13 Health Foods That Taste Better Than Junk Foods

Eating Healthy Foods

Story at-a-glance -

  • Processed foods only taste good because they’ve been synthetically altered with artificial and natural flavors (that attempt to mimic those found in nature)
  • Many healthy foods taste better than their junk food counterparts, including strawberries, avocado, cheese, sweet potatoes, watermelon, and more

By Dr. Mercola

There's a common misconception that in order to eat healthy you have to sacrifice flavor. But anyone who's bit into a homegrown tomato or fresh peach knows this isn't the case.

Most junk foods can only dream of mimicking the flavors found in naturally grown foods. That's what most artificial (and even natural) flavors are mirrored after, and without them your favorite junk food would taste like the box it came in.

The reason why many people perceive junk foods to be so tasty is a testament to their scientific creators. And, yes, you could easily compare many junk foods to science experiments.

Junk Foods Are Designed to Lure You In

One of the guiding principles for the processed-food industry is known as "sensory-specific satiety." In a New York Times article, investigative reporter Michael Moss described this as "the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm your brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more."1

The greatest successes, whether beverages or foods, owe their "craveability" to complex formulas that pique your taste buds just enough, without overwhelming them, thereby overriding your brain's inclination to say "enough."

The "flavor" in junk foods often come from sugar, which is more addictive than cocaine, combined with unhealthy fats and highly refined salt, all added in to create addictive food products.

In a Time Magazine interview discussing Moss' book Salt Sugar Fat, he explained:2

"The optimum amount of sugar in a product became known as the 'bliss point.' Food inventors and scientists spend a huge amount of time formulating the perfect amount of sugar that will send us over the moon, and send products flying off the shelves.

…When it came to fat, it was the amazing role of what the industry calls the 'mouth feel.' That's the warm, gooey taste of cheese, or the bite into a crisp fried chicken that you get. It rushes right to the same pleasure centers of the brain that sugar does...

When it comes to salt, what was really staggering to me is that the industry itself is totally hooked on salt. It is this miracle ingredient that solves all of their problems.

There is the flavor burst to the salt itself, but it also serves as a preservative so foods can stay on the shelves for months. It also masks a lot of the off-notes in flavors that are inherent to processed foods."

The biotech company Senomyx even creates novel flavor-enhancing compounds for the processed-food industry in order to make foods and beverages that taste good while reducing sugar and salt content. The synthetically engineered flavor enhancers work by triggering taste receptors on your tongue, effectively tricking your taste buds into sensing sweetness, saltiness, or "coolness."

…Natural foods, on the other hand, are simply naturally good. And despite the food industry's blatant attempts to create synthetic foods that outshine nature, many "health" foods taste better than their science-lab creations. If you need some examples, check out the list below.

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13 Healthy Foods That Taste Better Than Junk Foods

1. Strawberries

Unless you overeat them, it is hard to go wrong with strawberries, as they contain powerful phytochemicals, such as ellagic acid that provide antioxidant protection, as well as directly inhibit the DNA binding of certain carcinogens.

Strawberries are also an excellent source of vitamin C, carotenes, zinc, potassium, iron, calcium, and magnesium, and they're high in fiber. Women who ate more than three servings per week of blueberries and strawberries even had a 32 percent lower risk of having a heart attack.3

The benefit was due to flavonoids in the berries known as anthocyanins, which are antioxidants that give these fruits their characteristic red and purple hues. Strawberries are among the most pesticide-contaminated produce, so you should strive to always buy these organic.

2. Blueberries

Berries like blueberries are among the healthiest fruits you can eat, again assuming you don't overdo it. They're relatively low in sugar while being high in fiber and heart-healthy antioxidants.

In one study, women who ate the equivalent of one cup of blueberries daily lowered their blood pressure after eight weeks.4 The women also had higher levels of nitric oxide, which dilates your blood vessels, thereby reducing your blood pressure.

3. Dark Chocolate

Chocolate – specifically the dark unprocessed raw cacao kinds – actually reduces the risk of cardiometabolic disorders, such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome -- along with related problems like hypertension, elevated fasting glucose and triglycerides, high cholesterol, and abdominal obesity.5

In one study, the highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with a 37 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29 percent reduction in stroke compared with the lowest levels!6 Other research has also shown that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds in chocolate may lower your risk of heart attack and stroke considerably.

In fact, a wide range of accumulating scientific research has linked high-quality dark chocolate, cacao, and cocoa powder consumption to over 40 distinct health benefits.7

Antioxidant polyphenols in chocolate are so valuable because they have the ability to stop free-radical-mediated oxidation. This helps to decrease your risk of those and other diseases by directly interfering with one of the major preventable causes of chronic degenerative diseases.

If you can tolerate the flavor of raw cacao (including unsweetened cacao nibs, raw cacao powder, or unsweetened and not alkalized cocoa powder), then that's the absolute best option. But if flavor is what you're after, choosing chocolate with a cocoa/cacao percentage of about 70 or higher is a healthy alternative.

4. Almonds

Like most nuts, almonds are an excellent source of high-quality protein, healthy fats, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that can boost your health and even help with weight control.

One of the healthiest aspects of almonds appears to be their skins, as they are rich in antioxidants including phenols, flavonoids, and phenolic acids, which are typically associated with vegetables and fruits.

A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry even revealed that a one-ounce serving of almonds has a similar amount of total polyphenols as a cup of steamed broccoli or green tea.8

Be careful not to overeat almonds, however, as they are high in protein with nearly one gram per almond. Most Americans consume three to five times more protein than they need, which can lead to elevated blood sugar, weight gain, kidney stress, leaching of bone minerals, and stimulation of cancer cells.

5. Pistachios

Nutritionally, over half the fat in pistachios is from oleic acid, the same healthy fat that is in olive oil. One study found eating two servings of pistachios a day lowered vascular constriction during stress, which means the load on your heart is reduced since your arteries are more dilated.9

Those eating pistachios also had significantly lower blood pressure. Past research has also shown that diets containing pistachios reduce systolic blood pressure and vascular responses to stress in adults with high cholesterol.10

Pistachios are high in lutein, beta-carotene, and gamma-tocopherol (vitamin E) compared to other nuts. Eating one or two servings of pistachios a day has been shown, in fact, to increase blood levels of antioxidants and, in turn, lower oxidized LDL cholesterol in people with elevated levels.11

People who ate pistachios, in particular, for 24 weeks even lost an average of 0.7 inches from their waists, reduced cholesterol by 15 points, improved their blood sugar, and lowered inflammation.12

They're definitely a healthy snack, but, like almonds, be careful not to overdo it due to their high protein content. One cup of pistachios has 26 grams of protein (contrast this to macadamia nuts which have about half that amount of protein in one cup).

6. Cherries

Cherries contain powerful antioxidants including quercetin, which is among the most potent in terms of antioxidant activity.13 Sweet cherries also contain fiber, vitamin C, carotenoids, and anthocyanins, each of which may help play a role in cancer prevention.

Further, cherries contain many anti-inflammatory compounds, and research suggests they may help to relieve pain from inflammatory osteoarthritis and gout. They even contain melatonin, which is a powerful antioxidant and free radical scavenger that helps "cool down" excess inflammation. It also plays an important role in sleep.

Keep in mind that cherries can be a significant source of fructose, as 10 sweet cherries or 1 cup of sour cherries contain about 4 grams of fructose. It's important to take this into account into your total fructose consumption for the day, which I recommend keeping below 25 grams. If you're insulin/leptin resistant, have diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or are overweight, you'd be wise to limit your total sugar/fructose intake to 15 grams per day, including from fruit, until your insulin/leptin resistance has resolved.

7. Mangoes

One mango will give you about half of your recommended daily allowance of both vitamins A and C, as well as some B vitamins, polyphenols and beta-carotene. Mangoes contain calcium, iron, and potassium, are a good source of phosphorus, selenium, folate, and zinc, and even contain 17 of the 20 amino acids that make up the human body. One mango contains about 30 grams of fructose, so they should be eaten in moderation.14 If you're looking for the best-tasting mangoes, choose those that come from a local grower or orchard.

8. Cheese

Cheese contains the powerful nutritional triad of calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin K2, which together channel calcium into your bones and teeth while keeping it out of your arteries. This, combined with its omega-3 fats, make cheese a very heart-healthy food. Cheese also contains high-quality protein and amino acids, vitamins and minerals (including zinc, phosphorus, vitamin A, and B vitamins), along with conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a powerful cancer fighter and metabolism booster.

Be sure you're choosing natural cheese, which is a simple fermented dairy product, made with nothing more than a few basic ingredients — milk, starter culture, salt, and an enzyme called rennet. Processed cheese is another product entirely. Ideally, the cheese you consume should be made from the raw milk of grass-fed animals raised on pasture, rather than grain-fed or soy-fed animals confined to feedlot stalls.

9. Avocados

Avocados are low in fructose and rich in healthy monounsaturated fat (which is easily burned for energy), and research has confirmed the avocado's ability to benefit vascular function and heart health.

Avocados are also very high in potassium (more than twice the amount found in a banana) and will help balance your vitally important potassium-to-sodium ratio. Avocados provide close to 20 essential health-boosting nutrients, including fiber, vitamin E, B-vitamins, and folic acid. Besides eating them raw, you can use avocado as a fat substitute in recipes calling for butter or other oils.

Research has also found that avocados are helpful for regulating your blood sugar levels,15 and they might help improve lipid profiles, both in healthy individuals and in those with mild hypercholesterolemia (elevated cholesterol levels).16 Plus, due to avocados' beneficial raw fat content, avocado enables your body to more efficiently absorb fat-soluble nutrients (such as alpha- and beta-carotene and lutein) in other foods eaten in conjunction.

One 2005 study found that adding avocado to salad allowed the volunteers to absorb three to five times more carotenoid antioxidant molecules.17 Another boon of avocados—they're one of the safest fruits you can buy conventionally grown, so you don't need to spend more for organic ones. Their thick skin protects the inner fruit from pesticides.

10. Popcorn

Popcorn is not the healthiest food out there… but if you're going to eat it, you'll definitely want to avoid the popular microwave varieties.

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is often used in microwave popcorn bags, and it has been linked to infertility and a slew of other health problems. For example, these "gender-bending" chemicals can disrupt your endocrine system and affect your sex hormones, but they've also been linked to thyroid disease, cancer, immune system problems, and increased LDL cholesterol levels.

Popping popcorn "from scratch" on the stove is a better alternative and gives you the option to salt and season to taste. I recommend using tasty and nutritious Himalayan pink salt instead of processed table salt. You can also use organic popping corn and a healthy oil like coconut oil -- and smother it with raw grass-fed organic butter.

11. Sweet Potatoes

Orange-colored sweet potatoes owe their appearance to the carotenoid beta-carotene. As an antioxidant, beta-carotene can help ward off free radicals that damage cells through oxidation, which can speed up aging and make you vulnerable against chronic diseases. This antioxidant can help support your immune system, as well as lower your risk of heart disease and cancer.

Research shows sweet potatoes can help regulate blood sugar because of their ability to raise blood levels of adiponectin, a protein hormone created by your fat cells, to help regulate how your body metabolizes insulin.

Sweet potato extract is said to help reduce inflammation in brain and nerve tissue throughout your body. The phytonutrients within sweet potatoes also influence fibrinogen, an important glycoprotein required for blood clotting. Together with thrombin and fibrin, balanced amounts of fibrinogen are important for wound healing and blood loss prevention.

12. Full-Fat Cream

Full-fat cream, particularly raw, organic, and grass-fed varieties, is a superfood for overall health and weight loss. In one study, women who consumed at least one serving of full-fat dairy a day gained 30 percent less weight over a nine-year period than women who ate only low-fat (or no) dairy products.18 Further, consuming 30 ml of cream daily reduced the risk of diabetes by 15 percent and 20 percent respectively, compared to those who ate none.19

In 2010, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine proposed that it's the palmitoleic acid, which occurs naturally in full-fat dairy products, that protects against insulin resistance and diabetes.20 People who consumed full-fat dairy had higher levels of trans-palmitoleate in their blood, and this translated to a two-thirds lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to people with lower levels. For a truly decadent treat, try splashing some raw grass-fed cream over a bowl full of berries.

13. Watermelon

Lycopene is a powerful carotenoid antioxidant that gives fruits and vegetables like a pink or red color. It's most often associated with tomatoes, but watermelon is actually a more concentrated source. Lycopene's antioxidant activity has long been suggested to be more powerful than that of other carotenoids, such as beta-carotene.

In one study, after controlling for other stroke risk factors, such as older age and diabetes, they found that men with the highest blood levels of lycopene were 55 percent less likely to have a stroke than those with the lowest.21

A 2014 meta-analysis also revealed that lycopene decreased stroke risk (including stroke occurrence or mortality) by more than 19 percent.22 In addition to lowering your risk of stroke, lycopene has been shown to have potential anti-cancer activity, likely due to its antioxidant properties.

A 2014 meta-analysis of 10 studies also showed that dietary lycopene may protect against the risk of ovarian cancer among postmenopausal women.23 There is also some evidence from animal studies that lycopene may help with cancer treatment as well.

Watermelon also contains anti-inflammatory cucurbitacin E, or triterpenoid, which blocks the activity of the pain and inflammation-causing enzyme cyclooxygenase – the same enzyme blocked by COX-2 inhibitors, which include most NSAID drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen. While being very low in calories (about 46 calories in a cup) watermelon also contains an impressive variety of other important nutrients in which many Americans are lacking, including:

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin B6
  • Potassium
  • Vitamin A
  • Magnesium

Finally, watermelon should be enjoyed in moderation due to its fructose content. One-sixteenth of a medium watermelon contains 11.3 grams of fructose. In addition, eating melon (including watermelon) alone is best to avoid stomach upset. For more information, watch my interview on food combining with Wayne Pickering.

A Healthy Diet Can Be Delicious!

It's time to bust the myth that eating healthy can't be full of flavors you crave. Foods that are grown in healthy soil and ripened naturally in the field are easily the most delicious foods on the planet – and the list above is only the tip of the iceberg.

For more ideas about how to eat a healthy diet that's also delicious, check out my optimized nutrition plan, which is packed with food choices that will not only satisfy your body's nutritional needs but your taste buds' needs as well.