you anxious and jittery.
The healthy reality: With more antioxidants per sip than green or black tea, your daily mug of java -- caffeinated or decaffeinated -- may actually protect against age-related diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. It may also reduce the risk for heart disease, breast cancer, asthma, gallstones and even cavities and diabetes. Just make sure you limit the add-ins--sugars, syrups and cream--that can negate coffee's healthy benefits.
The bad rap: Every bite is chock-full of artery-clogging saturated fat -- and tons of calories.
The healthy reality: It's fine for women to eat up to four 3-ounce servings of lean beef a week. (The least fatty cuts are marked "loin" or "round.") Plus, beef contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a healthy fat that may lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, control weight gain and inhibit cancer, researchers say. That means topping a plate of mixed greens with 3 ounces of thinly sliced sirloin or pairing the same portion of steak with a sweet potato for dinner may actually be a step toward disease prevention. And, not only does that modest serving provide 39 percent of the vitamin B12 your body requires daily, but it also delivers 36 percent of your daily zinc and 14 percent of your daily iron -- two minerals that few women get enough of. Choose "grass fed" beef whenever possible: It contains twice as much CLA and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids as grain-fed varieties.
The bad rap: This high-carb food piles on the pounds.
The healthy reality: A medium baked potato has just 160 calories and nearly 4 grams of fiber. Low-carb dieters often shun potatoes because they're high on the glycemic index (GI) [Note: link to Glycemic Index], a measure of how quickly they raise blood sugar levels, which could be related to the way the body stores fat. But, say some experts, if you eat a potato with other foods as part of a meal, your body takes longer to digest it and it doesn't cause the same dramatic spike in blood sugar levels.
The bad rap: That drumstick may be moister and tastier than the breast, but all that fat makes it a dietary no-no.
The healthy reality: Ounce for ounce, dark poultry does contain three times more fat than white meat, but those extra grams are primarily unsaturated. In addition, a 3-ounce serving of thigh meat provides nearly 25 percent more iron, twice the riboflavin and more than twice the zinc than the same portion of breast meat -- and contributes just 38 more calories. No matter what your poultry preference, don't eat the skin -- it adds 61 calories and 8 grams of fat (mostly saturated). You can leave it on during cooking, though; studies show cooking poultry with the skin doesn't make a difference in meat fat content.
The bad rap: These fungi lack vitamins and belong in the same "nutritional black hole" category with iceberg lettuce.
The healthy reality: Mushrooms have some serious disease-fighting potential, according to a recent study from Penn State University. White button, crimini, shiitake, maitake and king oyster mushrooms all contain a substance that helps stimulate white blood cells to ramp up production of a key cancer-destroying chemical, say researchers. The study also showed that mushrooms contribute a wide variety of nutrients to our diets; just 3 ounces (about five large mushrooms) provide more than 10 percent of the daily recommended intake for riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B5, copper and potassium -- all for less than a mere 30 calories.
The bad rap: They're swimming with artery-clogging cholesterol, putting you at risk for heart disease.
The healthy reality: Shrimp can be heart-healthy. They contain less than 1 gram of saturated fat per 3-ounce serving (about 15 shrimp), and it's saturated fat, not dietary cholesterol, that's primarily to blame for increasing blood lipid levels. But what shrimp do have may be even more important than what they don't: As one of the few foods naturally rich in vitamin D, shrimp contain more of the bone-building nutrient than an 8-ounce glass of milk, about one-third of your daily recommended dose. And since a full 36 percent of us don't get the D we need (putting us at risk for depression, hypertension, osteoporosis and autoimmune disorders), any food that provides that much should be a regular part of your diet. If recent headlines have you worried about the mercury levels in fish, relax -- shrimp is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of lowest-mercury seafood. That means you can have up to four 3-ounce servings per week without worrying about mercury's potential harm to your -- or an unborn child's -- nervous system.