To most people the thought of “eating healthy” conjures up the image of giving up your favorite foods and eating nothing but salads, grilled chicken, rice, and broccoli over and over and over again…..…bland and boring. Conventional diets tend to suggest throwing out everything you currently eat and adopting completely new dietary habits. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Another option to making your diet healthier is to make simple substitutions to what you currently eat. Why? Because if you’re still eating things you enjoy eating, the change is likely to be much more sustainable. Imagine eating pasta dishes, burgers, and pizza on a regular basis and then switching to salads. ONLY salads. It’s pretty obvious that the salad diet is not going to last very long, eventually you are going to break and binge on all the food you love.
Where should the substitutes happen? We can break it down into four different categories:
Most of us have room for improvement in each of these categories but we would recommend that you choose substitutions that you (not someone else) want to do and substitutions that you don’t have to sacrifice taste to a great degree. If you don’t like it, you’re not going to continue eating it. So experiment and find out what you find acceptable through trial and error.
For example, I personally wouldn’t want to eat turkey bacon, it’s not the same as real bacon (and I love bacon). But I can easily swap out ground turkey for ground beef, because its taste and texture are relatively similar when put in the dishes I usually eat (i.e. spaghetti, chili, tacos). So, pick and choose the substitutes that work best for you instead of trying to change everything, choose where you think the calories are worth it and eat what you can’t live without!
refined carb substitutes
Recently carbs have been getting quite a bad rap, being blamed for quite an array of illnesses, the obesity epidemic, and leading to a multitude of low to no carb diets. While there is some reasoning behind the blame, carbohydrates are not the enemy here, they are actually incredibly important for our diet. The problem comes in when your diet consists of way too many low-fiber, highly-refined carbs. There are many substitutes that can lower your carbohydrate intake (not too much, mind you), and increase your intake of dietary fiber (super good for you). Below are some examples of substitutions you might want to consider trying. For a list of specific, item for item substitutions, we also offer a PDF version of our carbohydrate guide by clicking here.
high fat/Saturated fat substitutes - fat/dairy
Just like carbohydrates are now to blame, in the late 21st century fats were the greatest weight-loss enemy. The reason that they were demonized is twofold: 1) because of their high calorie to gram ratio, providing 9 calories per gram (as opposed to the 4 that carbs and protein offer) and 2) because saturated fat has been linked to heart disease. The reason that dairy is also included in this category is that the majority of dairy used for cooking is full-fat (and saturated fat), meaning more calories and what was once presumed to be a greater risk of heart disease (but with more recent research we don’t recommend shying away from the cheese so much). What’s great about many of these substitutes is that they won’t mess dishes up, whether you’re cooking or baking (where certain dairy/fat is extremely important). Below are some examples of substitutions you might want to consider trying. For a list of specific, item for item substitutions, we also offer a PDF version of our fat/dairy guide by clicking here.
High-Fat Protein substitutes
Protein is the golden child that has never really been hated on because we’ve known for quite some time that amino acids (broken down protein) are essential for growth and cell repair, contain 4 calories per gram instead of 9, and tend to make you feel full for longer when you eat it. Without adequate protein, the human body would lose its ability to maintain lean mass and heal itself. Now with that in mind, many of the protein choices that Americans consume comes with a cost as it is also high in saturated fats, cholesterol (linked to heart disease), and, ultimately, calories.
Therefore we’ve suggested some lower calorie, lower saturated fat options that can be simple swaps to make. For example, using low fat ground beef or ground turkey (90/10) instead of 80/20 ground beef and using chicken breasts without the skin instead of legs and thighs can greatly reduce calorie content. However, because of the reduction in fat content these substitutions can come out being drier and having less flavor. This is why I recommended above to pick and choose substitutions carefully and to not make replacements that you won’t enjoy eating. Below are some examples of substitutions you might want to consider trying. For a list of specific, item for item substitutions, we also offer a PDF version of our high-fat protein substitution guide by clicking here.
Snacks - Whole wheat, real fruit, high protein & low calorie
Snacks are a tough subject because while they can be important to help control hunger throughout the day, they can easily throw off a solid diet by adding unnecessary calories and little to no nutritional value. Many foods we consider great snacks are heavily processed, high in calories, sodium, and/or fat. The packaging is also misleading, putting multiple servings into what seems like just one portion. Nutrition labeling requirements have improved over the past couple of years but many people still struggle with over-eating and ruining their diet. This is why we’ve chosen to create a list of healthy snacks, that will not only provide you with the nutrients your body needs, it will also keep you full until your next meal. For a downloadable list of specific, item for item snack substitutions, please click here.
Eating high fiber, high protein or high nutrient snacks is important to not only keeping you healthy but keeping your diet on track. Whole wheat crackers, butter-less popcorn, or pretzels are high in fiber which will help keep you full longer. If you’re craving sweet treats, go for a fruit smoothie or frozen bar or just a nice juicy apple, all of which provide you with less sugar and more nutrients than that bowl of ice cream. Having a high protein snack on hand is also a great idea because they will help keep you full and prevent constant snacking. Hard boiled eggs, a handful of nuts, or some lunch meat with your crackers are all great options.
As mentioned above, don’t substitute all foods that you love for ones that you can’t stand just because they’re considered “healthier.” I personally find pretzels disgusting, dry, and bland… yuck. I would never substitute them for my favorite salty, savory snack, Doritos. Finding items that are healthy that you enjoy eating is just as important as keeping the “not so good” snacks, in moderation, in your diet. Another important thing to keep in mind is why you are snacking; boredom, stress, cravings or actual hunger. For example, eating an apple when you’re really craving an ice cream bar is not going to work, eat that ice cream bar. If you’re actually hungry eat something that’s going to fill you up and solve the issue. Balance is key to a successful diet and healthy lifestyle, and without it, we would all go crazy.
So, there you have it, substitutions and ideas for the major food categories that can cause our diets to go off track. Just remember, it’s a lifestyle change in eating habits, not a diet. Making the changes long term and sustainable are your best bet for losing that weight and becoming healthier overall.
*For downloadable PDFs of each of our substitutions to put on your fridge or in your pantry please click below.