You know you should eat better, but turning good intentions into sustainable healthy habits can be tough in practice. Between juggling a career, relationships, and family, making smart choices for your health and well-being can quickly drop on your priority list. So what separates a temporary diet from a sustainable healthy eating plan?
According to Patricia Bannan, registered dietician and author of Eat Right When Time Is Tight, the key is making micro, rather than macro changes. Instead of depriving yourself of the food you love, she recommends focusing on a few small swaps. By ditching key ingredients that are devoid of nutrients and replacing them with healthier alternatives, you can quickly improve your favorite dishes without making drastic changes.
Forget fad diets: These small food swaps are just as effective, says a dietitian.
Ditch: Iceberg Lettuce
Granted, salads are often a healthy option, but Bannan says there’s a way to add even more nutrients into your favorite bowl: Go darker. Surprisingly, not all salad greens are nutritionally equal, and Bannan says color provides clues about their health score. “While iceberg lettuce is sort of green, it doesn’t offer much in the way of nutrition,” she says.
Instead, “Choose darker greens like spinach or kale, which provide iron, magnesium, folate, and vitamins A and C.” Tired of ubiquitous kale? Toss mustard greens and Swiss chard into your dish to experiment with a different flavor profile.
Try it tonight: Autumn Kale Salad With Fennel, Honeycrisp, and Goat Cheese
Cauliflower is having a serious moment among foodies and dietitians alike, and for good reason. This underrated vegetable can be used in pizza crusts, roasted whole and served as a “steak,” or added to traditionally creamy dishes for a cheesy consistency with fewer calories.
“When making mac and cheese, swap half (or all) of the pasta for cauliflower,” Bannan recommends. “You’ll dramatically cut the carbs and calories in the dish, [and] cauliflower offers potassium, fiber, and vitamin C for good health.”
Try it tonight: Vegan Mac and Cheese With Creamy Cauliflower Sauce
Ditch: Sour Cream
Try: Greek Yogurt
It might be your go-to in the morning, but consider incorporating Greek yogurt in other parts of your diet. “Instead of sour cream, go for plain, Greek yogurt, which is similar in taste and texture but much more nutritious,” Bannan notes.
“Plain Greek yogurt is a protein-packed alternative to sour cream, offering about 20 grams of protein per cup, compared to less than five grams of protein per cup of sour cream.” You can use it on nachos and tacos, but also try using it recipes where a dollop of tang is welcome, like soups and chili.
Try it tonight: Ginger Carrot Soup With Greek Yogurt
Ditch: Ice Cream
Try: Frozen Bananas
There’s a better way to use those almost-too-ripe bananas you were about to toss from the freezer. “Instead of ice cream, go for a frozen banana, packed with potassium, folate, and vitamin C for good health. You can even top it with a drizzle of chocolate or smear on a bit of peanut butter. Frozen bananas also work great in smoothies for a similar creamy texture to ice cream without all the fat and calories,” she says.
Try it tonight: Blueberry Banana Ice Cream
Try: Fresh Salsa
Salsa isn’t just a condiment for Mexican dishes, she says. “Use salsa instead of creamy dips” to really bring the flavor. “Not only will you cut the calories and fat, you'll load up on healthy antioxidants in the tomatoes. Half a cup of salsa has just 35 calories and provides an array of nutrients, while 1/2 a cup of sour cream dip has more than 200 calories and not much in the way of nutrition,” she advises. Think about salsa on top of proteins, salads, and even as a starter for gazpacho.
Try it tonight: Sweet Potato and Black Bean Nachos With Green Chile Salsa
Nuts are packed with nutrients and can be extremely satisfying for a snack, but their use extends beyond trail mix. Instead, consider the crunchy texture they add to other dishes. Bannan likes to use them in lieu of starchy croutons as an extra boost in salads, and her preferred nut is pistachios. “Top your salad with pistachios—they’re a good source of fiber and protein, which combined with their good-for-you fats may help keep you fuller longer.”
Try it tonight: Moroccan Sweet Potato Sunshine Salad
Cinnamon doesn’t always have to pair with sugar — it can be good on its own, too. “Use cinnamon instead of sugar,” says Bannan, who likes it in coffee, oatmeal, and on peanut butter toast for a deep, complex flavor that will have you forgetting sugar is even an option. “Not only is cinnamon calorie-free, it’s one of the healthiest spices on the planet. Research shows it can help lower blood sugar levels and help keep your heart healthy.”
Try it tonight: Cinnamon Maple Caramel Popcorn
Try: Spaghetti Squash
One of the easiest ways to supercharge your favorite pasta recipe is to trade glutinous white pasta for nutrient-rich spaghetti squash. “Spaghetti squash is a low-calorie, high-fiber replacement to white pasta. You instantly have a plate of vegetables,” she says. “Squash also provides nutrients like folate, vitamin C, and magnesium for good health.”
Try it Ttnight: Crockpot Spaghetti Squash Lasagna Bolognese
Have you tried any of these healthy food swaps? Tell us if you’ve been able to sustain it!