As the ol’ saying goes, we are what we eat. The food we eat plays an important role in our overall health and well-being. Hence, it’s important to eat the right kinds of food that nourish the body and keep it healthy.
However, supermarket shelves are now filled with sugary, processed foods. Virtually everything has some added sugar in it. The F&B business has shifted its focus from nourishing people to creating addictive products that keep customers coming back for more.
Having said this, going cold turkey and cutting out entire food groups from our diet isn’t always sustainable. Sure, it’s best to cut out unhealthy, processed foods altogether. But without considering suitable alternatives, we may end up falling off the bandwagon and giving in to our cravings.
Here are 10 healthy food swaps that are better for you:
1. Refined grains to whole grains
Switching from refined grains (e.g. white rice, white bread) to whole grains (e.g. brown rice, whole grain bread) has various health benefits. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “whole grains offer a ‘complete package’ of health benefits, unlike refined grains, which are stripped of valuable nutrients in the refining process.”
Whole grains consist of three parts: the bran, germ, and endosperm.
The bran is the fiber-rich outer layer
The endosperm is the interior layer that has carbs and small amounts of vitamins and minerals
The germ is the core which is rich in healthy fats, vitamins, and antioxidants
The refining process strips away the bran and germ, leaving only the endosperm behind. Hence, processed grains have much lower nutritional quality compared to whole grains. In fact, eating whole grains instead of refined grains helps to lower total cholesterol, bad cholesterol, and insulin levels.
So, switching from white rice to brown rice, and white bread to whole grain bread can have long-term positive effects on your health and wellness. As a huge rice eater who has made the switch from white rice to brown rice, I can assure you that it doesn’t take away from your rice-eating experience! I enjoy brown rice just the same with the added plus point that it’s better for me.
2. Refined sugar to healthier sweeteners
Refined sugars (e.g. white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup) can be detrimental to our health. Diets with large amounts of refined sugar are linked to obesity and excess belly fat, a major risk factor for health issues such as diabetes and heart disease.
As such, we should consider opting for healthier substitutes such as:
Coconut sugar – contains small amounts of nutrients and fiber
Honey – contains antioxidants and small amounts of vitamins and minerals
Jaggery (unrefined cane sugar) – contains small amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants
Natural sugars occurring in fruits
Nevertheless, these substitutes are still sugars and should be consumed in moderation.
3. Refined oils to olive oil and clarified butter (ghee)
Refined oils (e.g. canola, soybean, vegetable oils) are not extracted by natural pressing but through the use of chemicals. This leaves refined oils with little flavour and nutrients.
Consumption of refined oils has increased over the years as it is a more affordable choice for households and processed food manufacturers. However, refined oils have large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids used to be 1:1 and now, it has increased to around 15:1 in Western diets. This could be due to the increased use of refined oils for cooking at home and in processed foods.
So, why is this concerning? Omega-6 fatty acids are believed to be inflammatory whereas omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory. Diets with lots of omega-6 and little omega-3 can lead to excess inflammation in the body, increasing the risk of various health issues.
To avoid excessive intake of omega-6 fatty acids, we can switch to healthier alternatives such as olive oil that has relatively low omega-6. When choosing olive oil, opt for unrefined extra virgin olive oil. It contains large amounts of monounsaturated fats that are linked to better heart health.
Another alternative you can consider is clarified butter (ghee) which is a source of vitamin E and antioxidants. Eating fat-rich foods like ghee can increase the body’s absorption of vitamins and minerals. However, ghee is rich in saturated fats and thus, it’s best to be taken in moderation.
4. Store-bought granola to homemade granola
More often than not, store-bought granola is loaded with refined sugar. When purchasing boxed granola, make it a point to check the ingredients. Identify where sugar is listed in the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed based on the amounts used to make the product. If sugar is listed as the first or second ingredient before nuts/seeds/oats, then the granola is likely to be mostly sugar.
A healthier alternative is to make your own granola at home with oats, nuts, seeds, and a sweetener of your choice. Here’s a healthy granola recipe you can try at home that uses whole grains, unrefined oil, and natural sweeteners. Make a big batch over the weekend to enjoy throughout the week.
5. Fruit juices to healthier fruit-based beverages
Store-bought fruit juices tend to be loaded with sugar as well. Be sure to check the ingredients and nutritional information listed on the back to learn more about the product’s sugar content. This is a good way to compare products and choose healthier options.
Instead of fruit juice, it’s always best to opt for water when dining out. It’s the best option for both your wallet and your health! When you’re craving some fruity goodness at home, opt for homemade smoothies that can be easily made by blitzing ice, fruits of your choice, yogurt/milk, and honey in a blender.
Alternatively, you can prepare fruit-infused water (fill a bottle with water and throw in some cut fruits and herbs such as strawberries, lemon, mint, and/or oranges) and sip on it throughout the day.
6. Store-bought jam to healthier spreads
Store-bought jam also tends to be loaded with sugar. An easy alternative to have on your toast is smashed avocados. They’re rich in healthy fats that are good for your heart.
Other than that, you can opt for homemade jams. Just put chopped berries, some lemon zest and juice, and coconut sugar in a pan and cook until the berries soften. Taste to check if it needs more sugar. Continue cooking to your preferred consistency before storing in a glass jar in the fridge.
You can experiment with various berries to enjoy different flavours of jam. And the best part – you’re in total control of the type and amount of sugar that goes into it!
7. Store-bought sauces to homemade sauces, herbs, and spices
Nowadays, there are tons of readymade sauces and pastes for sale in the supermarket. These store-bought sauces (e.g. teriyaki sauce) may contain large amounts of sugar and preservatives to increase their shelf life.
When choosing sauces, opt for one with natural ingredients. If possible, avoid the ones with a lot of sugar, refined oil, and unknown ingredients with a bunch of numbers.
Alternatively, you can make simplified versions of your favourite sauces at home. For example, here’s a 3-ingredient teriyaki sauce recipe you can try out.
Sometimes we add sauces to enhance the taste and flavour of the dish we’re making. Instead of sauces, we can try opting for fresh herbs and spices to jazz up our dishes. For example, instead of using store-bought marinade sauces, you can marinade your chicken/meat with yogurt, ginger-garlic paste, black pepper, and spices such as turmeric and chilli powder.
8. Sports drinks to coconut water
People tend to lose water and electrolytes (minerals such as potassium, calcium, sodium, and magnesium) when they sweat during physical activity. To replace the water and electrolytes, people opt for sports drinks after their workout.
However, sports drinks tend to contain added sugar, contributing to their sweet taste. A healthier alternative is coconut water which is refreshing and has natural electrolytes.
9. Store-bought chips to homemade crispy potato wedges
Store-bought potato chips may have high levels of sodium, giving them that addictive salty flavour. High sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Some brands may contain trans-fat from the use of partially hydrogenated oils. This can increase the level of bad cholesterol in the body and increase the risk of heart attack. In fact, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in the US has stated that, “removing partially hydrogenated oils from processed foods could prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year.”
A healthier alternative for some crispy potato goodness is homemade potato wedges. Here’s a crispy potato wedges recipe you can try out.
10. Deep-fried food to oven-baked/air-fried food
Deep-fried food may have trans-fat depending on the type of oil used. Nowadays, there are healthier ways of cooking, so you can reduce the amount of oil used significantly.
For example, here’s a crispy oven-baked chicken tenders recipe. Another alternative is to use an air fryer that requires little oil to cook your food. Here’s a spicy air-fryer chicken wing recipe I’ve been working on recently.
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One of the things I struggle with the most as an adult is making good food choices. I’ve been trying to learn more about nutrition and switch to healthier food alternatives to protect my health and well-being.
Going on no-carb and no-sugar diets have never worked for me! Instead of eliminating whole food groups from my diet, I find opting for healthier substitutes a far more effective strategy when it comes to healthy eating. Instead of cutting out rice altogether, I switch from white rice to brown rice. Instead of cutting out oil, I switch from refined oil to olive oil. Instead of cutting out sugar and sweet treats, I switch from refined sugar to honey and coconut sugar.
And of course, honoring the sacred mantra of good nutrition is crucial – everything in moderation!
For more tips on healthy eating, check out my blog post about small yet powerful changes you can make to your diet.
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