You don’t have to completely overhaul your diet and live on wheat bran, kale, and soy milk to eat healthier. The best thing you can do (and the easiest to stick to) is substitute things you already eat with healthier alternatives. Virtually everyone on my mother’s side of the family has some sort of food allergy or digestive illness so we’ve been learning how to find and prepare tasty food substitutes almost my entire life.
I learned even more about nutrition when my mother was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, which forced her to drastically change her diet. Thankfully I’ve only had mild issues up to this point. But it’s caused me to work with my doctor to find healthy foods I actually like.
Here’s some of the best small steps you can take right now:
Lean, grass-fed, organic beef instead of regular ground beef
Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to cut out red meat entirely or substitute it only with ground turkey, which lacks a certain amount of flavor. The real issues with red meat are fat, hormones, and grains. So a good solution is to look for lean, grass-fed, organic beef. Almost every grocery store is now carrying some version of this, though you have a better chance finding it at places like Wegman’s, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods.
Look for ground beef that is 93% or 95% lean. If it’s a cut, look for as little “marbling” (the lighter sections of fat) as possible. Organic means the cows weren’t pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, they ate organic grains, and they had access to pasture. However just because they had access to pasture doesn’t mean they were there all the time and weren’t fed a ton of grain to fatten them up. The more grain a cow eats, the less omega-3, Vitamin E, and betacarotene its meat contains. Grass-fed beef contains the maximum amount of nutrients.
Whole wheat flour instead of enriched, processed, or white flour
This is a big one, especially if you find you have a occasional stomach upset or you aren’t as regular as you’d like. You don’t need to cut out carbs – in fact, it’s not healthy. Whole grains give you energy and clean out your digestive tract.
The first thing to do is ditch that bag of white flour in your kitchen for whole wheat flour. I like Whole Foods’ 365 Organic brand for its taste. Now make sure the first ingredient in all your breads, rolls, bagels, and bakery prodcuts is whole durum wheat flour or whole wheat flour. Be aware that enriched wheat flour is pretty much the same thing as white. You don’t want anything that’s bleached or enriched. Ditch regular breadcrumbs for their whole-wheat counterpart. And when it comes to snacks, Snyder’s of Hanover pretzels are one of the only brands made with whole wheat flour.
Whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta
The same rules for whole wheat breads apply to finding the right whole wheat pasta. Many restaurants are offering whole wheat options – even whole wheat pizza crust! Barilla also makes Barilla Plus, a line of pastas made from whole durum flour with omega-3 and protein.
Olive oil instead of butter
Vegetable-based oils are much better for your health and your heart than solid animal fats. TV’s Dr. Oz is a huge proponent of olive oil, which is arguably the healthiest fat. Instead of butter on your bread, season some olive oil and dip it in. Grease pots and pans with olive oil while cooking. When possible, replace butter with olive oil in your favorite recipes. Check out our recipe for olive oil dip (instead of fatty, cream-based dip) with your fruits and veggies.
Low-fat or non-fat instead of full fat or whole dairy products
Dairy has been getting a bad rap lately, but it’s your best source of Vitamin D (besides the sun) and the most effective way to get calcium. Plus it contains a fair amount of protein. If current studies are accurate women only have until their late twenties to build up enough calcium in their bones. It begins diminishing from there. These are your prime osteoperosis-fighting years.
Choose part skim or low-fat cheeses. Some of the healthiest are part-skim mozzarella, parmesan, low-fat cottage cheese, feta cheese, and low-fat, low-sodium Swiss cheese. Try organic 1% or skim milk, but keep in mind that you lose some nutrients with skim. Low-fat and non-fat Greek yogurt like Oikos and Chobani are your best option – throw in some strawberries or blueberries to make it more interesting. Try fresh, preservative-free frozen yogurt instead of ice cream. If you really want ice cream, try slow-churned, low-fat, reduced sugar options without a lot of junk like Edy’s Slow Churned. Jell-O even makes fat-free 100 calorie pudding.
Raw instead of processed white sugar
Doctors have started to become so concerned with the glut of processed sugars in the foods we eat that some are going as far as recommending that the FDA put warning labels on sugary foods aimed at kids. And while we all know the dangers of aspartame, some studies show health risks associated with sugar substitutes like Splenda. Your best bet is to go for brown and raw sugars like Domino’s Brown Sugar and Sugar in the Raw.
But the real problem is all the sugar in processed foods and drinks. Try to cut down as much as possible on the cookies, cakes, cupcakes, and sweetened snacks. Look for fruit juices and energy drinks without added sugar (Gatorade is one of the worst offenders). Juice cocktails are loaded with extra sugar to make the drink taste better so go for 100% juice with no sugar added. Flavored waters can also be packed with extra sugar. Try an electrolyte water like Smart Water instead.
When doctors warn about sugar they’rd talking about the added sugar which doesn’t naturally exist in foods, so don’t stress about the natural sugar found in fruits, veggies, and dairy.
Sea salt instead of regular salt
In general you should try to keep the sodium low, but you can do that mostly by staying away from processed and fast foods. Sea salt is better for your heart and I like it for cooking and baking because it’s more coarse so it holds up better. And perhaps there’s no discernable difference but I swear it has a better flavor.
Frozen instead of fresh vegetables
This may seem a little counter intuitive, and it surprised me at first, but nutritionists say that sometimes frozen vegetables are better for you than fresh ones. Here’s why: these foods contain nutrients which diminish up to 45% over time. It starts from the moment they’re picked. And when fruits and vegetables are out of season, they’re flown in from farther away, meaning they pack less of a healthy punch by the time you eat them. Frozen vegetables are flash frozen right after they’re picked so they retain most of those nutrients. So unless you have the option to get locally grown or in-season veggies, opt for the freezer aisle instead. And don’t even bother with canned – they’re packed full of salt and sugar.
Another great tip is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store. That’s where you’ll find fresh produce, low-fat dairy, unprocessed snacks, lean meats, fish, and frozen vegetables. The aisles are where the salty, sugary, processed, enriched, junk foods are.
A big part of the switching process is trial and error. Don’t be afraid to try new products with friends and family. If you don’t like it, get rid of it and try something else. Ask people you know for suggestions. And as always, if you have tips you want to share, comment below or email us.