50 of the World’s Healthiest Foods (and Drinks)

Everyone has a different idea about what "healthy food" means.

Read an article one day, and you'll hear the benefits of a plant-based diet.

The next? There will be a story about how low-carb can improve your health.

For many, this is understandably confusing.

However, one of the most critical factors to improve our health is to focus on nutrient-dense foods.

This article provides a list of the 50 healthiest foods in the world, across all categories.

Cacao

Although we often associate cacao with sweet chocolate bars, the real thing is one of the most nutrient-packed foods around.

1. Cacao/Cocoa Powder

Cacao (or cocoa) powder is incredibly nutritious, and per 100g it is particularly high in the following nutrients (1);

  • Manganese: 192% RDA
  • Copper: 189% RDA
  • Magnesium: 125% RDA
  • Iron: 77% RDA
  • Phosphorus: 73% RDA

As a result, a spoon or two goes a long way in regard to getting enough essential minerals.

Furthermore, a recent systematic review demonstrates that cocoa polyphenols improve blood flow, reduce blood pressure, and benefit neurological function as we age (2). 

Key Point: Unlike commercial chocolate, cocoa is sugar-free and very nutrient-dense. It is one of the healthiest foods around. 

2. Dark Chocolate

Let's be honest, your standard bar of Hershey or Cadbury isn't going to win any health awards.

However, that's not to say that chocolate bars can't be healthy. The key is to opt for a bar with high cocoa (and low-sugar) content.

Such bars offer much of the same benefits as 100% cocoa and providing you use sensible portion sizes, a tiny amount of sugar won't harm.

If you can, try to go for a bar that's around 85% cocoa or higher. If that is a little too bitter, then look at the 70% bars as a minimum.

Key Point: Dark chocolate is delicious, but it's also supportive of healthy eating. Just make sure to stay above 70% cocoa.

Cooking Oils and Condiments

While the rest of the categories on this list are all about nutrient-density, cooking oils and condiments is a little different.

For example, when using an oil for cooking, it's important that it is heat-stable, and that's the main concern here.

3. Butter

While butter isn't one of the most nutrient-dense foods, it does contain the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K (3).

It's also high in saturated fat and much safer for cooking than vegetable oils, which are prone to oxidation and very high in omega-6 (4, 5).

Along with ghee, butter is arguably the tastiest cooking fat too.

That said, it's better to treat butter as a condiment; use it for cooking or to add a bit of flavor to vegetables. 

If you're adding half a stick to your coffee every morning, then it may not be so good for your body.

Key Point: Using a pat of butter is a safe and delicious way to cook food.

4. Coconut Oil

First, it's probably better to ignore claims of coconut oil being a "superfood". 

In truth, there isn't such a thing - and there are far healthier foods than coconut oil anyway.

So, why is coconut oil on this list then?

Firstly, coconut oil is extremely high in saturated fat (the oil is around 90% saturated) (6). 

Since saturated fats are incredibly heat-stable, this makes coconut oil the best choice if you're cooking at high temperatures (7).

Key Point: Coconut oil is very resistant to oxidation, making it a healthy choice for high-heat cooking.

5. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra virgin olive oil is the most well-researched oil available. 

There is also a myth that we shouldn't use it for cooking, yet various studies disprove this belief. 

For instance, studies show that it is "clearly resistant" to oxidation - even during deep-frying conditions (8, 9).

One reason for this is that the monounsaturated fat oleic acid, the most significant fatty acid in olive oil, is very heat-stable (10).

In combination with the monounsaturated fat, extra virgin olive oil also contains a range of polyphenols. 

Notably, systematic reviews show that higher olive oil consumption reduces markers of inflammation, decreases type 2 diabetes risk, and has an inverse association with cancer prevalence (11, 12, 13).

Key Point: Extra virgin olive oil is probably the healthiest oil in the world.

6. Red Wine Vinegar

All vinegar contain a compound called acetic acid, and red wine vinegar is no exception.

Acetic acid has a number of benefits and these include;

  • Improving satiety levels through delaying "hunger hormones" such as ghrelin (14).
  • It has anti-hypertensive effects, and may reduce blood pressure (15).
  • Unpasteurized vinegar contain lots of beneficial bacteria from the fermentation process, and they may benefit digestive health (16).
  • Similar to red wine (the drink), red wine vinegar contains a wealth of polyphenols (17). 
  • Randomized controlled trials show that red wine vinegar reduces the blood-glucose response when consumed with a meal (18).

In addition to these health benefits, red wine vinegar also acts as a tenderizer and helps to improve the taste/texture of meat.

Key Point: Red wine vinegar is a healthy condiment that not only improves the taste of food, but also makes it better for you.

Dairy and Eggs

Dairy foods offer a wealth of nutrients, and they can be very tasty too. Here's a look at some of the best options.

7. Aged Cheese (Parmesan/Cheddar/Gouda)

Cheese is a type of fermented dairy that is one of the most nutritious foods around.

Per 100g, here are some of the major nutrients in cheddar cheese (19);

  • 24.9 g protein
  • Calcium: 72% RDA
  • Phosphorus: 51% RDA
  • Vitamin B2: 22% RDA
  • Zinc: 21% RDA
  • Selenium; 20% RDA
  • Vitamin A: 20% RDA

Cheese fermented for longer than six months, generally defined as "aged cheese", has some unique benefits too.

For one thing, people with lactose intolerance/sensitivities can generally eat it.

Also, these cheeses tend to be high in vitamin K2.

Aged cheese includes varieties like gouda, gruyere, parmesan, mature/vintage cheddar, and manchego.

Key Point: Cheese has many benefits, particularly when it has a longer fermentation period. It's also one of the tastiest foods in the world.

8. Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese may not be one of the most popular type of dairy, but it's definitely a cheap healthy food.

The main selling point for this one is that it offers a decent source of protein with very few calories.

For example, 100g of cottage cheese provides around 12 grams of protein and only 86 calories (20).

As a result, it's an excellent option for anyone looking to increase their protein intake without eating substantially more food.

Like all dairy, cottage cheese is also high in calcium, phosphorus, and the B vitamins.

Key Point: Cottage cheese is a low-cost, high-protein dairy food that is very low in calories. It also contains a range of essential vitamins and minerals.

9. Eggs

It's hard to believe now, but dietary guidelines used to call for a limit of three eggs per week.  

The reason for this was a misplaced fear due to the high cholesterol content of eggs. However, times move on and these warnings were dropped long ago. 

As of 2015, the dietary guidelines for Americans state that dietary cholesterol "is not a nutrient of concern for over-consumption" (21).

In fact, there's no doubt that eggs are one of the healthiest foods on earth.

They are almost like a food version of a multi-vitamin since they contain the majority of essential vitamins and minerals.

Added to that, they're a highly bioavailable source of protein and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin (22, 23).

Key Point: Eggs are one of the best foods to eat for your health, and they make a delicious and healthy breakfast.

10. Yogurt

Yogurt brings all the benefits of milk to the table, but it also provides probiotic bacteria too.

Study after study demonstrates that yogurt has a beneficial impact on our health, making it one of the best foods for a healthy diet;

  • Systematic reviews of randomized trials show that yogurt has a favorable or neutral effect on metabolic syndrome risk markers (24).
  • A meta-analysis of 9 cohort studies, involving 291,236 participants, suggests that higher consumption of yogurt lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease (25).
  • A randomized, double-blind trial analyzed the effect of daily probiotic yogurt consumption on the health of children. This particular study had 76 children receiving the probiotic yogurt and 73 getting a placebo. Interestingly, the probiotic yogurt group had "significantly reduced days of fever, and an improved social and school functioning" (26).

Key Point: Yogurt is one of the healthiest things you can eat. Just make sure to go for the plain stuff rather than sugar-laden flavored yogurts.

11. Whole Milk

Milk is loaded with protein, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D, and a range of B vitamins (27).

One thing to be aware of is that whole milk is so much better for you than reduced fat/skim varieties.

For one thing, when you remove the fat from milk you also take away many of the natural fat-soluble vitamins. As a result, skim milk contains synthetic vitamins to replace the natural ones that have been lost (28).

Furthermore, studies show that whole milk associates with a lower risk of diabetes and related problems, whereas low-fat milk does not (29).

Key Point: Milk is a refreshing, nutritious drink that's full of nutrients. However, make sure to opt for the real stuff (whole) rather than low-fat versions - science suggests it's better for us.

Drinks

This section takes a look at some drinks with research-proven health benefits.

12. Coffee

Coffee is one of the most popular drinks, and it seems to be growing in popularity every year. 

This fact isn't surprising when you consider it has proven benefits for our energy levels, focus, and even mood (30).

Additionally, systematic reviews link coffee consumption with a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease and dementia (31, 32).

It is theorized that one of the reasons for this could be coffee's phytonutrient content. 

Coffee is one of the biggest suppliers of these compounds in the world, and it contains far more than any fruit or vegetable.

Key Point: Coffee is a slightly-bitter (but delicious) drink that is extremely popular. It is potentially the healthiest drink in the world.

13. Green Tea

People in Japan may well contest claims of coffee being the healthiest drink.

In the Eastern part of the world, green tea still dominates, with consumption levels much higher than coffee.

Green tea also has a wealth of evidence behind it, and the data clearly shows that it has some very positive impacts.

Markedly, nearly every study looking at green tea and cardiovascular disease imply a decreased risk (33).

Clinical trials support this association too, with numerous studies demonstrating that green tea consumption lowers blood-glucose levels and blood pressure, both of which are cardiovascular risk factors (34, 35).

Key Point: Green tea is an extremely nutritious drink that has a wealth of health benefits.

14. Red Wine

Alcohol?

Well, yes... there is a fair amount of evidence suggesting that red wine has some interesting health benefits.

If you are a drinker, then red wine is a reasonably healthy drink in moderation, and much better than sugary mixer drinks.

A couple of reasons for this are that red wine is one of the richest suppliers of health-supportive polyphenols. Surprisingly, moderate red wine consumption also raises HDL (the so-called "good" cholesterol) by an average 11-16% (36, 37).

Both epidemiology and clinical trials support the notion that red wine may protect against several chronic diseases (38).

Overall, alcohol is a "two-sided coin" and light-to-moderate red wine consumption appear to be healthy.

However, there is a 'U' shaped curve in relation to health benefits, and high alcohol consumption is very bad for health.