Life is filled with choices — especially while standing in a grocery store aisle trying to decide what to toss in your cart. Olive oil or coconut oil? Potato or sweet potato? Grass-fed meat or organic meat?
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You want to pick the healthier option, but it’s tough knowing what that might be. There’s just a lot of nutritional information to … well, digest.
It’s not that difficult, though, if you know what you’re looking for. To make the process easier, let’s break it down into bite-sized pieces with registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD.
What makes food healthy?
The answer to that question isn’t the same for everyone (more on that later), but there are a few general guidelines that can lead to healthier dietary decisions, says Czerwony. These include:
- Minimizing saturated fats. These artery-clogging fats have been linked to increased risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends that saturated fats account for no more than 5% to 6% of your total daily calories.
- Limiting sodium. Too much sodium in your diet can lead to high blood pressure and damaged arteries that strain your heart. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligram (mg) per day — basically, a teaspoon of salt.
- Go natural. Fresh food is almost always better than processed products.
Take the time to read food nutrition labels, too: “It’s going to take you a little extra time at the grocery store,” says Czerwony, “but it’s also going to let you know what you’re getting yourself into.”
Focus on your personal dietary needs
Dietary needs aren’t necessarily one-size-fits-all. Choices can be driven by medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or food allergies, for instance. Cultural traditions might also play a role in what fills your pantry and cupboards.
“What’s best for you may not be the same as what someone else needs,” notes Czerwony. “Do what’s right for you.”
Food fights: picking a winner
Of course, all that advice still leaves choices. To help with these decisions, here are six this-or-that “food fights,” where medical and nutritional experts offer insight as to which option is the healthiest.
Coconut oil vs. olive oil
Be careful with your heart. This advice works for love, of course, but it’s also appropriate when selecting cooking oil, says preventive cardiology dietitian Kate Patton, RD.
Look beyond basic calorie and fat counts when choosing between olive oil and coconut oil. As it turns out, olive oil is more loaded with unsaturated fat (the healthier kind), while coconut oil is heavier in saturated fat.
The verdict: There’s a reason why olive oil is a staple of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. (A more detailed comparison here.)
Wild salmon vs. farmed salmon
Do you really need to know the origin story of your salmon to make the healthiest choice? Well, it certainly doesn’t hurt, says registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD.
Wild salmon fished out of the world’s waterways have a “fin up” on their cousins raised on farms. Wild salmon has fewer calories and saturated fat; lower levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and contaminants; and little to no issue with antibiotics.
The verdict: It’s better to go wild at mealtime. (A more detailed comparison.)
Brown rice vs. white rice
Whole grains such as rice can be broken down into three main parts — germ, bran and endosperm — that offer nutritional value.
Brown rice is a whole grain that contains all three components, says Czerwony. White rice? Not so much. Processing strips out the germ and bran, leaving a food that’s a bit lacking in vitamins and minerals.
The verdict: Brown rice is the clear winner, though it might not always be the best choice if you have certain health factors. (A more detailed comparison.)
Kale vs. spinach
Some choices aren’t worth agonizing over. This is one of them, says Patton.
These leafy greens can both be fitted for capes as “super veggies.” It comes down to what you value most. Spinach is higher in calcium, fiber, iron, protein and vitamin A. Kale has the edge in vitamins K and C, is lower in calories and is packed with heart-healthy flavonoids.
The verdict: You really can’t go wrong either way. (A more detailed comparison.)
Grass-fed meat vs. organic meat
Let’s open this debate with a bit of analysis from Functional Medicine Director Mark Hyman, MD: “Grass-fed meat is so nutritionally superior to factory-farmed meat that it is practically a different food.”
That’s not to say organic meat is bad, though. It’s definitely a better option than conventional meat with some pretty high standards.
The verdict: Think grass-fed meat when you fire up the grill. (A more detailed comparison.)
Dark chocolate vs. milk chocolate vs. white chocolate
Chocolate comes from cocoa beans, which — lucky for us — contains heart-healthy flavonoids. This nutrient is an antioxidant that does all sorts of good things for your body while protecting it from damage and disease, says registered dietitian Mira Ilic, RD.
Not all chocolate offers the same flood of flavonoids, though. Dark chocolate has the most, as it’s processed the least. Milk chocolate has less and white chocolate is seriously lacking.
The verdict: Dark chocolate is best … but it’s still chocolate. Pace yourself. (A more detailed comparison.)
Potatoes vs. sweet potatoes
Neither spud is a dud, but one offers just a bit more on the nutrition front, says Czerwony.
Sweet potatoes are rich in beta carotene and vitamin A. Beta carotene is an antioxidant that works to protect your body’s cells from damage and diseases. Your body converts that beta carotene into off-the-charts levels of vitamin A.
The verdict: Add a little color to your plate with sweet potatoes. (A more detailed comparison.)
Healthy foods need healthy cooking
The healthiest of foods can be undermined in the kitchen. Just think of potatoes, which can be wonderfully nutritious … right up until they’re sliced, dropped in a fryer and then served with cheese sauce.
“Respect the food you eat,” says Czerwony. “If you take the time and effort to select the right ingredients for your meal, make sure you prepare them in a way that maximizes the benefits.”