The 20 Healthiest Foods to Eat in Every Food Group

Updated: Apr. 27, 2021

When eating clean is your goal, these are the nutritional superstars you'll want to put on your menu week after week.


Grain: Oats

When in doubt, always go for whole grains. Oats fit the bill perfectly. They’re packed with beta glucan, a type of soluble fiber that helps keep your cholesterol in check, according to Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, founder of Plus, you can use them to bulk up recipes, like meatballs and meatloaf, to save a few calories. Go for steel cut, slow cooking, or (unsweetened) instant—whatever you prefer. They all deliver on fiber and you’ll eat more of what your schedule allows and you enjoy. These are the tasty oatmeal toppers you haven’t thought to try.


Grain: Quinoa

It has a rep as a superfood because, hey, it is a superfood, says Retelny. “Quinoa offers complex carbs and a complete protein source, which you don’t typically get from grains,” she says. (It’s actually a seed but many people lump it into the grain category.) In fact, one cup of quinoa offers 8 grams of protein. Make it into a main meal by tossing in your favorite veggies or cook into a hot cereal to change things up for breakfast. Check out these creative quinoa recipes you’ll want to make tonight.


Grain: Amaranth

Okay, we just said that a complete protein source is hard to find in grains, but enter another: amaranth. The gluten-free ancient seed is one that you probably don’t have in your rotation, but you should give it a whirl. One cup packs 9 grams of protein, plus 5 grams of fiber (20 percent of your daily need), and caps it all off with nearly one-third of the iron women under age 50 need in a day. (Over 50? It supplies over 60 percent of the RDA). Cook it like a warm breakfast cereal or stir into roasted veggies for a warm side dish.


Grain: Barley

If the only time you have this is in beef and barley soup, it’s time to rethink that. Barley contains inulin and resistant starch, two carbohydrates that have been found to impact gut hormones that affect appetite and blood sugar regulation, per research in the British Journal of Nutrition. Barley is also on our list of healthy foods that are way more nutritious than you realized.


Grain: Brown rice

White rice has been shown to raise diabetes risk, but replacing white with brown rice dropped diabetes risk by 16 percent, according to Harvard research. Compared to white, brown rice elicits a lower blood sugar response, plus it contains more fiber (particularly insoluble fiber), not to mention vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds that may guard against diabetes.


Fruits + veggies: Blueberries

And make them wild blueberries while you’re at it. “These smaller blueberries contain two times the antioxidants compared to regular,” says Retelny. If they’re hard to find fresh in your store, no worries—often a better option is buying them frozen. “Many times, they’re higher in nutritional value because they’re flash frozen immediately after harvest,” she says. One cup of frozen blueberries contains 120 calories. Get these amazing health benefits when you add blueberries to your cereal.


Fruits + veggies: Apples

Don’t knock the humble apple. Apples come packed with soluble fiber, which, in addition to having cholesterol benefits, can help fill you up, says Retelny. In fact, a study in the journal Appetite found that eating an apple 15 minutes before lunch helped people eat about 187 fewer calories compared to a control group. Besides, they’re really portable, so you can just throw them in your bag to prepare for when hunger strikes. These are the best ways to eat apples for ridiculous health benefits.


Fruits + veggies: Tomatoes

Their red hue gives a big clue about their health status, as they’re bursting with the antioxidant lycopene. Eating foods rich in the antioxidant is a smart move. In a 2012 study in the journal Neurology, men who had the highest levels of lycopene in their blood had a 55 percent lower odds of stroke compared to those with the lowest blood levels. Glob on the tomato sauce, folks. Check out the smartest ways to eat tomatoes and your other favorite healthy foods.


Fruits + veggies: Leafy greens

Namely kale and spinach. “These greens are so beneficial for cognitive health,” says Retelny. “Research on brain health shows they can help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s.” Besides, they provide a low-cal base that fills you up. Don’t just save them for salads; toss them wherever you can—into an egg scramble, a smoothie, soups, stews, you name it. Here are five more great reasons to eat more kale today.


Fruits + veggies: Brussels sprouts

Any veggie in the cruciferous family, including broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts are top choices. These veggies pack in fiber and compounds called glucosinolates that have been linked to cancer prevention, says Retelny. Squeezing them into your diet may help guard against prostate, colorectal, and lung cancer, reports the National Cancer Institute. Read the uplifting truth about cancer statistics.


Protein: Red Kidney Beans

Truth: Any bean you eat is a winner. That’s because this legume provides a nutritious combo of carbs, protein, and fill-you-up fiber. (A half-cup packs about one-third of what women should eat daily.) Beans with colorful skins, like red kidney beans or black beans, deliver more antioxidants, as well, says Retelny. Try these beans that meet your protein needs.


Protein: Pistachios

The USDA’s MyPlate considers nuts part of the protein group. Retelny’s go-to nut is the pistachio. With its green-purple color, the shelled nuts are unique in that they contain polyphenols like lutein and zeaxanthin, both antioxidants essential for eye and cell health. Besides, they’re a great mindful snack; having to crack each shell helps you slow down. Thirty of these bad boys pack in just 100 calories. Did you know that nuts are powerful disease-fighters?


Protein: Walnuts

In your quest to get more omega-3 fatty acids, don’t forget about walnuts, says Retelny. “Walnuts stand out for their polyunsaturated fats that are really beneficial for heart and brain health,” she says. Preliminary evidence also shows that daily consumption can improve your cholesterol levels. Aim for 14 halves, which is one serving, advises Retelny. Check out these other walnut benefits you should know.


Protein: Eggs

The humble egg packs in 18 vitamins and minerals, including zinc, selenium, and vitamin E, nutrients many people tend to be lacking in their diet, suggests research in 2015 in the journal Nutrients. What’s more, they can aid weight loss when consumed at breakfast (thanks to their 6 grams of satiating protein per egg). Don’t be afraid of the yolks: Eaten in moderation, they haven’t been found to raise heart disease or stroke risk, per BMJ research. These recipes for eggs go beyond breakfast.


Protein: Salmon

Fatty fish in particular are an especially good source of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that’s linked with cognitive health. In a study published in the journal Neurology in 2016, eating seafood once per week helped preserve certain elements of memory. In addition, people who carry the gene that increases risk for Alzheimer’s also suffered less cognitive decline. Other top omega 3-packed options: sardines, tuna, and mackerel.


Dairy: Kefir

This tart, fermented drink is a cross between milk and yogurt, and one that Retelny recommends to her clients. It’s practically bursting with probiotics thanks to the live, active bacteria. Probiotics can help maintain a healthy gut and immune system, research shows. Kefir can also boost digestion and help control your blood sugar and cholesterol, according to 2017 research in Nutrition Research Reviews. Here are more amazing foods that boost good gut bacteria.


Dairy: Greek yogurt

No surprise here. One cup of the thick yogurt packs more than 20 grams of muscle-building protein, compared to 10 grams in traditional versions. Retelny recommends always buying plain yogurt as an easy way to cut down on added sugar in your diet. Add fruit or cinnamon to sweeten it yourself, and try these other tasty toppers.

cottage cheese
Irina Burakova/Shutterstock

Dairy: Cottage cheese

Like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese is a winner in the protein department, racking in 24 grams per cup. In addition, many brands add probiotic cultures, like acidophilus and bifidus. Count this as another way to get in your daily dose of belly-happy bacteria. Want to know more slam-dunk probiotic sources? Check them out.


Dairy: Soy milk

Yep, it’s considered a dairy product, per the USDA. That’s because fortified soy milk contains about one-third of the calcium and vitamin D you need in a day. It’s also the only nondairy milk that packs the same amount of protein as cow’s, providing 7 grams per cup. Concerns that it may raise risk of cancer are unfounded, and in fact, soy’s phytochemicals may actually fight it, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.


Dairy: Aged cheese

Don’t be afraid of a little cheese. In a small preliminary study by Italian researchers in 2016, an aged cheese called grana padano was found to help lower blood pressure. People who ate about an ounce per day for two months reduced their systolic and diastolic blood pressure compared to a placebo group. The cheese contains two proteins that work in the body similarly to ACE-inhibitor medications.


Fats and oils: Grapeseed oil

Often overlooked in favor of trendier oils (like avocado and coconut, which are still good for you), this is one Retelny recommends on the regular. “Use it for your cooking because it has a higher smoke point, meaning it won’t oxidize like other oils and create free radicals,” she says. Plus, grapeseed oil is made up of mainly unsaturated fats, making it a heart-smart choice. Check out these heart-healthy recipes cardiologists cook for themselves.


Fats and oils: Olive oil

One reason the Mediterranean Diet continually stands out for its disease-fighting abilities? Olive oil. In fact, a 2014 study in BMC Medicine showed that eating less than one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil daily can drop heart disease risk by 10 percent. Learn about more lifestyle habits that prevent heart disease.