Healthy ingredient swaps that will change your life

We all want to be healthy. We want to look good in our clothes. We want to feel strong and full of energy. Unfortunately, the road to wellness can often be an uphill climb, full of temptations — hello, Starbucks Venti Iced Caramel Macchiato — and, conflicting information around every corner (like, "all carbs are bad," or "eating organic is super expensive"). The entire thing is exhausting, often discouraging us from seeking out a healthier lifestyle before we even start.

Luckily, eating healthier might actually be a lot simpler than we think. "So many people think healthy eating has to be hard, time-consuming, or expensive and that's simply not the case," Chelsey Amer, MS, RDN, a New York City-based private practice dietitian and the creator of CitNutritionally.com, told me in an interview. "If you think outside of the box and make some smart swaps, you can actually save money by eating healthier!"

Here are some simple swaps you can make in your own kitchen that will help you take steps toward a healthier lifestyle.

Greek yogurt for sour cream

I have a confession: I love me some tacos, especially those finished off with a giant dollop of sour cream.The trouble is, sour cream isn't exactly making the honor roll when it comes to healthy food options. That's why Rebecca Lewis, in-house dietitian at HelloFresh, suggests swapping out this fatty topping for Greek yogurt. "Greek yogurt has less calories and fat than sour cream," she told me. "A bonus: Greek yogurt is also a rich source of protein and vitamin D."

Taco night doesn't have to make us feel guilty any longer!

Nuts for croutons

When I first got into the habit of eating salads, croutons were a star ingredient of any plate of greens I prepared for myself. But since becoming more adventurous in my salad-making, not to mention, more health conscious, I've ditched the croutons for crunchy veggies and fruits. However, I'd be lying if I said I didn't occasionally miss these little morsels of toasty perfection, until Lewis suggested trying out nuts in their place.

"Nuts give the desired texture and crunch that you'd want from croutons," she said. "Nuts are also a nutrient-dense superfood supplying protein, fiber, and healthy plant-based fats to keep you full and satiated." Lunch salads will never be the same.

Citrus zest for salt

One of the biggest challenges people face as they adopt healthier eating habits is feeling like their missing out on great flavor. Let's face it, there's only so many plain chicken breasts and cups of steamed broccoli one can take before you start fantasizing about a big, salty plate of cheese fries.

But Lewis explains that we certainly don't have to skip out of flavor when we eat healthy, we just have to get a little creative. "Boost flavor without loading on extra fat, salt, and sugar by using aromatic herbs and the oils from citrus fruits," she said.

Avocados

For many of us, sandwiches and wraps are a go-to lunch option. And while these can be a great way of getting in some greens and lean protein, it becomes less of a healthy option when we starting adding things like mayonnaise to the mix. Instead, Lewis suggests trying avocado. "Avocados have the same creamy consistency that mayo gives, but are nearly half the fat of mayo," she told me. "Avocados also have more fiber than any other fruit or vegetable."

Amer agrees, telling me, "I love using mashed avocado instead of mayonnaise when I'm making any deli salad [ie: tuna salad, egg salad or chicken salad]. Mayonnaise really doesn't provide much nutritious benefit whereas avocado contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and fiber, making it a better swap."

Lentils for beef

For vegetarians, or at least any of us who are actively trying to consume less meat, healthier eating means trying to find tasty alternatives to beef. Amer says to consider lentils. "I often use lentils instead of, or in addition to, ground meat in meals such as tacos or bolognese sauce because they are loaded with plant-based protein and iron without any saturated fat or dietary cholesterol," she told me. "Plus, lentils are extremely inexpensive so they're a great way to bulk up a meat dish!"

Pea protein for eggs

Like lentils, peas are another wonderful source of plant-based protein. It's no wonder that pea protein, is becoming a popular alternative to whey as a main ingredient in protein powder. Pea protein can also be a plant-based alternative to eggs. In fact, Hampton Creek, maker of the popular line of Just Mayo products, uses pea protein in place of eggs to make its super tasty dairy-free mayonnaise.

"In addition to having a high quality oil (canola instead of soybean oil), we use pea protein to act as an emulsifier instead of the conventional egg," Sadie Barr, the brand's director of sustainability and heath, told me. "This makes our mayo both egg-free and soy-free. It also makes our mayo more accessible to folks who don't eat eggs for either allergy, religious, or ethical reasons. And it tastes just as good, if not better, than conventional mayonnaise."

Dates for sugar

Avoiding sugar is also a big challenge for those of us who want to eat healthier, especially those of us a soft spot for things like cookies, cakes and other baked goods. Luckily, we don't have to forego our favorite treats all together in the name of nutrition, according to Amer. All it takes is a little creativity.

"One of my favorite baking swaps is using medjool dates instead of refined white sugar in my muffins and breads (like these vegan banana bread muffins or these zucchini carrot muffins)," she told me. "Dates are naturally sweet so they provide the same sweet flavor you want when baking, but without the refined white sugar (that is really just empty calories)! Plus, dates contain fiber, which benefits your heart and digestive health and boosts satiety."

Honey for sugar

Louise Hendon, co-founder of Paleo Flourish Magazine, is also a fan of replacing white sugar with other sweet and healthy alternatives. Her favorite? Raw honey. "Raw honey typically contains more vitamins and minerals, and has been linked to less blood-sugar spikes and less body fat," she told me in an email.

Besides using it as a sugar replacement in your favorite desserts, you can use raw honey in salads, as a yogurt topping, or to sweeten up savory dishes like salmon.

Ghee for butter

If you've spent any time perusing wellness blogs lately, then surely you've taken note of the current obsession with ghee — a form of clarified butter that's been used in Indian and South Asian cooking, for centuries. It's also a great dairy-free, plant-based alternative to butter, according to Hendon.

"You'll still get the taste and the nutrition from butter, but it'll have the lactose and casein removed," she explained. "And those are the aspects of dairy products that often cause people digestive or inflammatory problems."

Cauliflower for rice

Like dairy, things like grains, rice, wheat, and oats can sometimes be the culprit of digestive woes. They're also the reason why some people just can't seem to lose weight. That's why Amina AlTai, a holistic health coach and founder of Brooklyn-based Busy Happy Healthy, suggests trying cauliflower rice, instead.

"White rice is very high on the glycemic index and can sabotage your blood sugar and therefore your mood and wellness goals," she told me. "Swapping it for lower GI cauliflower rice is a great way to cut down on carb count without sacrificing flavor." Cauliflower also makes a great wheat-free pizza crust, like in this recipe by Food Network's Katie Lee.

Overnight oats for cereal

If the thought of giving up grains all together is too much for you to bear, at least consider adding more whole grains to your diet. In fact, one of AlTai's favorite healthy swaps is replacing cereal with overnight oats.

"The majority of cereals are heavily processed and loaded with sugar and carbohydrates. They're usually the enemy of weight loss, good energy, and optimal performance," she said. " If you want the great taste of cereal, but with more nutritional value, try subbing your morning bowl for some overnight oats mixed with almond milk and protein powder. The fiber content of the oats, coupled with the protein, will keep you full and satiated for hours to come."

Bananas for ice cream

Ice cream is one of life's simple pleasures. Unfortunately, it doesn't really help anyone who's trying to adopt healthier eating habits. To fill the void, AlTai suggests making your own "nice cream" using frozen bananas.

"Regular ice cream is loaded with sugar and fat and can wreak havoc on healthy blood sugar levels and fitness goals," she said. "Next time you're craving a pint of Rocky Road, make your own, using frozen bananas and chocolate protein powder."

Small steps toward success

When it comes to eating healthier, there are plenty of ways to still enjoy delicious food without compromising nutrition. What's even better is that it's actually quite simple, explains Lewis. "A 'diet' should be the way you eat every day — not some crazy fad or restriction that eliminates whole food groups," she told me. "Carbs aren't bad, fat isn't the enemy, and you can eat sugar. It really is all about balance and portion control."

She also adds that creating great health is the result of developing long-term sustainable habits, which are made up of thousands of small daily decisions. "One of the most powerful ways to be in control of your health is to select and cook foods for yourself so you can physically see everything you are putting into your body," she said.

Whether you choose to make all of these ingredient swaps, or simply start with one or two, the good news is that living a healthier lifestyle doesn't mean you have to do all or nothing.

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