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5 Foods That Are Healthier Than You Think

06/11/2015 11:44 am ET | Updated Jun 12, 2015
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SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue

Sometimes foods we love land in the nutritional “dog house” because of a negative news story. And then it doesn’t matter what health experts say, or what new research comes to light. In our minds we come to think of these foods as unhealthy choices.

Take these five much-maligned foods. Experts now agree: eating these former food vices might actually make you a healthier, happier fiftysomething.

Eggs
Perceived as a vice because:
Eggs, or specifically the yolks, are rich sources of cholesterol. And since the plaque that clogs arteries and damages hearts is made up mostly of cholesterol, “people sort of connected those dots,” explains Walter Willett, Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard. But “there was never any data that showed that people who ate more eggs had higher risk of heart attacks.”

Good for you because:
An extensive body of research confirms that cholesterol in the diet has very little impact on blood cholesterol levels. (Foods high in saturated and trans fats are what raise blood cholesterol.) So the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines now recommend that it’s OK for healthy people to eat up to seven eggs per week. Rich in protein and a good source of everything from Vitamin D to phosphorous, eggs illustrate the “good things come in small packages” rule of thumb.

Coffee
Perceived as a vice because:
Plenty of people still see coffee drinking “as an unhealthy habit, along the lines of smoking and excessive drinking, and they may make a lot of effort to reduce their coffee consumption or quit drinking it altogether, even if they really enjoy it,” says Harvard scientist and professor Rob van Dam.

Good for you because:
When Harvard researchers looked at the coffee drinking habits of 130,000 volunteers (healthy men and women in their 40s and 50s) and then followed these volunteers for 18-24 years, they saw no evidence that drinking up to six cups of coffee a day increased risk of death from any cause.

“Our findings suggest that if you want to improve your health, it’s better to focus on other lifestyle factors, such as increasing your physical activity, quitting smoking, or eating more whole grains,” says van Dam.

Of course, he’s talking about black coffee here. All bets are off when you start adding copious amounts of sugar and cream and whip them up into a slushy frozen confection.

One exception to the rule: People who have a hard time controlling their blood pressure or blood sugar might want to avoid coffee or switch to decaf. Caffeine is a stimulant and going overboard might increase heart rate and raise blood pressure.

Wine
Perceived as a vice because:
Drinking too much red wine can raise blood pressure and it may increase risk for several types of cancer. And when a 2014 Italian study found that the antioxidant resveratrol, often credited for conferring some of the health benefits in red wine, didn’t reduce cardiovascular disease, cancer, or deaths, it again raised the question: Is red wine good for health?

Good for you because:
While they didn’t find benefits to reservatrol in the Italian study, lead researcher Dr. Richard D. Semba of Johns Hopkins University says other studies have shown that red wine, dark chocolate and berries can reduce inflammation and still appear to protect the heart. “It’s just that the benefits, if they are there, must come from other polyphenols or substances found in those foodstuffs,” he says.

Avocados
Perceived as a vice because:
Pinned by dieters with a scarlet “F” for fattening, the 21 grams of fat in a small avocado do sound a bit rich. If you focus on total fat it’s easy to lump the fruit with other guilty indulgences like quarter pound burgers (20 grams of fat), scoops of rich, premium ice creams (17 grams of fat) and buttery croissants (18 grams.) Yet, unlike these favorite fatty splurges, the bulk of fat in avocados is the “healthy-for-the-heart” monounsaturated variety.

Good for you because:
A 2015 study from the American Heart Association finds that eating one avocado per day as part of a moderate fat diet can drop LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, nearly 14 points.

“We need to focus on getting people to eat a heart-healthy diet that includes avocados and other nutrient-rich food sources of better fats,” says Penny M. Kris-Etherton, senior study author and chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee.

And if you eat that avocado at lunch all the better. Loma Linda University researchers find that eating half an avocado at lunch helps squash food cravings for three to four hours after the meal, which could prevent a diet-busting case of the afternoon munchies.

Peanut Butter (Peanuts)
Perceived as a vice because:
It’s fine for the grandkids, but this quintessential sandwich spread has “too much fat” for many fiftysomethings. So they skip it all together. Same goes for peanuts. Many people believe pretzels are a better snack than peanuts or peanut butter.

But a 2010 study shows that refined carbs (like pretzels) might be worse for the heart than saturated fats. “The obesity epidemic and growing intake of refined carbohydrates have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the development of cardiometabolic disorders,” says Harvard researcher Frank Hu.

One good strategy, he suggests, is “replacing carbohydrates (especially refined grains and sugar) with unsaturated fats and/or healthy sources of protein.” Peanuts (and peanut butter) are rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats and contain generous amounts of protein.

Good for you because:
Researchers at Penn State, who had volunteers eat peanuts as part of a high-fat meal, might have figured out why peanuts are good for the heart.

“Previous studies have shown that individuals who consume peanuts more than two times a week have a lower risk of coronary heart disease,” lead researcher on the new study, Xiaoran Liu, said. “Our new study indicates that the protective effect of peanut consumption could be due, in part, to its beneficial effect on artery health.”

Earlier on HuffPost50:

Foods That Combat Aging
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