For Wellness and Weight Loss
Whether you’re trying to improve your health, lose weight or both, making over your meals can make a big difference. We don’t mean just removing certain ingredients; you should also add foods with greater nutritional value, focusing on body-boosting vitamins, minerals and polyphenols (plant molecules that activate disease-fighting genes). Here, two registered dietitians at the Cleveland Clinic — Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, and Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, RD, LD — offer up 13 food swaps for increased wellness and weight loss.
To benefit: Your gut
Swap out: Sour cream
Add in: Nonfat plain Greek yogurt
Probiotics, found in yogurt, offer gastrointestinal health benefits, helping to alleviate diarrhea, constipation, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcers and lactose intolerance. Compare that to sour cream and it’s no contest.
We recommend Greek yogurt because it’s strained and, therefore, thicker, creamier and loaded with protein. In fact, Greek yogurt has more protein than regular yogurt, and, according to a 2007 article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, protein helps you feel satisfied after a meal — more so than carbohydrates or fat — helping you to eat less overall. Kirkpatrick advises that you stay away from yogurts with fruit, which contain added sugars and will, as a result, sabotage weight-loss efforts. Nonfat plain Greek yogurt has the same creamy texture as sour cream but only about one-third of the calories.
Use it: You can use nonfat plain Greek yogurt in place of sour cream in tangy chicken marinade (with garlic, lemon juice and curry), shrimp or chicken salad, and dips. Try it on baked potatoes, or even use it in place of sour cream in cake recipes.
To benefit: Your brain
Swap out: Diet soda
Add in: Unsweetened iced tea or coffee
Black, green and white teas (hot or iced) can help get you through an afternoon slump. All three varieties (though not herbal teas) contain a compound called L-theanine, which studies have shown improves attention when consumed along with caffeine, another component of tea. Coffee is a good option too, as studies focused on its benefits show that it can increase short-term recall.
Another good reason to swap: The diet soda you’re drinking to save calories may actually be hindering your weight loss. In one study from the University of Texas Health Center, scientists found that for every diet soda consumed per day, the risk of being overweight or obese increases by 41 percent. Researchers speculate that the artificial sweeteners in diet drinks throw off your ability to regulate calorie intake.
Use it: Keep a pitcher of homemade iced tea or coffee in your fridge, and limit added sweeteners and dairy products.
To benefit: Your cells
Swap out: Ice cream or low-fat ice cream
Add in: Frozen fruit smoothies
Fruits are rich in flavonoids (a type of polyphenol with antioxidant properties), which can help protect you from developing certain types of cancer (lung, esophageal, bladder and stomach cancer), explains Kirkpatrick. Fruits rich in flavonoids include apples, blackberries, blueberries, pomegranates, cantaloupe, cherries, cranberries, pears, plums, raspberries, strawberries and grapes. In addition, people who eat fruit in abundance have a lower risk for high blood pressure — a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease — than people who don’t, according to research from Japan.
Use it: Use fresh or frozen fruit (frozen is often more healthful than fresh because it’s processed at the peak of ripeness), adding ice if you use fresh. Combine as many fruits as you want with a bit of fruit juice (such as orange or pineapple), plus nonfat yogurt (optional). Mix in a blender for one minute. Freeze until set (or drink unfrozen) and enjoy!
To benefit: Your bones
Swap out: White potatoes
Add in: Sweet potatoes
While white potatoes do offer nutritional benefits (they’re a good source of vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium and dietary fiber), the United States Potato Board confirms that french fries are the most popular way Americans eat potatoes, which spells serious trouble (those trans fats in the frying oil!). What’s more, white potatoes are higher on the glycemic index than sweet potatoes, and research has demonstrated that lowering the glycemic load of the diet appears to be an effective method of promoting weight loss.
Like white potatoes, sweet potatoes are packed with vitamin C, potassium and fiber. They’re also an excellent source of beta-carotene (the darker varieties having a higher concentration), which is essential for proper bone growth, normal vision and healthy skin.
Use it: Sweet potatoes taste great steamed without toppings, but you can also turn them into healthy french fries — by slicing, spraying with cooking spray or brushing with olive oil, adding a bit of salt and baking until browned.
To benefit: Your energy level
Swap out: Rice or pasta
Add in: Quinoa
Sometimes it seems like white-flour products are everywhere — a bowl of rice, a roll with dinner, a plate full of pasta. When you consume a lot of refined carbohydrates (like white rice, white bread and regular white pasta), they’re quickly digested into simple sugars and absorbed into your bloodstream, which can cause your blood sugar levels to spike and then quickly crash. The result is usually flagging energy, moodiness and tiredness. With whole grains and especially with quinoa, you don’t have that problem. Quinoa is a whole grain with a low glycemic load, which means it’s absorbed more slowly and thus decreases sugar spikes. That means more even sugar levels, which means a more consistent energy level and mood. Quinoa even beats out brown rice in terms of nutritional value: One cup of cooked quinoa has 15 percent fewer carbohydrates and 60 percent more protein than a comparable amount of brown rice; it also has 25 percent more fiber, which can help lower blood cholesterol.
Use it: With sautéed vegetables, quinoa is a wonderful side dish — you can serve it as you would a side of rice or pasta. Quinoa is also nice for breakfast — serve it warm with cinnamon, raisins and a sprinkle of chopped almonds.
To benefit: Your gut
Swap out: Potato chips
Add in: Air-popped popcorn
Popcorn eaters get more than twice as many whole grains, giving them more than 20 percent more fiber in their diet than people who don’t eat popcorn, according to National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES) data. Fiber not only helps you feel full, it’s essential for keeping your GI tract regular. And popcorn is a low-calorie (please, no dousing it in butter), high-volume food — unlike most processed snack foods.
Use it: All you need are corn kernels and a brown paper lunch bag. Place the kernels in the bag, fold over the top, and place in the microwave on high for approximately three minutes, or until popping slows.
To benefit: Your waistline
Swap out: Corn
Add in: Broccoli
So many people rely on corn as their vegetable source, laments Jamieson-Petonic. The problem is that corn is a high-glycemic-index food, which means it increases your blood sugar. It’s also higher in calories than most other vegetables, especially the non-starchy variety. Broccoli, on the other hand, is a favorite among dietitians for good reason: It’s high in calcium and is also a great source of vitamin A, vitamin K, folic acid and fiber. On top of all that, new research shows that certain substances in broccoli appear to block a defective gene associated with cancer. “You get way more bang for your buck eating broccoli than corn,” explains Kirkpatrick.
Use it: Add broccoli to pasta dishes, sauté it with rice, toss it into salads, or simply serve it lightly steamed (with a dash of red pepper flakes and a spritz of lemon) alongside chicken and fish dishes. Swap out half a cup of corn for a whole cup of steamed broccoli and you’ll have a healthier, more filling meal with fewer calories.
To benefit: Your colon
Swap out: White flour
Add in: Whole grains
Swapping out “white” foods — white flour, white rice, regular pasta — for whole-grain alternatives like whole-wheat flour, brown rice and whole-grain pasta won’t help you cut calories in a one-to-one comparison. But the fiber in whole grains fills you up faster and sustains you longer, making you less likely to eat as much or go back for seconds — or to be hungry an hour later. In addition, there may be an association between whole grains and a reduction of colon cancer, explains Kirkpatrick. Studies also show that people who consume whole grains instead of white grains have a lower percent of belly fat and significantly less disease-causing inflammation.
Use it: To find products that are truly whole grain, look for the word “whole” (whole wheat, whole oats) near the top of the ingredient list. You can also trust the Whole Grain Stamp, an official packaging symbol. The Basic Stamp — it says “Whole Grain” — tells you that a product contains at least eight grams of whole grains per serving, but that product may also contain refined grain. The 100% Stamp — it says “100% Whole Grain” — certifies that all the grain in the product is whole grain.
To benefit: Your blood pressure
Swap out: Salt
Add in: Spices
Studies prove that reducing salt intake can lead to a substantial drop in blood pressure for people with high blood pressure (hypertension) or higher than optimal blood pressure, and that too much sodium causes triglycerides to build up in the walls of your arteries, which increases your stroke and heart attack risk. And yet Americans continue to consume far more sodium than is recommended. Your body needs some sodium to function properly — to help maintain the right balance of fluids in your body, transmit nerve impulses, and allow for proper contraction and relaxation of muscles. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 recommends limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day — or 1,500 mg if you are older than 51, are black, or have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. (Note that these are the maximum amounts; less is better.)
If you’re looking to add flavor to foods in place of salt, try fresh and dried herbs that are free of sodium, such as cayenne pepper, garlic or garlic powder, nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, oregano, tarragon, basil and thyme. You’ll also want to limit processed foods, which are typically high in salt.
Use it: Generally, it’s best to add dried herbs to recipes during cooking and to add fresh herbs once you’re done using heat.
To benefit: Your unborn baby
Swap out: Croutons
Add in: Walnuts
Omega-3 fatty acids offer a number of benefits, from lowering LDL (or bad) cholesterol (one of the main causes of heart disease) to improving the health of your arteries. Here’s the kicker: Not only can omega-3s help everyone from infants to the aged, research shows that infants born to moms with higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids at delivery had advanced attention spans well into their second year of life! So that means, even if you don’t consume omega-3s for yourself (but why wouldn’t you?), think about little ones who have yet to enter the world.
Yes, you can get loads of these essential fatty acids from fish like salmon, but you can also get them from nuts, especially walnuts. And besides omega-3s, walnuts also provide fiber, which helps you feel full and eat less. Just be careful: Nuts contain a lot of fat, and even though it’s mostly healthy fat, it’s still caloric, so go easy.
Use it: Who doesn’t love a crunchy treat in a green salad? Instead of eating empty, unhealthy calories (croutons), try topping your greens with walnuts for crunch.
To benefit: Your waistline
Swap out: Dried fruit
Add in: Water-rich fruit
Dried fruit may sound like a healthy snack, but with its concentrated sugar, high calories and, too often, sugar coating, it’s not such a great option, especially if you’re trying to lose weight, warns Kirkpatrick. Fresh fruit, on the other hand, makes you feel full on fewer calories. The reason is simple: It takes up more room in your stomach. Think about grapes and raisins. “Raisins provide a lot of calories in a very small serving,” says Jamieson-Petonic. “For the same number of calories in a small box of raisins, you could have a whole cup of grapes.” And you still get that sweet taste satisfaction from eating fresh fruit, adds Kirkpatrick.
Use it: Keep fresh fruit on hand for snacking instead of digging into the dried stuff.
To benefit: Your heart
Swap out: Cocktails
Add in: Red or white wine
Research suggests that moderate alcohol intake can produce a slight rise in HDL (good) cholesterol. But that benefit can be outweighed by health risks, depending on your beverage of choice. If you opt for sugary drinks (banana daiquiri, anyone?), you’re getting added sugars, which increase inflammation and lead to a higher risk of heart disease. Waistline watchers should also know that froufrou cocktails often contain a surprising number of calories, points out Kirkpatrick. Switch to red wine and you get antioxidants such as flavonoids that are believed to lower LDL and boost HDL with no added sugar and less calories than many mixed drinks. Given the risks of alcohol, however, the American Heart Association recommends that you limit your daily intake to two five-ounce glasses for men or one five-ounce glass for women. Women who drink any alcohol should take 400 mcg of folic acid (the amount found in a multivitamin) to help offset the increased risk of breast cancer from alcohol intake.
Use it: Instead of mixed drinks, opt for wine, especially red. If you’re looking for a low-calorie wine drink, try a white wine spritzer — a mix of wine, club soda and a twist of lime or lemon peel.
To benefit: Your heart
Swap out: Ground beef
Add in: Ground turkey
Red meat is a source of both saturated fat and dietary cholesterol — two of the main sources of high cholesterol. White-meat ground turkey contains half the saturated fat of 85 percent lean ground beef. But it has to be 100 percent white or breast meat, warns Jamieson-Petonic. “Dark ground turkey can be just as high in fat as ground beef,” she explains.
Use it: At your next barbecue, try turkey burgers instead of ground beef ones. You can also swap in ground turkey for ground beef in meatloaf, meat-based pasta sauces, tacos and chili.