Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on August 13, 2020
Best: Rotisserie Chicken
This ready-made roasted chicken is a favorite of nutrition experts, and for good reason. It’s packed with protein. That can help you stay full and fend off hunger. For a quick and easy meal, serve it with brown rice or roasted potatoes and veggies. Or use the meat in salads, sandwiches, soups, or tacos.
Worst: Fried Chicken
Sure, chicken is a lean source of protein. But this version is coated with breading and fried in oil. The result: Each piece packs in more calories and fat than a typical cheeseburger. Plus, a diet high in the greasy stuff can take a toll on your health. Research shows that eating fried food 4 to 6 times a week can raise your risk of heart disease by 23% and type 2 diabetes by 39%.
Best: Broth-Based Soups
Head to the soup station to scoop up a filling meal -- research shows that soup can help fend off hunger. Choose one that’s made with broth, protein, and vegetables. Chicken noodle, minestrone, black bean, and chili are good options. Steer clear of cream-based soups, such as chowders and bisques. They’re often high in calories.
Best: Low-Sodium Turkey Breast
Any way you slice it, this deli meat is a smart choice. Layer three slices on a sandwich, and you’ll get 18 grams of protein for fewer than 100 calories. Just check that you go with the low-sodium version. Deli meats are often loaded with the salty stuff. One serving of regular turkey delivers nearly a third of all the sodium you should get in a day.
You can see the white flecks of fat, so it should come as no surprise that this isn’t a lean meat. Each slice of this cured sausage has 68 calories and 6 grams of fat -- 4 times the amount in roast beef. And salami is highly processed. The World Health Organization has linked processed red meat like this to higher odds of cancer.
Bologna and mustard is a lunchbox classic, but it isn’t the healthiest option. Made from a mix of cured beef and pork, bologna is loaded with fat. It packs in 6 times the fat -- and about 3 times the calories -- of regular deli ham. A 3-ounce serving also delivers more than 40% of all the sodium you should get in a day. For a leaner sandwich, go with low-sodium chicken, turkey, ham, or roast beef.
Worst: Macaroni and Cheese
It’s a favorite comfort food, but it won’t do your diet any favors. One cup serves up 400 calories. You’re better off making your own healthier version. Swap in whole-wheat macaroni and low-fat milk. Then mix in a serving of veggies, such as cauliflower or green peas, for an extra vitamin boost.
Best: Roasted Vegetables
Roasting brings out the natural sweetness of vegetables. This dish can add a punch of flavor -- plus a dose of vitamins and fiber -- to any meal. Serve it as a side, or add the veggies to a pasta or grain dish. You’ll do your body good. Research shows that people who eat at least 5 servings of veggies a day live longer than those who don’t.
Worst: Pasta Salad
This gets its creaminess from high-fat mayo. Polish off a cup of it, and you’ll get 500 calories and 30 grams of fat. That’s more than the total amount of fat you should get from an entire meal. A better option: Have the pasta primavera. It’s made with a healthier olive oil-based dressing, and you’ll get a serving of veggies.
Best: Bean or Lentil Salad
Three-bean, lentil, black bean, or chickpea? Take your pick. They’re all low in fat and high in fiber. That can help fill you up -- and even slim you down. One study found that people who ate a serving of beans daily as part of a weight loss plan shed more pounds than those who didn’t. Plus, beans are a top source of disease-fighting antioxidants.
Give this garnish more real estate on your plate. The main ingredient is cabbage, which is high in bone-building vitamin K. It also has compounds that protect against cancer called isothiocyanates. For the healthiest pick, order one made with a vinegar-based dressing instead the creamy kind. You’ll save yourself fat and calories.
Worst: 7-Layer Salad
Salads are often a nutritional slam dunk, but this version is made with iceberg lettuce, which has fewer vitamins than other leafy greens. Then it’s layered with high-fat cheese and bacon. That’s all tossed with a dressing made with mayonnaise and sugar. To turn over a healthier leaf, look for salads made mostly of veggies and only a small amount of high-calorie toppings, like cheese and croutons.
Best: Marinated Olives
Take a trip to the olive bar. These little fruits are proof that good things come in small packages. They’re high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, along with vitamin E. Have them as a snack, or toss them into a pasta or salad. Just stick to one portion. Olives can be high in sodium.
Worst: Creamy Potato Salad
Because of the mayo dressing, a cup of this packs in more fat than a piece of cheesecake. In the mood for spuds? Make your own version with low-fat Greek yogurt in place of the mayo. Or pick up the German potato salad. It’s made with a mustard vinaigrette, so it has fewer than half the calories and one-sixth the fat of its creamier cousin.
Best: Vegetable Quiche
You can get cracking at any meal with a slice of veggie quiche. Eggs are a good source of protein and make that spinach or broccoli even healthier. Research shows that eggs can help your body take in and use more of the vitamins you get from vegetables. For the healthiest slice, go for a quiche that’s made with a whole-wheat crust.
Best: Sushi With Brown Rice
Need a quick and healthy meal? Look for platters of sushi made with veggies and fiber-rich brown rice. A good option is the salmon-avocado roll. The fish has heart-healthy omega-3s, while the avocado has B vitamins. Just go easy with the soy sauce dunks. A tablespoon of that serves up more than 40% of the sodium you should get all day.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Effects of Dietary Pulse Consumption on Body Weight: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.”
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Effects of Egg Consumption on Carotenoid Absorption from Co-Consumed, Raw Vegetables.”
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Fried Food Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Coronary Artery Disease: A Prospective Study in 2 Cohorts of US Women and Men.”
Journal of Nutrition: “Preventing Gastric Sieving by Blending a Solid/Water Meal Enhances Satiation in Healthy Humans.”
Mayo Clinic: “To Track How Much Fat I Eat Each Day, Should I Focus on Grams, Calories, or Percentages?”
Nancy Z. Farrell, MS, RDN, spokeswoman, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute: “Isothiocyanates.”
The BMJ: “Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Mortality from All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies.”
The Lancet Oncology: “Carcinogenicity of Consumption of Red Processed Meat.”
United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service: “USDA Food Composition Databases.”