“Eat better to feel better,” “you are what you eat!” You’ve heard it before, but it really is true. What you eat affects and reflects your life in so many ways, from your physical strength and stamina to the way you feel when you wake up and the regularity of breakouts and severity of PMS symptoms. Brooklyn-based holistic nutritionist Jennifer Schonborn notes that the biggest nutritional issue she sees in teens and young adults is snacking. Snack foods usually contain a lot of added sugars that serve only as an appetite stimulant; “the more you eat the more you want,” warns Schonborn.
Added sugars are a leading cause of obesity and diabetes, and can also lead to inflammation throughout the body, which in turn can lead to “pretty much all chronic illnesses.” Refined carbohydrates like white flour, white rice, and the contents of most packaged snack foods are “just as bad” as the added sugars, having very similar negative short- and long-term effects on the body.
On the other hand, real fruits have natural sugars that pose none of the dangers of added sugars. It’s time to get back to the real foods that existed before processed foods. Think getting your carbohydrates from fiber instead of refined grains and sugar, and vitamins and minerals that you can see in the color and freshness of fruits and vegetables (for example: orange and yellow = betacarotene, Vitamins A and C; green = iron, calcium, dietary fiber, folate, Vitamins A, C, E, and K; red = antioxidants and lycopene).
Eating a rainbow of fruits and veggies and incorporating non-animal sources of protein with legumes, whole grains, and nuts and seeds are the best and easiest ways to improve your health with the food you eat. Of course, don’t let this intimidate you. You don’t have to do it all at once, but making a few extra healthy choices a day will make a difference for your body.
Here are 10 healthy hacks for simple, accessible, and mostly 1:1 substitutions of primarily whole foods and ingredients for their low nutrition stand-ins.
Ditch the mayo
Ditch the jar of mayo and use greek yogurt to mix up your tuna or chicken salad instead. It’s higher in protein and lower in fat, and the good stuff contains absolutely no ingredients other than yogurt.
Find oil alternatives
Replace the oil called for in baking mixes with the same amount of applesauce. It adds fiber and will keep the final product moist and light. Just be careful about added sugar in the applesauce!
Replace the cream and sugar in your coffee
Try maple syrup, honey, or agave syrup in tea, coffee, or on foods where you’re usually tempted to sprinkle a little sugar. If you like milk or cream in your hot beverage of choice, see if coconut milk will do it for you. You can find cans of coconut cream at Trader Joe’s and mix it up just like heavy cream for some fluffy homemade whipped cream when the occasion calls for it.
Use vegetables for noodles
You’ve probably heard about making “zoodles” with a spiralizer by now. You don’t need a fancy tool to make zucchini noodles, though, you can just use a veggie peeler or box grater! And you can use lots of other veggies to replace noodles in your favorite pasta dishes. You can use spaghetti squash instead of pasta for classic spaghetti with red sauce. You can slice zucchini in long, thin strips to layer in place of the wide noodles in lasagna. And, lastly, stuff mushrooms instead of pasta shells in manicotti or use portobello mushrooms in place of burger buns for a high-protein twist on the classic.
Find ways to add more green
Make your lunchtime sandwich wrap with a sturdy green, like lightly steamed collards or some fresh Swiss chard. Use crisp butter lettuce instead of pita or chips as a vehicle for your hummus or falafel, tuna, or chicken salad. It adds great crunch and fresh flavor. Dark greens are more likely to be locally grown and organic, especially during the winter months, than other veggies and especially packaged wraps at the store.
Use avocado and hummus as spread
Try some mashed avocado or creamy hummus instead of mayonnaise or margarine on sandwiches. Guacamole and similar spreads aren’t just dips for chips, and pack the same punch when paired with fresh veggies on their own, in a sandwich, or mixed into a dressing for salad.
Make your own salad dressing
While we’re on the topic of salad, throw out those bottled dressings and invest in some high quality extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. While you can find store-bought dressings made with real ingredients, Schonborn recommends avoiding any with unpronounceable ingredients. The benefit of making your own dressing is that it’s infinitely customizable with salt and pepper, fresh and dried herbs, your favorite condiments like mustard, low sodium soy sauce, or sriracha. Keep in mind the recommended vinaigrette ratio of 1 part vinegar or acid (like lemon or lime juice) to 3 parts oil and get mixing!
Avoid refined grains when you can
Replace refined grains with whole grains, like switching to brown rice, quinoa, and farro instead of white rice, and trying other whole or “ancient” grains as you come across them. They all have unique flavors and textures when cooked and can bring a lot of life, not to mention a variety of nutrients, to your favorite dishes. Prep a big batch of grains for the week to add to salads and soups. If you make too much, you can freeze cooked grains and reheat in the microwave. In processed foods like bread, crackers, and cereals, look for “whole wheat” as the first ingredient on the nutrition label.
Skip the packaged breadcrumbs
Use almond meal instead of breadcrumbs for breading, coating, or thickening foods like meatloaf and baked chicken or fish. It’ll add a nice nutty flavor, plus some extra protein! Unless you’ve been making your breadcrumbs at home, the packaged stuff from the store is probably pretty old and of questionable origin.
Eat like a bird (in a good way)
Purchase nuts, seeds, and dried fruits from the bulk bins at the grocery store and create your own customized trail mix to pack in your bag for a snack so you won’t be tempted to hit up the vending machine. Making your own mix means you never cherry pick and waste the parts you don’t like, and you can adjust the ratios so there’s just as many Craisins as cashews.