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Health-Food Fight: The Healthiest Buys at the Grocery Store

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Food Face-Off

Turkey Burger vs. Veggie Burger

The winner: Veggie burger
When made with ground breast meat, turkey burgers can be a lean source of protein. The reality? Premade patties are usually a blend of white and dark meat, so they can have five times the fat and up to 20 times more cholesterol than meat-free versions. "Veggie burgers also have about four grams of fiber and half the calories — around 100," says Lori Lieberman, RD, a dietitian in South Weymouth, Massachusetts. They can be high in sodium, however, so choose a brand with 300 milligrams or fewer.

Agave vs. Honey

The winner: It's a tie.
"Agave syrup and honey both have 64 calories, about 16 grams of carbs, and between 14 and 17 grams of sugar per tablespoon," says Elizabeth DeRobertis, RD, the founder of the Nutrition Center at Scarsdale Medical Group in Harrison, New York. The kind of sugar, however, differs: Agave has a higher percentage of fructose to glucose, so it raises your blood sugar more slowly but may also trick your brain into thinking your stomach isn't as full as it actually is. More research needs to be done before experts can recommend one over the other; in the meantime, use the sweetener you think tastes better, but only in moderation. "The best way to sweeten yogurt or even baked goods is with whole or pureed fruit, as it contains fiber and nutrients that concentrated sweeteners don't," DeRobertis says.

Potatoes vs. Sweet Potatoes

The winner: Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes have about the same amount of fiber (four grams) as potatoes but 60 fewer calories. Where they really shine is in the vitamin A department: One sweet potato delivers 438 percent of your daily value, while a single spud serves up none. They also provide a third more vitamin C, which — surprise! — could help you score flat abs. "When your body's level of the stress hormone cortisol is chronically elevated, excess fat gets relocated to your abdominal area," says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, the author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies. "Vitamin C helps lower cortisol levels."

Instant Oatmeal vs. Steel-Cut Oats

The winner: Steel-cut oats
While both types of oats are good sources of cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber, "the instant kind are rolled out and steamed before being packaged to make them cook faster," says Julie Kaye, RD, a dietitian in New York City. Steel-cut oats, however, are the whole oat groat (picture a grain about the size of barley) cut into two or three pieces. Because they're less processed, they take more time to digest, which means they keep your blood sugar steady and help you feel full for up to three hours — twice as long as instant oats do.

More Food Fights

Butter vs. Buttery Spread

The winner: Butter
Each toast topper has about 100 calories and 11 grams of fat per tablespoon. But most buttery spreads (a trendy term for margarine) are made with partially hydrogenated oil, a type of trans fat that can raise your bad cholesterol level and lower your good one, Palinski-Wade warns. Butter does contain more saturated fat, but new research suggests it may not be as bad for your heart as previously believed, especially in small amounts.

Brown Rice vs. Quinoa

The winner: Quinoa
All whole grains have fiber, but quinoa is also loaded with eight grams of protein per cup, says Julie McGinnis, RD, a dietitian in Boulder, Colorado. What's more, the protein is the complete kind — typically found in animal sources like meat and eggs — meaning that it contains all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs to repair cells and make new ones. And quinoa takes just 20 minutes to cook, compared with up to 50 for brown rice.

Frozen Yogurt vs. Soft-Serve Ice Cream

The winner: Frozen yogurt
"Most frozen yogurt contains probiotics, the good-for-your gut bacteria found in regular yogurt that help keep your digestive system in check," Kaye says. (To be sure, look for the words live and active cultures on the chain's menu or website.) Surprisingly, both desserts have around 18 grams of sugar, but soft-serve has about 11 grams of fat and nearly 200 calories per half cup, whereas frozen yogurt packs about 115 calories and is often fat-free. To keep yourself from going overboard at self-serve fro-yo chains, hold the dispenser down for no more than five seconds.

Potato Chips vs. Tortilla Chips

The winner: Potato chips
Though potato chips are often considered off-limits, Palinski-Wade likes that they tend to be made with just three ingredients: potatoes, oil, and salt. You can say the same for tortilla chips, but many also include refined flour and even sugar, nutritional duds that can cause your blood sugar to spike. Opt for baked potato chips or the reduced-fat type, which are flash-fried so the oil has less time to soak in. Avoid those labeled "crisps," because they're usually made with potato flakes instead of whole potatoes.

Hummus vs. Guacamole

The winner: Guacamole
The main ingredient in these dips — chickpeas and avocado — both contain fiber, but avocados are also a good source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and potassium, "which have been shown to stabilize stress levels and lower blood pressure," Palinski-Wade says. "Plus, studies have linked monounsaturated fats with a decrease in belly fat." Just stick to a two-tablespoon serving of guac and pair it with baby carrots or bell pepper strips instead of chips to keep the calorie count in check.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, January 2014.