Free foods — those you can eat in unlimited quantities to stay lean and healthy — are pretty rare among nutritionists.
I’d love to say pinot noir or almond butter are all-you-can-eat indulgences, but they actually fall under dose-dependent categories, meaning a little bit can be healthy but too much creates the reverse effect.
Sure, I can think of plenty “free” contenders like wild salmon, but really, how much wild salmon would someone eat? Others, like barnyard eggs, can be healthy, but eating them frequently can create food intolerances.
Then we have “don’t go there” foods, including artificial sweeteners and high-sugar impact, processed, and fructose-heavy foods.
Others become divisive. Fruit — mostly sweetened with fructose, the most metabolically damaging sugar — may not be the “free” food some experts believe, and can create problems when you overeat it.
Really, put a dozen nutritionists in a room and we’re apt to agree about very little. We’d probably bicker about whether certain foods become “free.” I can practically guarantee, though, everyone will be on board with one “free” food: non-starchy veggies.
As their name implies, non-starchy vegetables don’t contain much starch. They’re usually lower in sugar and higher in ﬁber than starchy vegetables, and many of them are green and juicy.
You can eat more non-starchy vegetables and get fewer carbohydrates (and calories) than when you eat fruits, whole grains, or starchy vegetables. That results in less of an impact on your blood sugar, insulin, and, ultimately, your weight.
Essentially, non-starchy vegetables become the ultimate “free” food. “I sat down and couldn’t stop eating sautéed spinach,” said no one ever.
At the same time, I understand how the vegetable discussion becomes boring. You’re probably not getting excited thinking about steamed cabbage. Yet with a little creativity, you can transform “free” veggies into something amazingly delicious and yes, even decadent. Here are five ideas to do that.
- Brussels sprouts. While I love eating this popular cruciferous vegetable whole with a little ghee and sea salt, my new favorite involves steaming shredded Brussels sprouts with a little coconut oil and nitrate-free bacon. However you prepare them, they’re nutrient rock stars. “When it comes to nutrients, Brussels sprouts earn an A+,” writes Rachel Levine. “Containing sulforaphane (hello anti-cancer properties), vitamin C (goodbye oxidative stress), plus good sources of dietary fiber, vitamin A, folate, potassium and manganese, whether you’re eating this dish for breakfast or as a main meal side, know you’re starting off on the right foot.”
- Kale. Like your favorite once-hot leading actor who now struggles for B roles, a few years ago kale was hailed as the new superfood. Maybe we got a little too heated, but Drew Ramsey calls kale “a delicious green snack filled with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and plant-based antioxidants.” Kale proves fabulous steamed or raw, but as chips this vegetable really becomes the ultimate guilt-free, decadent, kid-friendly “free” food. Yes, buying them becomes easier but harder on your wallet. Rebecca Orchant says kale chips “are actually so unfathomably easy to make, so quickly customized, so effortlessly perfected, that if you allow someone to charge you $8.00 for a 4oz. box of them, you have taken leave of your senses.”
- Spaghetti squash. Seeing this gargantuan vegetable whole, you would never guess what its insides contain. “Don’t be fooled by its customary squash-like outward appearance: Once cooked, it turns into little pasta-shaped strands of squash (hence, the name),” writes Julie R. Thomson. “It’s this divine noodle quality that makes spaghetti squash recipes just a little more fun than other squash dishes.” Nobody will mistake it for regular pasta, but spaghetti squash provides way more nutrients for fewer calories, is incredibly easy to make, and tossed with some low-sugar impact marinara sauce, can become the perfect substitute for your pasta-craving family.
- Spiralized zucchini. This nutrient-loaded, odd-shaped summer squash makes a perfect side sliced and sautéed. Become a little more creative, though, and zucchini can take the main stage as a pasta dish. “Zucchini noodles, or zoodles… make for fabulous lightened-up versions of your favorite pasta dishes,” write Kate Bratskeir and Eva Hill. “A kitchen tool dubbed ‘The Spiralizer’ allows the transformation from zucchini to noodle to be a seamless one: Just secure the vegetable and crank the tool’s handle and zoodles you will make.”
- Faux-tatoes. “A cup of cauliflower is ridiculously low in calories, and contains 3 g of fiber as well as over 50 mg of vitamin C, 176 mg of potassium, and 55 mcg of folate,” writes Dr. Jonny Bowden in The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. This cruciferous veggie’s real claim to fame, he notes, comes from a substituting cauliflower for potatoes with what we call “faux-tatoes.” “With a little butter, lemon, and sea salt, it is beyond delicious,” he says. You won’t fool anyone serving these as a side, but you can rest easy knowing they’re a nutrient-richer, higher-fiber mashed potato substitute.
What food besides non-starchy vegetables you would classify as a “free” food? Do you have another idea to transform veggies into decadent, delicious sides or main dishes? Share your thoughts below.
Jonny Bowden, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth (Massachusetts: Fair Wind, 2007).