Some foods are so healthy they star on every nutrition expert’s list of super foods. But often missing on those lists are some underrated gems that can definitely upgrade your diet.
We tapped nutrition experts to find out their favorite underrated fare. They only selected whole foods that are familiar, widely available, affordable, and nutrient-rich -- and that taste great.
Here are their top picks.
1. Beans and Lentils
Beans and lentils really are nutrition superstars -- rich in protein, fiber, complex carbs, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, author of Read It Before You Eat It, says healthy foods like beans and lentils defy the recommendation to only shop the perimeter of the grocery store. "There are hundreds of essential foods like beans and lentils lining the shelves in the center aisles that should not be overlooked."
Beans are versatile and easy on your wallet, and Taub-Dix suggests you can lower the sodium in canned beans by approximately 40% by thoroughly rinsing the beans in water.
Elisa Zied, MS, RD, author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips, says, "Eating a diet rich in legumes can help promote weight loss and has been shown to lower LDL [low-density -- "bad" -- cholesterol] and raise HDL [high-density -- "good" -- cholesterol]," .
Toss these nuggets into soups, stews, salads, grain medleys, or greens, or create a veggie dip, like hummus made from chickpeas, by pureeing beans and adding your favorite seasoning.
Watermelon is everyone’s favorite summertime fruit. But because it is so naturally sweet, some people avoid it because they think it's high in sugar.
Elizabeth Ward, RD, author of Expect the Best, says watermelon should be a staple in everyone’s diet. "It is fun to eat, sweet, juicy, low in calories, and chock full of vitamins C and A, potassium, and lycopene. Because it is so high in water, it helps meet fluid needs."
A bonus is that the thick peel keeps pesticides far from the flesh, earning it a spot on the Environmental Working Group's "Clean 15" -- the produce with the least pesticide residue.
3. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are often thought of as high in calories and carbs because they are so naturally sweet. But don’t let that fool you.
Heather Mangieri, RD, says, "Sweet potatoes are nutritional all-stars and one of the best vegetables you can eat. Not only are they a great source of beta carotene, vitamin C, fiber, and potassium, but this highly underrated vegetable is so versatile it can be enjoyed with very few extra calories or embellishment."
She suggests topping a slow-baked sweet potato with a sprinkle of cinnamon, applesauce, and crushed pineapple. Or try topping it with black beans and salsa. Other options: Mash it or slice it into fries and oven bake then until golden brown.
4. Red Cabbage
Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, physician and registered dietitian, votes for the cruciferous vegetable red cabbage.
"[It's] a great source of fiber; vitamins A, D, and K; folate; and lots of trace minerals with only 22 calories in one cup chopped," Gerbstadt says. "Rich in antioxidants, this veggie can boost cancer-fighting enzymes. You can eat it raw, cooked, sweet, savory, stand-alone in a dish like coleslaw, or added to almost anything from soups, to salads, casseroles, sandwiches, burgers, and more."
She suggests keeping a head of red cabbage in your crisper to inspire creative ways to add more color and nutrition to your meals.
5. Canned Tomatoes
Fire-roasted petite diced tomatoes are a staple in the pantry of Georgia State University professor emeritus Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD. "Everyone thinks fresh is best but cooking tomatoes helps release some of the disease-fighting lycopene so it is better absorbed," Rosenbloom says.
A study in the 2009 Journal of Clinical Oncology shows that a diet rich in tomatoes may help prevent prostate cancer and that lycopene, a strong antioxidant, may also help prevent other types of cancer. Of course, many other lifestyle and genetic factors also affect cancer risk.
Stock your pantry with canned tomatoes for pizza, spaghetti sauce, and home-made salsa, or toss a can into soups, stews, casseroles, greens, or pasta dishes. And if your power goes out, "canned foods are a lifesaver," Rosenbloom says.
If canned tomatoes are not your favorite, how about low-sodium vegetable juice? Sheah Rarback, MS, RD, nominates vegetable juice that has been around for a long time with only 140 mg of sodium and that is an excellent source of vitamin C and potassium.
6. Plain, Nonfat Greek Yogurt
There are many yogurts on the market, and plain, nonfat Greek yogurt is a standout.
All yogurts are excellent sources of calcium, potassium, protein, zinc, and vitamins B6 and B12. What distinguishes Greek yogurt is its thicker, creamier texture because the liquid whey is strained out. Also, it contains probiotic cultures and is lower in lactose and has twice the protein content of regular yogurts.
Judith Rodriguez, PhD, RD, says, "Skip the extra sugar calories found in most yogurts and pump up the protein by choosing Greek yogurt." She adds that it contains twice as much protein, "which is great for weight control because it keeps you feeling full longer."
Rodriguez suggests pairing the tart yogurt with the natural sweetness of fresh fruit or your favorite whole grain cereal.