By Samuel Blackstone for DETAILS.
(photo: Getty Images)
Not all foods are created equal. You know that. But, when you're talking about, say, rice, do you know which rice is just okay, which is better, and which is the best for you (white rice, brown rice, wild rice, for those keeping track)? What about eggs? Pasta? Yogurt? Leafy greens? You get the point, we got the information, courtesy of Jim White, R.D., a certified health-and-fitness specialist, the owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios, and the national spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
You've probably heard of the "no carbs after 6 p.m." rule, and you'd be smart to follow it. Why? Because unless you're a night exerciser, you're probably not going to burn through the carbs after you eat them, which means your body will store them as fat. Just don't go overboard with it. Definitely don't inhale slices of white bread, or anything with flour as one of the first two ingredients, right before going to bed. You'd be wise to stay away from complex carbs, like sweet potatoes, late in the day, too. But, go crazy with the vegetables. As a rule of thumb, White offers this as a guide:
Bad: White pasta. It's a refined carb, which means most of the nutritious stuff is taken out. It's also low in fiber, usually containing less than two grams.
Better: Veggie pasta. It's still low in fiber but it has a higher vitamin A and vitamin C content.
Best: 100 percent whole-wheat pasta. It's unrefined, so it keeps all its nutritional benefits, plus it's naturally high in fiber.
Go to the grocery store and look at the yogurt section. It's massive, right? Variety is great, but with so many choices, it's easy to go wrong. White's list should help.
Bad: Fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt. "This yogurt is mixed with a syrupy fruit base and is very high in sugar," states White.
Better: Nonfat yogurt. It's a good source of calcium and a moderate source of protein. Make sure to check the nutritional facts though, as they can be high in sugar, especially if they're flavored.
Best: Plain Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt is high in protein and, when plain, low in added sugars. To give it some flavor, "add some oats, fresh or dried fruit, and seeds," White advises. Don't be afraid of full-fat Greek yogurt, either.
Leafy Green Vegetables
All you hear these days is kale, kale, kale. Diversify your greens, people. Here's White's advice.
Bad: Iceberg lettuce. It's mostly just water, and has almost no nutritional value.
Better: Kale (sorry, we had to). It's a great source of vitamins A, C, and K, and calcium and potassium.
Best: Arugula. It's "a powerhouse leafy green vegetable," says White. "Two cups of arugula is only 10 calories. Arugula is very high in nitrates, which reduce the amount of oxygen needed during exercise and enhance athletic performance. It also provides 20 percent of [your daily recommended] vitamin A, 50 percent of vitamin K, and is a good source of calcium and folate."
There are a lot of stories out there saying granola is one of those "healthy" foods that is actually not that healthy. It's true, kind of. The thing is, you can go really wrong really quickly with it, but if you're smart, check the ingredients, and limit your portion to the serving size, it can be a great choice. Here are some things White says to look for when shopping for granola.
Bad: Commercial granolas. "Granola usually combines both healthy and not-so-healthy ingredients," explains White. "Most commercial granola recipes are high in calories, fat, and sugar. One cup of granola can have as much as 600 calories, 20 grams of fat, and 24 grams of sugar." Basically, don't just grab a box of granola and assume it's healthy.
Better: One serving of granola, mixed with a lower-calorie/fat cereal or nonfat plain Greek yogurt.
Best: "Granola can be full of healthy ingredients such as dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and can be full of fiber," White states. "Choose a granola that has at least three grams of fiber per serving." Another good rule of thumb is to look at the ingredients. If there are any words you don't know, or if the list is longer than 10 ingredients, don't buy it. You want fiber and protein, not science and sugar.
Read more: The 10 Healthiest Beers, Ranked
When you go to the grocery store, you probably have your choice between white eggs, brown eggs, organic, free-range, and cage-free, not to mention all the different sizes. So, what's the difference, nutritionally? "There is no difference in the nutritional content in an organic versus a cage-free egg," says White. "The only difference is the diet that is fed to the chicken." If you see cage-free, it means the hens are uncaged but usually inside warehouses and without access to the outdoors. As for free-range, there are no standards for the eggs, though the hens have access to the outdoors, sometimes up to six hours a day. In all cases, unless the labeling says "Certified Organic," which means the feed is organic, vegetarian, and free of pesticides and antibiotics, there is no U.S. government requirement for the quality of feed for the animals, and if it doesn't say cage-free or free-range, no requirement for the treatment of the hens.
As for those omega-3 eggs you see, usually the hens are "given feed that included flax, marine algae, fish oils, and other ingredients to boost the level of omega-3 fatty acid in their eggs," White explains. And the colors? Don't worry about them. "Different breeds of hens just lay different-colored eggs," White states. "Quality, flavor, and nutrition aren't affected." If you're mostly concerned with the treatment of the hens, look for eggs that are labeled free-range or, even better, "pasture-raised." If it's the feed you're worried about, go organic.
Chicken and Beef
Chicken labeling is almost as confusing as egg labeling. To be clear, the label "no hormones added" is basically saying "we have nothing else to say on our packaging" because adding hormones to poultry is illegal. If it says "all-natural," it usually means they didn't add any food coloring or artificial ingredients, but the package will make clear what they mean by "all natural" because the law says they have to. Free-range and cage-free labels mean pretty much the same thing as with egg labels. It's more expensive, and a lot of critics say it's a waste of money, but if you want to be safe, go with organic meats. Organic means the animals had year-round access to the outdoors, are not given hormones or antibiotics, are raised on organically produced feed, and do not contain any artificial ingredients. As for beef, the same kind of idea applies, but White recommends going with grass-fed beef over the traditional grain-fed beef. Here's his list for chicken, and beef:
Bad: Fried chicken wing. Chicken legs contain dark meat, which is higher in fat than white meat. Also, the skin contains a lot of fat.
Better: Baked skinless chicken wing. Baking your chicken will help decrease the fat content added by cooking it in oil. Removing the skin will decrease both the calories and fat content.
Best: Baked chicken breast. Breasts are made of white meat, which is lower in fat content and calories than dark meat. A good rule of thumb to know is that chicken wings have more fat and calories than thighs, which have more fat and calories than breasts.
Bad: Processed beef lunch meat. Processed meat is high in sodium and contains preservatives.
Better: Grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef "is leaner and contains more essential omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)" [than traditional, grain-fed beef], says White. "Some research suggests that CLA may be beneficial in preventing cancer and heart disease."
Best: Bison meat. Okay, it's not necessarily beef, but it is lean and packed with protein. It's also considered a "healthy alternative to beef," says White.
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