Smart and healthy food swaps

It’s the small step changes over time that add up to the big difference we want to see and food is an area in which we can all make improvements.

In today’s busy life, keeping to a healthy diet is really difficult.  It can also be confusing to work out what does contribute to a ‘healthy’ diet. When food manufacturers market products as “the healthy alternative”, “low fat” “low sugar”, “contains real fruit”, “3 of your 5 a day” and so on, it’s easy to be taken in and select these items for lunch or a snack without reading the label.

A caution about labelling: read ingredient lists closely when evaluating packaged foods. You may find unrecognisable chemical-sounding additives and preservatives. Typically, the longer the list with hard-to-pronounce terms, the more highly processed a product proves to be. If you would not cook with those individual components in your own kitchen, then your body likely does not need them either. It pays not to assume labels like “healthy” mean much without scrutinising what goes into items. Additive-laden lists indicate foods to be shunned in favour of more wholesome, minimally processed alternatives using clean ingredients that don’t raise questions as to the merits and contributions to your health.

This article aims to arm you with ways and ideas to make healthy food choices and swaps to add to your shopping list and have handy in your store cupboard and freezer. Swapping to healthy options on a regular basis really can make a big difference to your diet and health.

We’ve loosely organised the list by food groupings with a short explanation of the benefits of our suggestions.

Carbohydrates: Choosing whole, minimally processed carbs like whole grains, beans and lentils provides essential fuel for cells along with fibre which helps smooth our insulin response. This elevates and sustains daily energy levels and can assist healthy weight management. Essentially carbs should be high in fibre and low in sugar.

Swap:

  • white bread for whole wheat, seeded, sourdough or rye bread. Check the ingredients list to make sure that refined white flour isn’t the main ingredient.
  • pasta for whole wheat or chickpea pasta.
  • white rice for brown rice, quinoa, barley, freekeh, buckwheat
  • white pizza base for wholewheat pizza base
  • potatoes for sweet potato or cassava

Fats: Choose and add plant-based unsaturated fats from sources like nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados which support vital processes related to hormone balance, vitamin absorption and healthy cell membranes. Minimising saturated fats reduces systemic inflammation which is linked to long term health problems.

  • Use extra virgin olive oil, avocado or nut oils instead of butter e.g. for cooking.
  • Try mashed avocado or olive oil instead of spread on bread.
  • Choose unsweetened almond or cashew butter instead of chocolate or other sugary spreads e.g. a spoon of almond butter with porridge.
  • Incorporate nuts and seeds into meals e.g. sprinkle a handful of walnuts or sunflower seeds on salads and into soups as these provide unsaturated fats, protein and minerals.
  • Make your own salad dressings instead of store bought – a simple mix of olive oil, balsamic vinegar with a pinch of mixed herbs, salt and pepper is a tasty healthy alternative.

Protein: Eating a variety of different lean protein foods such as beans and lentils, eggs, poultry, fatty fish and low-fat dairy is important to get the whole range of amino acids. These are the building blocks for repair and maintenance of the body’s tissue such as muscle repair. Dietary protein also increases a feeling of fullness after meals preventing between-meal hunger which can lead to overeating.

  • Swap some meat for fibre and nutrient-rich lentils, beans or chickpeas.
  • Try tofu instead of meat or fish.
  • Instead of bacon, sausage and ham opt for lean fresh turkey, chicken or fish which provides protein without an excess of saturated fats and preservatives.
  • Keep food like tuna in the cupboard for quick salads or sandwiches.
  • Keep mixed unsalted nuts to hand and eat a handful as a snack or add to salads. Try cashews, walnuts, brazils, almonds and pistachios. Nuts add fibre and good fats as well as protein.
  • Select yogurt instead of cream to reduce fat and calories while adding protein, calcium and probiotics.
  • Try hummus as an alternative spread on bread.

Fruits and vegetables:
Eating a rainbow of produce including potent polyphenol-rich berries, vibrant deeply coloured vegetables, and whole fresh fruits provides a spectrum of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and gut-supporting plant compounds which can help to lower risks for various cancers, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

  • Fruit and veg doesn’t always have to be fresh. Frozen fruit and veg are equally as good for you and are convenient to have in the freezer.
  • We should be aiming to eat 30 or more different plant foods per week for the diversity of nutrients that they provide for us.
  • How about trying a fruit or vegetable you don’t normally eat.
  • In salads use mixed leaves with some fresh herbs, basil or coriander and mixed coloured peppers. Adding celery, apples, nuts and grapes gives crunch and texture. A handful of mixed seed such as sunflower, pumpkin, chia and linseed adds healthy fats and fibre.
  • Vegetables: make a tray of roasted veg: carrot, parsnip, beetroot, mushroom, pepper and tomato.
  • Swap peas for edamame beans, broad beans, sugar snaps, mange tout or dwarf beans.
  • Leafy greens are a must, spinach is highly versatile and can be used in salads, as a vegetable, or added to dishes like lasagne or homemade burgers.
  • Pack in extra produce anywhere possible e.g. mix berries into porridge, add tomatoes or peppers to eggs, blend spinach and avocado into smoothies.
  1. Dried fruit are not quite as good as the fresh fruit. This is because when water is removed in the drying process it concentrates the sugar and this can lead to large blood sugar spikes. However, if you combine the fruit with nuts the protein and fat contents of the nuts will help smooth out the blood sugar response to the dried fruit.

Fibre:  Few of us eat the recommended 25 to 35 g fibre a day. Fibre from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils feed healthy gut bacteria and help reduce digestive issues.  Fibre also helps smooth out blood glucose spikes after meals and helps minimise dietary inflammation. It also helps give a sense of fullness and satisfaction after eating which reduces hunger pangs.

  • Opting for the non-white and whole grain options in the carbs section above will add fibre to you diet
  • Trying some of the fruit and veg options above will add variety and fibre.

Drinks and sugar:

  • Beware buying juiced fruits. What’s the different between eating a whole orange and a bottle of orange juice? The answer is the processing. When an orange is juiced, its whole food matrix is destroyed, including the pulp and skin which contains beneficial fibre. This fibre helps mediate the absorption of the natural fruit sugars in whole oranges and without it, the sugars in orange juice rush into the bloodstream all at once, spiking blood glucose levels. The sudden spike causes the body to produce more insulin, which can lead to an energy crash later. The fibre in whole oranges also prolongs feelings of fullness compared to juice. Additionally, some nutrients are lost or diminished through the heat and oxygen exposure during juice processing. So, the juicing process changes the way the orange interacts with your body but eating oranges whole provides more balanced nutrition as well as steady energy.
  • Cut down fizzy drinks which can either be heavily sugared or made with artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners confuse the body’s sensory and metabolic responses by triggering taste receptors to signal the arrival of sugar and carbohydrates, yet they don’t provide any nutritional value. This mismatch can interfere with our signaling mechanisms for fullness and hunger and lead to overeating.
  • Satisfy sugar cravings by blending bananas, blueberries or mangoes into smoothies.
  • Try swapping for water with lemon slices or mint leaves, maybe cucumber or lime, orange or berries.
  • Try herbal teas
  • Try using spices e.g. cinnamon or mixed spice on porridge as a tasty alternative to sugar or honey.

Summary: The best swaps should contain gut friendly fibre, healthy fats, high quality carbs, and be unprocessed or minimally processed. Implementing even a couple of daily swaps toward whole, minimally processed options improves nutritional intake effortlessly. Over time, taste buds adapt as  standards are reset away from salt, sugar and unhealthy fats toward more natural, satisfying flavours.

While no foods need to be avoided completely, moving toward more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and lean proteins pays dividends with more energy, easier weight management and resilience against disease. Build meals around these healthy bases according to your preferences and lifestyle needs. Sustaining little enhancements ultimately cultivates big rewards so you feel as good as possible each day.