Foods that don’t deserve bad reputations, according to dietitians

Eggs, potatoes, coffee: These kitchen staples, among others, have gained bad reputations, nutrition experts say, but don’t necessarily deserve it. In fact, registered dietitians, doctors and nutrition professors are increasingly advising people to eat them.

Nutrition advice is ever changing, which can leave consumers uncertain about which foods are actually healthy. NBC News asked nine health experts about the foods they think have been wrongly villainized. Here are some of the items they listed and the benefits people may miss out on if they forgo them entirely.

Eggs are packed with protein

Eggs have been demonized for being high in dietary cholesterol, which health experts once believed could contribute to heart disease, said Dr. Maya Vadiveloo, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Rhode Island.

But updated science has debunked that notion, showing that dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol affect heart health differently.

Eating foods high in saturated fat, such as red meat, fried foods and fatty dairy can increase the type of blood cholesterol that raises one’s risk of heart problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But consuming things with cholesterol, like eggs and shellfish, has little correlation to high cholesterol in the blood or a risk of heart disease.

Despite this shift, many people still view eggs poorly. Vadiveloo said that could also be because of other breakfast foods they’re often paired with.

“When people think of eggs, they also think of bacon and home fries,” she said — items that are high in salt and saturated fat. But on their own, eggs are nutritious, she added.

The American Heart Association says people can enjoy one or two eggs every day as a high-quality source of protein; each egg contains about 6 grams.

Eggs are also a source of vitamin D and choline, a nutrient that plays a role in metabolism, memory and muscle control.

Eggs even have a stamp of approval from the WeightWatchers program, which uses a point system to assign values to each type of food and drink based on its nutritional profile. Fruits, vegetables and lean meats are worth zero points, meaning followers of the diet don’t need to measure their portions. Eggs have been on the “ZeroPoint” list since 2017.

Just don’t fry your potatoes

It’s no secret that how you cook and season food influences how healthy it is. Caroline Susie, a registered nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said potatoes have been demonized because of the unhealthy ways they’re prepared.

“Potatoes are just fantastic. What happens is, unfortunately, we tend to screw them up by not eating the skin or frying or mixing them with everything under the sun, like sour cream and butter and bacon,” Susie said. Such toppings add saturated fat, which should be limited to 13 grams or less per day, according to the American Heart Association.

A 2021 study found that consuming higher quantities of french fries was associated with an increased risk for chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. But boiled, baked and mashed potatoes weren’t linked to a higher risk of hypertension in that study and were only slightly associated with an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Potato skins are high in fiber, which aids digestion. Potatoes also contain vitamin C and potassium, Susie added.

She advised roasting, baking, mashing or boiling potatoes and seasoning with olive oil, salt, pepper and herbs.

Frozen doesn’t always mean less healthy

Seven nutrition experts bemoaned the common perception that frozen fruits and vegetables are less healthy than their fresh counterparts.

“Frozen vegetables and frozen foods are picked at their pinnacle of nutrient density and then flash-frozen. So in many cases, they retain higher nutrient content than their fresh counterparts,” Vadiveloo said, “particularly when you live in a place that has more seasonal variation and availability.”

Susie said that in addition to retaining their nutrients, frozen vegetables are sometimes cheaper than fresh ones and can help people prevent food waste.

“Sometimes when I buy fresh produce, it essentially just goes to, I joke, the veggie bin graveyard. It just goes there to die,” she said. “But canned and frozen lasts longer.”

A few cups of coffee are not cause for concern

Coffee’s poor reputation comes from its caffeine, which is addictive and can cause jitters or anxiety for some people when overconsumed.

However, the Food and Drug Administration says people can drink up to four or five cups per day. Research shows coffee can contribute to a decreased risk of cancer, heart failure, Type 2 diabetes and even death.

Vadiveloo said she drinks three to five cups of coffee with milk every day. Studies suggest it can improve cognitive function, she said, so she believes coffee’s benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks of caffeine consumption.

“That’s a myth that I regularly debunk. Because a lot of people will say, ‘Oh, I’m trying to reduce coffee or caffeine.’ And the research just doesn’t support that coffee, particularly if you’re not adding a ton of added sugar or creamer and things like that, has any health risks within a reasonable consumption amount,” Vadiveloo said.

Alicia Henson, the education specialist for the Master of Nutritional Sciences and Dietetics program at the University of California, Berkeley, said the health value of coffee — much like potatoes — depends on what’s added.

“If you’re going to Starbucks and you’re drinking frappuccinos or you’re drinking coffee that has a ton of added sugar and cream to it, then that’s not necessarily a healthy addition,” Henson said.

The type of carbohydrate makes all the difference

Experts said carbohydrates as a whole are often assumed to be unhealthy, in part because of the popularity of low-carb and ketogenic diets. But it’s incorrect to think that all carbs are the same.

“It has to do with the quality of the carbohydrates — so refined versus whole grains,” said Dr. Linda Shiue, an internist and the director of culinary and lifestyle medication at Kaiser Permanente.

Refined grains, such as those used to make processed food like white bread, crackers and pastries, lack the fiber and nutrients that make whole grains healthy, Shiue said. That includes iron and B vitamins. But quinoa, farro and brown rice, for instance, offer protein, magnesium, iron and fiber, which keeps you feeling full.

Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist with a private practice in Los Angeles, said she often recommends one particular whole grain to patients as a snack, much to their surprise: popcorn.

Many people associate popcorn with the movie theater version, which is full of salt, butter and sometimes sugar — and often sold alongside a large soda. But when you prepare popcorn at home with just olive oil and spices, Jampolis said, the snack is fibrous and can be part of a balanced diet. Research also shows popcorn contains phenolic acids, a type of antioxidant.

Jampolis added that people shouldn’t fixate on avoiding any one food; instead, it’s best to cultivate a healthy eating pattern that prioritizes whole foods over ultraprocessed items with added sugar.

“That’s what the real experts do,” she said. “We don’t look at single foods necessarily in isolation.”