TIME Diet/Nutrition

9 Sandwich Ingredients That Are Healthy—Or Super Bad For You

sandwich
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When I talk to my clients about their favorite meals, many will say, “Well, I love a good sandwich.” I get it. There’s just something very satisfying about picking up your lunch with both hands and biting in. But from a nutritionist’s point of view, a sandwich can either be a well rounded combo of nutrient-rich ingredients, or a downright dietary disaster.

Here are nine of the best and worst fillings to consider, along with a few tips to prevent sandwich calorie overkill.

BEST: Avocado

In addition to heart-healthy fats, which have been shown to slash “bad” LDL cholesterol and up “good” HDL levels, avocados provide anti-aging, disease fighting antioxidants and nearly 20 different vitamins and minerals, which is likely why one recent study found that avocado eaters have higher intakes of fiber, vitamins E and K, magnesium and potassium. And here’s the surprising part—regular avocado eaters weigh less and have smaller waists, even without eating fewer calories. Bonus: adding avocado to a sandwich with veggies will boost the absorption of antioxidants by up to 13 times.

Health.com: A Guide to Choosing Healthy Fats

BEST: Hummus

Using two tablespoons of hummus rather than one of mayo as your sandwich spread provides the same number of calories for double the portion, along with bonus nutrients, including plant-based protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. To add even more flavor and color to your meal, reach for hummus prepped with veggie add-ins like roasted red peppers, or sundried tomatoes.

BEST: Basil

In addition to being aromatic and delicious, fresh basil has potent anti-inflammatory effects, a boon for health since inflammation is a known trigger of premature aging and chronic diseases, including obesity. It’s also rich in immune-supporting vitamin A, and its natural anti-bacterial properties have been shown to fight Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli.

Health.com: 14 Foods That Fight Inflammation

BEST: Onions

In addition to fighting inflammation, onions help fight heart disease by protecting blood vessels and reducing cholesterol. Natural compounds in onions have also been shown to boost bone density, bolster immune defenses, balance blood sugar, and ward off chronic diseases, including cancer. Fresh red and sautéed yellow onions are my favorite sandwich additions, but choose any type you like to reap the benefits.

BEST: Vinegar

This lip-puckering condiment is low in calories (usually no more than 15 per tablespoon), packs antioxidants, and its main component, acetic acid, has been shown in research to help control blood pressure and blood-sugar levels while curbing fat accumulation. Sprinkling it on a sandwich may also be a savvy weight-control strategy. One study, published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, found that adding vinegar to meals can help naturally curb calorie intake for the remainder of the day. The effect shaved off 200 to 275 calories, the amount burned in a 30-minute elliptical session. Go for balsamic, red wine, champagne—any type you like to add a nutritious layer of flavor.

Health.com: 12 Foods That Control Your Appetite

WORST: White bread

A recent Spanish study that tracked the eating habits and weights of more than 9,000 people found that those who ate only white bread and downed two or more portions a day were 40% more likely to become overweight or obese over a five-year period, compared to those who ate less than one portion of white bread a week. This study backs other research to support the notion that if you eat bread, consuming a 100% whole-grain version is the best choice for curbing obesity risk, and fending off a number of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. Make the switch, or opt for a breadless sandwich instead (see below).

WORST: Processed meat

Processed meats like pastrami, salami, and pepperoni, are meats that aren’t simply cuts of an animal’s muscle (such as chicken breast), but rather meats processed with additives and preservatives. These items are generally higher in calories, fat, and sodium—for example, 3 ounces of fresh cooked chicken breast contains about 90 calories, 1 gram of fat, 50 mg of sodium, and 20 grams of protein. One ounce of pepperoni, on the other hand, has 130 calories, 11 grams of fat, 480 mg of sodium, and 6 grams of protein. In addition, in a large scale study which involved 10 countries and almost half a million men and women, European researchers concluded that there is a solid link between the consumption of processed meats and heart disease as well as cancer. In addition, the risk of death from all causes rose along with the intake of processed meats.

WORST: Ranch Dressing

In addition to less than stellar ingredients like sugar, artificial color, and preservatives, a two-tablespoon portion of this popular sandwich dressing packs 130 calories and nearly 400 mg of sodium (of the recommended daily cap of 1,500 to 2,300 mg). If you love the texture and tanginess, whip up a cleaner version made with nonfat organic plain yogurt, seasoned with a touch of Dijon, lemon juice, minced garlic, black pepper, and Italian herbs.

WORST: Imitation cheese

Perhaps the name gives it away, but imitation cheese is on my “yikes!” list. A quick scan of the ingredient list will likely reveal additives such as corn syrup, sugar, salt, and preservatives, and a two tablespoon portion packs about 100 calories and 500 mg of sodium (one tablespoon is about the size of your thumb, from where it bends to the tip). If you really need some cheese, keep it all natural, or opt for a creamy plant-based alternative instead like guacamole.

Health.com: 11 Reasons Why You’re Not Losing Belly Fat

The more tips for preventing sandwich calorie overkill:

  1. Go open-faced: a smart way to immediately slash carbs in half without giving up the heartiness of bread.
  1. Opt for veggies instead: if you’re not a huge bread fan, wrap your sandwich fillings in outer Romaine leaves instead (so great if you have a “crunch” tooth!).
  1. Swap your starchy sides: if you do include bread, trade more carb-laden accompaniments (like chips, pretzels, crackers) for a side salad, or something like chopped or shredded veggies dressed in balsamic vinaigrette.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

3 Ways to Kick Your White-Bread Habit

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There are many strategies for avoiding white bread Angela Wyant—Getty Images

Some of my clients wouldn’t touch white bread, rice, or pasta with a 10-foot pole, while others just can’t seem to make the switch to whole-grain alternatives. For the latter group, it’s either because they’re so accustomed to the flavor or texture of refined grains, or because they’ve had a bad experience with healthier options.

For example, one of my pro athlete clients recently told me that whole-grain pasta tastes like sticky cardboard mixed with glue, a pretty vivid and unappetizing description! But it turns out, the pasta he tried was way overcooked and unseasoned. If, like him, you’re reluctant to try again, I encourage you to give it another go, because racking up more nutrients isn’t the only benefit.

Health.com:16 Whole Grains You Need to Try

A recent Spanish study that tracked the eating habits and weights of more than 9,000 people found that those who ate only white bread and downed two or more portions a day were 40% more likely to become overweight or obese over a five-year period, compared to those who ate less than one portion of white bread a week. While the study didn’t include rice or pasta, other research backs the notion that consuming whole-grain versions curbs obesity risk, and protects against a number of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers.

Try these three tricks to reap the benefits of whole grains without feeling like you’re choking down cardboard. You may never crave the pale stuff again!

Health.com:The 20 Healthiest Breakfast Foods

Spruce up with spreads

A hearty whole-grain bread can overpower the flavor of sandwich fillings. To balance it out, slather on a plant-based spread or two, including hummus, olive tapenade, pesto (like sun-dried tomato, roasted red pepper, artichoke, or eggplant), tahini, ripe avocado, or guacamole. In addition to being delicious, these spreads add heart-healthy fat and boost your antioxidant intake. To prevent carb overkill (and an overly grainy texture), opt for an open-faced sandwich, or use crisp Romaine leaves as the top layer so you can still pick it up with both hands and bite in.

Become season-savvy

Nearly everyone who’s told me they don’t like brown rice or other cooked whole grains like quinoa tried them plain—and a little seasoning can make a huge difference. One of the simplest ways to add both flavor and moisture is to quickly sauté cooked grains in organic low sodium vegetable broth along with herbs and spices. There are dozen of options, but some of my favorite combos include: minced garlic with fresh grated ginger and crushed red pepper; garlic with fresh cilantro and fresh squeezed lime juice; or garlic with fresh squeezed lemon juice, black pepper, and Italian herb seasoning. In addition to serving them hot, seasoned whole grains can also be chilled. Either way, try tossing them with chopped or shredded veggies, lean protein, and a good-for-you fat, like extra virgin olive oil, chopped nuts, or minced avocado.

Health.com:16 Ways to Lose Weight Fast

Think al dente

These days there are a wide variety of whole-grain pasta options, including whole wheat, or gluten-free choices, like brown rice pasta, quinoa pasta, and noodles made from black beans and buckwheat. But when it’s overcooked, any pasta can lose its appeal. Whole-grain versions do take a little bit longer to cook than white pasta, but the difference is generally only a few minutes, much less than most people think. So start checking it right away, and turn off the heat when the pasta is still firm to best preserve the texture.

Health.com:31 Superfood Secrets for a Long and Healthy Life

Like bread and rice, whole grain or white pasta alternatives taste best when paired with robust sauces, so let your culinary creativity run wild. Try healthy add-ins with bold flavors like Kalamata olives, capers, wild mushrooms, and caramelized onions, or stir in a little balsamic vinegar or harissa seasoning. Or forgo pasta sauce in favor of a dollop of one of the spreads I mentioned above, like sun-dried tomato or eggplant pesto. Hot or chilled, the right combination may just win you over!

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor. Frequently seen on national TV, she privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. She’s also the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Nutrition

Read This Before Grocery Shopping

Woman food shopping
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“I sat in the parking lot, ripped open the bag of M&M’s and gobbled them as fast as I could,” one of my clients recently told me. She had gone to the supermarket right after she left work, upset about an e-mail a colleague had sent, and drowned her despair in candy.

No matter what kind of day you’re having, though, the truth is that every time you walk into a food store, you’re toting emotional baggage with you. Add to that the sights and smells of tempting foods and the allure of free samples and calculated displays, and you’re SUI: shopping under the influence.

But there are proven ways to prevent stress, anxiety and fatigue from taking over. This is what to do the next time you’re behind the wheels of a grocery cart.

Health.com: 24 Food Swaps That Slash Calories

The situation: You’re Having a Fat Day

You saw an unflattering picture of yourself on Facebook (thank you, “friend,” for tagging me in that puffy-coat photo). And now, even if you haven’t gained an ounce, you’re feeling down about your body. That can kill your motivation to avoid fattening foods, because you figure you might as well eat whatever you want.

Your in-store strategy

One of my favorite snap-out-of-it tactics is to give your healthy body props. That may sound dippy, but it forces you to take stock of all the great things it lets you do—dance, push through a workout, hug the people you love. Focusing on positive, active stuff reminds you why you want to eat right in the first place. Distraction can also do the trick. Some clients pop in earbuds and listen to a feel-good song when the fat talk starts.

The situation: Post-Exercise Entitlement

You walk past the sweets section and see a frosted brownie with your name written all over it. You think, I worked out three times this week—I deserve it!

Your in-store strategy

When you’re about to claim your reward at the bakery counter, stop in your tracks and visualize all that energy and sweat you put into spin class. Tell yourself, I just worked off hundreds of calories—do I want to blow it all on a brownie? It’s good to have a tool like the MyFitnessPal app, where you can track the number of calories you burn daily. Stick with my 50 percent rule: Allow yourself up to half the number of calories you burned as a treat, and only on the days you’ve worked out. So if the treadmill shows you burned 350 calories, go for a goodie that’s no more than 175 calories, like three individually wrapped squares of dark chocolate.

Health.com:25 Fattening Foods You Should Never Eat

The situation: Mom Guilt

You’ve been putting in late nights for work or side projects. As you whiz through the supermarket aisles, you spy your kids’ all-time favorite sandwich cookies. It will make them so happy if you surprise them, so you grab a package. Then you toss in the sugary cereal. And the potato chips. Later in the week, you’re digging into the bags yourself.

Your in-store strategy

It’s impossible to rule out food as a token of affection—there’s a reason boxed chocolates were invented. So show your family (and your waistline) the love with just one favorite nosh. Maybe this week it’s the sugary cereal and next week it’s all about the cheese puffs. Just be sure to balance it out by picking up healthier favorites, like grapes or pre-portioned hummus packs.

Health.com:31 Superfood Secrets for a Long and Healthy Life

The situation: You’re Reeling From a Bad Day

Whatever happened—your car broke down, you found out your house needs a new roof—you’re frazzled. You fill your cart with ingredients for some comforting standby, like your mom’s mac and cheese, cheese, cheese.

Your in-store strategy

Promise yourself a chill-out treat for when you get home, like a new book for your Kindle or a DIY facial. You want to soothe yourself without resorting to caloric comfort (an excellent food strategy in general). Having something to look forward to can propel you past temptation. If you’re really on the verge, head to the prepared-food section, where you’ll find healthy choices such as precooked salmon or kale salad. You can always grab what you need for that night and do a bigger shopping trip later, when your willpower is stronger.

Health.com:19 Foods That Boost Health and Happiness

The situation: You’re in a Rut

Let’s face it: Sometimes life feels boring and your only chance to get your thrills is your weekly trip to the grocery store (Italian deli meat! Imported beer! Macaroons!). While trying different foods is a great way to spice things up, it may not do your diet any favors.

Your in-store strategy

Have fun with healthier exotic fare. You’ve probably walked by rambutan (a spiny Malaysian fruit with a sweet, tangy inside) and sumac (a fragrant Middle Eastern spice) dozens of times without noticing them. Also look for cashew butter to spread on dates or dried figs, or interesting grains like red quinoa. They’ll add flavor to your life—the kind that won’t pack on pounds.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.

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