As I receive many emails from women looking to eat healthier, I’ve noticed a few common problems. First, many people don’t actually know the difference between healthy foods and unhealthy foods. Now in the broad sense we all know that home-cooked meals are better than fast-food, that veggies and fruits contain a lot of nutrients, and that sweets, for the most part, are the enemy. But when it comes down to specific food groups, people generally aren’t aware of healthier food options.
The second problem is people’s perception of the word healthy. The general public thinks healthy means either sacrificing taste or giving up the foods they love, neither of which are true. There is no legitimate definition of “healthy eating” as it is a subjective term based on person preferences, likes, and beliefs. To one person healthy might mean vegan, to another it might mean gluten free, and to us Muslims, it includes staying away from pork and alcohol. In reality, healthy should include getting the majority of your daily calories from whole, nutrient-dense foods, while maintaining a balance and still allowing for some of the things you love.
For these reasons, I have put together a simple list of healthy food substitutes. What I do want to make known is that I am not advising anyone to completely CUT OUT the foods being substituted. It’s not that these foods should be off limits, it’s simply a guide for those who may benefit from the knowledge of healthier options. As mentioned above, healthy is about a diet containing a majority of the healthier options, while balancing it with foods you love.
So without further ado, I present to you a list of healthy substitutes for some of your favorite foods!
In very basic terms, there are two types of carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are those that are made up of only one or two sugar molecules (a simple structure), whereas complex caboydrates are made up of a longer chain of sugar molecules (a more complex structure). Typically, simple carbs are absorbed and digested quicker, spiking up blood insulin levels, while complex carbs are absorbed and digested more slowly by the body without creating that spike in blood insulin, while also creating a greater sense of satiety and lasting energy.
In general, complex carbohydrates are also a bit more nutrient-dense. Simple carbohydrates are processed; a method during which many important nutrients, such as fiber, are stripped away. So, while simple carbohydrates do not have to totally be avoided, complex carbs do have an advantage in terms of micronutrients.
Therefore, this list contains some healthier carb options.
- Brown Rice over White Rice
- Quinoa over Couscous
- Whole-Wheat Bread over White Bread
- Sweet Potato or Yams over White Potato
- Whole-Wheat or Brown Rice Pasta over White Pasta
- Spaghetti Squash or Zucchini Noodles over White Pasta
- Mashed Cauliflower or Turnips over Mashed Potatoes
- Granola over Croutons
- Rolled or Steel-Cut Oats over Cereal or Instant Oats
- Rolled Oats over Bread Crumbs
- Crispy Lettuce Leaves over Taco Shells or Tortillas
- Dry Beans over Canned Beans
- Whole Wheat Flour, Oat Flour, or Nut Flours over White Flour
Proteins: The Good and the Better
The reason I say the good and the better, is because there are not really “healthier” substitutes for meats, aside from halal meats that are organic and fresh as opposed to non-halal meats. Certainly there are some meats that are much more advantageous than others, but in general it comes down to which meats have more or less fat. Thus, we are going to focus on lean versus fattier meats. Now, there is not a significant difference between lean and fatty meats in terms of nutrients, rather it is a matter of certain types of meat containing more fat and calories than the other.
This section also will not apply to everyone, rather it will vary based on individual goals. If your goal is to eat a significant amount of protein with fewer calories, than lean meats are probably better suited for you. If someone is not worried about calories, or is trying to gain weight, than fatty meats are a perfectly fine option.
Therefore, this list contains leaner substitutions for fattier meats.
- Chicken Breast over Chicken Thigh
- Turkey Breast over Turkey Thigh
- Ground Turkey or Chicken over Ground Beef
- Bison or Leaner Cuts of Beef like Sirloin over Fattier Beef
- 93% Lean Ground Beef over Fattier Ground Beef
Other (Non-Meat) Healthy Options for Protein
- Egg Whites (or 1 whole egg mixed with egg whites) over Whole Eggs
- Fat-Free or Low-Fat Yogurt over Whole Yogurt
- You can also use some of the above mentioned carb choices as protein if you are not a meat-eater, e.g., beans and quinoa can be a good protein source for vegetarians!
Sugar & Spice & Everything Nice
Included here are some baking hacks and healthy substitutes for sugar and sweets, fats, condiments and other miscellaneous items.
- Honey, Agave, Truvia or Stevia over Sugar
- Unsweetened Applesauce or Fruit Baby Food for Oil
- Mashed Avocado or Banana over Butter
- All-Natural Nut Butters over Low Fat or other Nut Butters
- Evaporated Skim Milk or Coconut Milk over Cream
- Skim, 2% Milk, or Almond Milk over Whole Milk
- Kale Chips or Popcorn over Potato Chips
- Dark Chocolate over Milk or Semisweet Chocolate
- Pureed Avocado or Non-Fat Plain Yogurt over Mayonnaise
- Frozen Yogurt over Ice Cream
- Low-Fat Cottage Cheese for Sour Cream
- Low-Sodium Soy Sauce or Rice Vinegar over Soy Sauce
- Seltzer Water over Soda
- Organic Crystal Light Packets (for water) over Juice
- Olive Oil over Butter