Earlier this summer, I gave a 10-minute Lightning Talk at work called “Crash Diets No More: A Sustainable Approach to Health and Nutrition.”
After years of struggling with what (and how much) to eat to stay healthy, lean, and fit, I feel like I’ve finally started to figure out my nutrition this year—and I wanted to share some of those learnings with my colleagues.
I did not expect the outpour of responses it got.
Colleagues asked me to grab coffee to talk about nutrition, pinged me for recipe suggestions, asked for the presentation slides, and came up to me just to say “thanks.”
That got me thinking… I’ve been meaning to resurrect this blog for a while. Nutrition and fitness are huge passions of mine, and I often find myself sharing tips related to health and wellness with my friends and family.
This is my way of bringing those conversations to “paper.” For my first post—inspired by advice I recently gave my mom—I’m sharing 10 easy food swaps you can make to clean up your diet.
Keep in mind that I’m not advocating that you make all 10 of these swaps. This is just a list of ideas. For most people, it’s not realistic to make a ton of changes at once. The key is to start small and build new habits over time. For example, maybe you choose two foods to “swap” this month, see how it goes, and then add another two next month. That way you’re not making an overwhelming set of changes that you can’t stick to in the long term.
1. Olive, coconut, or avocado oils instead of vegetable/canola oils
Even though I’ve always considered myself a “healthy eater,” I had no idea until earlier this year that vegetable and canola oils are highly processed and not at ALL made from vegetables. This article and this article do a great job of explaining why you should steer clear of vegetable oils.
The good news is that this is such an easy swap to make in the kitchen. Instead of vegetable oil, opt for extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, or avocado oils. These are healthy fat sources that’ll add essential nutrients to your diet.
2. Natural nut butters instead of nut butters with added sugar
Even if a peanut butter or almond butter is labeled “Organic,” make sure to check the nutrition label. A lot of brands will market themselves as “natural” or “organic” but still add sugar and other unnecessary sweeteners (like honey) to their nut butters. The only ingredient should be nuts—and maybe salt.
In our “household,” we made the switch from Skippy peanut butter to Whole Foods brand peanut butter. Trader Joe’s also has a plain peanut butter that’s a bit cheaper; just check the nutrition label because not all of TJ’s nut butters are unsweetened.
3. Whole grain rolled oats instead of instant oatmeal packets
Speaking of added sugar, instant oatmeal is a huge offender. Check out the nutrition facts for a Quaker Oats “Maple and Brown Sugar” Instant Oatmeal pack:
Not only is “sugar” listed as the second ingredient, but everything after it feels like a chemistry test.
Instead, just buy a tub of plain whole grain rolled oats (<– should be the only ingredient) and add your own toppings. For example, I’ll often eat a medley of rolled oats, scrambled egg whites, and cooked spinach or kale (with natural, unsweetened ketchup!) for breakfast.
4. Cauliflower rice instead of regular rice
This is one of the best cooking hacks of all time. Because my dinners are often lower on carbohydrates (I bunch my carbs around my morning workouts and then decrease my carb intake as the day goes on), I love using cauliflower rice at dinner to create the perception of eating rice. I swear you can’t tell the difference.
One of my favorite easy meals to make is cauliflower fried rice with chicken or some type of ground meat. Most grocery stores carry frozen cauliflower rice, but you can also make your own by processing cauliflower in a blender. I’ve done it both ways with delicious results.
5. Plain yogurt instead of flavored yogurt
Similar to what I was talking about with oatmeal, the yogurt industry loves to add things like cane sugar and corn starch to yogurt under the guise of “fruit on the bottom” or “made with real fruit.”
Honestly, just buy plain yogurt—nonfat or full fat, doesn’t matter—and add your own fresh fruit to sweeten it.
6. Nuts and veggies instead of packaged snacks and granola bars
As far as habit changes go, this is probably the hardest one to make. Whether we’re in the office, at home, or out and about, we’re constantly lured in by classic “grab ‘n’ go” snacks like granola bars, chips, pretzels, popcorn, and other packaged foods.
The truth is, most snacks—even “healthy” Nature Valley granola bars and KIND bars—are super high in carbs and sugar, and will spike your blood glucose level without quelling your hunger.
I challenge you to rethink the definition of a snack. One of the best changes I made in my diet this year was cutting out processed, packaged foods (not an easy feat given the endless M&Ms, chips, granola bars, and cereal available in my office!). Between lunch and dinner, I generally have a small meal consisting of things like turkey deli meat, cottage cheese, nuts, sliced cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes. It’s made a big difference in my energy levels, alertness/productivity, and overall body composition.
7. Seltzer water or Zevia instead of soda, juice, Ginger Ale, or sweetened iced tea
Love carbonated drinks? There are so many tasty substitutes out there with zero sugar and zero calories, like flavored seltzer water and (my personal favorite) Zevia. I wouldn’t go crazy and drink five cans of Zevia a day, but it’s a super refreshing option when you need something fizzy.
8. Sweet potatoes instead of mashed potatoes
White and sweet potatoes have similar macro/micronutrient qualities. Sweet potatoes do have a slight leg up on white potatoes since they’re lower on the glycemic index, but in the end, it’s hard to say that one is healthier than the other.
Instead of engaging in a sweet potato vs. white potato debate, the swap I’m proposing here is to cook sweet potatoes over a side dish like mashed potatoes. The reason? People usually add butter and cream to make mashed potatoes taste good, but sweet potatoes are incredibly flavorful on their own.
I like to prepare baked sweet potatoes in bulk on Sundays and throw them into my lunches or dinners throughout the week. I peel and cube the sweet potatoes; season them with sea salt, onion powder, and garlic powder; and bake them in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until they’re crispy on the outside.
9. Fresh salsa (just veggies) instead of caloric-dense sauces
I tend to avoid cooking with sauces because it’s hard to find products without excessive fat, sugar, and additives. The solution: Salsa. On. Everything. Salsa goes especially well with a simple chicken/ground turkey/ground beef bowl, plus it can add a nice kick to eggs in the morning.
Look for salsas with veggies only in the ingredient list… including but not limited to tomatoes, jalapeños, tomatillos, and onions. Spices like cumin, sea salt, and garlic are also OK! My favorite brand of salsa is Green Mountain Gringo, but there are plenty of other brands that keep the ingredient list clean and simple.
10. Unsweetened almond milk instead of regular milk or soymilk
As an alternative to cow’s milk in coffee, tea, and smoothies, try using unsweetened/unflavored almond milk. It’s lactose free (a.k.a. much easier on the stomach for most people) and low calorie.
Keep in mind that—while you should definitely leave soy milk out of your shopping cart—there’s nothing wrong with good ol’ cow’s milk. It just depends on your goals and dietary preferences.
These are just a few swaps that have worked for me. I adhere to the nutrition prescription of “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar.” But it can be even simpler than that! When in doubt, eat real food.