The path to better health doesn’t always require drastic changes to your diet. There are simple ways to make our everyday dietary choices a little bit better. Oftentimes, that means being aware of foods that seem healthy but aren’t. The biggest culprits are often foods that contain high amounts of sugar and sodium, which can contribute to hypertension and obesity.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, and even less for those with high blood pressure (1,500 mg). Here’s a breakdown of table salt sodium equivalents:
1/4 teaspoon salt = 575 mg sodium
1/2 teaspoon salt = 1,150 mg sodium
3/4 teaspoon salt = 1,725 mg sodium
1 teaspoon salt = 2,300 mg sodium
One of the best food substitutions you can make is swapping salt for low-sodium salt. According to a former CDC director, switching to low-sodium salt could save millions of lives around the world. Why is salt so "bad"? Research shows that sodium is strongly associated with an increase in blood pressure and a decrease in cardiovascular health. In fact, replacing salt with low-sodium salt can decrease your risk of death by 12% percent.
In addition to salt, here are a few more substitutions to try. Please note that although these recommendations provide healthier alternatives, some of the following suggestions are not considered to be foods meant for everyday consumption. For example, switching from burgers to chicken strips helps reduce red meat intake, but eating chicken strips every day probably isn't a great idea. Talk with your doctor or care provider about what diets or foods are right for you.
Whole or oat milk
Try: 1% milk or unsweetened almond milk
Why? Whole milk is high in fat and carbs while oat milk typically contains simple sugars and canola oil.
Yogurt with added fruit
Try: plain greek yogurt with fresh fruit
Why? One cup of mixed berry fruit on the bottom yogurt has about 200 calories and 36 grams of sugar.
Waffles and syrup
Try: whole-wheat waffles with fresh fruit
Why? Complex carbohydrates like whole wheat have been shown to decrease the risk of diabetes.
Bagel and cream cheese
Try: whole-wheat toast and peanut butter
Why? Bagels are carb-heavy and cream cheese contains high amounts of fat.
Try: cold brew with a splash of milk
Why? Lattes are mostly milk with a shot or two of espresso. Milk, especially whole milk, has a lot of fat and carbs. Switching up your coffee order is an easy way to cut back on extra fat and sugar throughout the day.
Try: brewed coffee or tea
Why? Studies show that instant coffee, rather than coffee that’s brewed using a filter, can raise your LDL cholesterol. Brewed coffee or tea, which contains the cognitive-boosting nutrient flavanol, are healthier options.
Oatmeal with raisins
Try: Oatmeal with frozen blueberries
Why? Raisins and other dried fruit are like sugar pills. Although the sugar is naturally occurring, a 1.5-oz box of raisins has about 24 grams of sugar – the equivalent of a Snickers bar.
Try: pre-sliced bread from the bakery
Why? Many of the breads we buy at the store – even those that look healthy – contain soybean oil, an ingredient that’s been linked to obesity and diabetes.
Try: open-faced tuna sandwich
Why? Using one piece of bread instead of two is an easy way to cut back on carbs.
Try: a rice bowl or tacos on corn tortillas
Why? Flour tortillas typically contain refined white flour, additives and lots of sodium.
Try: goat cheese or feta
Why? Goat and feta cheeses contain conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of fat that reduces heart disease and cancer risk and may help your body burn more fat.
Try: chicken strips
Why? We didn’t promise all of these recommendations would be conventionally healthy! But if you’re dining out and wanting to forego the burger, choose chicken over beef.
Try: homemade dressing
Why? Bottled salad dressings often contain high amounts of sugar and sodium. Here’s a recipe for a simple vinaigrette dressing.
Try: air-popped popcorn
Why? Popcorn has fewer carbs, fat, and protein than chips do. Plus, popcorn is less calorie dense so you can eat more than you would if you were eating the carb equivalent of chips.
Why? Popsicles containing natural fruit are a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth without all of the added sugar and fat from ice cream.
Cheese and crackers
Try: chips and salsa
Why? Cheeses often contain high amounts of fat and cured meats contain high amounts of sodium. Both can increase your risk for hypertension .
Try: protein bar
Why? Protein helps you stay full longer while many granola bars contain simple carbohydrates that are digested quickly.
Why? Commercial trail mixes often contain a lot of sugary ingredients like chocolate and raisins. Studies show that a handful of walnuts a day can lower your cholesterol up to 7.9 percent.
Try: Romaine lettuce
Why? Iceberg lettuce is low in nutritional value. Some restaurants are even banning iceberg lettuce their menus.
Try: Olive oil
Why? Butter is high in saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease. If you like spreading butter on your bread, try dipping in a tablespoon of olive oil instead.
Side of bread or rice
Try: baked potato
Why? If you typically serve bread or white rice as your starchy side, maybe try a baked potato. They’re chock full of nutrients and contain resistant starches, which help regulate blood sugar.
Try: red sauce
Why? Alfredo sauce contains butter and heavy cream, which means it's high in sodium and fat. Tomato sauce on the other hand tends to have more nutrients.
White or yellow potatoes
Try: sweet potato
Why? Sweet potatoes are digested slowly and keep you full.
Try: chicken skewers
Why? A 2021 study found that eating a single hot dog can reduce your lifespan by 36 minutes.
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