Making healthy food swaps is a great opportunity to live in the positive—to think about the (surprisingly) tasty stuff you can still eat, not what you’re giving up.
For nutrition nerds like us, this process of remodeling your diet and eating patterns can be very research-driven, but we also appreciate that many people just want to get the results and move on without diving into the science.
Still, understanding the general rationale behind each food swap will empower you to expand this list indefinitely on your own.
That said, let’s first take a look at the commonly overconsumed nutrients we’re looking to swap out.
What to Swap and Why
Rote memorization will only get you so far; it’s always better to understand the why behind each food swap so you can tailor this practice to fit your preferences.
In a word, we’re looking to target carb-rich, fatty, salty, and processed foods already firmly entrenched in the Western diet and replace them with less carb-rich, fatty, salty, or processed alternatives that still taste great.
It’s also important not just to reduce these over-consumed nutrients, but to bring a higher nutritional density to the table with the new food item.
Let’s break this rationale down by category, starting with carbs.
Foods like pasta, fries, white rice, white potatoes, and of course, sugary snacks are loaded with simple carbohydrates that quickly break down into straight-up sugar in the bloodstream.
Though carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient, they aren’t all created equal; slower-digesting (complex) carbs from fruits and vegetables are much gentler on your system than these refined/simple carbs.
Plus, many complex carb sources are already more nutritionally dense than their refined counterparts.
Fat is another unfairly stigmatized macronutrient, mainly because we Westerners eat far too much of the wrong kinds.
For example, deriving most of your fat from cheese, butter, processed red meat, chips, ice cream, and so on will pump up heart disease and diabetes risk like no other.
However, extra-virgin olive oil provides healthy monounsaturated fats and plant-based compounds called polyphenols.
Like carbohydrates, fats are highly essential to our development and survival, but choosing the wrong kind (and/or consuming too much) is likely to cause obesity, heart problems, and a litany of other issues down the line.
The next stop on our tour of otherwise important nutrients that we’re over-consuming into taboo status is sodium.
Most authorities set the maximum end of the daily recommended value somewhere around 2,000mg.
To put it into perspective, a pizza with two or three kinds of meat provides about 7,000mg of sodium, clocking in at about 850mg per slice.
The healthy swaps rationale in this case is pretty simple—just reduce sodium intake well below the 2,000mg line.
This is where the tough love really comes in.
Because we’re too overworked, tired, and/or lazy to cook, peel things, and even chew, we Westerners have fallen in love with neatly packaged nutritional nothings, sometimes even foods that claim to be healthy.
Think cookies, chips, brownies, pastries, sausage, cheese, pre-made meals, cakes, and much, much more.
In most cases, these foods have had the good stuff (especially fiber) sucked out and the bad stuff (preservatives and low-quality fillers) pumped in.
Compromise is a more elusive idea in this arena if you want to stay healthy; simply avoiding processed foods altogether is the much smarter play.
Finally, it’s important to understand that even foods that aren’t necessarily unhealthy can still be swapped out for more nutritionally dense options.
Celery and iceberg lettuce are perfect examples—while they’re much healthier than processed snacks, they still aren’t as nutritionally dense as spinach, peas, carrots, and so on.
Our Healthy Swaps List
Now that you understand the rationale behind these food swaps, you have the power to make your own list that caters to your specific food preferences.
To help with this exercise, we’ve provided a list of commonly consumed foods and their healthier replacements (in no particular order).
Spaghetti squash for pasta
Spaghetti squash outperforms standard pasta in every category: carbs, calories, and overall nutritional value.
Swaps like these are especially important for diabetics.
Cauliflower rice for white rice
The rationale here is similar to the previous swap: we’re opting for a more nutritionally dense, slowly digesting carb source over the bombardment of starch that is white rice.
For those who simply cannot bring themselves to ditch rice, longer grains and darker colors will at least lighten the load (on your poor, insulin-producing pancreas) a little.
Cinnamon, not sugar
In addition to cinnamon, using raw honey, applesauce, and pureed fruit can significantly increase the nutritional value of whatever dish you’re making with these items.
You’ll still be getting a hefty serving of sugar with each alternative, but with more nutrients and/or fiber.
Mustard instead of mayo or bbq
Mayo isn’t completely without redemption on the nutrition front (especially real mayo, which has vinegar and egg yolks), but it’s still extremely high in calories, as is sugary bbq sauce.
Plant-based mustard has many beneficial properties like its antioxidant power, it’s much lower in calories, and still tastes great.
Lettuce wrap for a bun
As evidence continues to stack up against “healthy bread,” we’re slowly but surely watching the sun set on the whole-wheat craze of the 90s and early 2000s.
No matter what that hamburger bun is made out of, it won’t come close to the nutritional value of a dark, leafy lettuce wrap.
Seltzer over soda
If we had to pinpoint the single greatest threat challenging the healthiness of the American diet, it would probably be sugar-sweetened soft drinks.
If you simply must have a little sweetness with your carbonated drink, add some fruit to the seltzer or try lightly sweetened kombucha.
Obviously, both of these options will seriously decrease or completely eliminate the sugar content.
Regular fruit, not dried fruit
Imagine being able to eat eight or ten apples worth of sugar with just a few spoonfuls—that’s what’s wrong with dried fruit.
Sapping all the water out does nothing to reduce the sugar, while at the same time enabling us to eat much more of the fruit than we normally would.
Veggies for chips
Chips bring the sodium like nobody else can.
We’re not so naive or strict to even pretend that crunching on a piece of raw bell pepper or broccoli will come close to the satisfaction of a greasy potato chip, but we have a ringer: see the next swap.
Hummus for ranch dip
Hummus is amazing.
This chick-pea-based dip is loaded with nutrients and extremely low on the glycemic index scale (meaning it causes an extremely small blood sugar fluctuation).
Not only can it replace much less healthy ranch, but it can make eating raw vegetables a much more palatable and nutritious experience.
Poultry or fish for red meat
It’s true that red meat provides iron, vitamin E, zinc, tons of protein, and other nutrients, but it also significantly increases heart disease risk.
Fish especially will provide most of these nutrients and a whopping helping of omega-3 fatty acids, which the Western diet definitely needs more of.
Grilled chicken for fried chicken
This one isn’t exactly rocket science.
Any food item that isn’t literally submerged in fat and shellacked with salt will be far, far healthier than one that is.
Air popped for regular popcorn
It’s not necessarily that air popping itself somehow makes the popcorn healthier than the store-bought kind, but air popping allows you to use far less salt and butter.
We didn’t say none, mind you, but far less.
By itself, popcorn is a fairly robust source of fiber, so there are much worse snacks to have.
Avocado for butter
Though butter is slowly rebounding after the evils of margarine were exposed, it’s still butter.
Yes, it provides a decent amount of vitamins A, D, and others, but it’s really hard to rationalize your way around the huge saturated fat content.
Avocado spread (straight from the avocado) is an incredible alternative, offering more nutrients, healthier fats, and an amazing taste.
Wheat toast for bagel
Bagels are way more dense than they appear, offering up to five times the carbohydrate content as a single piece of toast.
We don’t even advocate strongly for wheat toast, but if you must have something to spread your not-butter on (remember, avocado!), a single slice of toast will be much gentler on your system carb-wise.
Extra-virgin olive oil for canola oil
Extra virgin olive oil is one of the few popular health food items that actually lives up to the hype.
Thanks to the linolenic acids and healthy fats, it outperforms omega-6-rich canola oil in literally every category, especially when you’re using high-quality, cold-pressed olive oil.
Sweet potato chips for standard chips
To be clear, anything prepared as a chip is likely to have a ton of sodium in it, so we’re not saying you can eat sweet potato chips all day.
Still, if they’re actually made from sweet potato, this is a much healthier alternative.
Beyond Swaps: Healthy Eating Patterns and Behaviors
Timing and Frequency Matters
How and when you eat can be just as important as what you eat. Here’s how to optimize your dietary patterns for wellness.
Though healthy food swaps are a huge part of creating positive change in the diet department, we also can’t ignore the value of eating patterns and behaviors.
For example, simply choosing to cook and eat at home more will naturally guide you towards healthier choices, so long as you aren’t throwing everything into a fryer.
We won’t get too deep into the meal frequency and timing debate, but even those who disagree on most points will agree that eating late in the evening is bad for you.
If you can step up the home cooking, maintain reasonable mealtimes, and make these healthy swaps, you’ll be on track for serious improvements in all aspects of overall health.
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TNI Editorial Team
We're health-conscious people who want to help others take control of their nutrition by offering spin-free, hype-free information that is medically accurate, confirmed by doctors.
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