Cheese, potatoes, and chocolate, oh my!

By Laurie Herr
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Seems like every time you turn around, you hear that this food or that will make you sick. Eggs cause heart attacks! Potatoes make you gain weight! Or this one: Coffee stunts your growth!

Relax. Recent research shows many so-called "bad" foods actually deliver powerful health benefits — like helping you stay mentally sharp, avoid chronic diseases, and live longer.

"The fact is, practically none of the food you find in a supermarket will kill you unless it's gone bad or you eat way too much of it," says Aaron Carroll, MD, in his book, The Bad Food Bible: Why You Can (and Maybe Should) Eat Everything You Thought You Couldn't. "But unless your doctor has told you to avoid specific ingredients," he writes, "the watchword is moderation, not abstinence."

Here are nine foods to take off your taboo list (hello, chocolate!) and why they're good for you:

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Breakfast Cereals

Boxed cereals often get a bad rap for being heavily processed and high in sugar. But that doesn't mean you have to skip the cereal aisle altogether, says Kristen F. Gradney, MHA, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Most cereals are fortified to include 100% of the Daily Value of many vitamins and minerals that we need and typically don't consume," she says. Indeed, a bowl of fortified cereal topped with milk gives you a double dose of vitamin D, a nutrient more than 40% of Americans don't get enough of. Ditch the sugar-coated stuff and choose whole-grain varieties for a hefty helping of fiber and protein.

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Eggs

For years they were blamed for sending cholesterol levels through the roof, raising the risk of heart disease. But while eggs are high in cholesterol, doctors now know that for most people, dietary cholesterol doesn't raise blood cholesterol. Plus, eggs are loaded with essential nutrients — like choline, which helps brain function, as well as protein, healthy fats, and calcium.

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Dark Chocolate

Rich, sweet, and delicious — it has to be bad for you, right? Not as long as you don't overdo it, experts say. Good-quality dark chocolate (made with 70 percent or more cocoa) is packed with iron, magnesium, and other important minerals. It's also rich in heart-healthy flavanols, powerful antioxidants that help lower blood pressure and may help prevent diabetes. One study found that dark chocolate has more antioxidant activity than blueberries, cranberries, and a number of other fruits.

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Red and White Wine

We all know too much booze can be deadly. But multiple studies show that a little alcohol now and then may be good for you. Doctors have said for years that a daily glass of red wine can help fight inflammation and prevent heart disease, thanks to its high levels of antioxidants.

More recently, a 2017 study of more than 300,000 adults found that light to moderate drinking of alcohol — including beer, wine, and spirits — seemed to protect against early death from all causes, including cancer and heart disease.

Still, moderation is key, the researchers stress. Women should stick to one drink a day or less, and men no more than two. And if you don't drink now, don't start, cautions the American Heart Association.

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Coffee

It's been blamed for causing cancer, heart disease, and even stunting people's growth. Not so, recent research shows. In fact, a moderate coffee habit — up to five cups a day of black coffee, not the venti-sized, super-sweet stuff — could add years to your life, according to a large 2015 study. Other studies suggest coffee drinkers may have a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's disease, cirrhosis, and some kinds of cancer. Still not convinced? A study of more than 6,000 older women found that the caffeine in coffee may help protect against age-related memory problems. So pour yourself another cup. Just watch the caffeine if you know it makes you jittery.

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Canned Vegetables

Of course, nothing beats in-season produce for flavor and nutrition. But canned veggies do quite nicely too as a stand-in, especially low-sodium varieties. In one study comparing packaged fruits and vegetables, the veggies scored about the same in nutrients across the board — fresh, frozen, or canned. And get this: Some vegetables are actually better for you in a can than fresh. Canned tomatoes, for example, have more lycopene — a nutrient that may help protect against skin cancer — than fresh, and canned sweet corn is higher in antioxidants. Bonus points for your budget: Canned vegetables are cheap.

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Avocados

Go ahead — enjoy your guac and avocado toast. Yes, avocados are high in fat. But it's healthy, monounsaturated fat, the kind that lowers bad cholesterol and fights heart disease. They're also packed with vitamins and minerals, including potassium, a nutrient many of us don't get enough of. And their hefty dose of fiber — one avocado provides almost half of your daily needs — helps you feel full, so you're less likely to reach for seconds.

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Cheese

It has probably topped your list of sinful foods for years. ("Clogs your arteries!" "Puts on pounds!") But there's a bright side. "Cheese contains calcium, fat, and protein, and often has vitamins A, B12, and minerals," Gradney says. High-fat cheeses like Brie and cheddar also have small amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which helps fight inflammation, weight gain, and heart disease. Another plus: Some research suggests nibbling on cheese may help prevent cavities.

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Potatoes

"They've been over-villainized," Gradney says. Packed with protein, fiber, and vitamin C, the humble potato also delivers energy-boosting carbs as well as potassium, magnesium, and many other nutrients — all for less than 100 calories. Just go easy on the butter, sour cream, and other high-fat potato partners. And use the peel whenever you can — it's where much of the nutrients are stored.

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