Small food swaps to start eating healthier

My healthy-eating journey began when I first met my husband. He loves food, and he loves balance. He’d always add lettuce, tomato, onion and other veggies to his sandwiches, in contrast to my meat-and-cheese sandwiches. When he ordered foods, he’d swap out the white bun for a whole grain bun, or mayo for hummus. To be honest, he was a little judgey about my unhealthy eating habits.

Not wanting to lose face, I started making some swaps myself. Nearly seven years later, I have made some drastic dietary changes and feel SO much better for it. Patience played a big part. Nothing changed overnight and I definitely didn’t set out wanting to overhaul my diet. But making small changes, adding small habits to my diet the more I learned about nutrition, I made a big change.

It’s totally normal to have less-than-healthy eating habits. Health food isn’t so accessible or cheap as fast, fried and sugary foods. When was the last time you were on the go and thought, “I could really go for a kale salad right now.” Eating healthy always sounds better in theory than it does in practice. You probably stopped at Chick-Fil-A instead and ordered some nuggets.

Although you probably won’t change your on-the-go habits without a lot of work, your in-home eating habits are much more controllable. If you’re looking to change your overall eating habits or not, I’ve compiled a list of easy exchanges that take virtually zero effort to make. All you’ve got to do is put them on the grocery list.

White rice –> brown rice/quinoa

Rice is a versatile base that you can use with any meat and vegetables. White rice is basically brown rice with the good-for-you removed. White rice can last longer, but the milling removes the bran, wheat germ, fiber among other nutrients. Brown is made the same as white rice, so it cooks similar, and the only change is the cook time. If you want a nutritious swap that’s even easier to make, check out quinoa.

Pancakes berries syrup on a blue plate

Regular syrup –> maple syrup

The nutritional value of maple syrup has often been debated, but maple syrup has a lower glycemic index than artificial syrup, which means the sugar isn’t turned into higher blood sugar levels as quickly. The faster sugar is processed in your body (refined sugars process very quickly) the faster it turns into fat.

No form of sugar is really ‘healthy’ and should be consumed in moderation. Real maple syrup is natural and has some nutrients whereas regular table syrup is made of artificial flavors and ingredients to mimic it. All things considered, the fewer artificially processed foods we consume, the better.

Spaghetti noodles –> spaghetti squash

This one is one of my favorite swaps. I don’t feel good after I’ve eaten a dish of pasta, but subbing spaghetti noodles with spaghetti squash makes both my tummy and taste buds happy.

Making spaghetti squash take a bit more prep time, but is ultimately easy to make. And you’ll likely have leftovers for another dish, so that’s nice.

Sour cream –> Greek yogurt

Easiest. Swap. Ever. It’s basically the same, but +nutrition and –calories. I buy full-fat Greek yogurt because it’s creamier.

Soda –> sparkling water

Here’s the thing. No soda is good for you. What your body really needs is the water. There are flavored sparkling waters such as La Croix, but if the lack of sugar turns you off, there are some lightly sweetened versions as well. Or, as my husband likes to do, mix sparkling water with organic fruit juice. You’ll cut out a lot of the sugar, but get the tasty fruit flavor.

Cream poured into coffee in white coffee cup, with wood table backgroundFlavored coffee creamer –> milk + simple syrup or honey

This one took me a long time to change. I grew addicted to coffee with the help of Starbucks Frappuccinos and CoffeeMate flavored creamers. I liked the sweet flavors and coffee tastes much different without them.

However, flavored coffee creams are often laden with gross additives and sugar. If you can’t deal with just milk and honey, try a more natural variety with a shorter ingredient list and less sugar.

Liquor/mixed drinks –> beer or wine

Mixed drinks can be fun and delicious, but that’s often because they’re swimming in sugar, and you can quickly drink over a day’s worth of calories at the bar.

Unlike most mixed drinks, beer and wine have some health benefits. Studies have indicated that a glass of red wine a night is good for heart health and the added benefit of antioxidants. Beer has also been shown to have some health benefits if consumed in moderation.

Of course, beer and wine also have their drawbacks. Both can have sugary varieties, and beer, especially, can carry a lot of calories. But generally, both carry SOME health benefit and less of the bad stuff.

Candy –> dark chocolate

Being honest here – I don’t understand people who don’t like dark chocolate. There’s actually very little chocolate in most popular milk chocolate candy you find in the US. It’s mostly sugar and palm oil.

When I crave something sweet, I grab a square of dark chocolate. I eat about two squares a day. It’s no bag of M&Ms, but allowing yourself a modest sweet treat is more likely to keep you going than cutting off candy altogether.

Refried beans –> black beans

This is a good swap for ordering at restaurants. Refried beans are delicious, but they’re also much more salted and sometimes cooked in bacon fat. Black beans will provide more fiber and a similar amount of protein without the added salt and fat.

sliced whole wheat breadWhite bread –> whole wheat bread

This is a super easy swap. Find a bread that says “100% whole wheat.” You’ll want to stay away from “enriched wheat flour,” which essentially means, ‘highly-processed with less nutrition.’

Chips and dip –> baked pita chips and hummus

Baked is better than fried, and hummus is made of chickpeas and reasonably healthy. Chips and dip no longer have a place in my house because hummus dip is delicious and versatile.

Popcorn –> lightly salted almonds

This one is harder for me because I love popcorn. But it’s easier to put a baggie of almonds in my purse to take to the movies than it is to sneak in a bag of popcorn, and I’ll feel better about not spending $5 or more at the concession stand. Movie popcorn, especially, is full of salt and grease. Almonds are a good source of lean protein and will keep you energized and alert.

Peanut butter and jelly –> whole wheat toast with almond butter and blueberries and honey

My personal favorite swap. Though peanut butter isn’t necessarily unhealthy, I prefer the nuttier taste of almond butter with the honey and berries. You’ll gain more nutrients and less sugar. Take it up a notch by using bread with sprouted grain.


Nutrition can be complicated. The easiest place to start making your own swaps is by choosing foods with lower sugar content and fewer ingredients overall. Simple, clean food is often the best kind of food.

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Candice Brusuelas