These swaps are so easy you’ll wonder why you didn’t do them (and reap the nutritional reward) long ago.
When it comes to nutritional value, nature has given us good foods (apples, for example), great foods (blueberries), and really, really great foods (goji berries). These “really, really great foods” often fall into the “superfoods” category. These are foods that have exorbitantly high levels of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients for their small sizes.
You’ve probably heard of lots of these—chia seeds, acai berries, green tea—but you may not be incorporating them into your diet, despite all the healthy touts. For one, they’re typically expensive. For another, they’re also not the easiest things to incorporate into your weeknight rotation of marinated chicken with veg and grain sides. However, there are plenty of simple ways to get them in without breaking the bank. Here, a dozen super simple swaps you can make starting today that aren’t hard, but are delicious and good for you.
Frozen berries for fresh
If you automatically give the first-place ribbon for healthfulness to fresh berries, it’s time to reevaluate. Frozen berries are picked at peak ripeness and flash frozen. That means all their healthy vitamins and minerals are sealed in until you eat them. Fresh berries, meanwhile, often travel hundreds or thousands of miles before they reach your grocery store shelf, especially in winter. During transport, these fruits can lose a great deal of their nutritional perks.
What the science says: Berries are rich in antioxidants and polyphenols, disease-fighting compounds. They’re also a great source of soluble fiber. One study found that people who eat more berries have a lower risk for cardiovascular disease than people who don’t eat berries.
How to use frozen berries: Frozen berries are a great addition to overnight oats, yogurt parfaits, and smoothies. When blended, frozen fruit adds a luscious frosty texture without added ice. You can even use frozen berries in baked goods, from pies to quick breads.
Sweet potatoes for white potatoes
It doesn’t get much easier than this swap precisely because you cook sweet potatoes the same way you do white. Plus, sweet potatoes are highly affordable and boast a great deal more nutritional value over their pale-fleshed cousins.
What the science says: Sweet potatoes are high in potassium, fiber, vitamins C and B6, iron, and the antioxidant beta-carotene. A pigment you’ll find in sweet potatoes, anthocyanin, has been linked to lower cancer risk. In one study, researchers found diets with sweet potatoes may ward off colorectal cancer.
How to use sweet potatoes: Use them any way you would white spuds: roast, bake, chop for hash, slice for chips, or mash for a creamy, delicately sweet, and unforgettable dinner side.
Squash for pasta
We like two smart swaps for white-flour pasta: Spaghetti squash, which turns into delicate noodles when baked, and spiralized zucchini, or “zoodles.” Both spaghetti squash and zucchini noodles offer loads more fiber, vitamins, and minerals compared to plain ol’ pasta. They also happen to be gluten-free and a lower-carb alternative.
What the science says: Pasta contains about 200 calories in a typical 2-ounce serving; spaghetti squash has about 40 calories, and zoodles have just 10. They both come with fiber, potassium, and vitamins, like A and C, and the disease-fighting antioxidant beta-carotene.
How to use spaghetti squash and zucchini noodles: Spaghetti squash can be cooked ahead of time to make your weeknight meals easier. Cook on the weekend, shred into noodles or strands, and store in an airtight container. Zoodles are best cooked fresh, just before you add a sauce. Don’t have a spiralizer or time to use one? No worries. Many grocery stores are now offering them in their ready-made cooler section. Check your favorite local produce aisle and you may be pleasantly surprised to find a variety of prepared veggie noodles.
Cinnamon for sugar
This old diet trick is back to teach you new lessons. Cinnamon, a plant that’s been used for centuries in alternative medicine, is a wonderful way to help you slash sugar and boost the nutritional value of some of your favorite foods.
What the science says: Cinnamon’s value isn’t in any disease-fighting capabilities (you just aren’t going to eat that much; instead it’s in its flavor). Cinnamon amplifies the natural sweetness of foods, so it’s a wonderful way to cut back on sugar in foods like oatmeal, yogurt, and quick breads.
How to use cinnamon: Start by cutting one-quarter the sugar in your recipe, and add one teaspoon of cinnamon. Slowly, slash more of the sugar and boost the flavor with cinnamon until you reach a point where you’re using half the sugar a recipe suggests. The final result will be less sweet, but the tongue-tantalizing flavor of the earthy spice will make up for any lost sugar high.
Broccoli for green beans
If you reach for the bag (or can) of green beans automatically, it’s time to shift out of auto-drive and pick up a healthier green side option. Broccoli is higher in fiber and plant-based calcium than green beans. It’s also a great source for B vitamins and phytochemicals, healthy compounds found in plants.
Frozen broccoli happens to be more nutrient-dense than the fresh variety in the refrigerated section. That’s because broccoli is washed, chopped, and frozen within hours of harvesting, while fresh broccoli has to travel a great distance to your store.
What the science says: Broccoli has shown in studies to have benefits from chemoprevention to cardio protection. Broccoli may also prevent cell damage and oxidative stress, according to one study. It’s a true superfood, and not just because it’s incredibly versatile in the kitchen.
How to use broccoli: The world is your oyster, er, broccoli stalk with this cruciferous vegetable. If you buy frozen broccoli, you can steam in bag, steam over boiling water, or pop them out of the bag for a sheet pan roast or quick sear in a hot pan with a bit of oil or butter. You can also use the pre-chopped pieces of broccoli for a variety of dishes, from stir-fries and potato hashes to soups and skillet meals.
Plain Greek yogurt for sour cream
They’re both thick, tangy, creamy spreads or dips, but their nutritional differences make plain Greek yogurt a clear nutritional winner.
What the science says: Half a cup of sour cream has 4 grams of protein, but Greek yogurt can boast 12 or more. Plus, the same serving size of Greek yogurt has more than six times the amount of bone-strengthening calcium.
Frozen, blended bananas for ice cream
DIY ice cream is nothing short of a tricky venture, so if you’re jonesing for something sweet and icy on Friday night but don’t want to put on your shoes or break out that old ice cream machine, blend up frozen bananas. (You know those ones you bought for banana bread but just let go too long before you realized there was just no time to bake? Yeah, those.)
You can add flavoring ingredients like other frozen fruit, cocoa powder, and honey to try something new. Or make it plain and enjoy with a sprinkle of coconut flakes.
WATCH: How to Make 3 "Nice" Creams
What the science says: There’s just no comparing the nutritional value of a frozen banana with sugar-loaded ice cream. Bananas are a wonderful source of vitamins and minerals like protein, fiber, and potassium. Research shows people who eat more potassium are at lower risk of stroke, so add one or two to your day—maybe one at breakfast and a bowl of “nice cream” after dinner—to boost your potassium levels. Potassium also wards off muscle cramps, so it’s a great snack for runners.
How to make frozen banana ice cream: Ideally, you’ll prep ahead for this frozen banana ice cream by removing the banana peels and freezing the fruit in a zip-top bag. It’s hard to remove the peel once the banana is frozen, and you don’t want to wait for the fruit to thaw before tossing it into the blender. It’ll be too mushy. When you’re ready to make the nice cream, remove the frozen bananas, slice them into 1-inch pieces, and plop into a food processor or blender. Whirl until creamy and luscious.
Cacao nibs instead of chocolate chips
Chocolate chips are highly processed refined sweets made from cacao nibs (and other ingredients like dairy fat and sugar). Go straight to the source for the most disease-fighting flavonoids and no-sugar dark chocolate boost.
The biggest issue with swapping between these two is making sure you grab the bag of cacao nibs in the grocery store. They’re often side-by-side on the shelf, so you need to look carefully.
WATCH: What are Cacao Nibs?
What the science says: Roasted cacao beans are a rich source of a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Disease-fighting agents from plants, called polyphenols, are abundant in cacao, as are minerals like magnesium, copper, iron, and potassium. Chocolate chips have little health benefit beyond how they make you feel all warm and fuzzy in a warm cookie on a bad day. (That’s not really science, you guys.)
How to cook with cacao nibs: You can buy cacao in nib form; they’re small, rock-like pieces with jagged edges. You can also look for powdered cacao. Use these ingredients wherever you might chocolate chips or cocoa powder. They’ll create a deep, dark chocolate hit that’s a bit bitter to the cacao-virgin tongue, but deeply satisfying.
Brown rice for white rice
It’s the same food, but the two varieties have seriously different nutritional profiles. Brown rice is a whole grain. White rice has been stripped of the healthy bran. Brown has more protein and fiber; white is largely void of any nutritional benefit.
WATCH: How to Make Easy Oven Rice
What the science says: The whole-grain boost is reason enough to switch, but research offers some additional incentive. One study found that substituting brown rice for white lowered an individual's risk for type 2 diabetes. Brown rice may also reduce inflammation, a condition that’s tied to several chronic diseases, including arthritis, cancer, and diabetes.
How to cook with brown rice: The two rices cook at virtually the same rate (sometimes brown needs a minute or two more), and even greater numbers of quick-cooking brown rice varieties are available today to make this superfood swap easier. You can cook both of these ahead if you want. Day-old rice is excellent in stir-fries. Look, too, for microwave or boil-in-bag brown rice products that are ready in minutes and don’t need a lot of water-to-rice ratio know-how.
Mashed avocado for mayo
Give up your beloved mayo for a heart-healthy alternative that’s just as creamy and luscious. Yes, smashed avocado should be your new go-to spread for sandwiches, base for dips, and stir-in for salads of all stripes if you’re looking for sneaky ways to eat better.
What the science says: One tablespoon of mayo has 100 calories, 12 grams of fat, and 75 milligrams of sodium. But a quarter cup (that’s four tablespoons) of mashed avocado (about what you’d use on avocado toast, stirred into chicken or tuna for a quick salad, or added to vegetables for a quick dip) has 92 calories, 8.5 grams of fat, and just 4 milligrams of sodium. But the best part? The quarter cup of avocado has almost 4 grams of fiber and a whopping 280 milligrams of potassium. The fats in this fruit are the monounsaturated variety, too. That’s the kind that’s great for your heart and brain and can drive down cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
How to cook with avocado: You can use mashed avocado in any place you’d use mayonnaise. The fatty mouthfeel and smooth texture won’t leave you wanting. We love mashed avocado in egg salad for a double hit of healthy fats.
Spinach for iceberg lettuce
Iceberg lettuce wedges and shreds are an old-school salad staple, but if you want to reap any real nutritional benefit from your salad greens, you need to give up the pale white leaves. Look for spinach instead. (Kale and arugula are great, too.) Spinach is rich in vitamins and minerals you won’t find in iceberg.
What the science says: Spinach is a wonderful source of calcium, potassium, and vitamin K, which can protect bone health. In fact, the daily recommended value for K is between 122 (women) and 138 (men) micrograms. But two cups of spinach leaves has almost 150 micrograms, all you’ll need in your day. Studies also show that spinach can boost blood flow in your body.
How to eat spinach: The great thing about spinach is that it’s incredibly versatile. You can use it fresh in salads, on sandwiches, or blended into smoothies. You can also wilt it down in a hot skillet and add to lasagna, other pasta dishes, and frittatas.
Oatmeal for cereal
It might not be as convenient as a bowl of sugary cereal if you don’t plan ahead, but oatmeal is by far one of the healthiest grains you can eat in your morning meal. Not only is it a heart-healthy whole grain, it also boasts filling protein and fiber which help you ward off hunger until lunch.
WATCH: How to Make Overnight Oats
What the science says: Beta-glucan, the type of fiber in oatmeal, has been shown to lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease. In fact, one study found that people who eat three grams of beta-glucan per day cut their LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and total cholesterol by five to 10 percent.
How to eat oatmeal: Any way you want it, that’s the way you should eat it. Cook long-cooking, steel-cut oatmeal on the weekend, and divide it into individual servings so you can easily heat the grain up and gobble it up as you’re dressing for the day. Steel-cut oats are more toothsome and retain their texture in cold storage better. Instant oatmeal is also great, but watch for added sugar and unnecessary ingredients. Overnight oats are a good option, too. You can soak the dry oats in a protein-rich yogurt drink or low-calorie almond milk; the liquid turns the oats tenderly toothsome and chewy in an overnight soak. Add fruit, seeds, and nuts for healthy toppings.
You can also use oatmeal in savory applications, like with an egg, fried ham, and a bit of red-eye gravy. You can incorporate dry oats into meat loaf or burgers, too.