When a good food goes bad, can it ever make good again? The answer seems to be yes.
Many of our favorite foods that nutrition experts once warned us against eating for the sake of our health are now making a comeback and may deserve a spot at your next meal.
These nutritional underdogs may have gotten a bad rap in the past, but new research shows that they may not be bad for you as once thought. In fact, they may even be better for you than what you're eating now.
Dark Meat: It's the New White
White meat chicken breasts have been the mantra for health-conscious carnivores for years, but now experts say you shouldn't feel guilty about wanting to go over to the dark side.
Boneless, skinless chicken thighs are often a cheaper and tastier alternative to chicken breasts and only contain marginally more fat and calories than white meat.
"You're getting some nutritional pluses with dark meat too," says registered dietitian Joan Carter, an instructor at the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor University. "It's moister, because it is a little higher in fat. But it also has more flavor and iron because that's what makes that meat dark."
The important thing is to take the skin off, where most of the fat in poultry lies.
Carter also says that today's pork really is the other white meat and has much less fat than in years past.
"Pork tenderloin is now a low-fat meat and should not be vilified as it was at one time," says Carter.
Lean cuts of beef, such as flank steak, have also become even leaner in recent years, but fatty cuts like rib eye steaks with visible marbling (i.e. fat) should still be reserved for only special occasions.
Margarine vs. Butter: Which is Better?
First came butter, and it was good, very good. When more economical margarine came along, butter became bad. But butter lovers were redeemed when the news came that margarines were high in a new type of artery-clogging fat called trans fat. Yet butter appears to be falling from nutritional favor again.
"The healthier choice is one of the soft margarines, without a doubt," says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, professor of nutrition at Tufts University.
"Butter is extremely high in saturated fatty acids, and saturated fatty acids are the most potent in terms of increasing ["bad"] LDL cholesterol levels," Lichtenstein tells WebMD. "A lot of margarines are now trans fat free, and you can tell by the consistency, the softer the better."
Trans fats are created when manufacturers turn liquid fats such as oils into solid ones, like traditional margarine. Research has shown that trans fats raise LDL "bad" cholesterol levels, and this can contribute to the buildup of fatty plaque in arteries.
Lichtenstein says it's important to look at the sum total of both saturated and trans fats when selecting a spread for your toast, rather than focusing on one or the other.
But if you're a butter lover, Carter says you don't have to completely forsake butter due to nutritional concerns.
"I trained as a chef in France many years ago and believe that a little cooking oil and butter is one of the best flavors, so I can get by with a tablespoon of butter when I'm cooking to get the flavor," says Carter. "But you are not going to find sticks of butter on my table."
Salad Dressing: Pass the Oil, Please
Rather then wincing at the thought of putting a nonfat mystery dressing on your salad, experts say it may be better to go back to the basics with good old vinegar-and-oil-based dressings.
Most "light" commercial salad dressings contain a lot of extra ingredients such as sugar and salt. A healthier choice is to make your own vinaigrette with olive oil (a good source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats).
Carter says by splurging on flavorful, mild vinegars such as balsamic or sherry vinegar, or adding fresh herbs, you can cut down drastically on the amount of oil needed to make a tasty salad dressing.
Going Nuts Over Peanut Butter
Regardless of how you like it, chunky or smooth, all natural or straight from the plastic jar, researchers say peanut butter is a cheap and healthy source of protein.
Some concerns have been raised in the past that oils added to commercial peanut butters during production process may create unhealthy levels of trans fats. But recent studies have shown that most commercial peanut butters contain negligible levels of these potentially dangerous fats, and commercial and all-natural brands are pretty much equal when it comes to nutrition.
"My feeling as a nutritionist is that the major sources of damaging trans fats in your diet are going to be commercial cakes, cookies, doughnuts, and deep-fried foods, not peanut butter," says Carter.
Peanut butter is also a high-calorie food, so eating spoon after spoon of it isn't recommended -- two tablespoons is plenty. But nuts and nut butters such as peanut butter are rich sources of protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids like those found in fish and vegetable oils.
Eggs: Edible and Economical
Eggs have suffered from a serious image problem that began in the 1970s when they were vilified for their high cholesterol content. But now that researchers' understanding of heart disease and cholesterol's role in it has changed, so has their opinion of the egg.
"At that time, we thought cholesterol was the only issue, but we now know that there is good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, good fats, and bad fats," says Carter. "Eggs aren't as damaging to the cardiovascular system as once thought."
"What eggs have going for them is they are an inexpensive, high-quality source of protein," says Carter.
However, eggs, more specifically egg yolks, do still contain a significant amount of cholesterol.
Lichtenstein says that whether or not someone can fit eggs into their diet really depends on what else they're eating.
"If they are not consuming a lot of animal fat either from dairy or meat sources, then they can certainly include an egg a day in their diet," Lichtenstein tells WebMD.
If you are eating a considerable amount of cholesterol-laden animal fat, then it's good idea to limit eggs, take the yolk out and use the whites only, or use an egg substitute.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, Sweat the Big Stuff
Experts say the big issue in incorporating healthier foods into the diet is a matter of substituting items of equal or lesser caloric content, not just adding more foods to your daily diet.
"As a population we still need to be concerned about calories," Lichtenstein tells WebMD. "We can talk about good fats and bad fats, good proteins and bad proteins, and all that, but unless we get our caloric intake under control a lot of those efforts are going to be for naught."
That means if you have an egg for breakfast for a protein boost, you should cut back on other sources of animal fat, like meat and dairy, later in the day. Or if you have a handful of nuts as a snack to work in a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids, you should go easy on the olive oil at dinner.
As Carter says, there are many ways to make healthy food choices and cut unnecessary fat and calories, but it's not about labeling foods "good" or "bad." So don't sweat the small stuff if you want to stick by your butter habit.
"I don't want anyone to suck joy out of life for nutrition's sake; it's got to be a balance," says Carter.